In 2003, conservative Republicans vocally championed war and opposed civil liberties. In 2013, conservative Republicans vocally opposed war and championed civil liberties. In 2003, conservative Republicans led efforts to expand entitlements, grow the Department of Education, and nearly doubled the national debt. In 2013, conservative Republicans feared big government so much they shut it down.
These are pretty significant shifts. So what happened?
Obviously, the futility of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had an impact on all Americans, including conservatives. Similarly, protecting constitutional rights seems more important a decade removed from the fear that gripped most of us after 9/11.
Conservatives’ changing attitude toward government growth is more complicated, but becomes less so when you realize it is connected to changing attitudes on foreign policy and civil liberties.
What “conservative” means has changed dramatically in the last decade.
The presidency of George W. Bush has been described on both left and right as the most neoconservative in history. His policies and legacy, from the Iraq War to the Patriot Act, certainly support the accusation.
Neoconservatives’ predilection for an aggressive foreign policy and increased executive power has always contradicted conservatives’ desire for limited and constitutional government. Having a massive, permanent presence abroad and a vast, overreaching national security apparatus at home obviously requires significant government growth. Such growth often coincides with increased acceptance of big government overall.
This contradiction on the right is rarely addressed until it is too late. This is exactly what happened within the Republican Party circa 2003.
Irving Kristol’s 2003 essay “The Neoconservative Persuasion” is instructive. Kristol says explicitly what other neoconservatives often dance around or ignore, concerning their historic tolerance of larger and even unlimited government. In his essay, Kristol dismissed conservatives’ traditional fear of big government, from the New Deal forward, as some “Hayekian notion that we are on ‘the road to serfdom,’” adding “Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable.”
Kristol also spelled out he and his allies’ long-term goal; “the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.”
Presumably, “modern democracy” means an America that polices the world, starts preventive wars, curtails any liberties necessary in the name of “keeping us safe” and endures any cost or level of big government necessary to maintain a permanent and massive national security state.