In October, BBC2 broadcast a series called The Power of Nightmares, which claimed fundamental affinities between Islamist terrorists and US neoconservatives in their use of fear to mobilise mass support for their ‘paranoid’ views of the world. This updated Richard Hofstadter’s once famous essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, first published in 1965. In the programmes, terror became a ‘myth’ – symbolised by ‘orientalist’ Hollywood footage – exploited by Machiavellian followers of the Chicago political scientist Leo Strauss. Many readers may vividly recall little flailing dots hurling themselves from hundreds of feet up out of two burning buildings, or news of hostages in Iraq who had their heads sawn off in footage too disturbing for the BBC to broadcast.
The programmes inadvertently revealed the conspiratorial mindset of those who made them – an outlook shared by the corporation that broadcast them, as one can tell from Newsnight or the Today programme each morning and night.
Let’s explore the programmes’ subtext. A hidden Jew, Leo Strauss, had employed passages from Plato’s Republic and Machiavelli’s Discourses regarding what might be called the ‘noble lie’, so as to bind together an America disintegrating under the twin impact of the 1960s ‘counter-culture’ and the Vietnam War. His (Jewish) disciples infiltrated the US government, achieving high office under Ronald Reagan and George W Bush: cut to Paul Wolfowitz striding along to the sinister strains of the theme music of The Ipcress File. With Communism in disarray, 9/11 allegedly came as a timely opportunity to rally the dim and docile foot soldiers of the Christian Right to the sinister cabal’s cause of Israel über alles.
It is not difficult to pick holes in this left-wing mythology, which is the Michael Moore view of the world, minus the obese fraud himself. The series failed to mention the sociologist Robert Bellah, a noted opponent of the Vietnam War, who in the 1970s propounded the notion of ‘civil religion’ as an antidote to social disintegration.
The programmes only obliquely mentioned that the main reason why the neocons are influential in government is because the left-liberal dominance of American academia has ensured that these intelligent men and women have been excluded from Academe, and have instead entered conservative think-tanks. Maybe a left-wing plot created the neocons? The conspiratorial mindset is catching.
Mention of Wolfowitz (number two at the Pentagon) raises the question, how influential are neocons such as he? Are Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell – not to speak of figures from the past such as James Baker III or George Schultz – neocons? Cheney doesn’t seem a hearts-and-minds, ‘nation-building’ kind of guy; more a man inclined to send AC130 gunships to eliminate America’s enemies. Rice must be the only gun-lover to have run Stanford: a gun having been the only way her pastor father could guarantee not being lynched in the Deep South.
Anti-Semitism is not confined to Europe, although one might imagine so, given the constant imputation that it is. Didn’t Baker say ‘Fuck the Jews’ on one memorable occasion? Doesn’t Iraq War II commander General Tommy Franks count more as a power in the land than Douglas Feith (a Pentagon planner), whom Franks graphically dismissed as ‘the dumbest fucking guy on the planet’? Colin Powell similarly dismissed the neocons as ‘fucking crazies’. The ubiquitous William Kristol backed John McCain, and is persona non grata in the Bush White House, though you would never know it from the BBC series. As for the dreaded Richard Perle, he can hardly keep his grey head above the ocean of corporate sleaze enveloping Mr and Mrs Conrad Black, let alone exert influence on Bush or Cheney, whom he has not met since they achieved high office. Perle is also a lifelong registered Democrat in the Scoop Jackson mould, the defeat of Jackson having been the catalyst for so many migrations to the Right.
Then there is the Christian Right, a very labile and fickle coalition of myriad Christian groups, whose loyalties no one can afford to take as read or for granted. These are not the holy-rolling stooges of the neocons, but people with views and values of their own. They are not a monolith. How do right-wing Catholics (the largest Christian denomination, which passed unmentioned in the programmes) relate to evangelical Protestants, and vice versa?
To understand conservatism in the US, one should turn to John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s brilliant The Right Nation. The authors have done an incredible amount of research on the impressive range of ideas and institutions that constitute the American Right. They have an excellent grasp of regional differences and of the complex relationship between religion and politics. Anyone wanting to know how conservative bloggers, journals and newspapers, radio and TV stations, activists and think-tanks operate should start with this informed and fascinating book. The Right Nation’s sense of purpose and single-minded pursuit of power are awesome to anyone contemplating the sorry decline of the British Tories. US Republicans are individualists, optimists, and fervent capitalists. They win because their approach is based on democracy rather than deference.
The insurgency began with the coalescence of the southern and western Right that started during Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 election campaign (Hillary Clinton was one of the Arizona senator’s youthful admirers), and it has continued to gain in ferocity and militancy to this day.
According to the authors, what makes US conservatism exceptional (apart from its powerful religious component) is that it has effected a reformation of classical Burkean conservatism, successfully incorporating many themes from classical liberal individualism, and appealing to the dynamic New South and the thrusting Sunbelt states, as well as attracting an increasing number of ethnic minorities (except for Blacks and the overwhelming number of Jews who vote Democrat). The Afro-American electorate votes despite the evidence before their eyes.
Al Gore may have done a nice line in acting Black with his ‘high fives’, but George W Bush has put three African Americans in very senior positions, in addition to the Asians and Latinos also represented in his cabinet. Having won Bush such a convincing victory, Karl Rove (and the cohorts of Republican students and ‘Red Hot’ women) will be working to prise further constituencies away from the Democrats, to ensure that in 2008 Arnold Schwarzenegger or Condoleezza Rice sees off Hillary Clinton. As the authors convincingly argue, there has been a seismic shift to the Right, and it may be permanent.
Irwin Stelzer is an accomplished economist, businessman and conservative commentator, whose book is endorsed by Gordon Brown and contains a speech by Tony Blair. His outstanding Neoconservatism brings together a representative range of neocon thinkers, and is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand this dynamic enterprise, which has joined ‘far Right extremism’ in the left-wing imagination.
Stelzer conveys the lively heterogeneity of the US Right, where – unlike, say, the academic Left – sparks fly when any two conservatives are trapped in a room together. There is what I have called elsewhere the neo-Jacobin impulse to transform the world into a collection of free-market democracies (oddly enough, George Soros – as in ‘Open Society Soros’ – is a leading hater of Bush), and a necessary scepticism towards a UN where Libya gets to arbitrate on human-rights abuses. The neocons also often share a neo-Victorian ‘tough-love’ approach to welfare, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (Mrs Irving Kristol) being the scholarly source of how the Victorians are imagined in these circles. For, unlike traditional conservatives, or Cato Institute-style libertarians, many neocons are tantalised by the idea of the State as the magic spear that heals all wounds.
The best essays are by those who count for most – notably Condoleezza Rice writing on US foreign policy, Under Secretary John Bolton on the war on terror, and ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick on the ‘counter-culture’ of self-repudiation that drove her from the ranks of the Democrats and into the Reagan administration. Kenneth Weinstein contributes a fascinating piece on Leo Strauss, while Adam Wolfson cogently brings out the subtle differences between neocons, traditionalists, libertarians and paleoconservatives. Michael Gove also contributes an outstanding critique of the European conservative Right, in which he correctly observes: ‘In America the reigning conservative disposition is optimism about human potential. In Europe it is fatalism about the human condition.’ Irwin Stelzer’s book is the ideal post-Christmas present for anyone still lamenting the defeat of a Massachusetts semi-billionaire in November’s elections, and eager to face the facts of the world after 9/11.