The End of Conservatism

It may be one of history's little ironies that the administration of George W. Bush'lambasted by its critics as 'extremist,' 'right-wing,' and 'ultra-conservative''appears hell-bent on destroying whatever remains of traditional conservatism.

Now that weapons of mass destruction have been all but abandoned as a justification for war with Iraq , our warrior intellectuals are latching onto President Bush's recent speech to the National Endowment for Democracy as an indication that the administration has finally embraced full-blown 'democratic imperialism' as its mission.

By democratic imperialism, I mean the view that the U.S. has the right, and even the duty, to spread democracy throughout the world, by force of arms if necessary. This has long been the view of neoconservatives, and of 'responsible' liberals like Bill Clinton. This, our armchair warriors say, is the rationale the Bush administration should have been using all along!

It should be noted that many who supported the Iraq war as a war of (preemptive) self-defense would balk at the notion that the U.S. should, or can, democratize the globe. So, if the administration really means to adopt this position, it risks alienating many of its supporters. At an even more fundamental level, though, Bush's embrace of democratic imperialism, even if only rhetorical, marks perhaps the final break with anything resembling the limited government vision of classical American conservatism. Philosophically, the two are utterly incompatible.

Thinkers like Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Albert Jay Nock laid the foundation for what came to be called conservatism (or perhaps better 'the Right') in America during the 20th Century. While differing in specifics, they agreed in broad outline: They were for decentralized power'both political and economic, flourishing self-governing communities, independent individuals and families, and traditional culture. They opposed centralization, bureaucratization, the military-industrial complex, and what English writer Hilaire Belloc called 'the servile state.'

The ideology of democratic imperialism, on the other hand, requires the opposite of what traditionalist conservatives and libertarians stood for: a massive standing army, centralization of educational and cultural life, the rule of 'experts,' and economic and personal regulation. This ideology sees America as having a 'mission' or even a divine calling in the world. And if the nation is to pursue a single goal that transcends the diverse interests of individuals, it only makes sense that all resources have to be centrally controlled, so they can be directed toward this goal.

For instance, recently, certain neoconservatives have been agitating for affirmative action for themselves in higher education. This is, they say, to counteract the pernicious influence of 'anti-American' radicals who criticize the government's policy of imperial aggression. The idea is that education should, after all, serve the 'national interest' like everything else. To see how far this departs from traditional conservatism, try to imagine, say, C.S. Lewis arguing that the teaching of English should serve the interests of the military-industrial state.

In fact, our present day 'conservatives' could learn a lot from Lewis, whom they praise to the heavens, but apparently don't often read. Lewis had a far healthier and more realistic appraisal of the proper ends of politics. He wrote:

The State exists to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden -- that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.

This view is a far cry from the desire to engage in 'nation-building' and the spread of democracy to the far corners of the world. It takes seriously human beings' limited ability to create perfect justice in this world and teaches us to be content with the modest, but real, joys of everyday life. It is also, incidentally, far closer to the Founders' view that governments exist to secure each person's rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Perhaps Lewis could take this view because, as a Christian, he was not tempted to confuse the state with God. Orthodox Christianity denies that any nation can claim to be the divinely sanctioned agent of God's purposes in history. The state may exist to restrain evil and provide for social peace, but it is not the bearer of transcendent values.

It's not simply a matter of practicality that neoconservative democratic imperialists haven't succeeded in scaling back the state. Their view of government is incompatible in principle with the limited and decentralized Old Republic . If America has a historic mission to spread democracy, all available resources should be marshaled to serve that purpose. This requires more, not less centralization.

A traditional conservative will support a measured, proportionate war of self-defense, since security is a necessary condition for pursuing the good life. But he will not support a worldwide crusade to spread democracy, however well intentioned.

Libertarians and traditionalist conservatives who are tempted to go along with such a crusade should recognize the cost. A war on this scale will only lead to increasing regulation of personal life dominated by a bloated national security state. This makes it harder for Americans to enjoy the 'ordinary happiness of human beings' that the state supposedly exists to protect. Is this the progressive vision of the future that we're being asked to wage perpetual war for?

Your rating: None
Lee McCracken's picture
Columns on STR: 8

Lee McCracken lives in Philadelphia and works in publishing.  He has also written for