Crusading Conservatism?

Continuing this discussion, Jonah writes:

While I have specific criticisms for all of them, my common critique of Bushian compassionate conservatism, Brooksian National Greatness, Buchanism and Crunchy Conservatism is the common sense of crusade to all of them. There are times for crusades, to be sure. But I don't think conservatism should ever be redefined as one lest it become just another populist fever. And I'll go a step further. The reason Bush pushed me toward libertarianism is because I think any agenda built on the logic of the crusade is either doomed to failure or destined to be very un-conservative. It's in the nature of things that you will always leave some children behind.



As for specific reforms, by all means go for it! I'm all for fixing what's broke, when we can, where we can. Thommy Thompson is a hero for his pioneering contributions to welfare reform (which, contrary to popular understanding wasn't entirely an exercise in shrinking government). Giuliani saved my home town. But he didn't do it as part of some warmed-over social gospel, to provide "meaning" to people or as part of some vaguely utopian agenda. He did it out of good old fashioned bourgeois notions of public order, right and wrong and the belief that if government gets out of the way people can manage their own affairs. By all means, conservatives should fix the tax code, shrink the federal government, improve the health care system (hopefully with market based reforms), and help families. I'm even for censorship . But let us have no more New Politics and redeeming crusades. They always end in disappointment, at least for conservatives.



I basically agree with this.

The Thompson-Giuliani quasi-tradition of conservative reformism - the application of 1970s-style neoconservatism to the problems of the welfare state, and the attempt to make government an ally, rather than an enemy, of working-class Americans - is the form of right-wing domestic policy I most closely identify with, and it's a tradition that has always been defiantly unromantic, anti-utopian, and un-crusaderish. In 2000, Bush looked like a plausible embodiment of this tradition - a socially-conservative state-house pragmatist who would wrap his tough-minded conservative reformism in the flowery, quasi-religious rhetoric that Americans like from their Presidents (see Reagan, Ronald), without letting that language govern his actual policies. (I dislike the terms "compassionate conservatism" and "No Child Left Behind" as much as the next right-winger, but the policies they were associated with - a larger Earned Income Tax Credit, a greater willingness to have public money channeled to private/religious charities, stricter standards in educational testing - were plausibly conservative, and hardly utopian.) John McCain, you'll recall, was the actual candidate of "national greatness" and all that; insofar as there was a divide between utopianism and anti-utopianism in the '00 race, Bush seemed to be safely on the conservative side of the fence.

So what happened? Well, a couple things: First, it turned out that the Administration didn't have that much interest in policy detail except as a means to win political victories, which gave us everything from steel tariffs to prescription drugs to the explosion of pork - policies that weren't examples of a crusading conservatism of any stripe, but just forays into old-fashioned "buy yourself a majority" statism. Second, and most importantly, Bush turned out to be a wide-eyed utopian ... in foreign policy. It was overseas, far more than the domestic front, where you saw the "redeeming crusades" that Jonah insists he wants nothing more to do with. The crusading spirit in domestic policy, such as it was, gave us an attempt at national standards in education and some pocket change for faith-based initiatives; the crusading spirit in foreign policy gave us what looks increasingly like the U.S.'s worst foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam.

This is what I find puzzling about the Goldberg critique of the unconservative utopianism of the Bush years: He's picking minor battles and ignoring the elephant in the room. For instance, I think his criticisms of crunchy-conservatism's supposed utopianism and statist tendencies are largely misguided, but even if they weren't, who cares? If Jonah wants to attack the utopian strain in contemporary conservative thought, why is he wasting his time on the putative links between No Child Left Behind, Rod Dreher, and Pat Buchanan's "conservatism of the heart"? Sure, maybe Rod's sympathy for higher taxes on carbon emissions leans a bit too far toward immanentizing the eschaton, but I would submit that, say, the Second Inaugural Address is just slightly more utopian than anything in Crunchy Conservatives, and slightly more important for understanding where the Bush Administration may have gone wrong. Similarly, I might suggest that Jonah's own sympathies for romantic crusades - see, for instance, his famous proposal for a U.S. invasion of Africa - are at least somewhat more germane to the Right's present predicament than anything Pat Buchanan has ever written.

I should note that I agreed with the "let's invade Africa" column when Jonah wrote it. I don't anymore: That's the lesson I've learned from the Bush years, and I think it's a far more important one for conservatives to consider going forward than the lesson that "compassionate conservatism" is a dumb buzzword, or that some children will always be left behind.