January 7, 2002
As a post-9/11 bromide, "everything's changed" has become a journalistic mantra, a theme with endless variations endlessly repeated, and it is easy to become thoroughly sick of it, and suspicious at the same time. For, if "everything's changed," then perhaps we don't need the Bill of Rights anymore, as a virtually unanimous Congress agreed in passing the Orwellian "USA PATRIOT Act" without bothering to read the text. Perhaps, then, we can chuck out the 200-year-old legacy of our old Republic and usher in a new, streamlined American Empire, impervious to challenge and invulnerable to attack from within as well as from without. Oh yes indeedy, everything's changed, alright including the possibility of a change for the better.
As a conservative libertarian (or is that libertarian conservative?), I am suspicious if not downright opposed to any and all change, which seems, all too often, a manifestation of pure evil. This is not so much a matter of temperament (although I'll admit that some of this can be explained by the aging process) as it is a matter of ideology. After all, the Republic has been degenerating for nearly two centuries, now, and there is no reason to expect the process of decay to be reversed any time soon, if ever. So any change, by definition, seems a loss. But the really big change, post-9/11 the real turning of a corner, so to speak is that any real reversal of course has, for the foreseeable future, been effectively blocked.
I am haunted by the words of Garet Garrett, who, writing in 1950 or so, had a vision of an American Empire so clear that to read his classic Rise of Empire (1952) today is to be struck dumb by his prescience:
"We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night: the precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say: 'You now are entering Imperium.' Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: 'Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible.' And now, not far ahead, is a sign that reads: 'No U-turns.'"
Writing at the beginning of the Cold War, Garrett saw the drive to Empire as fatally undermining the Founders' republican project. Just as the New Deal and the world war had brought about a "revolution within the form," and subverted the idea of limited constitutional government, so the Cold War would accelerate and, finally, complete the transition from a republican to an imperial form of unlimited governmental hegemony, both at home and abroad.
Garrett was a pessimist, but his despair is shot through with silver threads of a bright promise, the hope that "the positions in the lost terrain could be regained," one by one, and the old Republic restored. Garrett saw that the "mortal enmity" between "constitutional, representative, limited government, on the one hand, and Empire on the other hand," had never been truly resolved, because "never has the choice been put to a vote of the people."
Yet the decision of the elites to intervene on a global basis has already been made and is, according to them, "irrevocable." America, wrote Garrett:
"Has been committed to the course of Empire by executive government, one step at a time, with slogans, concealments, equivocations, a propaganda of fear, and in every crisis an appeal for unity, lest we present to the world the aspect of a divided nation, until at last it may be proclaimed that events have made the decision and it is irrevocable."
The sleek modernity of Garrett's prose is underscored by the realization that those words could well have been written today, or tomorrow. "United we stand," or so the slogan goes: all criticism, however mild, is the work of "fifth columnists," and "you're either with us, or with the terrorists," as the President of the United States bluntly put it. The signal act of destruction, which stunned us all on 9/11, is what, they claim, makes our transition to Empire not only irrevocable but, also, not even subject to debate.
If the globalists are right, wrote Garrett, and America's advance to Empire is inevitable, then "a piece of writing like this would be an exercise in pessimistic vanity." But for all his nostalgic keening for a golden past and the lyrical sense of yearning that permeates his style, Garrett didn't really believe he was on the wrong side of history. The policy of perpetual war and permanent inflation, all financed by the pyramid scheme economics of Keynesian socialism, would cause a catastrophic crisis, and out of this crisis new leadership would emerge. This was the belief, not often expressed, of the Old Right critics of the New Deal and Roosevelt's drive to war: even in the twilight of their movement, old America Firsters like Garrett retained some slim hope that they would win.
"Who says it is impossible?" Garrett asked. "The President says it; the State Department says it; all globalists and one-worlders are saying it." But the Old Right, of which Garrett's was the most lyrical voice, was not yet ready to surrender: We can retake all that "lost terrain," he wrote, and yet save the Republic. In the half-century since Garrett penned his polemic and especially in the barely four months since the attacks what has changed is that this possibility is rapidly being foreclosed.
For now, it seems, there is a painted sign up ahead, clearly commanding us not to execute a U-turn. And we can, indeed, now mark a single stroke between day and night, clearly establishing the precise time when "everything changed": a few minutes before nine in the morning, on September 11, 2001. In one moment we were a Republic, and in the next, an Empire, albeit one besieged.
In the heat of the firestorm, old ideological distinctions melted down: in the furnace of war, Left and Right melded one into the other, with conservatives embracing the anti-libertarian instincts of their liberal counterparts, and liberals suddenly enamored of war. What Daniel Bell prematurely called "the end of ideology," in a famous book of the same title, has come to pass.
Bell's book argued that left and right had pretty much come to agree on the inevitability of the Welfare-Warfare State, and the supremacy of Big Government as a permanent feature of American politics. However, The End of Ideology was, unfortunately, published just before the tumultuous 1960s and the Vietnam War got off the ground, thus instantly invalidating its thesis that every problem has been solved, in its essence, by the palliative effects of social democracy, and that there's nothing really to argue about but for the niggling details of how to administer the welfare state.
Francis Fukuyama took up the cry, again, in the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall: in his famous essay, "The End of History," he repeated Bell's thesis, dressed up in Hegelian drag, and proclaimed the triumph of Empire in the form of a coming "world homogenous state," i.e. the United States of the World headquartered, naturally, in Washington, D.C. In this New Rome of the new millennium, the Senators would quarrel over the niggling details of how to administer a global Imperium. But there would be no debate over whether this was possible or even desirable since all fundamental political problems had already been solved, and it was settled, once and for all, that some form of social democracy is "the final form of human government."
Now, post-9/11, we have "the end of argument" over the issue of war and peace, and, indeed, all questions of foreign policy. An endless policy of war has been forced upon us, or so it is claimed, and every foreign policy stance must be justified by one and only one standard of value: how does it advance the cause of our "war on terrorism?" Both left and right have eagerly embraced this formula, and, in accordance with the new "unity"-mongering that has gripped the nation in the past few months, they have both reached pretty much identical conclusions: military intervention is good in and of itself, and Big Government is, at least for the moment, necessary if not always desirable.
On the right, one major herald of this new merger-mania is Michael Barone, of US News, who posits that the "national greatness" and "leave us alone" wings of the GOP have finally been reconciled to happy harmony by this war. Pre-9/11, he says, these two strands of the Republican coalition had worked in uneasy alliance, coming out in open conflict during the GOP presidential primaries, when a plethora of candidates each claimed the mantle of Reaganism, and none were quite up to the task. Barone writes:
"As recently as the 2000 GOP presidential primaries, many Republicans were still looking backward at their transformational leader Ronald Reagan. Candidates Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes both claimed their campaigns should be taken seriously because they best represented Reagan's ideals. The religious right and the economic right assessed candidates like George W. Bush and John McCain on how well they fit what these groups considered the relevant Reagan model. It was assumed that candidates who failed the litmus tests Reagan met on tax cuts and abortion could not be nominated."
Ah, but no more. According to Barone, Bush II has combined the "national greatness" McCainism of the Weekly Standard with the "leave us alone" quasi-libertarianism of conservatives, like Grover Norquist, who are mainly concerned with economic issues and, more generally, with protecting individuals from the intrusive instincts of government bureaucrats and their armed enforcers. But the great problem of the "leave us alone" crowd, says Barone, is that their message "lacks inspiration." He is probably right that a people who elected William Jefferson Clinton to the presidency are not likely to be inspired by the same purity of vision that led the Founders to lay down their lives for liberty. Yet he clearly does not regard this as a disaster.
Barone epitomizes the post-9/11 conservative movement in his willingness to jettison the old conservative domestic agenda in the name of a global crusade without limitations on either its ends or its means. "Absent credible threats of government intrusion," he writes, "the leave-us-alone coalition can lose enthusiasm and cohesion."
Barone may not have noticed that the government is now empowered to read our email, track our internet surfing habits, and listen in on our phone conversations without a proper warrant or oversight, or that it can lock people up without charges and without having to answer to anybody: but, then again, conservatives of his "neo" ilk never had much enthusiasm for liberty, which they always found somewhat boring. So it is no wonder that Barone finds none of this a "credible threat." He is, he confesses, more easily inspired by "great national projects at home and abroad," and looks to Theodore Roosevelt as the symbol of this kind of rhetorical bluster. "The trouble is that, before September 11, no great national projects were apparent," avers Barone, but all that's solved rather neatly now:
"Since September 11, George W. Bush has exemplified both national greatness and leave-us-alone conservatism. The war against terrorism is his national greatness project, undertaken with appropriate seriousness and steeliness. Yet he has refused to back down from the previously passed tax cuts. During his father's administration, spokesmen for various forces in the Republican Party vied for public attention and political leverage. Today's George Bush overshadows all of them."
According to the arbiters of the new Republican dispensation in the realm of foreign policy, "national greatness," i.e. Empire, is triumphant, while "leave us alone" still rules the GOP's domestic agenda, at least when it comes to economic issues. But this division of labor is already beginning to break down, as, increasingly, the momentum is given to the Democrats and their liberal Republican enablers to extend the power and reach of Big Government in the name of the "national emergency."
We saw this with the federalization of airport security, and the same is true of the tax-cut issue. After all, how are we going to finance the "war on terrorism," rebuild Afghanistan, invade Iraq, and "save" Social Security in the face of an economic downturn that, like the "war on terrorism," seems to have no end in sight? Politically, the trend is going against the tax-cutting Republicans, who may be unable to withstand the rising tide of red ink and Democratic rhetoric without giving in to a tax hike and many more in the future.
The "big mo," as George W. Bush's dad put it, is also going against those principled conservatives, including Phyllis Schlafly and Norquist, who went on the record against the ludicrously misnamed "USA PATRIOT Act," and lobbied hard, albeit largely unsuccessfully, to rid the various "anti-terrorist" measures of their more ominous clauses. The tide has turned in favor of the more authoritarian "neo"-conservatives, not only Barone and the Weekly Standard crowd but also such freelancers as gay-marriage advocate and British expatriate Andrew Sullivan, who alternates between denouncing war critics as "traitors" and pushing for the expulsion of all Christian fundamentalists from the Republican coalition on the grounds that they are brothers in spirit to the Taliban.
As an addendum to his theory of Republican realignment, Barone sounds the death knell of the real conservative movement:
"Another kind of Republicanism literally disappeared during the campaign: the isolationist, protectionist, and nativist Republicanism of pre-World War II conservatives, revived by author and former Nixon and Reagan speechwriter Patrick Buchanan. This kind of Republicanism could not claim the Reagan imprimatur: Reagan, as a Democrat in the 1940s and as a Republican in the 1980s, rejected isolationism, protectionism, and nativism. The destruction of Buchanan as a force in the Republican party was, to a considerable extent, the work of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh, whose program appeals to much of what Buchanan must have regarded as his core constituency, articulately and patiently attacked Buchanan's stands on issues for months. Buchanan left the Republican Party after his poor showing in the August 1999 Ames, Iowa, straw poll, leaving no significant successor."
Barone frames the above paragraph as a parenthetical aside, but one gets the feeling that this is the real point of his little essay. Yet this cry of "Victory!" by the liberal internationalist wing of the Republican party seems premature, at best. For surely what Barone calls Buchanan's "nativism" i.e. his opposition to increased levels of immigration has been vastly empowered by the events of 9/11 and their aftermath. The whole multicultural myth that George W. Bush embraced so fulsomely during his campaign the speaking in Spanish, the exhibitionistic political correctness of the lineup at the GOP convention, the meetings with Vincente Fox and a post-election Bush proposal that we rapidly increase immigration levels along with some vague talk of a North America without borders is fatally undermined by the circumstances of this war.
The brand of conservatism represented by Buchanan is totally unacceptable to the "modern" Right because of its alleged "isolationism." What Barone and his fellow neocons mean by this is Buchanan's principled opposition to the whole gamut of post-Cold War interventions, from the Gulf war against Iraq to the "police action" in Haiti to Bosnia and Kosovo and now, perhaps, to Iraq II. The fall of the Soviet empire and the growth of a counterculture empowered by Big Government convinced a whole section of the Right that the main danger to liberty is not in Baghdad but right here at home.
The bloviating Limbaugh, whose dumbed-down version of ostensible "conservatism" is like a fun-house reflection of the real thing, had much less to do with Buchanan's lack of success at the polls than the perceived closeness of the election. At any rate, Limbaugh and his neoconservative masters smeared Buchanan mercilessly, without ever coming to grips with his anti-interventionist arguments, so forcefully and elegantly expressed in his book, A Republic, Not an Empire.
A few of the more hardcore rightists even challenged the legitimacy of the American state in a famous symposium, published in First Things magazine, dedicated to the proposition that the federal colossus had to be overthrown. For this they were vilified by their neoconservative allies, who berated them for "extremism" and dubbed them "theocrats" for taking their idea of morality and the subordination of the state to the demands of personal conscience to its logical conclusion.
Today, they might also be dismissed as "fundamentalists" and quite possibly traitors: certainly, such conservatives are, today, considered completely beyond the pale. It is not for nothing that the Democrats are picking up on this theme in linking the Republicans with the religious right and labeling them the "American Taliban." The center of ideological gravity has moved decisively to the left of center, and what we are seeing is the overthrow of the old Reaganite paradigm which held that government is part of the problem, and not the solution. We are going back to the old not Rooseveltian paradigm of "national greatness" through government action: the only difference being that, this time, it's Teddy, and not Franklin, whose legacy is being revived.
Don't think liberals fail to sense their opportunity, and they are moving inexorably to claim it. In my next column, we'll see how the development of big government conservatism has a parallel in the rapid growth of warrior liberalism the brazenly hypocritical creed of the Clintonian leftists, such as Salon editor David Talbot, who details his conversion to the new militarism in "The Making of a Hawk." Read it and gag. And be sure to log in Wednesday and see how I expose this peacenik-turned-"humanitarian" warmonger for the craven sell-out that he is....
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