John Stuart Mill famously labeled conservatism the stupid party. Whatever was the case then, that hardly holds today: modern conservatives, at least in America, are bursting with ideas. The problem is that they cannot agree among themselves just which ideas they should hold to. The conservatives’ dilemma, as manifested most recently in the disputes surrounding Senator John McCain’s unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, is not that their playbook is empty but that they can’t get straight what page in it they should be reading from.
The McCain phenomenon, to be sure, was not primarily about ideas. The Senator’s appeal had to do with his character rather than his program. Those who voted for him were all over the map ideologically, and there is little evidence that his flagship issue—campaign finance reform—matters very much to the public, especially among conservatives. McCain drew support because of who he is—a man of courage, independence, and astonishing heroism. Americans are understandably in awe of the fortitude with which he endured unspeakable conditions as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And he’s not simply a war hero. To an electorate chronically suspicious of politics, he comes across as the perfect antipolitician: unprogrammed, unpretentious, uncorrupt.
But if McCain’s failed challenge to Governor George W. Bush had little to do with ideology, the dynamics of the struggle set off ideological tremors on both the left and the right. An editor at the New Republic, Franklin Foer, noting that a number of prominent Jewish neoconservatives had come out for McCain, suggested that the Senator’s campaign signaled a reawakening of the neocon/theocon controversy on the right (a controversy Foer traces to FT’s “The End of Democracy?” symposium in November 1996). Neocons, he argues, have grown increasingly uncomfortable in the marriage–of–convenience with Christian conservatives they entered into in the 1980s in order to defeat the left, and they welcomed (instigated?) McCain’s attacks on Christian right leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as an opportunity to rid the GOP of political dead weight and themselves of an alliance gone sour.
Foer’s analysis cannot entirely be dismissed, but it is off center on a number of points. Many of us identified with religious conservatism have never been in close alliance with Robertson or Falwell or with the organizations, the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority, they respectively created. They’re not our enemies, but neither politically nor theologically are we intimates. The “religious right” is not the undifferentiated entity Foer makes it out to be.
Neither, it seems, is neoconservatism. Shortly after Foer’s article appeared, Norman Podhoretz, whom Foer had cited in support of his argument, published an essay in National Review on Jewish attitudes toward religious conservatives. Podhoretz’s title, “The Christian Right and Its Demonizers: A Curious Fear and Loathing,” telegraphed its thesis: that Jewish fear of Christian conservatives is wrongheaded, even paranoid, and that, all in all, the Christian right is good for the Jews and good for America. And Podhoretz is not alone: I know from personal experience that many Jewish neocons, however bemused they may be by styles of evangelical piety—a bemusement, I might add, shared by a number of non–evangelical Christians—still have no problem counting Christian conservatives as staunch cultural and political allies.
Still, whatever his errors and overgeneralizations, Foer is not completely off the mark. He based his analysis heavily on arguments that have appeared in the Weekly Standard, especially on a piece coauthored by William Kristol and David Brooks at the height of the McCain campaign, “The Politics of Creative Destruction.” Kristol and Brooks, borrowing from the economist Joseph Schumpeter, adapt his summary of the paradoxical genius of capitalism to current political realities. Conservatism in general, and the GOP in particular, they say, is in need of creative destruction because of its current parlous condition. Conservatives have lost the political initiative to Bill Clinton’s reconfigured centrist liberalism, and McCain’s challenge to the Republican establishment offers the right the way to regain the political high ground.
In the first place, Kristol and Brooks argue, McCain would disenthrall the right of its excessively antigovernment bias: “McCain doesn’t say that govern ment is oppressive and just needs to get out of the way. He says he wants to reform government to make us proud.” Second, and more to the point of Foer’s argument, McCain “would redirect a religiously based moral conservatism into a patriotically grounded moral appeal.” “When McCain talks about remoralizing America,” Kristol and Brooks go on, “he ends up talking about patriotism. . . . This conflation of religion and patriotism is very much in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and, for that matter, Ronald Reagan.” The new religion of patriotism, Kristol and Brooks conclude, would, without antagonizing grassroots moral conservatives, appeal to independents leery of Robertson and Falwell’s Christian zealotry and form “the heart of a new conservative governing majority.”
The argument is an ingenious one. It is also, in my view, mischievous, misguided, and finally dangerous. Take, for starters, the curious linking of Roosevelt and Reagan, a linking as habitually indulged in by McCain as by Kristol and Brooks. Both TR and Reagan, it is true, were instinctive and passionate patriots. Both, too, were brilliant, even charismatic leaders—blessed, most of the time, with what a Roosevelt biographer called “a perfect sense of political pitch.”
But that’s about it for similarities. TR had an innocent faith in an activist federal government. As H. L. Mencken said, “He didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government.” The New Nationalism he put forward in his quixotic Bull Moose campaign for the presidency in 1912, with its sweeping program of federal regulation of the economy and guarantees for social welfare, set the blueprint for the big government crusades of Progressivism, the New Deal, and the Great Society.
Reagan, of course, was just the opposite. Contra the Weekly Standard and its recurring, if vague, invocation of “national–greatness conservatism,” he did believe that, foreign policy aside, government should “just get out of the way.” His conception of national greatness rested on faith in the creative energies of the American people rather than in their government. His favorite Republican presidential predecessor, it should be remembered, was not TR but Calvin Coolidge. And even in foreign policy, his program was not the wholesale interventionism that TR sometimes inclined to and that the Weekly Standard appears to favor.
But it is Kristol and Brooks’ “conflation of religion and patriotism” that is most troubling. Reagan, it must be conceded, flirted with it in his biblically informed vision of America as a “city on a hill” providentially established by God as example to the nations. The Puritans liked to invoke that image, but they meant it more in theological than political terms. Reagan, so far as I can tell, simply meant it to convey the idea that the American experiment, however conceived, was a very good thing indeed.
TR, at his worst, did make a religion of patriotism, and it provided the ugliest chapter in his career. His ferocious jingoism during World War I—“He who is not with us, absolutely and without reserve of any kind, is against us, and should be treated as an alien enemy”—stands as an embarrassment for all of us who revere his memory and admire his undoubted, if flawed, greatness. The very concept of a religion of patriotism is an invitation to idolatry. America is properly loved only by those who keep their loves in proper order, who love their nation only in subordination to their transcendent loves.
Let me be clear. I do not for a moment suspect, much less accuse, my friends and allies at the Weekly Standard of political idolatry. My sense is that they let themselves get momentarily carried away in their enthusiasm for their candidate and their cause. None of us is immune to the temptation of rhetorical excess: we all, at one time or another, say more or other than what we precisely mean. But a religion of patriotism is a notion that ought be avoided not simply because it is capable of mis understanding or misinterpretation, but because it is wrong, period.
And now is not the time on the right for “creative destruction.” At this moment, the Republican party, and the conservative cause with it, has a better than even chance of claiming an across the board supremacy in next November’s election. Those who welcome such a prospect should consider: George W. Bush is closer to Ronald Reagan than he is to Theodore Roosevelt. And while TR—the man who practiced creative destruction on the GOP in 1912—was a great man, he was not, in the end, nearly so successful a politician as Reagan.