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George Bush, Populist?

Hart has always held certain views outside of the conservative mainstream. An advocate for stem-cell research, Hart debated another National Review editor on the subject in 2004. Early in 2005, Hart wrote a long editorial for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called “The Evangelical Effect.” Finding fault in Bush’s evangelicalism—in 2000, Bush declared that Jesus Christ was his most influential political philosopher—Hart wrote: “The Bush Presidency often is called conservative. This is a mistake. It is populist and radical, and its principal energies have roots in American history, and these roots are not conservative.” ~James Panero (via Supreme Fiction)

Mr. Hart has done fine work eviscerating the follies of the Bush administration, and his denunciations of the ideological turn of the administration, the GOP and the conservative movement have been very much on the mark.  There was a great deal of chest-beating at NR over Mr. Hart’s Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he both criticised pro-life enthusiasts and ridiculed the Iraq war as Wilsonian madness.  (There was far more to the op-ed than these two things, but these were the points that seem to have received the most comment.) 

I have always assumed that the thing that most offended them was not his attack on pro-lifers but his hostility to the war in Iraq.  Under the “new fusionist” dispensation, there are important “issues” and then there are fundamental, unquestionable truths: among the latter is the truth that the Iraq war is necessary and good and proper.  To use the word Wilsonian in a disparaging way in the context of discussing the war in Iraq is to have placed oneself among those dissident conservatives who still remember what conservatism is and what they believed before 2001.  It is the sort of thing that irritates war supporters on “the right” to no end, because it reveals how deeply indebted they are to the foolishness of liberal internationalism for their foreign policy views, and I take it as almost certain that it was this that brought down the intense criticism of Hart’s op-ed rather than anything he might have said one way or the other about abortion. 

Hart’s op-ed did also elicit strong reaction over his somewhat cavalier treatment of opposition to abortion (in which he rather unimpressively cited vague irrrepressible “social forces” on a matter of fundamental moral principle), and in his disdain for evangelicals one often gets the sense not so much of a High Church man whose mind boggles at the shallowness of Enthusiasm but of a Northeasterner who finds people from much of the rest of the country rather drab and miserable yokels whom we should ignore as often as we can.  But he did make one excellent observation in his remarks on abortion that deserves to be quoted here: “Simply to pull an abstract “right to life” out of the Declaration of Independence is not conservative but Jacobinical.”  This is quite right.  I would extend that to much of the “rights” talk that pervades the American right today.  However, since large numbers of people who consider themselves conservative routinely pull abstract rights out of the Declaration of Independence (and who denounce as relativist or historicist those who object to this idiocy), it is a protest that will most likely confuse or annoy its target audience. 

In any case, it has been the war that has separated him most sharply from the crowd at NR and the ideology that now infests the movement more broadly.  If there is one sentence that might sum up the modern Republican Party and the conservative movement, it is that they would sooner prefer causing death abroad than protecting life at home.  If someone like a McCain or a Giuliani should somehow miraculously win the nomination in ’08, my impression of the priorities of conservatives will have been confirmed absolutely. 

But where Mr. Hart has been devastating in his critiques of the administration and modern conservatism, he makes some remarks, such as the one quoted above, that seem to me to make no sense.  What can it mean, for example, to call Mr. Bush’s politics populist?  Radical of a sort they certainly are, but to call someone radical may or may not be an indictment of him–it is the quality and nature of the roots to which one returns that determines whether his radicalism is wisdom or insanity. 

But in what sense is Mr. Bush is a populist, and how does he advance any kind of populism?  Whether we are speaking of a kind of rightist populism that focuses on national identity, relative economic self-sufficiency, defense of the American worker and a foreign policy of non-entanglement and neutrality or the old American (conservative) populism of agrarian protest in the 19th century or the aristocratic brand of populism of the Opposition in Britain in the 18th century or the leftist populism of redistribution and socialism re-emerging in Latin America, there is no kind of populism that matches Mr. Bush’s politics (except insofar as the word populism is used rather the way some people use fascist by people from the coasts to disparage the politics of someone else with no regard to content or meaning).  Mr. Bush is a liberal patrician who actually favours the interests of the Northeastern elite and who embraces a heady mix of hegemonic nationalism that expresses itself in terms of a universalist ideology.  His politics are radical in the pursuit of ideological clarity, and they are also autocratic and imperialist.  He has nothing but contempt for actual populist opposition to mass immigration, free trade and activist foreign policy, to name a few examples where what benefits the people and what the people desire are equally uninteresting to him. 

He is a Brahmin with a twang, and for some reason a great many people have bought into the twang and the folksy spiel while ignoring what the man says and does.  This is a serious mistake, and it reinforces Mr. Hart’s assumption that all populism is contrary to his kind of conservatism, which is probably why he says his kind of conservatism is anti-populist.  Certainly, if I thought Mr. Bush was a populist of some kind I would want to be an ardent anti-populist, but he isn’t one and no fair definition of a rightist populism could confuse it with the sort of ideologically-driven and flatly unpatriotic policies pursued by the present administration.  To call Mr. Bush populist is to bring discredit on actual populists, which mainly benefits precisely those few whom Mr. Bush actually serves and represents.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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