News & Politics

Big Tent Falling Down


WASHINGTON, D.C.—Casting a cold eye to the future, one can observe developing fissures within the conservative political movement. The tensions have always been there, with libertarian-minded Republicans bucking for a free market and less government and right-wing Christians calling for a strong federal presence even in the bedroom. By logic, the two sides ought to be at one another’s throats, not breaking bread at the same table. Yet that’s how they’ve remained, however warily, held together since the Reagan era by the glue of anti-Communism.

Win or lose on November 2, George W. Bush and his rough-ride presidency have brought this unlikely coalition to the brink.

This is not, strictly speaking, a Republican matter. The conservative core includes right-wing Democrats, who often hold opinions not much different from those of Republicans. Both sides overwhelmingly supported passage of the Patriot Act and backed the war against Iraq. Both voted for $87 billion-plus to support the war. They all support Israel over a Palestinian state.

In domestic policy, conservative Dems and GOPers alike would do little more than take a cosmetic swipe at Medicare, making vacuous pledges to subject health care to the bracing breezes of the free market—which predictably would result in higher prices. The Republicans want to get rid of Social Security, with a foot-in-the-door program to allow individuals to turn a portion of their pension funds over to Wall Street for investment.

The Democrats are more or less against doing that, but there is wide agreement that Social Security should begin investing in the stock market, which amounts to another sort of foot in the door for free marketeers.

The serious points of division are not between the two parties, but between the small group of neo-conservatives who exercise control over much of Bush foreign policy and the old-line conservatives of the Reagan era. The divisions can be observed by contrasting Bush Junior with Reagan, and on some matters, Bush Senior with Bush Junior.

Since 9-11, American culture has been transformed into a hypermilitarized zone, where the dominant concern is the vague and ever present threat of terrorism. Meanwhile, the worldwide support for America so evident following 9-11 has been transformed into anti-Americanism, resulting even in alliances that actively oppose the U.S.

The multilateral institutions we built and have helped maintain have waning influence, and once powerful alliances are now frail.

In domestic terms, the budget has been blown apart by rising deficits, and the states do not have the means of financing their own rising costs without federal help. In political terms, the war on terror has slowly pushed us to the point where the military is now deeply involved in internal politics and where we’re moving toward more heightened centralized controls through such instruments as the Department of Homeland Security. Psychologically, war seems to have become a natural state for us. Though long held in American society, the idea that the military must be kept separate from domestic politics has now been lost.

This rough picture of American society doesn’t come from liberal Democrats, but from Reagan Republicans.

“[T]he post-9-11 policy was in fact grounded in an ideology that existed well before the terror attacks and that, in a stroke of opportunistic daring by its progenitors, has emerged as the new orthodoxy,” write Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke in their book America Alone. “A pre-existing ideological agenda was taken off the shelf, dusted off, and relabeled as the response to terror. The reality is that it has little or nothing to do with combating terror and in fact may make the terror threat all the worse.”

They add: “An ideology that highlights conventional state-against-state conflict as its one-size-fits-all policy option has been adapted for an era when threats are unconventional, transnational, and non-state specific. Little wonder that no one feels safer.”

The authors, Reagan-era Republicans, are talking about neo-conservatives, whom they believe are wrecking traditional conservative ideas and institutions, and throwing the Constitution and history to the winds. This sits terribly with the writers and others of their relatively moderate ilk, who see the neo-conservatives as pushing us into a militaristic society—governed at home by an imposing central police state and abroad not by diplomacy but by the gunboat.

Furious at the current government, Halper and Clarke write, “We never thought to see a small group of neo-conservative policy makers appropriate Reagan’s multilayered legacy as though it were their exclusive property and, careless of history, boil it down to a few simplistic slogans. We never anticipated the day when Americans, as a result of their interventions around the world, would be held in lower esteem than if they had simply stayed at home.”

These opening shots in a struggle within the conservative movement push aside debate over such topics as the overreaching of federal power and the rectitude of states’ rights. It foreshadows a collapse of the Big Tent that Republicans always insisted can shelter squabbling factions. And it promises to dominate political debate in and out of Congress and among the think tanks that craft conservative policy and legislation.

Additional reporting: David Botti, Nicole Duarte, and Laurie Anne Agnese

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 26, 2004

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