Social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, libertarians, agrarians, communitarians, foreign-policy hawks—who can figure them out? Neocons and theocons and paleocons, to say nothing of soccer-mom Republicans, country-club Republicans, and just plain, garden-variety Republicans: If you read much political commentary, it must seem as though there are more ways to sort conservatives in America than there are actual conservatives to be sorted.
And what about the issues for which these different conservatives care? Abortion, tax cuts, school vouchers, judicial overreach, the government’s bloated budget, bioethics, homosexual marriage, the creation of democracies in the Middle East, federalism, immigration, the restoration of religion in the public square—on and on. They bear no more than the vaguest family resemblance: second or third cousins, shirt-tail kin at best.
Back during the Cold War, conservatives could all be counted upon at least to share an opposition to communism, while various writers—from Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises to Russell Kirk and Michael Oakeshott—sought something resembling a unifying theory through the rich pages of Adam Smith’s economics and the deep prose of Edmund Burke’s traditionalism.
What now remains? Hardly a single concern is common to everyone labeled a conservative, and the chance of finding a meaningful pattern in the Right’s political muddle appears hopelessly remote. It's true that nearly every conservative ended up voting for George Bush for president in 2004. Even the paleoconservatives opposed to intervention in Iraq finally seemed to admit, for the most part, that the alternative of an openly liberal administration under John Kerry was unendurable. But only in the fevered imaginings of the far Left—or in the speeches of Democratic party activists looking to score partisan jabs—does all this really cohere. Conservatism in America is neither a well-defined political party nor a well-formed political theory. It’s a crack-up waiting to happen.
Except perhaps for this curious fact: Those who believe the murderousness of abortion to be the fundamental moral issue of our times and those who see the forceful defeat of global, anti-Western Islamicism as the most pressing political concern we facepro-life social conservatives and the foreign-policy neoconservatives, in other words—seem to be increasingly voting together, meeting together, and thinking together. If you want to advance the pro-life cause, you will quickly find yourself seated beside those who support an activist, interventionist, and moralist foreign policy for the United States. And, conversely, if you are serious about the war on terror, you will soon discover that you are mingling with those fighting against abortion.
To say the American political scene need not have developed this way is more than an understatement. At any of the levels on which political analysis normally operates, the connection between abortion and terror seems weak, at best—and possibly a perversion that threatens the causes of both partners. How can opponents of abortion dare to allow a setback in the Middle East to ruin the chances of electing pro-life officials? Why would foreign-policy activists risk the loss of political support that a major turn against their social-conservative allies might entail?
Indeed, these movements appear quite easy to break apart. No one could accuse the Catholic Church, for instance, of being soft on the life issues, but the Vatican was strongly opposed to the United States’ intervention in Iraq—to the point of hosting a state visit in Rome and Assisi by Saddam Hussein’s vicious deputy, Tariq Aziz, in February 2003. Much of the Roman curia seems to have fallen into a functional pacifism that threatens a damaging loss of the traditional Catholic theory of just war. But, even with such confusions set aside, this much is obviously true: Every war, just or not, involves killing. Though the doctrine of what used to be called the “seamless garment of life” has worn threadbare over the years, there is surely a coherent position that insists on opposition to both the culture of death and American intervention in Iraq.
A distaste for abortion coupled with rejection of the current U.S. foreign policy defines many of the people labeled “paleoconservatives,” from Patrick Buchanan on down. The right-wing columnist Robert Novak hailed the effort to save Terri Schiavo from death by dehydration—even while he raged against the cost of the invasion of Iraq. A similar joining can be found among a few liberals as well: the political commentators E.J. Dionne and Mark Shields, for instance, or Michigan’s Bart Stupak and the handful of other anti-war Democrats in Congress who reject Roe v. Wade.
Meanwhile, you can find a number of others who simply invert these positions: both applauding the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and upholding legalized abortion. The pro-war Democrats in Congress mostly belong to this group, from Hillary Clinton to Joseph Lieberman, whatever verbal gestures they made about abortion in the aftermath of their party’s defeat in the 2004 election.
Such Republican stalwarts as Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and Arnold Schwarzenegger promote similar views. The New York Times’ columnist David Brooks belongs to the pro-interventionist party while declaring himself at least a mild supporter of legalized abortion (although in a recent column he strongly denounced Roe v. Wade). The actor Ron Silver, who spoke at the Republican National Convention last summer, and Roger L. Simon, a popular mystery writer turned popular blogger, are examples of liberals who, though reoriented on foreign policy by the attacks of September 11, seem nonetheless to remain solidly pro-choice. And then there are the pro-intervention libertarians, from the Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds on, who have only the smallest interest in the life issues, and that mostly in opposition to the pro-life side.
Of course, for purely political purposes, the anti-abortion movement and the foreign-policy activists were obviously correct to join forces—given their shared desire to help reelect President Bush and increase the Republicans’ hold on Congress. Polls this spring showed some weakness in popular support for the president’s administration, but, as the political analyst Michael Barone observed in response, “the hardest numbers in politics are election results.” The pro-life and pro-Iraq Republicans won handily in 2004—and along the way, they laid the groundwork for future gains, with eleven Democratic senators facing reelection in states carried overwhelmingly by Bush and only three Republicans in states taken solidly by Kerry. As nearly every commentator has observed, abortion and the war on terror are now linked at some of the most practical levels of partisan political calculation.
This fact is usually noted by way of indicting the conservative coalition: The presidential election featured two-faced foreign-policy activists using religious voters—“poor, undereducated, and easily led,” in the famous formulation of the Washington Post—to advance their empire-building agenda. Or maybe it featured hypocritical religious leaders cynically trading support for the Iraq war in return for help confirming anti-Roe judges. Regardless, the joint effort was a purely political arrangement.
Why this is supposed to be an indictment remains something of a mystery. Both these kinds of conservatives were represented in the initial appointments of the Bush administration, well before the attacks of September 11—and they remain represented today, when the nation is still responding to those attacks and the death of Terri Schiavo, together with the chance of naming new anti-Roe members of the Supreme Court, has rallied the pro-life movement. American political campaigns, narrowed to an effective choice between Republicans and Democrats, always forge unlikely alliances. Be angry at democracy, if such things anger you. No party is ever the complete choice of all its voters, and no election is ever without a little mixing of issues.
In any event, there’s a good argument that the Democrats themselves forced together the Republicans’ coalition of voters troubled by abortion and voters worried about international terrorism. Long before the presidential election—among the anti-war protesters at A.N.S.W.E.R marches, for instance, or the poets who loudly spurned Mrs. Bush’s invitation to a White House literary tea at the beginning of 2003—you could see building the impulse to translate the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq from foreign-policy issues to culture-wars issues.
By the early days of the 2004 campaign season, the translation was complete. Leftist groups such as MoveOn.org took quick advantage of the Democrats’ system of primaries, which exaggerates the power of the party’s most radical elements, to boom the candidacies of Howard Dean and Wesley Clark—putting enormous pressure on the other Democratic hopefuls. Even without any realistic chance to gain his party’s nomination, Dennis Kucinich caved in by renouncing his previously staunch anti-abortion position, while the more plausible Richard Gephardt joined up by downplaying his mild support for intervention in Iraq. And John Kerry tried—well, it’s hard to say quite what John Kerry tried to do. Whatever it was, it left him in an awkward position when the general election rolled around.
Why should we be surprised that all this activity early in the election cycle was effective, not only in shaping the Democratic candidates at whom it was aimed, but in shaping the general public as well? By the end of the primaries, the divisions about Iraq among ordinary voters matched to a startling degree the divisions over abortion. As Midge Decter once quipped, the time eventually comes when you have to join the side you’re on. If the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime must be treated as a battle in the culture wars, then it is a battle whose opponents were defined long before.
But the argument from happenstance—from the flukes of electoral politics—fails to express everything that needs to be said about the recent joining of many of those opposed to abortion and the bulk of those who desire an active, moralist foreign policy. If only as a courtesy to serious figures from the papal biographer George Weigel to the Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, we need to consider the possibility that pure political calculation isn’t the only cause for the recent fusion of social conservatives and neoconservatives.
Down somewhere in the deepest understanding of what America is for—somewhere in the profound awareness of what it will take to reverse the nation’s long drift into social defeatism—there are reasons that one might link the rejection of abortion and the demand for an active and moral foreign policy. Things could have fallen into different patterns; our current liberal-conservative divisions are not the only imaginable ways to cut the political cake. But neither are they merely accidental.
The opponents of abortion and euthanasia insist there are truths about human life and dignity that must not be compromised in domestic politics. The opponents of Islamofascism and rule by terror insist there are truths about human life and dignity that must not be compromised in international politics. Why shouldn’t they grow toward each other? The desire to find intellectual and moral seriousness in one realm can breed the desire to find intellectual and moral seriousness in another.
There may be several ways to convince Americans to reject Roe v. Wade—but one of them is by remembering that the nation’s founding ideals are true and worth defending against the enemies of freedom around the world. There may be several ways to reawaken a sense of national purpose—but one of them is by summoning the will to undo our judicially ordered abortion regime. In the new fusionism, social conservatives and neoconservatives are not in any immediate contradiction. The wish to restore American patriotism, the struggle against abortion, annoyance at the dated elitism of an overweening judiciary, and the war in Iraq—these all seem to have become curiously interdependent issues.
One of the least edifying spectacles in American conservatism over the years has been the apparent determination, among later converts, to disparage earlier converts. For decades, the soft Left in America has had a bad conscience about its softness: The radicals always seemed to make the moderates feel a little guilty. On the Right, too, there have been bad consciences—but, oddly, these also have to do with Leftness. It seems necessary to nearly everyone on the Right to find a more Rightist group against which to set themselves. If “No Enemies on the Left” is more or less the motto of liberals in America, “Only Enemies to the Right” seems to be the motto of conservatives.
A few figures have tried to hold together the rag-tag collection of refugees. Ronald Reagan, with his “big-tent” Republican party, for instance. And Frank Meyer, who used the word “fusionism” to speak of the libertarian and traditionalist writers he helped work together while he was an editor at National Review in the 1950s and 1960s. And Robert Bartley, who opened to a range of conservatives the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal he edited through the 1990s.
But mostly, when American politicians and pundits have a conservative impulse, they feel compelled to begin by distinguishing themselves from the rest of conservatism. There was, for instance, a period in the 1980s in which nearly every article in the ostensibly liberal New Republic seemed to open with something like: “I’m not one of those horrible conservatives, and I’d never vote for a Republican, but, gosh, there actually seems to be some merit to the idea of welfare reform”—or a strengthened military, or a mistrust of the United Nations, or any of a dozen other conservative topics.
Thus, the neoconservatives explain what is despicable about libertarians, and the libertarians denounce the social conservatives—and round it goes. In a widely noticed 2003 article in National Review, David Frum declared that the isolationist paleoconservatives “have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.” In a later essay in the Public Interest, Adam Wolfson took much the same line, albeit more gently, in rejecting the conservative credentials of the paleoconservatives.
Some of this is clearly necessary. The handful of anti-Semites and neoconfederates on the fringes of the Right deserves dismissal, and the differences between the paleoconservative followers of Pat Buchanan and the neoconservative analysts at the Project for the New American Century cut to the heart of American policy. But even here you can see the lineaments of the new fusionism. The pro-life movement won’t read out of conservatism any foreign-policy activists, unless they repeatedly trumpet their support for abortion. And the neoconservatives won’t banish any social conservatives, unless they make a loud stink about their opposition to intervention in the Middle East.
One could perhaps make the same point by negative example: The widely cited homosexual activist and blog writer Andrew Sullivan started by being a strong supporter of a forceful American foreign policy after the attacks of September 11. By the 2004 presidential election, however, he had flipped into utter rejection of President Bush’s policies. And though he tried at times to relate his conversion to worries about fiscal matters, it was finally his inability to join any coalition with social conservatives that seems to have forced him into an anti-Iraq stance. It even buried what he once insisted was his pro-life stance, a topic he now seldom discusses.
But mostly one can see the new fusionism in its results. “Neoconservative” is a word whose meaning has undergone some changes over the years. It began life in the 1970s when the socialist Michael Harrington coined it to describe certain writers and public figures who found themselves moving from Left to Right on a variety of issues—often starting with the out-of-control crime rates of the time: “liberals mugged by reality,” in Irving Kristol’s well-known phrase.
By the late 1990s, however, the word “neoconservative” had mostly disappeared, except to describe a historical moment twenty years before when—as National Review’s Jonah Goldberg jokingly described it—“a bunch of citified Jews and intellectual Catholics . . . traded one ideology for another.” And then, suddenly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the word was back in the vocabulary of the nation’s chattering classes, this time used to describe people (particularly anyone with the least connection to students of the University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss) who pushed for the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
But taking the word in both the old sense and the new, we should note at least one visible change: The people called neoconservative are much more opposed to abortion than they were even ten years ago. The shift has occurred across the spectrum. The ones who started out solidly pro-choice are now uneasy, the ones who started out uneasy are now more uneasy, and the ones who started out quietly anti-abortion are now strong pro-lifers.
Maybe it was all the time spent with Catholics, or maybe it was the rise of the worries about bio technology that Leon Kass and others have brought to light, but—whatever group we use the word to encompass—the neoconservatives have generally grown in their alliance with the social conservatives to accept a central place for the pro-life position in any theory of conservatism.
Meanwhile, the social conservatives have grown up, too. When the Evangelicals burst on the political scene in the 1970s, they hardly knew what the words “foreign policy” meant. But now “one cannot understand international relations without them,” as Allen Hertzke observed in Freeing God’s Children, his 2004 report on American religious impact around the world. From the Virginia congressman Frank Wolfe to the Kansas senator Sam Brownback, the religious conservatives in Washington have led the fight against international sex trafficking and a host of other human-rights abuses.
They achieved real results in southern Sudan, and they are straining to find similar traction in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Far beyond their Democratic counterparts, they have demonstrated seriousness about human rights in North Korea and China. “Members of the Christian right, exemplified by Mr. Brownback,” the left-leaning columnist Nicholas Kristof reluctantly admitted in the New York Times this Christmas, “are the new internationalists, increasingly engaged in humanitarian causes abroad.”
And then there’s Israel. “No one outside the Jewish community has been more supportive of Israel than U.S. evangelical Christians,” the Jerusalem Post bluntly noted in 2002—but the phenomenon has been building for years. Perhaps it began with believers’ interest in apocalyptic biblical prophecy about the Holy Land and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. But to imagine it stops there is to ignore the Religious Right’s record in recent years on human rights and support for democratic reforms. The success of Israel—the Middle East’s only full democracy before the intervention of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq—is seen by social conservatives as a model that deserves copying.
“The remoralization of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy, for both follow from Americans’ belief that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are not merely the choices of a particular culture but are universal, enduring, ‘self-evident’ truths,” William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs back in 1996. “That has been, after all, the main point of the conservatives’ war against a relativistic multiculturalism. For conservatives to preach the importance of upholding the core elements of the Western tradition at home, but to profess indifference to the fate of American principles abroad, is an inconsistency that cannot help but gnaw at the heart of conservatism.”
It was a line for which Kristol and Kagan have been occasionally pilloried in the years since, but there is a practical truth here about the way moral movements in a culture actually grow and colonize adjacent fields and draw in supporters. One could name various American experiences, but the clearest example may be the Wesleyan remoralization of English domestic life, and its well-documented relation to the British campaign against international slavery, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
More, at the level of political theory, there’s a reasonable connection between what we do at home and what we do abroad—or, at least, between the attitudes that cause us to enact certain domestic agendas and the attitudes that drive our foreign policy. A nation that cannot summon the political will to ban even one particularly gruesome form of abortion is unlikely to persevere in the grueling work of building international democracy simply because it seems the moral thing to do. And a nation that cannot bring itself to believe its founding ideals are true for others will probably prove unable to hold those ideals for itself.
The abolition of abortion and the active advance of democracy have more in common, I believe, than is usually thought. But even if they are utterly separate philosophically, this much is true: They both require reversing the failure of nerve that has lingered in America since at least the 1970s, and success in one may well feed success in the other.
The goal in either case is to restore confidence in—well, what, exactly? Not our own infallible rightness, surely. But neither can we live any longer with the notion of our own infallible wrongness. We need to restore belief in the possibility of being right. There’s a reason the leftist Christian magazine Sojourners started life in the 1970s as something called the Post-American. Many religious activists in those days seemed to have reached a point where they couldn’t tell an admirable patriotism from the murderous ideologies of nationalism—and, besides, if you squinted hard enough, social defeatism looked like a secular version of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. The result was hardly what they hoped for: a cynical policy of Realpolitik abroad and a culture of death at home.
In the new fusionism of the pro-life social conservatives and the foreign-policy neoconservatives, a number of traditional issues seem, if not to have disappeared, then at least to have gotten muted along the way. Where exactly is tax reform and social security and the balanced budget in all this? Where is much concern for economics, which once defined the root of Amer ican conservatism?
Perhaps they are missing because, however important, they do not bear hard on the immediate question of social defeatism—on the deep changes that might reawaken and remoralize the nation. The one thing both the social conservatives and the neoconservatives know is that this project comes first.
The angry isolationist paleoconservatives are probably right—this isn’t conservatism, in several older senses of the word. But so what? Call it the new moralism, if you like. Call it a masked liberalism or a kind of radicalism that has bizarrely seized the American scene. Mutter darkly, if you want, about the shotgun marriage of ex-socialists and modern puritans, the cynical political joining of imperial adventurers with reactionary Catholics and backwoods Evangelicals. These facts still remain: The sense of national purpose regained by forceful response to the attacks of September 11 could help summon the will to halt the slaughter of a million unborn children a year. And the energy of the pro-life fight—the fundamental moral cause of our time—may revitalize belief in the great American experiment.
Joseph Bottum is Editor of First Things.