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Confronting the New Conservatism

Michael J. Thompson

The Rise of the Right in America

(New York University Press)

Deconstructing Conservatism

“If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.”
—George W. Bush


Little more than a half-century ago, a Republican president, Dwight. D. Eisenhower, actually made statements like “We’re all Keynesians now” and “Every worker should have the right to join a union.” It was the time of consensus culture, when government worked hand-in-hand with business and labor to ensure prosperity that would “lift all boats.” Today, the Republican president, George W. Bush, threatens to veto government-sponsored medical insurance for at-risk children simply because it might bolster arguments for “federalizing” American health care, all the while shifting the tax burden to the parents of those children whose welfare he disavows. Welcome to the new conservatism.


Michael J. Thompson, political science professor at Paterson University in New Jersey and founding editor of Logos: a Journal of Modern Society and Culture, has put together a book of essays that seeks to “confront” this new conservatism and lay bare its inner workings. The collection brings together commentators on contemporary American politics, including well-known sociologist and former labor organizer Stanley Aronowitz, journalist and senior analyst at Political Research Associates Chip Berlet, and Claire Snyder, an authority on, among other things, issues of gender and politics. The group has an unabashedly progressive bent and their stated objective is to bury the new conservatism even as they enviously praise its successes.


The new conservatism is a many-headed animal, hence Confronting the New Conservatism likewise takes a multifaceted approach to its subject. The book isn’t a breezy read—there are no Naomi Kleins or Frank Riches here—but the prose is serviceable and mostly free of the jargon and other linguistic legerdemains that can render impenetrable much of the writing of so-called tenured radicals on the left. The book is divided into three parts: essays that look at the origins and current make-up of the new conservatism, and then those that look at both domestic and international subjects.


Perhaps the best place to begin is distinguishing between the various strains of conservatism. There are the much-publicized neoconservatives, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, et al., who see the welfare state inaugurated under the New Deal and expanded under postwar consensus as having undermined America’s national strength and hindered its ability as the sole superpower to protect its interests at home and abroad. For them, the role of intellectuals, which is to say theirs, truly, is to protect the nation from unruly hordes, domestic and foreign, advocating the use of force as necessary. They are joined in the economic sphere by free-traders who hold that global capitalism is the best tool for ensuring American dominance. Though the two are often confused, free-traders aren’t necessarily libertarians, a separate faction that repudiates just about any role for government beyond securing the unfettered market. Cultural conservatives believe the relaxation of morals in the 1960s, driven by the turning away from religion and the family, has led to the country’s fall from grace. The hard religious right goes further, believing that Christian men should run society as they do their churches and their families. The relationship of all these to one another is parsed out in Berlet’s essay, a must read for anyone trying to get the lay of the land in Red State America.


Thompson’s essay is also important if for no other reason than it makes explicit the economic, political, and cultural implications of postwar suburbanization, which has dramatically diminished the public sphere and driven Americans inward, rendering them either self-interested or apathetic. Both trends have essentially downsized America’s imagined community, and democracy has suffered for it. Thompson’s years as a staff economist at the New York City housing department no doubt gave him first hand knowledge of the profound demographic changes of the last few decades and the way they have reoriented American society.


Nation magazine editorial board member Philip Green provides what these days is called a frame analysis. He shows how the new conservatism uses cultural rage to promote what he calls authoritarian populism. He deviates from Thomas Frank’s argument in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, noting that rather than being duped into voting against their interests, constituents of the new conservatism are getting exactly what they expect—self-reliance for themselves and, more importantly, for those who in their eyes have gamed the system for at least two generations. Although it differs from old-line conservatism in many respects, new conservatism still harbors the postwar suspicion of consensus culture that generated such anti-totalitarian classics as Freidrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Democracy, and Socialism, both of which portended the demise of the American way of life years before Eisenhower took the oath of office.


New conservative ideology is persuasive, according Green, because it offers to solve society’s problems on the cheap—cut taxes, enforce self-sufficiency, and things take care of themselves. This call for self-reliance dovetails with the traditional American individualist ethos; yet it rejects the perceived self-indulgences of 1960s counterculture (also a refusal of Cold War consensus, but one that followed the Romantic path to perdition). This new stoicism is enhanced by an emphasis on physical might, in the form of military action, as the best way to promote national interest and shore up a weak culture. It’s a more user-friendly frame than liberalism, which can only offer more welfare services and higher taxes to fund them.


The rest of the book fleshes out concepts outlined in the first section with specific cases of domestic and foreign policy. In the domestic sphere, the rejection of consensus culture underlies the attack on government and dismantling of the welfare state, the rollback of various civil rights movements and restoration of Anglo-American patriarchy, and the return to traditional values in lieu of the rule of the “legal technicalities” rendered by the judicial system. Internationally, it gets expressed first close to home with the covert and overt power plays of manifest destiny begun in Central America by the Reagan Administration and then economically with the North American Free Trade Agreement, which while passed under Clinton was part of his triangulation strategy of occupying conservative positions before they could claim them. The war in Iraq ties all of the threads together by furthering the agenda of authoritarian populism at home and just plain authoritarianism on a global scale. The last essay, by Rutger’s political scientist Stephen Eric Broner, speculates on how one might actually confront the new conservatism. Given the success new conservatism seems to have had in ruthlessly pursuing its objectives, you’d think Broner’s proposals would have more bite. But, a more modest agenda is arguably better likely to be acted upon than recommending full-scale revolution.


As part of confronting the ideological apparatus of new conservatism, Broner’s call for circumventing the mainstream media is appropriate if something of a given for the likely readers of this book. There’s no doubt that the Internet has had a major effect in contesting the new conservative agenda and helping various oppositional constituents become aware of one another, thereby spurring them into coordinated action. Also, his exhortation of what Antonio Gramsci calls “organic intellectuals” (scholars and other knowledge professionals who put their expertise to political use) to get progressive ideas and viewpoints into the public debate—and more pragmatically into the Democratic Party platform—is on point, if not especially groundbreaking. This already happens on some levels, with organic intellectuals of the hard-shell variety represented by people like Noam Chomsky and of the soft-shell variety by those like Paul Krugman. The problem is what media advertisers call “share of voice”—there are simply too few of them out there, the braying of jackasses like Rush Limbaugh to the contrary notwithstanding. But Broner’s fundamental point, that the future of democracy is quite literally at stake and everyone needs to recognize it, can’t be reiterated loudly and often enough.


If there’s a criticism to be made of Confronting the New Conservatism it’s that its perspective sometimes seems a little narrow. That’s probably to be expected from a book that sets out to understand “the rise of the right in America” and whose writers are mostly political scientists. But the new conservatism in America is mirrored by similar movements in other countries—the governments of Canada, France, and Germany, to name three, have recently turned rightward; England under Margaret Thatcher went there nearly three decades ago and has yet to appreciably turn back. What ties these trends together really needs to be explored. Also, if, as Broner rightly asserts, a key aspect of the new conservatism is renewed class warfare as a tactic of undoing consensus, what is the role of economics and in particular those policies that serve certain elites that are part of what London School of Economics sociologist Leslie Sklair terms the transnational capitalist class? Economics is acknowledged by many of the contributors but a more sustained treatment would have been useful. (For that discussion, see David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism and also the interview with him that ran in Logos when that book was first published.) And finally, with the war in Iraq such a central issue in American politics, more might have been made of German political theorist Carl Schmidt’s notion of “the state of exception,” the granting of broad authoritarian power to the executive branch of government in cases of emergency. The state of exception declared in the wake of politically motivated street battles in the early 1930s permitted Adolf Hitler to circumvent the Weimer Constitution under the Nazi regime, and something similar has been regularly evoked by the Bush Administration in conjunction with the “War on Terror.”


Be as all of that may, what Confronting the New Conservatism does, it does well. It makes for worthy if sometimes scary reading as the United States slouches toward the 2008 election.

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Vince Carducci is Dean of Undergraduate Studies at College for Creative Studies, a private art and design school in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @cultrindustreez.


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