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.
My description here does not do Kristol’s essay justice. It is probably one of the best outlines of the neoconservative vision of America and its place in the world. Much of it might have made sense in 2003. Much of it was put into practice during the Bush administration.
But that was then.
In 2013, the neoconservative foreign policy vision and Bush’s legacy is now viewed as a mistake by a majority of Americans and many conservatives. Most of the American right today opposes fighting wars that don’t make sense, hastily surrendering constitutional liberties while tolerating massive government growth. None of this seems conservative.
Most conservatives who went along with the Bush foreign and domestic policy agendas were not neoconservatives, but it was neocon thinking that most influenced and guided the party at that time. Similarly, most conservatives in 2013 who opposed Obama’s attempted war with Syria, mass NSA surveillance, Obamacare, Common Core and other federal expansions are not libertarians per se — but they more readily identify with libertarian Republicans like Rand Paul and Justin Amash on these issues.
In 2013, Republicans still wedded to the 2003 GOP seem out of touch with the rest of the country, most other conservatives, and are often more aligned with the Obama administration than their own party.
The purpose of Kristol’s essay was to explain why his philosophy was right one for the Republican Party in 2003. There was certainly a good case to make for that, particularly after 9-11. Today, it is more accurate to say that a post-9/11 GOP was a good fit for neoconservatives and their vision — to the detriment of conservatism.
There must always be a balance between security and liberty, larger and smaller government policies that suit the practical needs of the times in which we live. One would expect conservatives to always err on the side of liberty and less government. In 2003, conservatives were unfortunately responsible for shifting that balance drastically in the more security, large government direction.
But America is now shifting back to something more normal and also more conservative. Polls show that Americans are fed up with war, fear the loss of liberty, and are concerned about big government more than any time in recent memory.
This year, the right continued to rediscover the liberty component that had been missing from conservatism. In 2013, libertarian conservatism proved to be the philosophy best suited for the country and the Republican Party. It was indeed a bellwether year for libertarian conservatives and 2014 could be even better.
Happy New Year.