The most important recent articulation of what distinguishes the Republican party today has been offered by one of our most brilliant and astute political scientists, James Ceaser of the University of Virginia. In the lead article of the fall issue of neoconservative journal The Public Interest, Ceaser writes (with Daniel DiSalvo) that there is at least one sense in which the upcoming election “presents us with a choice, not an echo.” The Republican party is a “‘radical’ or ‘revolutionary’ party, with a political project grounded on a clear foundation,” and it “is perhaps the last remaining party in a major democratic country with such an underpinning.” This revolutionary project is seen, in practice, in the assertiveness of President Bush’s foreign policy of “preventive war and regime transformation,” which was “not simply a minimal response to events, but represented a new and highly controversial strategy.”
The policy’s theoretical radicalism is seen in the president’s justification of that policy through “appealing to the universality of democracy and human rights.” The president’s view that “there is a structure or order to human things and their affairs, and standards can be both known and used to guide political action” is not properly termed “neoconservative,” according to Ceaser and DiSalvo, but rather “neo-natural right.” The Democrats, in opposing both this practical and this theoretical innovation, are now the true conservatives. They want to return to our old caution about using American principles to change the world, and they see Bush’s theoretical and practical go-it-alone American assertiveness as dangerous chauvinism. They, Ceaser and DiSalvo observe, oppose natural-rights foundationalism with global consensualism. While the Democrats see no alternative than looking to our allies for guidance, President Bush looks to nature itself.
Ceaser and DiSalvo make the troubling observation that there is now no other way to justify the Iraq war. Its “justification…on primary defensive grounds has evaporated with the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.” That fact, together with the very messy and fairly bloody reconstruction, has, in fact, eroded public support for the war. Most Americans, the authors imply, think that as a merely defensive measure the war was misconceived and more trouble than it was worth. Thought about in that way, the war could easily lead to the president’s defeat. So it can only be justified now “as a first step in a strategic plan to change the political culture of the Middle East and reduce the terrorist threat.” The election should be viewed as a referendum on the Iraq war, conceived as part of the president’s larger “neo-natural-right” policy vision. If the president wins, he would have “the sanction of the majority” for that “vision for the Republican party.”
My first objection to this sharp and provocative line of analysis is that there is no evidence that, however the election turns out, the majority would be sanctioning any such thing. How many Americans really believe that we are now going to end up doing all that much to change the political culture of Iraq, much less any other Middle Eastern country? A majority of Americans may well still be with the president in his resolve to stay the course in Iraq–I know I am–but our expectations have been chastened somewhat by harsh experience.
Polls show that Americans have some genuine reservations–fair or unfair–about the president’s prudence concerning Iraq, and if the election turned on the outcome of that war alone–however conceived–he might not be reelected. But the voters still give him very high marks–especially in comparison to Kerry–on the war on terror. They understand that broader war more in terms of national defense than in terms of regime change. What they mean, primarily, is that Americans will be safer led by Bush than by Kerry; like Zell Miller, they wouldn’t put the safety of their families in the Democrats’ hands. People accept that some preventive military action might be necessary to defend this country effectively, and that we should of course promote regimes friendly to our principles and interests. But I see little evidence of a popular desire for more wars based on natural-right transformationalism.
I also think that Ceaser and DiSalvo exaggerate when they say Bush’s foreign policy is “the decisive issue of the 2004 election.” If Bush wins, I tend to think his margin will come from his ability to animate the enthusiasm of cultural or religious conservatives, even as he has aroused the unprecedented hatred of sophisticated American secularists around cultural issues that have little to do with Iraq. Here, too, we can see that the division between our two parties might be evaluated according to natural-right standards.
A nation lives contrary to nature, surely, if it is unable to perpetuate itself by bringing new citizens into the world. So the European nations, everyone knows, are endangered by their strangely unnatural dearth of births. We Americans still replace ourselves in sufficient numbers. But a closer look at the data, Phillip Longman explains in the September 2 Washington Post, makes clear that even our fertility rate is dropping or just remaining low among all our ethnic groups. Immigrant groups, it seems, can’t be relied upon to have lots of kids for more than a generation or two.
“Fertility rates,” Longman goes on, “correlate strongly with religious conviction. In the United States, fully 47 percent of people who attend church weekly say that their ideal family size is three or more children. By contrast, only 27 percent of those who seldom attend church want that many kids.” If Americans weren’t more religious–especially more evangelical and more Mormon–than the Europeans, our demographic facts would also be dangerously contrary to nature.
“High fertility rates,” Longman continues, “correlate strongly with support for George W. Bush.” Looking back to 2000, “if the Gore states seceded from the Bush states and formed a new nation, it would have the same fertility rate, and the same rapidly aging population, as France.” Our religious conservatives are the reason we are not fading away like France. That fact is as important as any other for our national security. Surely there is some deep connection between our nation’s singular acceptance of its global military responsibilities, our singular acceptance of our familial responsibilities, and our singularly strong religious belief. The nation that can, for good reason, argue for the natural superiority of its principles and practices in the world today understands itself, at its best, as seeing no conflict between its natural duties and its duties to its Creator. The conservative view of the complex distinctiveness of the American idea of liberty is that it allows for the flourishing of all the goods that constitute lives that are free, rational, familial, social, political, and religious by nature. Liberals, conservatives believe, endanger those goods by understanding liberty too readily as freedom from the responsibilities that we are given with our natural purposes.
In this important respect, the Republican party remains genuinely conservative. It wants to preserve lives oriented around home, family, God, country, and personal achievement from the abstract, theoretical innovations associated with Democratic elitism. Those innovations, as Ceaser and DiSalvo say, are characteristically imposed upon us by the courts, and our judiciary now “serves as the de facto legislative branch of the Democratic party.” So maybe the key issue for most Republicans is–or should be–democratic opposition to what amounts to radical, revolutionary judicial activism. Such activism is a threat to the natural goods that make most American lives worth living.
–Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is author of Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls.