Saturday, 14 July 2012


Dick Pountain/Tue 23 November 2004/2:12 pm/Political Quarterly

TITLE: What's The Matter With America
AUTHOR: Thomas Frank
PUBLISHER: Secker & Warburg
PUBLISHED: May 2004, paperback, pp 306, £12.99

TITLE: Neoconservatism
EDITOR: Irwin Stelzer
PUBLISHED: October 2004, hardback, pp 328, £19.99

On US election night CNN's presenters seemed mesmerised by their animated map of the country, as it unfolded the picture of a solid red Republican heartland, barely wrapped to the east and west by a thin blue rind of rootless cosmopolitan Democrats. I was struck for the first time by the ironic way this colour symbolism reverses itself as you cross the Atlantic: in Europe red stands for Left and blue for Right. However after reading Thomas Frank's 'What's the Matter with America' I'm no longer so sure that this is irony at all. Frank makes a persuasive case that the Republicans have captured the votes of a majority of the American working-class by mobilising the very forces of populism that the Left used to exploit so successfully in the late 19th century and during the 1930's New Deal. (Incidentally, the US edition was called "What's The Matter With Kansas" and its content is entirely drawn from that state; the UK publishers substituted "America", which was commercially shrewd but risks overstretching the generality of Frank's argument).

Frank demonstrates how the Bush camp's clever blend of neoconservative and evangelical Christian rhetoric touches a raw nerve among Middle-American voters whose real standard of living has been in decline for a decade and who have deep concerns about a failing educational system and the excesses of popular culture. This rhetoric very effectively diverts attention from the economic to the moral realm, persuading plain folk that their real enemies are the latte-drinking, porn-addicted, Volvo-driving liberals of New York and California, rather than the corporations that closed down their factories (or re-staffed them with non-unionised immigrant labour).

There are several real ironies at work here. Those blue coastal sanctuaries of decadence of course do really represent the frontlines of late capitalist development: the TV, film, music, publishing, advertising, communications and computer industries. They really are where all the smart money has gone, and they really do, by-and-large, look down on the 'redneck' farmers and factory workers of Kansas. George W. Bush holds together a coalition of traditional Republican Big Business, neoconservative think-tankies and evangelical Christians which draws its electoral support from patriotic, free-market and family loving citizens of the suburbs and the heartland. The Democrats are losing their purchase on this constituency not only because they are perceived as too liberal and 'anti-family' (e.g. on abortion and gay marriage), but because - thanks to Clinton's 'triangulation' strategy - they no longer offer any credible alternative on the economy. Kansans no longer believe that voting Democrat will save their jobs, so they vote with their hearts.

Frank traces the Democrats' decline in his home state in a scathing, witty and readable style, illustrating with scores of episodes from history - starting from the original 'Free Soil' settlers who moved there to stop slavery spreading west, all the way to the collapse of the 1990s telecomm boom and the retreat of aircraft building. A central plank of his argument is that  " understand the United States we must understand the backlash". The Great Backlash is Frank's term for the moral revulsion of Middle Americans away from that liberalisation of social values that remains the legacy of the 1960s 'counter-culture'.

The principal theorists behind this backlash are the neoconservatives, whose main ideas are admirably explained in a new essay collection of that name edited by Irwin Stelzer. There's a strong tendency in Europe, particularly on the Left, to conflate the neoconservative and religious elements of Bush's coalition, and to indulge in conspiracy theories about the shady 'cabal' of neocons who are the power behind Bush's throne. The essays in this volume ought to dispel such confusions and make possible a more rational critique of neoconservatism, but I won't be holding my breath...

Several of the essays, especially those by Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick, sketch the origins of neoconservatism. The first neocons were liberal Democrats who in the 1970s became alarmed by the nihilism and moral relativism of the radical Left, particularly in its attacks on academic freedom. When McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign appeared to endorse this disorder, these pioneers, including Norman Podhoretz and Kirkpatrick, moved toward the Republican party. Neocons first achieved significant political influence during the Reagan presidency, and some like Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams served George Bush Sr. When George W. appointed several prominent neocons, including Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, they at first seemed rather peripheral to the 'compassionate conservatism' that got him elected - until the colossal shock of 9/11 made their hard-line doctrines look like his most appropriate response.

 Adam Wolfson's essay on page 213, 'Conservatives and Neoconservatives', perhaps should have started this collection as it lays out neocon principles and their differences from other Republican factions with admirable clarity. Wolfson explains that the neocons aim to reform the Republicans into a party fit to manage a modern superstate, which means repudiating some other conservative factions: the 'traditionalists' with their nostalgic hankerings after a vanished genteel past and distaste for mass democracy; the 'libertarians' whose uncritical worship of the free market leads effectively to anarchism in social matters; and 'paleoconservatives' who seek to construct an ugly, isolationist, barely-concealed-racist order under the confederate flag. For Wolfson the crowning difference is that neocons put politics, rather than the economy (libertarians) or culture (trads) at the helm.
A clever and convincing essay by Max Boot demolishes many of the canards promulgated against neoconservatism by its enemies, including what might be called the 'Likud Libel' (that the neocons are a clique of Jews who serve the interests of Israel rather than the USA), or that they're all sinister disciples of an esoteric cult of the philosopher Leo Strauss.

Neocon policy prescriptions aim to dismantle the 'permissive society' and promote a new sense of civic virtue, based on a rehabilitated patriotism and respect for American democracy. Unlike traditional and libertarian conservatives, neocons are not afraid of the state and don't seek to reduce it to impotence - largely because they need its military might to project their foreign policy ambitions. If they favour tax cuts to promote economic growth (and thus quench any egalitarian strivings), then they're happy to run deficits to pay for them: Robert L. Bartley's essay 'The Dread Deficit' leans further toward Keynes and Ricardo than to Milton Friedman. Few neocons actually share the evangelicals' religious foundation for the return to morality they promote: it's a (strictly heterosexual) marriage of political convenience. 

In foreign policy neoconservatives oppose all attempts at world government - they sort the nations into friends and enemies, then aim to reward the former and punish the latter. The ultimate goal, as William Kristol and Robert Kagan describe it in 'National Interest and Global Responsibility' is to spread American democracy throughout the world, and many (though not all) of them regard multilateral organisations and groupings like the UN or even the EU as obstacles to this goal. Essays in this collection by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair (billed as "friendly dissenters") seek in their different ways to moderate this US unilateralism while ostensibly offering support. 

Whether this will amount to Empire in the old sense is a question that's split the neocon world, and the invasion of Iraq - which most of them strenuously urged Bush to launch - merely crystallised the problem. Was it an exercise in punishing an enemy, a serious attempt to spread democracy, or something botched in between? George F. Will in this volume ('The Slow Undoing') opposes all hubristic attempts at nation-building, the EU included, taking the Burkean position that nations are complex products of history and circumstance that cannot be fabricated. Neocon superstar Francis Fukuyama - who doesn't appear in this volume - has fallen out with his erstwhile comrades by opposing the invasion. 

The neocons are conspicuously more erudite and cosmopolitan than traditional right-wing thinkers and delight in head-to-head combat with liberal orthodoxies. For me the most provocative essay is 'Broken Windows' by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which is ostensibly about police foot-patrolling of neighborhoods, but whose subtle, penetrating analysis leads you oh-so-gently into a plausible apologia for vigilantism. Indeed many of the essays share this same clarity, intensity and suave (even glib) assurance that was once a strength of writing from the Left, but has been notably absent from it in recent decades.

These are not people out to conserve anything, but rather out to overthrow an existing order that they detest, only they've substituted the Declaration Of Independence for the Communist Manifesto. And as in older revolutionary tracts there's a certain reticence about real outcomes: jobs lost, people thrown off welfare or taken out by air-strikes. Beneath the muscular, hard-headed prose there lurks a thread of purest Idealism, and like all Idealisms it's destined to be brought low eventually by the diversity and perversity of human nature. 

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