Saturday, February 05, 2005

The New Right’s Veneer of Freedom

John Lewis sees the New Right exactly for what it is:

The evidence of the past two decades is unimpeachable: the political right in America no longer stands for individual rights, limited government and capitalism. The “rightists” now advocate expanding the welfare state, increasing government intrusion into our intimate private affairs, and sacrificing American lives to foreign paupers. They call it “advancing the cause of freedom.”

This is not what the right once stood for. Fifty years ago one could recognize serious problems in their positions, but also that by and large they favored individual liberty, opposed the growth of government beyond necessity, and advocated a strong military defense. In contrast, the left wanted socialism, the welfare state, and, following Vietnam, military humility.

Historically, and in broad terms, the right often tried to uphold the virtues of productiveness, independence, self-reliance, and American self-interest. They opposed the New Deal and the Great Society, as well as foreign wars that were not in America’s interests, as assaults on freedom. It was Democrats such as Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson who brought America into such wars, and who institutionalized massive redistribution of wealth at home. The right co-opted many statist measures of the left—such as anti-trust—but they generally saw America’s proper condition as peaceful production and free enterprise.

When the socialist assault began, the right became the opposition, facing a tide of motivated leftists who claimed that science and history were on their side. But what arguments, and what moral principles, did those on the right have for their own programs? Only vague statements of American ideals and virtues, held as floating ideas rather than with secure understanding. Consequently, “normalcy” in the 1920’s was accompanied by huge increases in foreign aid, and ever larger infringements on domestic, especially economic, affairs.

They called on “Rugged Individualism” as an ideal—but could not say why this was morally right. They said “the business of America is business,” but had no answer when told this was rule by robber barons. They proclaimed that “what is good for GM is good for America,” but could not defend GM’s profits. They spoke up for “capitalism” but wilted when told that it did not make everyone equal. They often maintained that America should pursue its own interests, but could not say why those interests did not include American soldiers dying for foreigners overseas.

Implicitly, they admitted that individualism unredeemed by sacrificial handouts is selfish, and everyone knew that there was no moral goodness in that.

So the right grew shameful of its own principles. In order to be moral they said “me too” to the demands of the left, bickering over methods and degrees. The welfare state grew exponentially under both parties, since the right could not oppose it on principle, and often tried to pre-empt the proposals of the left. All the momentum was on the side of increasing redistribution and foreign sacrifices. Opposition was fleeting, and coalesced only vaguely when the Republicans were forced into opposition.

The twentieth-century marks the Triumph of the Left. Everywhere socialism was tried openly it failed openly—but wherever it was smuggled in, it became the new norm. Those on the right became the most expert smugglers, for they had the most to hide.

The right failed to comprehend fully that by the time of Vietnam, the left—now the New Left—was intellectually and morally bankrupt. Outside of Berkeley and Boston, no one believed in socialism any more, and the New Leftists had only the appeal to altruism (and opposition to the “establishment”) to disarm their opponents. But this was enough, for the right agreed with this basic moral position. In the following decades the ideal of socialism died, exposed as nihilism, but the leftists achieved a Pyrrhic victory, for the right continued to accept the principles established by the left. The Republicans saw no place else to go.

Under the leadership of Ronald Reagan (once a New Deal Democrat), they equated freedom with economics, admitted their obligation to help the oppressed world-wide, and accepted Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms as institutionalized by Johnson’s Great Society. Morally, they accepted the righteousness of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” a corollary of “give unto the poor.” Coming to see the welfare state as an irrevocable fact of nature, they acted pragmatically. Ceasing to oppose it, they set out to manage it. Their gang, they said, could do a better job with the nitty-gritty of running it.

The result has been further decay of political freedom, in thought and in practice. As President Bush said in his second inaugural address, “In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the G.I. Bill of Rights. And now we will extend this vision by reforming great institutions to serve the needs of our time.” This is an explicit statement that the “broader” idea of freedom is not political, but economic, and that freedom is implemented by extending the scope of coerced redistribution.

Recognizing the need to defend America, they accepted the foreign policy vision of Wilson, and set out to bring freedom and prosperity to overseas peoples. “Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon,” Mr. Bush continued. “In America's ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service, and mercy, and a heart for the weak. Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another.” It means exposing the checkbooks—and the bodies—of individual Americans to foreign strangers in need, while making deals with our enemies. This, we are told, is advancing freedom across the globe.

They differentiated themselves by opposing abortion, defending prayer in government schools, advocating grants to faith-based organizations, upholding censorship of the media, and making a federal case out of personal marriage decisions. These once-marginal issues have become the issues of passion for the right. Their traditional principles—limited government, and defense of American interests—have mutated into alien forms that once gestated in the left. The clarion call of religious altruism as a principle of government policy has become the moral standard by which they now claim political superiority over the old, Marxist altruism.

Accepting the surrender terms dictated by the left, and in search of a moral center to justify them, the right focused tightly on its fundamentalist core, and redefined itself, into the New Right. This moral center is found in what can now be called civic religion: a new infusion of religious faith into American politics as an ideological principle. No longer is one’s faith—or rejection of faith—a personal matter. It is a matter of political principle, a campaign slogan and the sine qua non of a successful election strategy.

This is the New Right.

The tattered remnants of individual liberty still appear in their words—sometimes spoken with passionate eloquence—but always lying in the Procrustean bed of governmental altruism. Calling it “freedom,” they further socialize America from the inside out, under the impetus of “compassionate conservatism.” Calling it the “free market” they rip out the economic heart of capitalism—private property—and replace it with a new fascism: private “ownership” with a government subsidy. Calling it a “strong national defense,” they excise the motive of self-interest, replace it with responsibilities to others, and extend the welfare state globally.

This is the key to the Redefinition of the Right. Their language continues to pay homage to liberty, but the meanings of its concepts are now quite different. The confusion flowing from this redefinition is nothing less than an assault on our cognitive capacity to grasp the meaning of freedom.

With the collapse of the New Left and the rise of the New Right, the political scenario today is the reverse of fifty years ago. Although the Republicans are split on many issues, the New Right is in a leadership position. It has claimed the moral high road, and is setting the agenda for the next decade at least. It is now the left that seeks to co-opt the moral position of the right, and is beginning to “me-too” their mantras. Suddenly Hillary Clinton is a “praying person” who sees support for “faith-based initiatives” as a means to victory.

Looking ahead, as the left struggles to claim the moral ideal of the right—the same altruism by decree, now sold in even older bottles—it may mutate into a form sculpted by the right. If no rational alternative comes to the forefront, the twenty-first-century may mark the triumph of the New Right, wearing the cloak of freedom’s name but meaning something very different.

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