Spring 2006 - Volume 9 Number 2
|Reviews||America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Many of us who came to some measure of political awareness in the 1950s but who were not born into wealth and privilege have a tough time figuring out what the North American electorate seems insistent on doing to itself. Having grown to be a teenager before my family purchased a television set, an adult before medicare came to alleviate poverty induced by medical emergencies, and a teacher with at least a smidgen of postsecondary experience before the establishment of the college for which I have toiled these past thirty-seven years, I have direct knowledge of the importance of innovation in government investment in the health and education of the people. The ability to compare life before and after the transformation of social services in the 1950s and 1960s led me to imaginefoolishly, I supposethat the “progressive” agenda would continue on and that, in time, additional programs such as child care, dental care and even geriatric care would be implemented though not necessarily before I needed them. I also imagined that some measures would be taken to limit at least Canadian participation in imperial military adventures, and that action would follow to reduce the despoliation of the environment.
Or, maybe not. The fact that millions of American and Canadian citizens vote for political parties that transparently disregard constitutional guarantees of civil liberties while carrying on economic programs that impoverish precisely the people who elect for such governments cannot wholly be explained by congenital dopiness or some pathological yearning for self-abuse.
Perhaps something else is up.
The peculiar alliance of the great wealth, fundamentalist religious fervour, imperial aspirations and enduring racism in the United States goes some way to explain the dominance of the Republican Party over the past quarter-century. Similar coalitions in Canada have yet to be as strident in their rhetoric or as effective in their actions, but they do show every sign of being headed in the same direction. Only in our lack of imperial pretensions do we decidedly differ from our southern neighbours and, even there, we are being led to exchange our role as international peacekeeper to American powder-monkey.
Ignorance, arrogance and mean-spiritedness, however, can only go so far in explaining why North American voters behave as they do. What causes working and middle-class people to endorse political programs that so plainly violate their own rational self-interest and even their expressed policy preferences on many issues? The answer, in part, is some darned good planning, some ample funding and a small collection of right-wing intellectuals who have thought long and thoroughly about important points of political philosophy whilst “liberals” have dithered and lost what is commonly called their identity, to say nothing of their moral centre.
And who is behind all this? Well, there are a number of “think-tanks” that are enormously well-endowed by, among others, the producers of Coors beer (so much for “Joe the Canadian,” the marketing face of Molson’s breweries which has now “merged” with Coors; Joe, it seems likely, has obtained dual citizenship and been whisked off to Colorado to get some much needed political re-education!).
The think tanks in question pass themselves off as public-spirited research institutions but are, in fact, tightly organized propaganda machines. And they are very good at what they do. They have not only fed the corporate power structure superficially sensible descriptions and explanations of contemporary problems and pseudo-problems, but they have actually managed to impose their language on political discussion. As a result, even those who oppose them in detail are obliged to mimic their rhetorical commitment to the war on terror, workfare, the traditional family and so on. As Geoffrey Nunberg observes in his recent book, Talking Right, the Republican intellectual elite has been able to implant in the voters’ minds the notion that “values” mean exclusively those values held dear by the religious right. They have successfully driven a wedge between the terms “patriotism” and “liberalism,” and have made “liberal” into a dirty word. Amazingly, in positions of influence and power, they have still made “government” into the enemy. As a triumphant intellectual elite in its own right, the right-wing intellectual elite has turned “intellectual elite” into a term of opprobrium to be associated, as Stanley Fish says, with an “effete mob of latté-drinking, Volvo-driving Eastern seaboard snobs,” a stereotype to be used exclusively against liberals, and it seems to work.
Examples of such entities include the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Hoover Institute, the Manhattan Institute and the Project for the New American Century. They are financially supported by the likes of the fabulously wealthy John M. Olin Foundation, the creation of one of America’s largest chemical and munitions manufacturers. In addition to research, Olin also published such conservative periodicals as Commentary, The National Interest and The New Criterion. University professorships have been endowed and scholars including Allan Bloom and Samuel Huntington were paid to produce books such as The Closing of the American Mind and The Clash of Civilizations. (Canada has a low-rent, copy-cat version in the presence of the Fraser Institute, and other Western democracies have their own functional equivalents.)
Through persistence and no dearth of talent, a movement that somehow allowed itself to believe that permissiveness, moral relativism, sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and “hippies” constituted some sort of serious threat to civilization as we know it has emerged to stand atop the North American intellectual landscape and to insinuate itself into most domains of public communication from prestigious intellectual journals to FOX News..
One of the most recognizable members of this neoconservative movement (also puzzlingly called the neoliberal movement, especially when focused on market economics and comparatively indifferent to religious fundamentalism) was Francis Fukuyama. He is one of the first of what will no doubt become a number of apparent neoconservative apostates who have the wit to appreciate that President George W. Bush’s bungling of the “war on terror” may have jeopardized the entire neoconservative project. Now that Americans are learning more about corporate corruption at home and abroad, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and potentially devastating climate change, even the US Supreme Court seems to be paying fresh attention to the concentration on unconstitutional power in the executive branch of government. As the potential “perfect political storm” gathers, Professor Fukuyama’s tale is worth telling.
Francis Fukuyama came to public notice primarily because of his 1992 best-seller, The End of History and the Last Man. Possibly as a consequence of the amnesia that seems to cripple even the intellectual classes, the book was a great success despite the fact that it said remarkably little that had not been said thirty years before. Fukuyama’s major point was that world developments between the end of World War II and the collapse of Soviet communism signaled the end of the historical dialectic as we know it. Following Hegel rather than Marx, he explained that the final resolution of class struggle could occur and was occurring in the context of liberal democracy. With both orthodox communism and fascism discredited, the global triumph of democracy was just a matter of working out some details. As for the economic order, he insisted that market capitalism and democratic governance were mutually supportive and, indeed, mutually necessary. This meant that the ideological struggles of the past between democracy and dictatorship as well as between capitalism and communism had been effectively resolved with democracy and capitalism prevailing. History was about to end, and all that would remain for human beings to do was to pursue their private goals within the context of the good society in operation.
Daniel Bell (The End of Ideology) and Seymour Martin Lipset (Political Man) had said the same things in 1960. Their rosy assessments were, however, put off the rails by the US Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam conflict. Fukuyama’s predictions seem to have been similarly undone by recent events in the Middle East. He is now vulnerable. His current position as Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy and Director of the International Development Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University requires him to be somewhat circumspect in his admiration of failing neoconservative policies.
In choosing to write about the “legacy” of neoconservatism, he seems to be distancing himself from a movement that saw its opportunity, took its chances, and succeeded brilliantly not only in defining the parameters of political discourse and but also in taking hold of authoritative power in the most powerful country in the world. Such distancing should not be complete. Burned bridges are hard to rebuild and the current administration has surprised us before.
Not a fool by any standard, Fukuyama’s reservations about neoconservatism are primarily tactical. His view of the meaning of neoconservatism is not, on the surface, especially malign. He says it (and he) favour limited government at home and political democracy abroad. It (and he) are suspicious of international institutions such as the United Nations and convinced that America is a power for good in the world. This attitude, however, allowed the neoconservatives opened the door to some reckless adventurism in foreign affairs. Once open and flushed with confidence in their military parts, neoconservative presidents from Ronald Reagan to the second President Bush began to engage in some dubious ventures with perfectly hideous allies and occasionally ignominious results. They gave support to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden (whose Mujahideen was famously described by Reagan as the spiritual equivalent of America’s founding fathers). Their most serious problem, however, was George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq. It was so badly planned and poorly executed that, as Paul Berman has written, it leaves “Fukuyama scratching his head [and proposing] a psychological explanation.”
It is not clear from his new book whether Fukuyama is genuinely finished with neoconservatism or merely with the peopleBush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their cronieswho made a mess of it. He has certainly learned (or learned to fake) modesty and to denounce the follies that a fit of testosterone-induced political messianism can produce and let loose.
His new approach? He calls it “realistic Wilsonianism,” a throwback to the ideals of the interventionist president who took America into World War I 1917, but has been treated rather badly by history when, at the end of hostilities, his legacy was undermined by the failure of his dream of an effective League of Nationsa failure brought about largely by the refusal of an isolationist post-war America to join.
The primary problem with “realistic Wilsonianism” is that it is nothing new either. Liberal imperialism brought the United States to grief in Vietnam and set the stage for diplomatic and military difficulties in Iran and in South America. In fact, the only substantive difference between “realistic Wilsonianism” and the current Cheney-Bush policy is that the former didn’t work despite superficially good intentions and the latter isn’t working because of deeply flawed intentions.
In fact, the recovery of Wilsonianism may bring with it more trouble than it’s worth. Woodrow Wilson was the author of a kind of “informal imperialism” backed up with frequent military interventions which, as Panitch and Gindrin remind us, Wilson justified as follows: “I am going to teach the South American Republics to elect good men.” The result was “the apogee of hypocrisy, especially at the Paris Peace Conference, where John Maynard Keynes concluded that Wilson was ‘the biggest fraud on earth’.” Considering the widely perceived turn to the left in South American politics today, it is sobering to ponder what Mr. Bush might do with a Wilsonian card up his sleeve, were he ever to disentangle himself from Iraq, Iran and North Korea and pay close attention to his nearer neighbours.
In sum, Professor Fukuyama rode to fame by rehearsing and bringing up to date some antiquated and inaccurate notions from the late 1950s and applying them to the early 1990s. His Panglossian perspective was knocked about mainly because the political leaders of the neoconservative movement botched the job. (Even if the unlikely happens and Iraq is magically reconstituted as a functioning liberal democracy with a vibrant and prosperous economy, the cost in lives, credibility and material destruction will define Mr. Bush’s legacy.) Meanwhile, Fukuyama’s overall viewpoint has not changed markedly. All he needs is a new slogan and a few more competent and less corrupt political functionaries to be able to repeat his dream of history coming to an end and the whole world living happily ever after.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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