Neoconservative radicalism has reshaped our political spectrum

David Brooks' explicit repudiation of "Goldwater/Reagan" shows just how far the right now is from principles of "limited government."


Glenn Greenwald
March 29, 2007 4:59PM (UTC)

David Brooks' column in The New York Times this morning contains several important observations. It would maximize clarity in our political discussions if journalists could just ingest Brooks' central point: the dominant right-wing political movement in this country that has spawned and driven the Bush presidency has nothing to do with -- it is in fact overtly hostile to -- the ostensible principles of Goldwater/Reagan small-government conservatism. Though today's so-called "conservatives" exploit the Goldwater/Reagan mythology as a political prop, they don't believe in those principles in any way. That movement is the very antithesis of those principles.

Brooks comes out and explicitly declares the twin icons of "conservatism" to be every bit as quaint and obsolete as the Geneva Conventions: "Goldwater and Reagan were important leaders, but they're not models for the future."

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Brooks admits what has been crystal clear for some time -- namely, that so-called "conservatives" (meaning the contemporary political "Right") no longer believe (if they ever did) that government power should be restrained in order to maximize freedom. That belief system, says Brooks, is an obsolete relic which arose out of the the 1970s, and has been replaced by the opposite desire -- for expanded government power on every front.

Deceitfully purporting to speak on behalf of what he calls "normal, nonideological people" (the dishonest tactic he constantly uses), Brooks says:

In short, in the 1970s, normal, nonideological people were right to think that their future prospects might be dimmed by a stultifying state. People were right to believe that government was undermining personal responsibility. People were right to have what Tyler Cowen, in a brilliant essay in Cato Unbound, calls the "liberty vs. power" paradigm burned into their minds b

But today, many of those old problems have receded or been addressed. Today the big threats to peopleb

Normal, nonideological people are less concerned about the threat to their freedom from an overweening state than from the threats posed by these amorphous yet pervasive phenomena. The "liberty vs. power" paradigm is less germane. It's been replaced in the public consciousness with a "security leads to freedom" paradigm. . .

The "security leads to freedom" paradigm doesn't end debate between left and right, it just engages on different ground. It is oriented less toward negative liberty (How can I get the government off my back?) and more toward positive liberty (Can I choose how to lead my life?).

That is exactly what the right-wing movement in this country is now -- an authoritarian movement animated by the Orwellian slogan that "security leads to freedom" which embraces and seeks ever-expanding government power based on the claimed need to protect people from all the scary, lurking dangers in the world -- dangers which are constantly stoked and inflammed in order to maximize the craving for "security," derived by vesting more and more power in the hands of our strong, protective Leaders.

And it's notable that Brooks specifically cites the limited-government views of Cato to disparage, since Cato itself has amply documented that there are few, if any, factions more hostile to limited government principles than the Bush-supporting right-wing movement that has dominated our country. As Cato's comprehensive report concluded:

Unfortunately, far from defending the Constitution, President Bush has repeatedly sought to strip out the limits the document places on federal power. . . . President Bush's constitutional vision is, in short, sharply at odds with the text, history, and structure of our Constitution, which authorizes a government of limited powers.

But neoconservatism -- which is really what the right-wing pro-Bush movement has become -- doesn't believe in any of that, and Brooks' column demonstrates that they are admitting that more and more explicitly. Instead, it touts a radical and authoritarian nanny-statism that seeks, at its core, to provide feelings of protection, safety, and moralistic clarity -- "security leads to freedom" -- all delivered by political leaders using ever-increasing federal government power and limitless militarism. Whether one believes in that radical and warped vision of the American federal government is, more than any other factor, what now determines one's political orientation.

I have argued several times before that the radicalism of the Bush presidency and the neoconservatism on which it is based has resulted in a fundamental political re-alignment. As Brooks points out, the issues that shape our political spectrum and determine one's political orientation have changed fundamentally -- Brooks contrasts today's predominant issues with those of the 1970s in order to demonstrate this shift, but the shift is just as drastic even when one compares today's predominant political issues to those that drove the key political dispustes as recently as the 1990s.

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There is one principal reason for this shift -- the Bush presidency and the political movement that supports it is not driven by any of the abstract political principles traditionally associated with "liberalism" or "conservatism." Whatever else one wants to say about the Bush presidency, it has nothing to do with limiting the size, scope and reach of the federal government. The exact opposite is true.

On every front, the Bush administration has ushered in vast expansions of federal power -- often in the form of radical and new executive powers, unprecedented surveillance of American citizens, and increased intervention in every aspect of Americans' private lives. To say that the Bush movement is hostile to the limited-government ends traditionally associated (accurately or not) with the storied Goldwater/Reagan ideology is a gross understatement.

But none of this expansion of government power has been undertaken in order to promote ends traditionally associated with liberalism either -- none of it is about creating social safety nets or addressing growing wealth disparities or regulating business. Instead, federal power is enlisted, and endlessly expanded, in service of an agenda of aggressive militarism abroad, liberty-infringement domestically, and an overarching sense of moralistic certitude and exceptionalism. This movement is neither "liberal" nor "conservative" as those terms are understood in their abstract form, but instead, is radical in its attempt to fundamentally re-define the American government and the functions it serves.

That is the central point of our current political predicament: the Bush presidency, and more importantly the right-wing movement which created and sustained it (and which will survive Bush's departure), are not adherents to any mainstream American political ideology. And many people, including neoconservatives themselves, have acknowledged this, and that is also the critical insight of Brooks' column today.

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George Will previously called the "neoconservatism" which drives the right-wing movement in this country "a spectacularly misnamed radicalism." One of America's most influential neoconservatives, Robert Kagan, previously admitted -- just like Brooks -- that the current right-wing ideology has nothing to do with the Goldwater/Reagan limited government mythology; in fact, it is overtly hostile to it:

This is where Bush may lose the support of most old-fashioned conservatives. His goals are now the antithesis of conservatism. They are revolutionary.

That is the whole point of Andrew Sullivan's book, and Pat Buchanan founded The American Conservative based principally on the same observation: namely, that the right-wing, Bush-supporting movement has nothing to do with the political principles they manipulatively tout (of course, the federal-government-expanding, rule-of-law-ignoring Reagan presidency itself frequently deviated from these lofty, abstract "Goldwater/Reagan" conservative principles, but those deviations, for the Bush-led right-wing, have become the animating principles themselves).

And now here is Brooks, very explicitly repudiating the Goldwater/Reagan template and admitting that this movement is devoted to large expansions of federal power -- justified in the name of "protecting" Americans -- all devoted to what that movement claims is promotion of some objective Good. The central tenets of the right wing movement in this country -- which has seized and now defines the term "conservative" -- are easy to see. They're right there in plain sight -- they want to expand government power in pursuit of mindless, bloodthirsty warmongering and empire-building abroad, and the accompanying liberty-infringement at home.

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As a result, to be considered "liberal" or "leftist" now means, more than anything else, to oppose that agenda. All of the people now deemed to be on the "left" -- including many who have quite disparate views about the defining political disputes of the 1990s -- have been able to work together with great unity because all energies of those "on the left" have been devoted not to any affirmative policy-making (because they have had, and still have, no power to do that), but merely towards the goal of exposing the corruption and radicalism at the heart of this extremist right-wing movement and to push back -- impose some modest limits -- on what has been this radical movement's virtually unlimited ability to install a political framework that one does not even recognize as "American."

Regardless of what other beliefs one might have, opposition to endless warmongering in the Middle East (and the wonderful tools used to promote it, such as rendition, torture and indefinite detentions) -- combined with a belief in the rule of law, along with basic checks and balances, as a means of modestly limiting the power of the federal government over American citizens -- is now sufficient to render one a "liberal" or "leftist." That's because the political movement that dominates our country is radical and authoritarian -- "security leads to freedom." Our political spectrum is now binary: one is either a loyal follower of that movement or one is opposed to it.

That is the re-alignment of our political landscape brought about by the extremism of the right-wing political movement in our country. Brooks' column (like those of Will and Kagan before it) makes clear just how radical it is, how unmoored it is to any principles which previously defined the political mainstream. The terms "left" and "right" do not mean what they meant even ten years ago, though they still have meaning. At least for now, until this movement is banished to the dustbin, those terms have come to designate whether one is loyal to, or whether one opposes, this government-power-worshipping, profoundly un-American right-wing cultism that has been the dominant political faction in America for many years.

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Glenn Greenwald

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Washington, D.c.



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