Is this the future of political conservatism in America: Right-wing? For the moment, President Trump has made the Republican Party and the movement conservatism that dominates it anti-immigrant, openly corrupt, contemptuous of governing norms and legal restraints, and oddly schizophrenic on foreign policy.
Our questions for this week are two. How real is all of this; i.e., has Trumpism taken over the conservative movement in substance or mainly in style? And how lasting will it prove? Is Trump transforming U.S. conservatism or has he just borrowed it for a while? To do this we will need to look at both what conservatism in America has been and what the Trumpists are trying to make it become.
Traditionally of course, American conservatism has been described as a coalition of interest groups and voters with a range of substantive needs and philosophical and ideological beliefs. Among these were the Religious Right and other culture warriors, big business, supply side-loving ideological elites, libertarian voters, and a mix of small town working class and upscale Whites. Over the last two decades several other major players have joined the conservative movement, notably the right-wing infotainment complex of talk radio, Fox News, and internet; and billionaire dark money donors like the Koch Brothers.
YMMV, but I found these distinctions less and less useful for understanding the conservative movement even before Trump. There is almost a universal consensus that in the last 20 years American conservative has grown increasingly united and ideological. I think it is largely because of the growing dominance of those last two groups above, but there are other possible reasons.
So, maybe on Monday we could begin by trying to look at today’s conservatism (and thus tomorrow’s too) from some perspectives that might be more illuminating than just interest groups and ideology. Specifically:
- Psychological type and world view.
- Status in society, cultural as well as economic.
–> FYI, we can save some of this for next Monday’s mtg on status anxiety.
- Philosophy and ideology.
- Policy preferences.
This may seem like a tall order. But, as with progressives the Venn diagram of these four groups overlap quite a bit and, IMO, does a lot to explain the direction conservatism seems to be moving in. Of course, we must be careful not to reduce conservatism (or any other political belief) to a mere byproduct of its adherents’ cognitive makeup. Yet, I hope that thinking about conservatism in this way (political beliefs flow from cultural beliefs and worldviews as much as from material interests) will help us to shed more light than shadow on this topic.
This will be a busy, vibrant meeting. Thank you in advance for your self-restraint and empathy for your humble moderator. Mr. Humble will start the meeting with a short introduction that explains some of these different ways of thinking about what American conservatism is and what it “stands for.”
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Yesterday’s conservatism –
- How conservatism today differs from that of the 20th century and earlier. A must-read from 2007 or brief update here. (this is just one POV, of course)
Today’s conservatism –
- Voters: Pew survey reveals four distinct groups of conservatives.
–> DavidG will explain and use these terms.
- Well, “conservative” can mean many things. This conservative lists 20 of them.
- The right-wing infotainment complex wields the ring of power that rules them all. Recommended.
- On policy, is the GOP exhausted and obsolete. If this is wrong why did Trump win GOP nomination so easily?
Tomorrow’s conservatism –
- The Right-wing is only one faction of the GOP and its continued dominance is NOT assured.
- In key areas Trump is closer to conservative voters’ POV than are GOP elites, so big changes are in store on trade, immigration, etc. Recommended + Conservative POV.
NEXT WEEK: Status anxiety as a social and political force.
The madness continues. Yesterday’s massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school was, depending on how you count, the USA’s 18th school shooting this year – and it’s February! – and its 280th or so since the massacre at Columbine in 1999. (Some estimates are lower.) About 150,000 American school children in 170 schools have experienced a school shooting during that time, estimates the Washington Post, and this excludes gun suicides and accidents.
At times like this, one purpose Civilized Conversation can serve is to just to be a place to vent a little. That’s okay. But, if we are to live up to our name, it should be constructive venting and, well, civilized. Maybe we should explore at least these three big questions:
- Why does American’s immense level of gun violence never get addressed as a problem that has anything to do with guns?
- Which particular types of gun violence are better addressed by the mental health, law enforcement, or education systems?
- Which gun restrictions likely would work, based on what is known now?
Answering the first question requires us to take a dark journey into the world of the small but highly influential anti-government gun fetishist subculture. These folks are but a minority of gun owners and all gun owners do not deserve to be lumped in with them in liberals’ minds. But, they rule the realm in gun politics. They are zealous and highly-organized, and the politicians that share their beliefs or fear them are the reason we never can have a serious debate over gun control. Read one of the first two recommended links if you don’t know about how these people differ from regular gun collectors and folks trying to protect against home intruders.
Questions #2 and #3 are hard ones, too, and debating them was my original idea behind this topic. These days most liberals stop thinking about gun control once they identify the worst villains in our current story (NRA, militia groups, right-wing GOP politicians, etc.) Since serious gun control is off the table we end up moaning about trigger locks and background checks and never seriously consider which kinds of restrictions on firearms might actually be more than marginally effective at chipping away at our gun crime problem – if the political will ever coalesces.
The answers are not straightforward. They depends on things like –
- Which gun-related problems (mass shootings, domestic violence-related, or violence associated with street crime) deserve to be our highest priority in general.
- Extent to which easy gun availability causes or aggravates those problems.
- What the existing evidence says about which (if any) new gun restrictions would do the most good.
- At what cost (including to 2nd amendment principles, which exist whether progressives like them or not.). and
- How on earth can NRA and similar opposition can be overcome.
Here is the usual long list of OPTIONAL background readings with the most useful ones highlighted. New topics for March – July will be available on Monday, too. (h/t Gale and Ken for helping select.)
A reminder: All points of view will be welcome at Civilized Conversation. Participants must be respected.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Political system obstacles –
- “Happiness is a worn gun.” Among the fetishists. Harpers 2010, 7pp.
- Americans’ anti-govt gun fantasy. Book excerpt in Slate, 2017, 12pp.
Recommended to read 1 of those 2.
- The NRA is morphing into an even more paranoid and purely-partisan far-right-wing group. Short.
- A list of restrictions on guns Republicans are busily dismantling.
- The real problem: A deep partisan divide on a wide range of intensely-felt cultural issues of which guns may be the worst. A must-read for our discussion.
What (if any) gun control might help?
- None; gun restrictions do not reduce crime. Direct rebuttal here.
- We must:
- Wrong. Only large-scale gun control would do any good, and USA must decide if we want it, says this conservative convert to gun control.
- Key: Keeping guns away from the mentally ill is hard. Recommended NYT.
NEXT WEEK: -gates and domes: Lessons from past presidential corruption.
[Authored by Ali, this is our topic for Monday:]
“The US moral divide and How the US defines itself.”
I came up with this idea a few weeks ago when I listened to a TED talk (first link) about how to talk across the political lines by using terms and ideals that the other side can readily accept. This got thinking about how most of our political discussions today are useless because we don’t share a basic moral agreement about what the government and the nation as a whole morally stand for.
This, of course, a philosophical question but it has very real ramifications on the economy, the role of government, foreign policy, healthcare, and cultural themes.
Are we group of people who should aspire to be pure of heart and mind (maybe genes) and try to shut all other “pollutants”? Are we guardians of something? And what is that thing? The weak? Our way of life? Civilization? The survival of the species? Should our society try and imitate nature, and if so then is Nature competition or harmony?
Do we have a moral obligation toward others, and does those “others” include all humans, all living beings, all animals, the entire planet, just “our own people”?
Do we have a role in this world? Or are we just one of many nations and should mind our own business and people, or are we inherently wrong (We’re built upon invasion and slavery) and shouldn’t try to infect any other nation until we fix the problems that we have a home?
The subject might seem a little too overreaching, and I agree, but we should try and keep it about morality and its role in our personal and political choices.
https://www.ted.com/…/robb_willer_how_to_have_better_politi… (How to talk across the Moral divide_
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/morally-what-does-the-us-_b… (What is scientifically speaking is the moral divide)
https://www.scientificamerican.com/…/how-science-explains-…/ (The moral divide and how it can affect the political conversation and discourse)
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/morally-what-does-the-us-_b… (our moral standing in the world and how it’s changing)
Marine Le Pen and her National Front party did not win the first round of France’s presidential election. Despite running second she is considered a long shot to win the May 6th runoff race. So, the odds that the world’s sixth richest country will fall into the hands of a fringe political party next month have gone down a bit. I’m seeing articles speculating that the recent wave of right-wing populism in Europe may have crested.
We’ll see. Extremist political parties have come and gone since 1945. The tide goes in and out. Yet, as any newspaper reader (okay – news feed reader) knows authoritarian political parties have surged in popularity in many countries in the last 10 years. Depending on who you ask the revival has been fueled by the 2008-09 financial collapse or/and subsequent austerity, internal or external migration, Russian government interference to undermine NATO, and other factors. On Monday we can talk about the big systemic reasons for this disturbing trend – and whether Donald Trump’s election should be considered a part of it.
But, I am more interested in whether all of this amounts to a transnational movement. Do Western authoritarian political parties share anything other than a mutual admiration? Do they have common goals and platforms, especially in foreign affairs? Do they share resources and coordinate messaging? How extensive is Russian aid and coordination? No, there’s no a current equivalent of the old Communist International (I think). Fascism is not going to unite and conquer the West. But, are we near a point where a loosely coordinated “national international” becomes a sufficiently powerful player to influence international politics?
I’m quite short of time this week (and all of next month). So, no detailed opening remarks from me on Monday. I think we probably hit the “Trump is a fascist” panic button a little too much two weeks ago. But, Trump’s rhetoric, the backgrounds of many of his closest advisors, and those amazing Russian government connections sure make me wonder how much is being coordinated with the global populist Right. YMMV.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Europe and beyond –
- Fascism was too flexible to truly die and now it’s back. Recommended.
- The “alarming worldwide alliance” of far right political parties. Recommended.
- Authoritarian populism’s causes run so deep that liberal democracy now has a competitor. Recommended.
Trump/USA links to this movement –
- Bannon, obviously. But a cast of shady characters maintains Trump’s links to the global far-right, like this guy.
- Why would American hyper-nationalists join a global movement? Maybe they’re not really nationalists.
- OTOH: Trump is NOT a fascist and the Alt-Right has turned its back on him. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Why is American culture so violent?
Fascism fearfulness is everywhere these days. Serious people are worried that the sudden rise of right-wing authoritarian political movements all over the democratic West may be more than ephemeral. A new era of extremist politics may be emerging, including fascism. I thought we would consider this proposition in two meetings. We will focus on the global rise of fascism/authoritarianism at our May 1st meeting (on May Day – ha, ha.) Monday’s meeting is about the rise of illiberal right-wing authoritarianism in the United States.
Many observers think worries that something resembling fascism could take hold in America are overblown. The public’s commitment to a democratic ethos is too strong. Our Constitutional system distributes power (checks and balances, civilian control of the military, and federalism) too widely, and civil society institutions are too resilient. It can’t happen here, they say, even with an authoritarian character like Donald Trump as president. Trump cannot destroy American democracy even if he wants to.
Maybe. Probably, even. But I look at the whole debate a little differently. I don’t see fascism is an all or nothing possibility. We don’t just have a choice of full-blown dictatorship or pluralistic liberal democracy. As we discussed last year regarding Russia’s crypto-fascist lurch, authoritarian systems and even fascisms vary widely in form and degree. Fascism takes on the characteristics of each country it infests: Anti-Semitic and revanchist in Germany, highly religious and anti-modern in Spain, kleptocratic and anti-Western in Russia.
Moreover, a descent into a more than we dreamed possible degree of authoritarianism doesn’t have to happen overnight, or due to one president’s election. Consider these (albeit debatable) points.
- U.S. politics has always had authoritarian tendencies – and moments. We had 100 years of Jim Crow, brutal wartime crackdowns on dissent (like in WWI), state violence against striking workers, and Red Scares. Not fascism for everyone, certainly, but authoritarianism for some.
- Large majorities of Americans express no confidence at all in the government or in conventional politics. President Trump was contemptuous of liberal democracy on the campaign trail and all but campaigned as a wannabe strongman. He got 46% of the vote and he’s president for the next four years.
- A true far right-wing movement (“Alt-Right”) may become a permanent, influential wing of the GOP. To me, this is not a big stretch. I have long argued that the entire Republican Party has grown increasingly authoritarian over the last 10-20 years.
- The middle class may further hollow out in the next decade or two, for reasons we have discussed before. If this happens, non-college educated Americans outside of the major cities will be hardest hit. They voted for Trump.
- Fascism feeds off of emergencies and war. Think of our response to 9/11. How do you think Trump and his top advisors would react to a major terrorist attack or war threat?
So, yes, American democracy is very resilient. But it has failed us before, at least temporarily. Trump may be either too ideologically mushy or incompetent to be our Mussolini. (Or, I could just be all wrong about him.) But, could he and the people who support him move the USA quite a distance along the continuum of authoritarianism?
It’s all worth discussing on a Monday, I think. I will have a brief opening that leaves us plenty of time for Civilized Conversation.
(A note on links: A million of them, so pick and choose. Except for link #1 and some Krugman I tried to find ones you are unlikely to have encountered.)
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Fascism and Trump –
- Is Trump a fascist?
- No, Trump is not a fascist, for many reasons and the label is not useful. Recommended. (h/t Rafael)
- Regardless, Trump will never be a dictator and fascism will never triumph in America.
Is U.S. democracy really at risk?
- Democratic institutions have stood up to Trump pretty well so far. Recommended.
It’s not just about one man’s character –
- The rise of American authoritarianism.
- It’s the culmination of the GOP fanning extremism for 20 years. The Republicans’ age of authoritarianism has just begun. I link you decide.
- Forget fascism, it’s anarchy we have to fear.
- Ultimately, our democracy’s survival depends on how strong our institutions really are. (Long and wonkish but great)
Conservative Voices –
- From a pro-Trump (Alt-Right?) website.
- Liberals are the real fascists. Worth knowing. (Fun rebuttal here)
- Ron Paul: Fascism is a bipartisan affliction.
NEXT WEEK: Is the Constitution too democratic or not democratic enough?
Several members of our Meetup group asked what I had in mind by “elites.” I deliberately left it undefined to make a point. Americans have some very different ways of defining the horrible, no good elite that everyone supposedly voted to overthrow. In fact, I think vast differences in the way we define our elites lay at the core of our political polarization even before we elected Donald Trump president.
Trump’s populism claims to be a call to arms to overthrow the “Washington establishment” and its collaborators here and abroad. As he said in his inaugural address (in between the talk of carnage and despair):
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. “
Trump’s parasitic elite seems to be our national governing elite, the establishment politicians and the permanent “deep state” that they command. His Hellish vision of a collapsing America sold out by its own elite is pretty stark, that’s for sure.
But, how specific is it, and how accurate? Who exactly are these quislings and what did they do, and to whom? Maybe history helps. When CivCon discussed modern American populism last June, I noted that populist movements everywhere share a basic characteristic. They identify some despicable, self-dealing elite that exploits the virtuous but powerless masses. The elite is not only privileged; it is unfairly privileged. The elite can be a real or imagined; Its victims all of “the people” or just a subset.
Moreover, Right and Left populist movements in U.S. history usually pick a different elite to resent and not quite the same “We, the people” to champion. Left-wing populism’s villain is concentrated private power, like the Robber Barons and their trusts or today’s giant corporations and the 1% that help them rig the game for plutocracy’s sake. Its victims are everybody else (well, except people of color, until recently), but especially the lower classes and the poor. In contrast, right-wing populism has tended to see a conspiracy of both the top and the bottom against the middle. Its corrupt overlords are government insiders helping an undeserving underclass and/or foreigners redistribute wealth and cultural prestige away from hard-working real Americans.
I’m not trying to dismiss this whole topic nor one side’s POV. Quite the contrary. I feel confident in saying that elites have failed the country, as do large majorities of Americans in poll after poll going back years. But, I am pretty knowledgeable about this stuff. I believe I can connect our country’s worst problems to specific failures by the people with all of the power and influence. I picked this topic so we can explore why just about everyone else thinks the same – even though they seem t disagree about who the elites are and what they are doing wrong and why.
We have plenty to talk about on Monday. Here are some discussion ideas and readings.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Who are America’s elites? Are there multiple elites with different interests and power sources, such as…
- Economic class versus social/cultural elites.
- Racial and ethnic elites?
- Educated and regional/cosmopolitan elites.
- Do our elites perpetuate power unfairly, or are they a meritocracy?
- Why is everybody so mad at elites? Do Americans agree on who to be mad at and why?
- Are elites indeed responsible for the mess we are in? Why?
- Is Trump just scapegoating? What should/could be done to reduce the power of American elites?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- It happens: In many countries corrupt elites use “extractive institutions” to enrich/perpetuate themselves and immiserate everybody else.
- Liberal hatred of elites versus conservatives’ hatred of elitism. Recommended.
- Short: Economic inequality always leads to political inequality.
Long: Politicians deliberately created our “Robin Hood economy.”
- Conservative POV:
NEXT WEEK: A change of pace – What’s going right in the USA these days?
Everyone is talking about the return of populism to American politics in light of Donald Trump’s astonishing primary victory and Bernie Sanders’ near-miss. But, there is some sloppy use of the term, even in the elite media. Many commentators seem to say “populist” when they just mean “popular.” Many ignore important differences between left-wing and right-wing populisms and democratic versus authoritarian populisms. I find this to be a shocking dereliction of their duty.
Of course, populist appeals are not just those that work really well on regular people. The term has a specific meaning historically. In the words of one of the links, populism
…generally refers to a rhetorical style that seeks to mobilize “the people” as a social or political force. Populism can move to the left or right. It can be tolerant or intolerant. It can promote civil discourse and political participation or promote scapegoating, demagoguery, and conspiracism. Populism can oppose the status quo and challenge elites to promote change, or support the status quo to defend “the people” against a perceived threat by elites or subversive outsiders.
The point is that populism defines The People and fingers The Guilty Elites. But, historically, left-wing and right-wing populisms in America do this very differently. (I think neither is inherently democratic or undemocratic, or at least I used to). Sanders and Trump continue this sharp difference. Both men and their movements have starkly divergent ideas about who are the oppressed people and who are their oppressors. And, despite some loose talk about their alleged substantive similarities, Bernie and the Beast have radically different ideas on what to do about it.
Now, the broader impact these two men and their revolutions (or “revolutions”) will have on our politics will be on Civilized Conversation’s radar for a long time. We will meet on the future of the Republican and Democratic parties right after their nominating conventions. July 25 = GOP, August 1 = Dems). But, I think the populist revival is not a flash in the pan in the USA or elsewhere, so I thought modern populism merited its own evening in our spotlight.
On Monday, I will open our meeting with some brief remarks on the differences between left-wing and right-wing populism in the United States and a (very!) quick summary of the major populist features of both Bernie and Trump. Then, we can have a wide-ranging discussion of whatever’s on your minds, including, I hope, the following tough questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What has populism meant, historically? Have American versions of populism had unique characteristics?
- What is the difference between populism and…
- Popularity (mass appeal) in a democracy?
- Right-wing versus left-wing populisms: How do they differ, specifically?
- Underlying world views?
- Who they appeal to (“us”) and target as the enemy (“them”)?
- Their solutions?
- Populism versus authoritarianism: When does populism expand democracy versus threaten it?
- Sanders and Trump: How populist are their
- How lasting will their “revolutions” be on GOP/Dems?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – Lots, so pick and choose.
ABCs of American Populism:
- Brief history of U.S populism.
- Right-wing and left-wing populisms are different. Recommended
- Populist economic pressures in USA have been building for decades.
- It’s not just us: Authoritarian populism is on the rise worldwide.
- Sanders and Trump bringing European-Style populism to America, although both have uniquely American characteristics. Either recommended
- Wrong. Neither Trump nor Sanders are genuine populists. Recommended.
Trump and Right Wing Populism’s Future:
- White Lives Matter is Trump’s unstated campaign slogan. Recommended
- Too simple. His appeal is to both racial and economic anxiety.
- Yeah, simple: Trump won because the Tea Party has always been about protecting older Whites’ govt benefits from being taken away and given to minorities. Recommended
- Conservative POVs:
Bernie and Left-Wing Populism’s Future:
- “Bernie Sanders and the New Populism.” Recommended.
- Can the Democrats win in long run with populist appeals?
- [Added on Saturday] Progressives should AVOID populism like the plague. It’s dangerous and antithetical to building civic engagement.
Next Week: Brexit – What if the U.K. votes on June 23 to leave the E.U.?
No matter what else happens in this train wreck of an election, experts will spend years trying to understand what happened and why. There are a lot of causes and culprits. But, the causes and consequences of political fear-mongering might be subject number one. How big a role has Donald Trump’s appeals to plain old fear of foreign and domestic enemies (immigrants, foreigners, traitorous U.S. elites, etc.) played in his rise, and why have his incitements worked so well?
The answers, in my view, are complex and go well beyond Trump to some core issues warping our politics. Yes, Trump fear-mongers a lot, it’s ugly, and it’s working. But, two things. First, fear is not the only basis of the man’s appeal. Polls reveal that his supporters are not just mindlessly seeking a strongman to crush our enemies, although support for Trump does correlate strongly with authoritarian personality traits. Trumpistas are more pessimistic in general about their own future and the country’s future than any other group of voters. They express zero trust in our political or corporate elites. Many seem to harbor deep resentments of recent cultural/demographic changes in our country and feel that “political correctness” has delegitimized their fears. None of these beliefs are likely to disappear when Trump does. The Donald is the punishment, not the problem.
Second, it’s not just Trump! His fearmongering has fallen on fertile ground because the Republican Party’s leaders at all levels has spent years priming its own voters to be paranoid. Especially lately, from ISIS to Ebola to China to our disloyalmuslimkenyantraitor president, the GOP – and the conservative news media – has become The Party of Fear. Democrats are starting to use some scare-mongering tactics of their own, IMO, arguably including some of the stuff that Bernie Sanders says. (Our democracy is “dead?” Really?)
My point is that a high level of fear and fear-mongering is a loaded gun in politics. Eventually, somebody will pick it up and, deviously or innocently, start blasting away at the fabric of our democracy. Trump is just really good at it.
As for us, I think a discussion of fear-mongering has to ask the right questions to be useful. I propose we start on Monday night by asking the first couple of discussion questions, below: What does and does not constitute political fear-mongering, and under what conditions is it effective? Then, I’m sure we’ll have ample time to debate how one of our political parties – and maybe, eventually, the other – came to use fear-mongering as a central pillar of its existence.
I will be brief in my little opening remarks, summarizing the 3-4 main theories of why appeals to voter anxieties (which are used in every election, obviously) are so much more prominent/prevalent in today’s political environment. I definitely will give a few jaw-dropping, sky-is-falling quotes from the Republican presidential candidates this year. They are amazing to behold; they’re just not the whole story or the only thing to worry about.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- WHAT: What is fear-mongering? Is it about (a) fake/exaggerated threats, (b) scapegoated culprits, or (c) phony solutions?
- WHAT NOT: How does fear-mongering differ from what politicians should do: Raise awareness of our problems, criticize the other side’s failures, and proposing solutions?
- WHO/WHEN: When does fear-mongering work and on whom?
- When: Foreign threats/war? Rapid social change, in times of rapid social change and economic stagnation?
- Who: A vulnerable psychological type? People on the botto of our society? On the top but losing their privileged status?
- What are people afraid of? Legit fears?
- Who is doing the fear-mongering? Why?
- ON/OFF: Is fear-mongering controllable? Can politicians turn it on an off at will, or is it like riding a tiger? Does it make our politics hostage to events?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Why/when does fear mongering work?
- There’s a fine line in politics between responding to fear and exploiting it. Recommended.
- The key role the Internet and news media play in fear-mongering.
- Trump, fear-mongering and the authoritarian personality. A must-read.
- A Black president and a deep recession catalyzed White fears of a “racial inversion” of political and cultural power. Recommended.
- Demanding absolute, 100% security from all foreign threats has caused a permanent sense of dread.
- Trump, the GOP, and fear-mongering.
- Liberals, Democrats, and fear-mongering:
Next Week: Political Correctness – A serious problem, an excuse, or a little of both?
I have long argued that there is no real “civil war” in the Republican Party, at least not over its domestic agenda. They are arguing mainly over tactics and leadership, not policy differences. This week’s meeting, though, is about the one major area where the GOP is truly divided: Foreign policy.
To some extent, this is a function of having no sitting president, since the president is so central to setting foreign policy. Yet, I think the Republicans truly are adrift on foreign affairs. It’s not just that their leaders are making more and more extreme statements on foreign affairs (Read the links below to get a sense of the bizarre statements their presidential candidates have repeatedly made at their debates.) It’s that, underneath this bumper sticker-level rhetoric, the GOP has not seemed to have settled on a doctrine or strategy on foreign affairs that could replace the neoconservatism of the Bush years. Neocons are fighting like Hell to reassert their influence in the GOP. Rubio is one. So is Jeb Bush. I think now would be a good time for Civilized Conversation to try to figure out what the GOP stands for in foreign policy beyond condemning everything Obama has done and promising miraculous outcomes.
Neoconservatism, you’ll recall, began in the 1970s but really got its groove on as a product of conservative intellectuals rethinking the U.S. role in the world after the fall of the U.S.S.R. Its ranks included theorists like Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Richard Perle; and some seasoned politicians like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and McCain. To simplify somewhat, neocons believed that post-Cold War it fell to the United States to dominate global affairs, especially militarily, and that the United States should use military force and the threat of it to prevent any other power from becoming strong enough to challenge U.S. dominance anywhere in the world. They also believed the USA should compel regime changes in “rogue states” like Iran, North Korea, and (especially!) Saddam’s Iraq. Finally, some of the younger neocons emphasized that future U.S. military interventions to achieve national security goals should try to birth democracies, or at least stable pro-Western governments.
After 9/11, the neocons’ big moment came. Their philosophy quickly became the core of the Bush Doctrine of preventative war and the Global War on Terror. You know the rest of the story. Eight years later, Barack Obama was elected by a weary public to pick up the pieces. Obama’s foreign policies were a mix of more war and military force, diplomacy, and some retrenching/winding down of old wars. Obama’s results were mixed, too, as we have discussed on several occasions.
As for the Republicans, it’s hard to tell what they believe now. Based just on their presidential candidates’ statements, it seems they believe that
- every evil in the world is coming to kill us in our beds (led by an entire religion, Islam) and we should all be terrified;
- It’s all because Obama’s weakness, cowardice, and/or secret sympathy with the enemy emboldened them; and
- The GOP’s strategy is to kill every enemy as dead as possible (somehow), but without inconveniencing Americans too much.
That is why I wanted to have this meeting. There has to be something nuanced and sophisticated underneath all of that hyperbole, doesn’t there? This is the party of Eisenhower, George Bush Sr., and Bob Dole, after all. Maybe there is more continuity in U.S. foreign policy than it appears at this weird moment in our political history.
I will start us off on Monday with…something. Since many progressives use “neocon” to mean “all conservative beliefs I hate,” maybe I’ll try to define the term’s different meanings to different people. I’ll also read the links on Rubio and the other prez candidates’ POV to see if I see any pattern other than hawkishness.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- HOW does foreign policy get made for a party that does not hold the presidency? Who makes it (Congress, interest groups, think tanks, Fox and talk radio) and how can we know what they believe when no one is in charge?
- NEOCONS: What were the neocons’ original core beliefs? Did they have merit, despite the Bush failures?
** Who are today’s neoconservatives? Has their thinking evolved?
- OTHERS: What other competing foreign policy factions exist in today’s GOP?
** Which presidential candidate is represents which competing POV?
** How popular is each alternative within the Party?
- THE BATTLE: What drives the GOP FP debate? Events and fear of attack? Belief that Obama has been weak/naïve? Suspicion of diplomacy? Xenophobia or fear of Islam? Partisanship and fear-mongering? Lack of experienced leadership?
- THE WAR: Which faction/POV will come out on top? Wither the neocons?
- DEMS: Is Hillary Clinton a bit neocon? Will this help or hurt her in the primary and/or general election?
OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –
- The neocons are back:
- No, there’s no GOP consensus on foreign policy.
- GOP presidential candidates:
- Marco Rubio is an uber-hawk who appears to loathe diplomacy and believe Islam is the enemy. Recommended – Is this just rhetoric?
- Jeb wants to bring back the Bush Doctrine. Recommended.
- Cruz is less hawkish. Trump may be too, but he has hired no FP advisors!
- Contrarian POV:
- [Update: Just as an FYI to those that want a more thorough case against neocon ideas, including Hillary Clinton’s neocon instincts, see this long journal article.]
Next Week: Socialism’s meaning today.