In the wake of the 2008 elections, this year has seen the explosion of an angry, faux-populist conservative movement that, according to Fox News, is taking the country by storm. If the big question last year was what the Republican Party would do next, this year seems to have given us our answer: get really pissed off. Yet while characters like Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann have become media fixtures, we haven’t quite seen conservatives cobble together a specific plan to counter the Democrats. The incessant rallies and tea parties have been radical in style and tone, but intellectually vacuous too.
In that light, the big (conservative) political question at the end of 2009 is how the Republican Party will reinvent itself and provide a distinctive legislative alternative that goes beyond making outlandish claims about global warming, idiotically questioning President Obama’s citizenship, or just not being a Democrat.
There are a lot of different theories about what will happen next. Some believe the almost-righteous fury witnessed at all the recent rallies will continue, and even spill out beyond the party’s extreme fringes. Sarah Palin, a darling of hyper-conservative Republicans, recently seemed to be encouraging this particular outcome when she endorsed Doug Hoffman of the Conservative Party over Republican Dede Scozzafava, in the New York 23rd congressional district special election.
Yet Hoffman lost to Democrat Bill Owens and Palin’s endorsement may have merely turned Hoffman into a spoiler who split the conservative vote. The episode is illuminative not only for Palin’s “marvericking” it up by ignoring her party, but also because it illustrates the difficulties of actually getting a hard-line, “tea party” conservative elected. Sure, there are some regions that endorse these people, but on a larger scale they just aren’t that appealing — even to Republicans. On a national scale, things are even grimmer for the far right and, as this Slate article points out, it’s unlikely that a real tea partier could move beyond the small-time.
So if the tea parties alone won’t save the Republicans, what will? In his recent Newsweek article, David Frum proposes just the opposite: a return to neoconservatism. Admittedly, in light of what has happened to the Republican Party in the last year, a return to the “glory” days of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz suddenly sounds almost appealing. Even if neoconservative ideas led to disaster again and again, at least they were ideas.
That said, it’s baffling to see some seriously advocating neoconservatism again. (Personally, I was still shocked and nearly vomiting all over myself from the first go-around.) In an attempt to make neoconservatism more appealing, Frum says the pseudo-ideology has been “blamed” for Iraq and Katrina, as if it wasn’t really at fault. And it’s true — there is no secret, evil neocon handbook that tells adherents to screw people over and over again. In fairness though, the neocon faithful were at the helm for those (and a sorry number of other) debacles.
More broadly, however, I think it’s a mistake to assume neoconservatism represents something less alienating and counterproductive than tea partiers. Generally speaking, neocons do have a respect for science, intellectual acuity and political savvy, all things the far right has sadly either marginalized or (somehow) disregarded. Nevertheless, neoconservatism is an ideology of unilateralism — unless you’re the one in power, it comes off as arrogant and bullying. At least in its most recent incarnations, neoconservatism hardly values consensus-building.
In this sense, tea parties and neconservatism are two of a kind — the former screams for what it wants domestically, while the latter pushes its will on the world stage. However, both end up isolating their believers with an “us versus them” mentality. I heard once that Leo Strauss, perhaps the most influential political scholar of the neoconservative movement, reportedly liked the old Gunsmoke TV show because the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. Everyone was either good or bad, and their allegiances were abundantly clear. Whether that anecdote is true or not, it’s a good illustration of both the tea party and neocon approach to politics — you’re either with us or against us, and if you’re against us, we’re going to utterly destroy you because we think you’re evil. Sadly, even long-serving and fairly respectable politicians are exhibiting this thickheaded refusal to compromise, as Orrin Hatch did when he called the health care debate a “holy war” in this Los Angeles Times article.
As a non-Republican myself, I can’t help but think the current state of conservative politics is setting the Democrats up for long-term wins, even if those wins are less dramatic than last year’s. Yes, some Republicans will still come out victorious, but there will also be more spoilers and third party candidates. Funds that normally went toward supporting a single candidate will be dispersed more broadly, leaving Democrats with more money and greater unity.
I also can’t help but wonder how rank-and-file Republicans, most of whom are neither tea partiers nor neocons, feel about these developments. Neoconservatism is, at its best, a type of amoral egoism — it’s deeply rooted in intellectual investigation, but relies heavily on dangerous generalizations and has shown very little consideration for traditional conservative values like small government. On the other hand, the radical right epitomized by the tea party movement is all rage but no plan; its answer to debate is, apparently, a gun. Neither option really seems to represent the decorous, measured, tonally moderate party that used to exist.
Ultimately, 2009 has been a year in which conservatives (and Republicans) have demonstrated a great will to evolve, but still haven’t quite found their way. Though the political right was co-opted by insidious big spending ideologues during the last decade, the only alternative we’ve seen so far are loud-mouthed demagogues. As 2010 begins and more elections loom on the horizon, we’ll hopefully begin to see some Republicans who are neither neocons nor morons. When that finally happens, the Republican comeback will have begun in earnest.
Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus, frequently reporting on popular culture and politics.
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