In the upcoming election, I will not vote for any Republican. My reasons are based on those offered by philosopher Leonard Peikoff, and I agree with him completely. A straight Democratic vote in this election is the only rational choice I can make. I would not, however, vote Republican today even if the issue of government religion was not relevant.
In every area of domestic and foreign policy, the conservatives controlling the Republican Party have expropriated the central tenets of the left, while claiming to be an alternative. This has created a false alternative to the political left, posing as its opposite but supporting the same basic goals. This has sowed massive confusion in people’s minds, and limited the American people to a choice of poisons. This confusion is undermining people’s capacity to even conceive of a true alternative to the welfare state and military defeat.
The matter becomes all the more urgent, and the consequences more dangerous, when motivated by a civic religion and its claims to supernatural sanction.
The left is of no cultural importance here. They are clearly socialistic at heart, and want America to retreat before the whims of foreigners. It is easy to establish an opposition to them—whenever an alternative has been clear, their failure has been inescapable. But the Republicans, by forming a phony choice, have made it much more difficult to discern a true alternative.
Consider fiscal policy. The conservatives have become outright supporters of the welfare state. Compassionate conservatives have set out to surpass the leftists in spending. Bush has not vetoed a single spending bill, and he ranks with FDR and LBJ as a great financier of the welfare state. To call this triumvirate “free-market,” or “pro-business,” is an intellectual and political crime. Yet this is what the Bush conservatives claim.
Under Bush, the Department of Education has nearly doubled in size. Attempts to eliminate Social Security have mutated into plans to save it. Private savings accounts will be owned by individuals but controlled by the government. Private medicine will be by cartels, under government controls and grants. Welfare will be distributed by private groups, including churches and other religious organizations, who will seek the approval of government bureaucrats. All of this is in fundamental agreement with the welfare state, even if the form differs from what a leftist might prefer—and its claims to religious sanction give it a power that the left does not have.
Bush, of course, did well to lower the Capital Gains Tax—but does this temporary measure, easily repealed, offset the permanent harm done by an institutionalized Sarbanes-Oxley? Must we save capitalism by jailing CEOs?
Conservative support for the welfare state was once a compromise with the left. This is no longer so. Conservatives are energetically growing the welfare state, and will continue to do so even if the left withers away. On one level, principles of altruism motivate them to demonstrate their goodness through tax and spend. But there is another reason for this commitment: the very fact that the welfare state exists. This, to a true conservative, is sufficient evidence for its legitimacy.
Conservatives conserve. They see a nation’s institutions, traditions and moral ideals as the anchor for its society—the glue that holds it all together—and they want to preserve them. For most of history, from the Greeks through Rome, the Middle Ages and into the 18 th century, the glue was seen as the laws and customs of our ancestors, whether the simple virtues of pious farm life, the norms of the Senatorial aristocracy, the dogmas of the church, the prerogatives of the ancien regime, the traditional religious standards, or other established credos. Conservatives do not stand for any content; they stand for preserving that which anchors and stabilizes society—a claim to mystical insights into moral ideals that rise above the petty concerns of life on earth.
In classical Athens, conservators of the traditional standards protected the city against “new gods” by executing Socrates. In Sparta, the divine ideals of the ancient founder Lycurgus were preserved by force. In Rome, Cato advocated the virtues of agrarian life as blessed by the gods; in the Middle Ages popes and monks defended the ideals of the early church; in early modern Europe the kingship and nobility stood against liberal reformers; in our own day, advocates of an old-time civic religion stand against a secular alternative.
In every case, it was the reformer—anyone who wanted to use his mind to find a better way of doing things—who was the enemy of the conservative. The point is not that the reformer was right; in many cases he was not. The point is that the conservatives opposed him because he was a reformer, because he used his mind to question the moral basis of life on earth. He became a danger to the established order.
For a brief moment, however—for a few decades in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—people understood that what defined American life was individualism, the free market and limited government. Conservatives to some degree supported these ideals against progressives and Marxists. People began to think that defending these ideals was the essence of conservatism, and they forgot the more basic nature of conservatism: to conserve traditions qua traditions, to be taken on faith.
Consequently, when the welfare state supplanted limited government and freedom, and showed its resilience in the face of opposition, conservatives became the defenders of the new status quo. That is where we are today. Conservatives of the Bush tribe are now energetic advocates for the welfare state, connecting it to what they call traditional American virtues, meaning altruistic sacrifice, and defending it as the basis for American life.
This is true in domestic policy, but also in military defense. A few decades ago, conservatives wanted to use our military only for our own defense, and with quick and overwhelming force. They set a policy tone that Ronald Reagan claimed as his own. But Reagan retreated from Lebanon, and George Bush, Sr. never did anything without an international consensus. So it is with Bush Jr., who attacked Iraq only after months of building a coalition, and who sees democracy for them—even if based on Islamic Law—as constituting our success. If this sounds more like Woodrow Wilson than Douglas MacArthur, it should.
The conservative platform today is fundamentally indistinguishable from the New Left. Yet conservatives are not as forthright about their socialism. They claim to be pro-business, pro-freedom, and pro-military offense, all the while they act the opposite. They claim the mantle of Barry Goldwater while pushing the policies of FDR and LBJ. They hide the nature of their plans, seeing the route to success as appearing to be A while being non-A.
This has fostered enormous confusion. Say “military offense” and many people will think of Iraq—meaning quagmire and non-victory. Say “free market” and they think of cartels, Enron, and Sarbanes-Oxley as a necessary restraint on “greed.” Say “freedom in medicine” and they think of the government-controlled hospitals that offer “choice” with a government handout. Say “private education” and they think of charter schools with public scholarships. Say “fiscal conservatism” and they think of rising deficits, from tax cuts combined with increased spending. Say “morality” and they think of anti-abortion, marriage laws and prayer in schools.
Conservatives have created a fantasy world of appearance, designed to expropriate the programs of the left while wearing the clothing of American freedom. In the end, the idea of a true alternative to the welfare state and military defeat is hacked up and re-stitched into a chimera. The fact that the left has become a cesspool of nihilism does not change the nature of the conservative reaction, or make this package-deal any real alternative.
In my view, if our choice is between two forms of welfare redistribution and military timidity, we would be best off with a president who openly espouses these ideas, and makes no claims to support the opposite. This would not lead to better policies, but it would result in clarity, a point of focus for an opposition, and a better chance for a true alternative to take hold.
Suppose that Al Gore had been elected in the fall of 2000. The 9/11 attacks would have occurred, but there would have been no confusion about what caused them: democratic weakness, not Republican “offense.” Gore would have been forced to look strong, in the face of Republican opposition. Welfare-state spending could be blamed on Democratic welfare-statism, not the Republican “free market.” Persecution of businessmen could be blamed on Elliot Spitzer, not the “pro-business” philosophy of Alberto Gonzales.
All of this becomes all the more potent when integrated with the core issues of the conservative civic religion: anti-abortion, regulation of biotechnology, control of marriage, and controls on immigration, issues in which some Republicans and Democrats actually differ. Bush saw fit to veto one bill in six years—stem cell research—and to interrupt his vacation to prevent a merciful death for the brain-dead Terry Schiavo. Beyond that, he has never met a government program he did not like.
In the end, a repudiation of these policies cannot occur by rewarding the Bush conservatives with an election victory. This has not worked for the past six years, and it will not work now. To “crush the left” in this election will not hurt the leftists any further—for their collapse is philosophical, not political, and thus far deeper than any election. But a conservative victory now will confirm the present leadership of the Republican Party, and strengthen their hold on it.
Republican Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona is one of the few rational voices here. In his opposition to earmarking—a distinctly conservative form of spending your money—he said “Maybe it’ll take two years in the wilderness of being in the political minority. I hope that’s not what it takes.” But it will—for this will be a necessary step to discrediting the new conservatives and making clear the need for a true alternative to the welfare state and foreign appeasement, and its anchor in civic religion.