They're back—and as intolerant of their opponents as everby Matthew Wolfson / August 15, 2013 / Leave a comment
Career politicians tend to make quick comebacks. So do bad ideas. Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, ambitious and influential conservatives are again talking about policy imperatives and immediate threats to the republic. They come armed with a potent combination of reductive realism, fervent institutionalism and high moralism. We are back, in other words, with the neoconservatives.
In a recent issue of The New Republic, Senator John McCain, moderate maverick turned populist presidential candidate turned aspiring elder statesman, referred to Republican opponents of intervention in Syria as “the isolationist, America-Firsters.” Several days later, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Republican pit-bull turned bipartisan governor turned aspiring presidential candidate, sounded an ominous warning about critics of the government’s surveillance and drone programs: “This strain of libertarianism that’s going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought…I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the [9/11] widows and the orphans and have that conversation.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks, Iraq-war hawk turned Obama supporter turned recent Administration critic, felt the rhetorical fervor and tried to direct it, making a more sustained case for neoconservative policies. He defended the movement’s intellectual origins, among thinkers who advocated using data to craft national policies that encouraged virtuous living: unlike small government libertarians, Brooks’s neoconservatives wanted to work within the confines of the welfare-national security state, employing it as an instrument to mould better human beings.
In other words, with these three interventions from McCain, Christie and Brooks, neo-conservatism was functioning much as it did during the Bush years: members of the establishment were coming down hard on people disposed to question the establishment’s methods or its moral purpose. Sceptics about intervening in a sovereign state’s civil war were now synonymous with opponents of America’s involvement in the Second World War. Critics of government policies which already monitor, and could potentially kill, American citizens were libertarian space cadets. People unwilling to use government to instill virtue were atavistic or unrealistic.
Admittedly, McCain’s, Christie’s and Brooks’s targets were well-chosen: the anti-establishmentarians mostly hail from the Tea Party wing of the GOP, and are adept at using widespread suspicion of the federal government for their own political purposes. Certainly, McCain’s and Christie’s stated opponents, Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, display serene self-confidence expressing views that most of the country deems extremist: say, believing private businesses may have the right to discriminate based on race, or claiming that extensive background checks for gun owners are unconstitutional. Both are also, predictably, eyeing a run for the presidency in 2016, for which they need a supportive Republican base.
But McCain, Christie and Brooks are not the pragmatists they claim to be. They are extreme idealists. Or, put more charitably, they share an almost touching faith in the ability of the people doing the governing to do so effectively. This is a strange party line considering that scepticism toward democratic governments to perform even basic functions, much less exalted ones, is perhaps the most broadly-held political position of the past five years. It also demonstrates an astonishing amnesia about what tends to happen when heightened rhetoric, militant idealism and institutional fealty become the dominant modes of political practice. We’ve seen this show before, in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and the memories are not pleasant ones.
Do we really want to go down this road again, so soon? One of democracy’s major advantages is the room it allows for public expressions of doubt. This is not ground to be ceded lightly. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have few virtues, but one of them is that they seem to be representing what many of their constituents actually think. The rest of us do not need to join their crippling suspicion of the powers-that-be, but we should be permitted our scepticism.