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America’s presidential election is a battle between moderate conservatives and radical ones

8 September 2012

8:00 AM

8 September 2012

8:00 AM

From the US elections in November, the American left will be largely absent. Americans voters will choose between the forces of moderate conservatism, headed by President Barack Obama, and the forces of radicalism, led by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Obama and most of his fellow Democrats are conservatives in two senses. To begin with, most of their policy agenda originated on the right, not the left. Obama’s foreign policy has its roots in the tradition of Republican realists like Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and his first defence secretary, Robert Gates, who was a carry-over from the Bush administration.

The Bush administration was dominated by neoconservatives — many of them former leftists and liberals devoted to a ‘global democratic revolution’ spread by the US military. In contrast, the Obama administration has shaped its grand strategy according to the precepts of classical realism. Realpolitik explains Obama’s policy of measured withdrawal from Bush-created debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and America’s low-key supporting role in the Nato intervention in Libya led by Britain and France. And the influence of the realists, who never believed that a ‘global war against terror’ replaced traditional power politics, is evident in the ‘pivot’ of the US military away from nation-building in Muslim countries toward balancing a rising China.

Obama’s domestic agenda, too, has its intellectual roots on the centre-right. His health-care law requires individuals to buy private health insurance from for-profit companies. Rejecting the progressive model of universal social insurance programmes such as Social Security and Medicare, Obama and the Democrats enacted a ‘market-based’ system of universal coverage inspired by a plan put forth by the conservative Heritage Foundation in the 1990s. Another model for Obamacare was the health reform passed in Massachusetts under Governor Mitt Romney, who, to win favour with the right, now denounces the very approach he supported.

Even in the parts of their agenda that failed to be enacted, the Democrats under Obama chose the least statist, most market-oriented approaches. The Democrats failed to muster enough support in Congress to pass an ambitious cap-and-trade system for reducing greenhouse gases. Cap-and-trade, it should be recalled, originated on the centre-right as a market-based alternative to direct regulation of greenhouse gas emissions or a straightforward carbon tax.

Obama is indeed a conservative — not in the tradition of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, but of Dwight Eisenhower and his vice-president and ultimate successor in the White House, Richard Nixon. Eisenhower and Nixon led what was called ‘Modern Republicanism’. In foreign policy Eisenhower and Nixon sought retrenchment, inheriting failed wars in Korea and Vietnam started by the intellectual ancestors of the Truman-worshiping neoconservatives. At home they did not seek to overturn the middle-class social insurance state, but to ensure its solvency.

Obama and like-minded Democrats are moderate conservatives in temperament, as well as policy. Unlike the neoconservative champions of a messianic foreign policy and unlike libertarians who would tear up everything done since 1932 and start over, Obama and his allies have a Burkean preference for incrementalism over utopian reform. Arguably that instinct has not served the Obama administration well during the Great Recession, which calls for dramatic action, not cautious managerial competence. But this is a criticism that can be made of all the technocratic centrists who have inherited former social democratic parties throughout the western world.

For radicalism in today’s American politics, one must look to starboard, not to port. The Occupy Wall Street movement proved to be a flash in the pan. But life and energy remains in the Tea Party movement, named after the Boston Tea Party, in which American colonists expressed their displeasure with British imperial taxes by dumping imported tea in Boston Harbour in 1773. Today’s Tea Party is violent only in its rhetoric. But as the name of the movement suggests, its followers see themselves as rebels and revolutionaries, not conservatives in the classic sense.

With allowances made for the peculiarities of American political culture, the Tea Party right is the equivalent of the populist movements of the right in Europe, combining the fervent anti-immigrant sentiment of Britain’s UK Independence Party with the anti-statism of Germany’s Pirate Party. In the US as in the UK and Europe, the social base of the radical right is the alienated white working class, battered economically by stagnant wages for a generation and in fear of being swamped by non-white immigrants. The Boston imagery of the Tea Party notwithstanding, the geographic base of America’s radical right is the South and West, which for generations was home to agrarian populist insurgencies against the wealthy, sophisticated eastern seaboard.

In the 19th century, American populists denounced the gold standard; now, influenced by their libertarian Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, they want to return to it. But intellectual consistency has never been a strength of American populism. Nor has intellect. The leader of the late 19th century American Populist rebellion, the failed presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, ended his life and career prosecuting a school-teacher for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, in defiance of a Tennessee state law, in the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ of 1925.

After the second world war, my mentor, the late William F. Buckley, Jnr, and my former employer, the late Irving -Kristol, among others, tried to create a serious intellectual conservative movement. Buckley purged John Birch Society conspiracy theorists who thought that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist from the Goldwater-Reagan conservative movement. But the effort to create a serious, governing conservatism in America has failed. The American right today is dominated by Biblical literalists and anti-Darwin creationists and believers in conspiracy theories about the coming United Nations world government and ‘Birthers’ who think that Obama is a secret Muslim sleeper agent born in Kenya or Indonesia. The libertarian novelist and cult leader Ayn Rand, despised by Buckley and other mainstream conservatives half a century ago, is enjoying a renaissance among Tea Party radicals.

Like Mitt Romney, most Republican officeholders are more mainstream in their views than right-wing activists. But like centre-right parties in Europe, the Republican party has been forced to try to co-opt radicals on the right. Only that can explain how, beginning with John McCain in the 2008 election, Republicans have begun to accuse Obama and other Democrats of being ‘socialists’ — language not heard since the Red Scare of the 1950s. With apologies to Milton, new Birther is but old Bircher writ large.

The re-election of Obama could keep the anger-fuelled, conspiracy-mongering Tea Party insurgency boiling for another four years. However, a Romney presidency might be fatal to the movement. Many on the right fear that Romney is a moderate, who will show his true colours if inaugurated as president. They are almost certainly correct. If he wins, then the American right will be weakened by division among those defending Romney’s compromises and those attacking him for selling out. Just as only Nixon could go to China, so perhaps only Romney can marginalise the radical right.

Michael Lind is author of Land of Promise: an Economic History of the United States.

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