Twilight of the Would-Be Gods

Their dreams of empire dropped about their ankles, righties today look gloomily ahead to a non-imperialist future. For example, Don Surber laments,

We need our Tony Blair, our Nicolas Sarkozy.

While Democrats select a presidential candidate, Republicans seek a president. There are a bunch of Jimmy Carters on the other side who are willing to apologize for America’s greatness. Forget about finding the next Reagan. America can settle for another Tony Blair or Nicolas Sarkozy.

It’s not clear to me if the “bunch of Jimmy Carters” are the Dem or GOP candidates. Or, indeed, how the first sentence of that paragraph connects to the rest of it.

Wouldn’t it be delightful to hear Mitt Romney say: “Sept. 11 was not an isolated event, but a tragic prologue, Iraq another act, and many further struggles will be set upon this stage before it’s over. There never has been a time when the power of America was so necessary …”

Wouldn’t it be great to hear Rudy Giuliani say: “There is a myth that though we love freedom, others don’t; that our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture; that freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law are American values, or Western values; that Afghan women were content under the lash of the Taliban; that Saddam was somehow beloved by his people; that Milosevic was Serbia’s savior. … ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the human spirit. “

Surber goes on to lament those and other straw men missing (he says) from the campaigns so far. You don’t want to parse Surber’s prose too closely.

If you consider the subsequent terrorist acts that took place in Bali, Madrid, and London, and the ongoing threat of international terrorism, then certainly the 9/11 attacks were not isolated. But by now anyone whose head is actually screwed on must have realized that the real long-term damage of 9/11 is not the result of the attacks themselves but of our response to them. I fear that historians will look back at 9/11 and call it the day that America began to self-destruct.

There’s a difference between strength and toughness. There’s a difference between courage and swagger. There’s a difference between results and spin. There’s a difference between resolve and stubbornness. There’s a difference between action and ideology. But try to explain any of that to a rightie.

The enormous majority of Americans realize that something has gone horribly wrong with America. A majority realize that the economy is not, in fact, peachy. Although news stories say the situation in Iraq is improving, the fact remains that the invasion itself was a colossal mistake and that no result we could possibly obtain there could come close to being worth the blood and treasure it cost.

Righties depend on that sugar high of vicarious vainglory mixed with loathing of others to give their lives meaning. But most Americans are sick to death of junk politics and policy. They want real leaders, not the strutting tin soldiers righties mistake for leaders.

For years, righties were certain that “movement conservatism” held the answers to everything. Today they are struggling to define what the word conservatism means. For example, Bob “the Reptile” Novak complains in today’s Washington Post that GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is not a real conservative.

Huckabee is campaigning as a conservative, but serious Republicans know that he is a high-tax, protectionist advocate of big government and a strong hand in the Oval Office directing the lives of Americans. Until now, they did not bother to expose the former governor of Arkansas as a false conservative because he seemed an underfunded, unknown nuisance candidate. Now that he has pulled even with Mitt Romney for the Iowa caucuses and might make more progress, the beleaguered Republican Party has a frightening problem. …

…The rise of evangelical Christians as the force that blasted the GOP out of minority status during the past generation always contained an inherent danger: What if these new Republican acolytes supported not merely a conventional conservative but one of their own?

In other words, “real” conservatives were fine with evangelicals as long as they stayed in their place.

Huckabee simply does not fit within normal boundaries of economic conservatism, such as when he criticized President Bush’s veto of a Democratic expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Calling global warming a “moral issue” mandating “a biblical duty” to prevent climate change, he has endorsed a cap-and-trade system that is anathema to the free market.

Paul Krugman:

Ah yes. True conservatism means denying the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is a problem, and rejecting even the most market-friendly solutions to the problem.

Thanks for clearing that up, Bob.

Andy Sullivan:

Memo to Novak: have you heard of George W. Bush? Barely a government program he hasn’t expanded; barely a soul he doesn’t want to heal. Nation-building where there is no nation; borrowing when there is no more money. And all wrapped up in a theological bundle of conservative “compassion”. The main difference between Bush and Huckabee is that Huckabee once actually raised the money he wanted to spend, instead of borrowing it from the Chinese. And Huckabee’s resort to left-liberal criticism of conservatism – that’s it’s heartless and greedy – has been deployed by Bush as well. Heroic Christianism – with its certainty about everything and moral imperative to intervene wherever “evil” strikes – is not compatible with any sense of limited government. It’s pretty amazing to me that it has taken Huckabee to wake some up to this somewhat obvious fact.

George Will discusses Michael Gerson’s new book Heroic Conservatism. Will begins his column thus —

… the health of a political persuasion can be inversely proportional to the amount of time its adherents spend expelling heretics from the one true (and steadily smaller) church. Today’s arguments about conservatism are, however, evidence of healthy introspection.

From there, Will marches on to expel Gerson and others from the church.

Conservatism is a political philosophy concerned with (BEG ITAL)collective(END ITAL) aspirations and actions. But conservatism teaches that benevolent government is not always a benefactor.

Conservatism’s task is to distinguish between what government can and cannot do, and between what it can do but should not.

Will is famous for thinking that one of the things government should do is criminalize abortion.

Gerson’s call for “idealism” is not an informative exhortation: Huey Long and Calvin Coolidge both had ideals. Gerson’s “heroic conservatism” is, however, a variant of what has been called “national greatness conservatism.” The very name suggests that America will be great if it undertakes this or that great exertion abroad. This grates on conservatives who think America is great, not least because it rarely and usually reluctantly conscripts people into vast collective undertakings.

And I would argue that government itself is a vast collective undertaking, which may be why conservatives suck at it. But compare/contrast what Will says here to what Surber says, above. If Surber isn’t stuck in national greatness mode I will eat my mousepad. So who’s the “real” conservative — Will, or Surber?

Libertarianism also seems to be facing an identity crisis. Patrick Ruffini writes,

If it’s possible to be known as a pro-life, pro-war, pro-wiretapping libertarian, then sign me up.

without pausing even for a second to consider that criminalization of abortion, endless war, and warrantless wiretapping are all directly at odds with liberty. Essentially, he wants government that isn’t restricting him but through which he can control others. “Libertarianism is no longer aligned with libertine stances on abortion and gay rights,” says Ruffini. Which begs the question, what the hell is it aligned with? What makes “pro-life, pro-war, pro-wiretapping” libertarianism one iota different from big-government authoritarianism? And does language mean absolutely nothing to righties?

William Buckley told an interviewer that “movement conservatism” peaked in 1980, when Reagan became president. One might infer that it’s been dying a long, slow death since, even as its disciples gained more power. Whatever.

BTW, in this interview, Buckley provided an illuminating definition of conservatism:

Conservatism aims to maintain in working order the loyalties of the community to perceived truths and also to those truths which in their judgment have earned universal recognition.

I’d rather just live in the plain ol’ real world, thanks. But this does tell us a lot about why so many are so keen on labeling themselves “conservative” even if they can’t agree on what it means. They are loyal to an idea of conservatism. They like the sound of “limited government” even as they promote warrantless wiretapping and state control of reproduction. They believe in the “rule of law” even if they don’t practice it. They honor “democracy” even as they don’t trust it.

And I say they’re all sinking into the tar pit of irrelevance, and they don’t realize it.