The Ugly Mutation of American Conservatism

Two separate incidents last week got me to pondering the current state of conservative philosophy in America. The first was an announcement from the Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation concerning their annual Index of Economic Freedom. This index has been calculated for the past 11 years, and 2004 was the first time that the USA did not make the list as one of the top 10 freest economies.

On the surface, this seems odd. Over the years, I frequently found myself daydreaming about how wonderful it would be if the Republicans were ever to gain control of the White House and both houses of Congress. I fantasized about the drastic downsizing of government, the bureaucracies that would be eliminated, and the flowering of individual liberty that would ensue.

Now that the Republicans have, in fact, achieved control of the federal government, I am reminded of the old country song that warns, "Sometimes God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."

Who would have thought that only two years after achieving "conservative" domination of the federal government, that America would drop out of the top ten completely?

Shouldn’t we be climbing upwards on the list of the freest economies?

The second event last week which prompted introspection was Lew Rockwell’s column on "red state fascism." Perhaps therein resides the explanation. Maybe we have been victimized by a "bait and switch." What the Republicans were selling in the 1994 "Contract with America" does not seem to be what they delivered in 2000—2004. And what the Republican masses said that they wanted then does not seem to be what they want now.

From that premise, I decided that it might be worthwhile to examine what was commonly agreed upon in 1994 as being "conservative," and compare it with the current policies being implemented by the Republican-dominated government.

#1 smaller government

Every conservative worth the name believes in smaller government. Ronald Reagan always cautioned that America’s greatness rests with her people and not in Washington. The government is usually our problem, he warned, not the solution.

Given this perspective, what has Bush delivered?

Can anyone name a single government agency or program that has been eliminated in the first four years of Bush’s presidency?

On the contrary, President Bush and the Republican-dominated congress have ushered in an explosion of government spending, regulation, and bureaucracy that has seldom been seen in our history. President Bush has allowed a growth of federal spending that dwarfs that of President Clinton, even when the Iraq War is taken into account. Bush has created the largest single expansion of federal entitlements since LBJ with his Medicare prescription drug program. He even managed to avoid vetoing a single bill in his entire first term, a feat "achieved" by few presidents in our nation’s history.

Apparently, Bush hasn’t found any of the trillions in spending passed by Congress to be wasteful or extravagant.

#2 maintaining fiscal responsibility

Throughout my years as a young conservative, the major criticism that the right directed at liberalism concerned its penchant for fiscal irresponsibility. We constantly railed that the left never met a program that they didn’t like. Under the stewardship of FDR-era dinosaurs, America’s financial situation deteriorated badly as "bleeding heart liberals" spent money on program after program. Conservative ideologues mocked "knee-jerk liberals" for inventing a bureaucracy for every conceivable human desire. Liberal government meant higher taxes and endless deficits. Conservatives spent a lot of time and effort informing our fellow citizens how different things would be if we ever came to power.

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the subsequent performance of the Republicans is a considerable disappointment. Under their rule, the finances of our government have deteriorated horribly. While they did cut taxes, they simultaneously went on a spending binge that has racked up record debt. Their performance has been hideous even when discounting the security expenditures of the post-9/11 era. The last spending bill in congress was so ladled with pork that even a few Democrats objected. By any reasonable measure, America’s financial situation is far worse today than it was under President Clinton, even when compared to Clinton’s first two years in power when the Democrats controlled both houses of congress.

It appears as though all those years of preaching fiscal responsibility were mere rhetoric. Now that the Republicans are in power, they are rewarding their own special interest groups with public money in the worst tradition of Tip O’Neill and Dan Rostenkowski. It’s like a bad rerun of Animal Farm.

#3 government respect for individual liberty

In the 1990’s, most conservative were (correctly) outraged at the numerous incidents of government bullying and abuse that seemed to be occurring with increasing frequency. I was appalled by the deaths at Ruby Ridge. I was outraged by the military-style assault at Waco. I was sickened by Hillary’s FBI file scandal and her frequent use of sleazy tactics against her political enemies. I prayed for a Republican victory to restore respect for individual liberty and limited government.

Again, things haven’t exactly worked out the way I’d expected.

We now have a government that actively engages in the systematic use of torture against its enemies. We have an administration that advocates the lifetime detention of suspected terrorists without trial…even when the state lacks conclusive evidence that they are, in fact, terrorists. The government even denies that it must inform anyone that they are holding a particular suspect. People can now just "disappear" in America, with no recourse to lawyers or judges. We have new laws that allow government agents to engage in searches and seizures without warrants. We have seen the creation of a secret gulag around the globe in which detainees are held without due process of any sort. There have been numerous stories appearing which claim American security forces have "wink and nod" agreements with foreign secret police agencies in which various abusive tactics are essentially "out-sourced" to nations which have no constitutional restraints on the treatment of prisoners. We have a government that has written numerous briefs on the "out-dated" nature of the Geneva Conventions.

Many conservatives have rationalized these facts by claiming that these extraordinary measures will only be used against terrorists.

That is bunk. The entire history of government teaches us that it always attempts to accumulate power and always tries to undermine limitations on its authority.

As night follows day, these new powers granted to law enforcement agencies under the various anti-terrorism laws will be used against American citizens in situations with no connection to terrorism. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, a story broke in which a man in New Jersey was arrested for shining a laser at airplane cockpits. He is being charged under anti-terrorism laws, even though the government admits that his actions had no connection to terrorism and that he is not a terrorist.

I fully expect that this trend will eventually include the torture of American citizens. After all, if it is permissible to extract information from suspected terrorists in this manner, why not bank robbers or rapists…and then, later, "tax cheats" or "political extremists"?

Folks who believe that this will stop with al-Qaeda are ignorant of history.

#4 local control of public education

Standard conservative ideology circa 1994 held that the major problem with our public school system was federal involvement. Many right-wing candidates wowed the faithful with promises of abolishing the US Department of Education altogether. It was almost unanimously believed that local school boards should control the public schools and that federal regulation and funding have been a disaster.

Somewhere along the way, President Bush missed this message. His No Child Left Behind plan is the largest expansion of federal control of public education in decades. Every aspect of school policies and curricula now fall under the aegis of federal bureaucratic domination. There are even financial incentives in the law for the leveling of test scores between ethnic and racial groups…a sort of bizarre affirmative action for achievement test results.

Things have gotten so bad that many local school boards and several state governments are in open revolt over this massive federalization of school policy. I’ve even talked with NEA members who are beginning to see the merit in local control.

President Bush has thus done something that I would not have thought possible. He is turning some teacher’s union members into partisans for a less intrusive federal government. While this may represent an advancement of conservative ideology, I don’t think it is of the sort that most of us originally expected when Bush was elected.

#5 respect for our military

Without dragging the decision to go to war in Iraq into this analysis, it is relevant to examine the way that this administration’s policies have affected the military itself.

One of the traditional bedrock beliefs of conservatism has been a respect and admiration for the US Military. Throughout my days as a young conservative, I frequently heard accusations hurled at liberals that they were "anti-military," usually in concert with stories of the mistreatment of soldiers returning from Vietnam.

But how well have things been going for servicemen since the advent of conservative control of the presidency and congress?

From my perspective, things have not gone well at all. This administration launched vitriolic attacks against retired military officers who questioned the decision to invade Iraq. The neocons also attacked individuals in the military and government who questioned their tactics for prosecuting the war. Some were even sacked for suggesting that the predictions of a "cake walk" were inaccurate and that we would need more soldiers than the existing plans predicted.

Does this constitute respect?

Clearly, the administration did not have enough soldiers to occupy Iraq after the fall of Saddam’s government. Plans were not made to stabilize the country in the immediate aftermath of the war. The administration also refused to recognize that the burgeoning insurgency even existed until it was too large to contain.

As a result of these failures, our military is now buckling under numerous stresses. Just last week, the Lt. General in command of the Army Reserve declared that the Reserve force is now "broken" and is unable to complete its mission. Reservists and National Guardsmen are being sent back to Iraq for their 2nd or 3rd tours of duty, and their active duty responsibilities are being continually increased. The administration is engaged in a back-door draft by issuing "stop-loss" policies which prevent soldiers from returning to civilian life after completing their agreed time of service. The manpower shortage is so bad that the Pentagon is considering collocating women into front-line combat units for the first time in our history, thus eliminating a long-standing policy of keeping women out of direct ground combat.

Even worse is the woeful lack of proper equipment available for our soldiers in Iraq. Stories abound of families who are forced to purchase vests for their loved ones because of the lack of body armor available for front line troops. Soldiers are even scrounging through dumps in Kuwait trying to find armor fragments to weld onto their unprotected Humvees before making the trip into Iraq.

Adding insult to injury, we were also forced to endure Donald Rumsfeld’s "pithy" reply to these accusations ("You go to war with the army you have").

Does any of this constitute respect for the military?

Not in my book.

The many years of flag-waving and rah-rah rhetoric are not squaring with the actual performance of Republican government.


Lew Rockwell is correct. The seminal political event of the past several years in America has been the changing political ideology of Middle America from small-government conservatism to a virulent brand of fascism. There is barely any discernable connection between 1994 and 2004. Almost all the issues which were important to red state America then have since fallen off of their radar screen. They are advocating many policies that are in direct conflict with the fundamental tenets of traditional conservatism.

Some of my more strident libertarian friends claim that America is now descending politically into a Hitler-Stalin dynamic. I think that that is somewhat overstated. It is more analogous to say that the Republicans are degenerating into the tin-pot fascism of Anastasio Somoza circa 1975, while the Democrats have long since fallen to the tin-pot socialism of the Sandinistas circa 1985.

America is morphing into Nicaragua, with the public finances, the current account deficit, the civil liberties, and the electoral system of a typical Central American banana republic.

Many of us prayed for years that the liberals would one day fall from power and that the Republicans would rise to dominate the federal government.

When the Gods wish to punish us, they grant us our wishes.