After Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity are the most popular rightwing talk hosts in America, defining for millions the definition of the term “conservative.” Lately, Beck has focused on attacking “progressivism,” often stressing that the progressive foreign policy of President Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to “make the world safe for democracy,” was identical to that of George W. Bush. Hannity takes a very different view, stating, “You can’t deny that George Bush was conservative on national security issues.” Yet, Beck does deny this, quite regularly. Who’s right? Better yet, who’s “conservative”?
That depends on your definition. The notion of “making the world safe for democracy” is unquestionably a liberal or “progressive” sentiment, but it is also true that it has been standard foreign policy for the mainstream Right for some time. Self-described conservatives have associated endless military intervention with American “toughness” and viewed those who questioned the government’s wisdom in waging war as “weak” or “anti-American.” This has certainly been the view of Limbaugh and Hannity, and for most of Bush’s eight years it was also the view of Beck.
Yet the notion of America as the world’s policeman is not remotely conservative in the traditional sense, but “neoconservative,” a term most mainstream right-wingers are either ignorant of, embarrassed of, or don’t use because the wholesale takeover of the conservative movement by the neocons has made the “neo” prefix unnecessary.
Neoconservatives care about one thing—war (and where they can wage it). Says contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, neocon Max Boot: “Neoconservatives believe in using American might to promote American ideals abroad,” a progressive, Wilsonian vision, if there ever was one. As for traditional conservative concerns like limited government, fiscal responsibility, and constitutional fidelity, these are ideas neoconservatives will occasionally pay lip service to, so long as none of these principles interferes with their more important task of global military domination. It is no coincidence that George W. Bush—the first full-blown neoconservative presidential administration—did not limit government, was not fiscally responsible, and shredded the Constitution, while still implementing the most radical foreign policy in American history. Writes conservative columnist George Will, “The most magnificently misnamed neoconservatives are the most radical people in this town.”
Conservatives now seem more willing to question their recent radical past, and a populist right-wing movement consisting of tea parties, town hall protests and states rights’ rhetoric is not conducive to neoconservativism. With traditional conservatism being represented in its modern form most prominently by so-called “paleoconservatives” like commentator Pat Buchanan or libertarians like Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Boot recently described such non-“neo”-conservatives to Newsweek: “A lot of them tend to be libertarian cranks: neo-Confederates, really insane, racist, xenophobic types.” “Libertarian cranks” could describe the current crop of constitutionally minded, anti-government protesters, and so-called “neo-Confederates” primary concern has always been states’ right, an increasingly hot topic. As for his portrayal of traditional conservatives as “really insane, racist, xenophobic” types, Boot’s criticism is not unlike the Left’s attempts to portray anti-Obama tea partiers as “racist,” and serves as a reminder of neoconservatives’ progressive inclinations.
Defending his comrades, Boot told Newsweek, “Neocons are vilified as being barely human beasts who have to be kept chained in a cage somewhere, lest they start eating babies alive or something, but when you look at the spectrum of conservative thought, they are actually fairly centrist. The people who kind of speak to the rank and file of the Republican Party—the Newt Gingriches, the Rush Limbaughs, the Sean Hannitys … they’re actually fairly supportive of an aggressive foreign policy.”
Until recently, Boot was correct. Being part of the “rank-and-file of the Republican Party” meant being a neoconservative, whether mainstream conservatives were conscious of it or not. But as the grassroots Right continues to revisit conservatism’s limited-government roots, this ideological shift creates much less fertile ground for neoconservatives, most of whom remain busy either applauding Obama’s troop escalation in Afghanistan or criticizing the president for not attacking Iran, Yemen, or North Korea yet.
Neoconservatives never have been conservative, neither was Bush on “national security,” and these points must be hammered home before the Right can achieve a sturdier ideological footing. Laughably, Boot complains that neocons have been “vilified as being barely human beasts who have to be kept chained in a cage somewhere,” and yet without hesitation slanders real conservatives as “libertarian cranks,” “neo-Confederate,” and “racists.” It’s time for the Right take “neo” out of conservative, chain neoconservatism to progressivism, and put these liberal beasts back in their cages.