As someone who has recently been described as "objectively fascist," I hesitate to declare "tomorrow belongs to me," but if Bill Kristol's disdain for those "kids" at the CPAC conference who handed Ron Paul an impressive victory is any indication, the sclerotic neocon establishment has given up on the youth vote — even the conservative youth vote — and the future belongs to us Paulians.
There are several reasons for Kristol's curious indifference to the future of the movement of which he is alleged to be a leader: he's not just trying to minimize Paul's impact — although there's that, too — but is at least partly sincere. While condescension is part and parcel of the neoconservative style, this "oh they'll get over it" attitude also reflects the experience of his own intellectual and familial forebears: his father, the late Irving Kristol, was famously a Trotskyist in his youth, an experience he wrote about and saw as nothing but positive. In discounting the radicalism of youth, Kristol is merely reiterating the storied history of his own mini-movement. How many far-leftists of the 1930s — his own father among them — started out as self-described revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of American imperialism, and later became vehement cold warriors? Oh, don't worry, they'll get over it!
This confession of intellectual and political bankruptcy comes at a time when the American right resembles the left in the 1930s. With the world economy collapsing all around them, and fired up by the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, far-left movements sprang up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, each vying for the role of the American revolutionary "vanguard." There were Stalinists, and Trotskyists, Social Democrats and Lovestoneites, Cannonites and Shachtmanites — this latter being the particular strand from which the neocons of today are derived.
Out of the factional turmoil of the Left in the 1930s arose the intellectual and political establishment of the next decades: the outcome of its obscure internal disputes, argued in the arcane lexicon of Marxist theory, were later reflected in the mainstream intellectual trends and politics of much broader sectors of the American public.
Indeed, the neoconservative movement itself arose from this ferment, arriving at the seat of power at the end of a long intellectual and political hegira about which entirely too much has been written — including by myself. In the course of this odyssey, a lot of ideological baggage was thrown overboard, but, in the end, the neocons' strategy of traveling light enabled them to achieve their goal: power. By the time they moved into their Washington, D.C., offices, riding on the back of the Reaganites, and ensconced themselves in key positions during the Bush years, they had dumped every principle overboard but one: the necessity of exercising American military power on a global scale. They are and always have been the War Party [.pdf]: internationalists, either proletarian or Wilsonian. They're the type you see at military parades, cheering just a little too loudly: down through the years, the one consistent neocon theme has been the hailing of one army or another as the savior of humanity. Whether the Red Army or the US Army was purely a matter of circumstance and convenience.
A sect whose strategy is to cultivate the elites and whisper in the ear of the king has no real use for any but a certain kind of youth. The sort who, from a very early age, is a master of the main chance, a consummate opportunist, a little Peter Keating type fixated on climbing the ladder all the way to the top without regard for niceties. Neoconservatism, after all, is about power: the exercise of it, and indeed the worship of it, particularly in its military manifestation. It is the young who fight the wars, and the oldsters who send them off to die, and so the War Party is naturally concentrated in an older demographic.
Aside from distrusting and disdaining the younger generation as a matter of preference and principle, however, Kristol and his fellow neocons aren't interested in the future of the movement they claim to lead because, to them, "movement" conservatism is just a convenient vehicle, one they hitched a ride with in the 1980s. True, it has brought them quite a long way toward their goal — but they can always jump on another bandwagon, one that's moving faster, and it won't be long before they're sitting in the driver's seat. To heck with the future, they want power now.
The Obama administration had barely arrived in Washington when the latest incarnation of Kristol's old PNAC organization, now going under the moniker of "The Foreign Policy Initiative," held a joint conference with the two preeminent sources of mid-to-low-level appointees, the Center for a New American Security, and the Center for American Progress. Neocons go where the power is, which is one reason why, as an organized movement, neoconservatism can hardly be said to exist outside of Washington, D.C., and Manhattan's Upper West Side.
The movement spawned by Ron Paul, however, is a completely different sort of creature: it is, indeed, the exact opposite of neoconservatism in every respect. It is populist, while the neocons are elitists: it is born of the heartland, whilst the neocons are clustered in two of the nation's biggest cities. The defining difference, however, is that, while the neocons worship power, and dream of attaining "national greatness," the Paulians are the self-described enemies of power, and dream only of taking their old republic back.
Paul's appeal to the young is generally characterized as unlikely, and he himself emphasizes this, making the point that it's not about him it's about the ideas of liberty, non-interventionism, and the decentralization of political authority in America. He's "boring," he's not a glamorous "personality," and yet he's treated like a rock star by the young.
The reason, I think, has to do with his personality, as well as his ideas, insofar as one relates to the other: Dr. Paul is the one politician I've seen, the one leader of an ideological trend, who has gotten more radical as he's gotten older. The Ron Paul of the late seventies and early eighties, while hardly a warmongering neocon, was far from the acerbic critic of American interventionism he is today. What I love about the congressman they call "Dr. No" is how, in his many interviews on television and elsewhere, he invariably manages to bring up the war question — one that previous libertarian presidential wannabes only raised when directly asked. Not only that, but this persistence is rooted in an overarching critique of statism as a system: what his intellectual mentor, Murray Rothbard, dubbed the Welfare-Warfare State.
Youth naturally looks for a way to explain the way the world works, and the best of them seek ways to make it work better. To any young person looking for a comprehensive worldview these days, the intellectual landscape is nearly completely barren.
On the right we have the desiccated ideologues of neoconservatism, whose concerns are so far removed from those of any ordinary youth that their leading spokesman has no trouble writing off nearly everyone on the right under thirty, aside from those directly in Rupert Murdoch's employ or somehow or other on the neocon payroll.
February 27, 2010
Justin Raimondo [send him mail] is editorial director of Antiwar.com and is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard and Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.
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