The Corner

What Conservatives Were Made Of

An e-friend sent me this Matt Bai piece, mostly for the Stan Lee reference. Bai writes:

Going back to the 1960s, the modern conservative movement has been an amalgam of three distinct factions: the champions of free enterprise, the foreign policy types often described as neoconservatives, and the social conservatives who became the spine of the party’s grass-roots campaign apparatus.

It was a fear of communism that nicely unified all of these groups in the cold war years. The Soviet Union and its satellites were Marxist in their economic outlook, expansionist in their foreign policy and defiantly godless in their culture. Stan Lee could not have dreamed up a more perfect nemesis around which Republicans could coalesce.

For most of the last 20 years, however, Republicans have struggled to keep these groups equally engaged. George W. Bush juggled an agenda of interventionist military policy, tax cuts and opposition to stem cell research and same-sex marriage — in other words, something for everyone in the fold. But then the war in Iraq and soaring deficits splintered the conservative coalition and led, ultimately, to a Democratic takeover.

I think Matt Bai is one of the better political reporters out there, and I think this all defensible shorthand. But in an important way it’s more wrong than right.

For starters, the bit about neoconservatives is just sort of silly (Bai’s couched language notwithstanding). The notion that in the 1960s the “neoconservatives” were the champions of an assertive foreign policy is bizarre, since it wasn’t until the late 1970s that anyone even called themselves “neocon” in terms of foreign policy. Moreover the famously un-neoconservative folks at National Review had a more assertive anti-Communist foreign policy than the neocons who came later. We were the “rollback, not containment” crowd decades before the  neocons were even talking about Radio Free Europe and more vigorous human rights policies. I don’t mean to take anything away from the contribution of the neos in the 1970s, it was vital work. It’s just that Bai’s chronology is either wrong or he’s misusing “neoconservative” as synonymous with “foreign policy hawk” or both in order to pander to a readership that has a wholly ignorant and largely pejorative understanding of the term “neoconservative.”

Moreover, I’d argue that the  “three distinct factions” of conservatism has always been exaggerated. It’s not wrong, but there’s a lot of journalistic glibness here (and as a far more glib journalist I recognize it!). It’s true that at the activist and leadership level there are people who care about social policy, foreign policy or economic policy to the exclusion of the other two. That’s just the nature of specialization. But it’s not clear to me that it works all the way down. All three factions exist within the conservative brain. Most conservatives believe in free enterprise, strong national defense, and traditional values (variously defined). To be sure, there is a distinct libertarian faction on the right. But I don’t know that there’s a strong national-defense faction that would otherwise be in the Democratic fold (I can think of a few individuals about whom that is true — Paul Wolfowitz, for example).

Last, Bai writes that Republicans coalesced around anti-Communism. That’s true. But it would be just as true to say that anti-Communists coalesced around being Republicans. The Republican Party became the home of anti-Communists, social conservatives, and free marketers not because that’s what Republicans “are” but because that was the only place for such people to go. Seventy years ago, people of such views were scattered across both parties. As those issues came to the fore, the GOP was taken over by conservatives while the Democrats, over time, became less hospitable to them.

Last, I think the GOP would have coalesced just as well in its animosity to Dr. Doom or the Mandarin.

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