Neocon Vampires Sink Their Fangs Into the Tea Parties
By Ira Chernus
May 27, 2010 "AlterNet" --Remember the neoconservatives? Maybe you don’t. Their death was announced on the cover of Time magazine long before George W. Bush left the White House. By now you might think that they’re, thankfully, only a footnote to the history of a frightening bygone era.
But no. Like vampires, the neocons never die. They constantly revive themselves, going where the vein is richest, eager to feed upon new blood. Now -- we should have seen it coming -- they are sinking their fangs into the Tea Party. That’s where the fresh political blood is, so that’s where the neocons are.
Their latest calling card is a headline in the Washington Post: “THE NEW CULTURE WAR,” with “CULTURE WAR” spelled out in blood red letters. The subhead: “On one side, the forces of free enterprise. On the other, an expanding and paternalistic government. It’s time to choose.”
It sounds like the Tea Party, alright; something you’d hear from Glenn Beck or Limbaugh. But in fact it was emblazoned across the top of the Post’s Sunday Outlook section, probably the most influential opinion page of all for the nation’s centrist inside-the-beltway political elite.
And the author is no Tea Party or FoxNews lunatic fringer. He is Arthur C. Brooks, president of the neoconservatives’ flagship institution, the widely-respected American Enterprise Institute. His WaPo article is a juicy free advertisement for his new book,The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future. And he’s got some fancy friends endorsing it.
“This is the playbook for the resurgence of the conservative movement,” says none other than Dick Cheney, on thebook jacket. It’s “a must-read for conservatives who want our movement to dominate,” exclaims a blurb from Karl Rove.
Like any good bureaucrat, Brooks is out to revive his organization and make it dominate again. He knows that the neocons have faced death by irrelevance several times in the past. So he’s doing what Ann Rice’s vampires do: resurrecting his movement by dressing it up to suit the times, so neocons can pass as ordinary Tea Party folks, just a tad more clever, witty, and charming than the rest.
Brooks and his new wave of neocons are truly clever in one way. They understand the Tea Party especially well because the same anxiety lies at the heart of both movements. They both appeal to people who feel powerless, unable to shape their own lives, bewildered by a society that seems to be spinning out of anyone’s control, and certainly out of their control. The old familiar rules of the game just don’t seem to apply any more. And that’s scary -- especially to the older white men who form the core of support for both groups.
Lesser names on the back cover of Brooks’ book get at this deeper meaning. Neocon morality czar Bill Bennett blurbs that it’s about much more than the economy, stupid: “The Battleuncovers liberalism's true grand agenda—to change America's culture and the American way.” Marvin Olasky, the creator of “compassionate conservatism” and one of Brooks’ mentors, gushes: “The Battleshows how Washington power-grabbers use financial fears to tell the rest of us how we must live” and it “teaches us how to fight back.”
What American way? And fight back against whom? Newt Gingrich, who wrote the book’s preface, has the answers: Brooks is calling all who believe in “individual liberty, equality of opportunity, the right to pursue happiness, the work ethic” to fight against the “elitist redistributionist leftist … radicalism of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid machine. ”
Neocons, like military leaders, have always relied on the same old trick: Create a fictional caricature of your opponent as a threat to your very existence and rally the troops to fight against it. That’s how the neocons first came to prominence. Though their movement has diffuse roots that go back to the 1940s, it really crystallized (pardon the pun) in the late 1960s under the tutelage of Irving Kristol, who led the intellectual counter-attack against the cultural radicalism of the era.
“If there is any one thing that neoconservatives are unanimous about, it is their dislike of the counterculture,” Kristol once wrote. The movement’s other godfather, Norman Podhoretz, agreed: “Revulsion against the counterculture accounted for more converts to neoconservativism than any other single factor.”
Why revulsion? Because of the hippies’ supposed “hedonism” and irresponsible self-indulgence. Neocons, on the other hand, believed in original sin: People are inherently selfish; if they won’t restrain their desires and follow traditional rules, society will degenerate into “moral anarchy.” That’s what Kristol feared was happening in the late ‘60s: Because the radicals would not “control their appetites,” America was engulfed in “confusion and disorientation, all embellished with a veneer of ‘equality.’” “Nobody was in charge,” Podhoretz complained; the counterculture was “a vulgar plot to undermine Western civilization itself.”
The ‘60s neocons did worry that liberal Democrats wanted too much government regulation of the free market. But for them that was merely a symbol of the larger issue of “hippie hedonism” versus old-fashioned bourgeois self-restraint. Free enterprise capitalists channel their selfish desires into the marketplace, according to Kristol. They accept conventional moral rules and “the merits of deferred gratification.” That makes them “a people of firm moral convictions, a people of self-reliance and self-discipline.”
The essential issues were moral, not economic. “If you delegitimate the bourgeois society,” Kristol wrote, “the market economy—almost incidentally—is also deligitimated.”
Ever since, the neocons have been fighting the same war: self-restraint against self-expression, traditional rules against individual freedom. For them, it was a “culture war” -- a term they largely created. In fact, a raft of careful studies have shown that there is no real culture war in the U.S. because few people consistently hold either all liberal or all conservative views. Most pick and choose, depending on the issue, and end up somewhere in the middle.
But neocons have found it useful to promote the simplistic idea of a left-versus-right “culture war” to rally their troops against the left. And the belief in a clear-cut dividing line between good and evil made their followers feel more secure, convinced that they were “the good guys.”
To keep their war going, though, the neocons had to keep shifting the issue focus. By the mid-‘70s the counterculture no longer seemed like much of a threat to anyone, much less to civilization itself. So the neocons whipped up renewed cold war fervor to fend off “the commies.” They hoped to revive a post-Vietnam nation’s belief in traditional values -- absolute good against absolute evil -- and a willingness to accept authority, follow orders, and sacrifice oneself for the values handed down from above.
After the cold war ended, Irving Kristol’s son William still called for the U.S. to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy” and gain a permanent “benevolent global hegemony.” Thus the neocons wrote the script for the Bush-Cheney “war on terror.”
The neocons, like Bush himself, were not concerned chiefly to protect the nation from foreign “terrorists.” They urged a return to the fighting spirit, above all, to revive what Bill Kristol called “a clear moral purpose,” to “restore a sense of the heroic” by making sacrifices for “the defense of the nation and its principles.” They were using the “war on terror” to continue their war on the ‘60s counterculture.
Now economic disaster has pushed terrorism from the center of public concern. When pollsters ask, “What is the biggest problem facing the nation?” they often don’t even offer “terrorism” as an option. In a nation plagued by unemployment and foreclosure anxiety, what’s a neocon to do?
Join the Tea Party, it seems. Make “big government,” not hippies or “commies” or “terrorists,” the new symbol of frighteningly rapid change that breaks down the familiar structures and boundaries.
Of course that means inventing fictitious caricatures of “big government,” as Arthur Brooks does in his “culture war” article (which presumably sums up his book). He charges that “our leaders in Washington” are pushing us toward “European-style statism. … If these forces continue to prevail, America will cease to be a free enterprise nation.” And they may well prevail, he warns, since “the forces of big government are entrenched and enjoy the full arsenal of the administration's money and influence” -- even though fully 70% of Americans stand against them and want to save traditional American values.
Values -- not incomes and bank accounts -- are the crucial issue, Brooks insists in good neocon fashion. It’s all about “the morality of our worldview.” We are in danger of losing our “unalienable [sic] right” to the pursuit of happiness.
Knowing that you’ll have decent food, housing, and medical care for you and your kids, no matter what -- that’s not real happiness, the neocon insists. Only the rugged individualism of unfettered capitalism brings true happiness, because “only free enterprise brings earned success … where people enjoy the rewards and face the consequences of their decisions … based on their work and merit.”
Yes, it’s the same old recycled conservative pap. But the neocons’ bureaucrat-in-chief sees it as the way to resurrect his moribund movement, because it has become Tea Party pap too. “We must articulate moral principles that set forth our fundamental values, and we must be prepared to defend them,” Brooks writes. “This defense is already underway … The ‘tea party’ demonstrations and the town hall protests … reveal much about the culture war that is underway.”
To seal the alliance, Brooks throws in another favorite Tea Party fiction: “We believe in principle over political power.” The radical “statists” running the government “talk only of tactics, parties and power,” using “dirty tricks and lots of campaign money” to win at all costs. Apparently Tea Party organizers would never dream of any such thing, at least in the fictional neocon world of Arthur Brooks.
But beneath all the invention, Brooks has revealed that one vital truth. Neoconservatives are natural partners of the Tea Party, because both are still fighting the same imaginary enemy: the hippies, counterculture, and New Left of the late ‘60s. For them, America has never left that era. It’s still a war between the familiar, seemingly secure pre-‘60s way of life and the radicals who would plunge us into “anarchy,” erasing that imagined security forever.
To continue that war, they need a convenient symbol of the enemy. Any force that seems too big for the ordinary person to understand, much less control, will do. “Big government” works just fine, thank you.
But the neocons are more than just vampires, sucking new life from the Tea Party’s blood. Neocons have plenty to offer the Tea Party too -- like a well-honed, well-entrenched, and well-funded network of institutions that can crank out slick words 24/7 to give the Tea Party intellectual respectability.
The neocons also have their rich history of militaristic rhetoric, warning us about foreign enemies like “commies” and “terrorists.” It’s no coincidence that Arthur Brooks handed the American Enterprise Institute’s annual Irving Kristol Award for 2010 to General David Petraeus. Brooks took the occasion to boast (with some truth) of the AEI’s major role in creating the plan for “the Surge” in Iraq. “The sacrifice of our men and women in Iraq was not in vain, and that country today is on a path to freedom,” Brooks said in classic neocon language.
Of course we know what “freedom” means for the neocons and the Tea Party: a few are free to get fabulously wealthy, while most of us see our standard of living stagnate, more and more of us raise children in abject poverty, the nation’s infrastructure crumbles, the environment is despoiled, and the government -- the agent of “we, the people” -- stands aside and just watches it all happen, funneling an ever-larger share of public money into useless military violence around the world.
It was a scary enough vision of freedom when it was promoted only by the neoconservatives or only by the Tea Party. Now that the two are climbing, however tentatively, into the same bed, their marriage of convenience bears careful watching.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews on his blog: http://chernus.wordpress.com.