Outside Analysis

The Conservative Split III: A Call to Action

(NOTE: This is the third of a series of recent commentaries on developments in the conservative political movement– namely the “rise of the neo-conservatives”, and the concern this is causing with the more traditional conservatives and “paleo-conservatives”.)

The American Conservative Union recently issued an open memo to “Conservative Leaders and Activists”, entitled Revitalizing Conservatism. In it, ACU vice-chairman Donald Devine makes 12 numbered points, arguments, and appeals, all centered around the idea that conservatives need to rally around traditional, small-government conservatism, and to resist the rising forces in the Republican Party, and more specifically the so-called “neo-conservatives”, which is one of the terms frequently applied to the promoters and friends of the PNAC.

Here are a few of the 12 points he addresses:

1. Beginning a Discussion on the Future of Conservatism. We at ACU believe that it is time for the conservative movement to begin a serious discussion of its future course. The issue is, are we to become just a lobbying force for the Republican Party or should we regain our status as a cutting-edge force moving the country towards freedom and responsibility?

4. The Split on the Right. But it is worse. Conservatives are fighting each other on the front pages of their own magazines. National Review writer David Frum made the argument public with a banner denunciation of any conservative with reservations about the invasion of Iraq. Those conservative intellectuals and activists opposed or even those critical of it before the fighting or even those who mentioned that protecting Israel’s interests could complicate matters were all labeled paleo-conservatives and pushed off to the nutty fringe. The only good guys remaining on the right were neo-conservatives. Frum named names, some of who differed on principle, but most simply saw the facts differently. He was so obsessed with his own righteousness in anathematizing heretics he was heedless of how the split would further weaken the forces of the right.

6. The Public Voice of Conservatism? Intellect abhors a vacuum as much as physical matter. So “national greatness” neo-conservatism soon replaced limited government as the ideal and filled the pages of the journals on the right, very much including NR, which at one point even called for a revival of colonialism under U.S. auspices and the building of an American empire. Bill Buckley himself was forced to repair to the pages of rival Human Events-which remained faithful to the original ideals but saw its role as a news magazine rather than as a journal of opinion–to condemn empire-building as incompatible with American conservatism. With the Weekly Standard message boosted by the TV stardom of its editor Bill Kristol-who recently boasted, “if people want to say we’re an imperial power, fine”–neo-conservatism became the dominant public face of the movement. The alternatives were the paleo-conservative magazines, Chronicles and The American Conservative, which were equally disdainful of mainstream conservatism.

9. Empire Makes Or Breaks Conservatism. Global empire is an important issue for conservatism. If the U.S. government has the ability to bring peace and democracy to the world, big government can obviously also run America’s economy and plan its social life–and limited government becomes irrelevant. Here most of neo-conservatism and paleo-conservatism unite in their lack of interest in limited government. Modern conservatism literally shifted the center of American and world politics against unlimited government, at least in thought, in a not insubstantial manner. All politicians today-especially in the GOP– find it difficult to push higher taxes and the belief is widespread that government programs do not work very well. Politically, however, government keeps growing and almost no politician concedes there is any limit to where its benefits and power may reach in the future. Even with the largest programs approaching bankruptcy, the government is immobilized by fear of taking action. Government keeps growing and journalistic conservatism is silent that this growth, especially fueled by dreams of empire, threatens the whole project of American liberty.

12. Back To Square One. The conservative movement today is in danger of becoming a lobbying adjunct of the Republican Party. This means its ideas would no longer lead policy and soon thereafter its ideas would die. At the beginning, there were probably only a few thousand committed conservative activists and intellectuals in the whole country. Liberal intellectuals proclaimed “The End of Ideology” because there was no conservative alternative. The GOP was dominated by Nelson Rockefeller and the Eastern liberal Republicans controlled the White House, which threatened conservatives with expulsion if they even complained. We rose up then and moved the world right and we can do it again. If we cannot rise to oppose empire, the movement deserves to fail. All we need to do is get off our butts and speak up for our principles.

Read the whole ACU memo here.


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