Can the American Right Renounce Utopianism? By Michael Lind. The National Interest, March 25, 2016.
American right free itself from the utopianism of the post-Reagan era?
question would have seemed strange to mid-century American conservative
thinkers like Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. In their view,
conservatism was anti-utopian by definition. In different ways, they identified
“conservatism” with a suspicion of radical schemes to revolutionize America and
today’s orthodox conservatism consists almost entirely of radical utopian
schemes to revolutionize America and the world. So-called “movement
conservatism” or “fusionism” in its present form is, in fact, an alliance of
three distinct utopian movements in economics, domestic policy and foreign
policy. All three crusades are doomed to fail in the real world.
utopianism in economics takes the form of schemes to repeal almost all of the
major social legislation enacted since Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in 83
years ago, back in 1933. Social Security and Medicare will be altered beyond
recognition, and replaced by a radically different system of private savings
accounts and medical care vouchers, along the lines proposed by the economist
Milton Friedman in his book Capitalism and Freedom, published 54 years ago in 1962.
always insisted that he was not a conservative but a classical liberal or
libertarian. Other libertarian economists like Friedrich von Hayek also refused
to be described as conservatives.
their part, mid-century American conservatives rejected libertarianism, on the
grounds that free-market utopianism is as undesirable as any other utopianism.
Peter Viereck defended the New Deal programs and labor unions as conservative
reforms and institutions that had averted more radical socialist or fascist
movements in the United States. In his essay, “Libertarians: the Chirping
Sectaries,” Russell Kirk wrote:
Conservatives have no intention
of compromising with socialists; but even such an alliance, ridiculous though
it would be, is more nearly conceivable than the coalition of conservatives and
libertarians. The socialists at least declare the existence of some sort of
moral order; the libertarians are quite bottomless.
words were published in fall 1981. Thirty-five years later in 2016, the distinction
between conservatives and libertarians in economic policy has completely
collapsed. There is no conservative economic program at all in the United
States today. What is called the “conservative” economic program—privatize
Social Security, voucherize Medicare, lower or abolish the minimum wage, cut
taxes on the rich, and free trade—is merely the radical libertarian economic
program, under a different label.
conservative economic program doesn’t aim to conserve anything. It seeks to
blow up almost all existing U.S. economic policies, whether in the realms of
social insurance, regulation or taxation, and replace them with far-fetched and
mostly untried voucher and privatization schemes dreamed up by libertarian
ideologues. The socialist Bernie Sanders at most wants to add a few public
programs to the existing American mixture of private, public and nonprofit
provision of goods and services. The libertarian right wants to burn American
domestic policy to the ground and start over.
pushed by nominal conservatives at AEI and National
Review, or by honest libertarian radicals at the Cato Institute and Reason
magazine, the libertarian program is utopian. Not that all of its policy
proposals are bad—libertarians sometimes have intelligent things to say in
particular areas, like transportation or energy. It is the worldview that is
premise that humanity is moving rapidly toward a perpetually peaceful,
post-national civilization with a rule-governed global market in which there
will be unrestricted movement of individuals as well as goods and money across
borders is as much a lunatic fantasy today as it was in the 1840s in the era of
Cobden and Bright. Human beings are and always will be nonrational, nepotistic
social animals, not utility-maximizing economic individualists. And there will
be cycles of geopolitical conflict as long as no world empire monopolizes
Kirk was right back in 1981: “genuine libertarians are mad—metaphysically mad.”
Foreign Policy Utopianism
conservative foreign policy is just as “metaphysically mad” as the libertarian
economic utopianism of the orthodox American right. If the word “conservative”
means anything at all, it refers in foreign policy to cautious, anti-utopian
Realpolitik, the kind symbolized by statesmen like Disraeli and Bismarck and
Eisenhower and Nixon.
thanks to George W. Bush and the neoconservative advisers who eclipsed
Republican realists like Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft, American
“conservatism” came to be identified with the utterly unconservative project of
unprovoked wars to topple autocrats in the hope of spreading a global
democratic revolution. This radical utopian project, which has backfired and
spread chaos exploited by jihadists from Iraq to Syria and Libya, is sometimes
called “Wilsonian.” In fact Woodrow Wilson was cautious by comparison with the
neocons, as were Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Neoconservative
democratic revolutionary crusading owes more to the revolutionary mentality of
anticommunist socialists in the neoconservative movement and their allies among
European social democrats than to the more pragmatic policies of FDR or
So it is the policy of the
United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and
institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending
tyranny in our world. . .
. . . Today, America speaks
anew to the peoples of the world:
All who live in tyranny and
hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or
excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with
Democratic reformers facing
repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the
future leaders of your free county.”
was essentially a declaration of war by the United States on all nondemocratic
regimes, including those of allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and rivals like
China. The American electorate showed what it thought of neoconservative
utopianism and disastrous wars of “regime change” by electing a Democratic
Congress in 2006 and a Democratic president twice, in 2008 and 2012.
addition to committing itself to free-market utopianism in economic policy, and
the utopian project of promoting universal democracy by the invasion or
subversion of other countries, the mainstream right is dedicated, at least
rhetorically, to another utopian project: repealing the sexual revolution.
Donald Trump recently challenged the rules of conservative campaigning by
offering qualified support for Planned Parenthood, American conservative
politicians were expected to adopt the views on sexual and gender issues of the
most extreme elements of the mostly-Protestant religious right. Mainstream
conservatives promise to outlaw abortion and reverse the recent legalization of
gay marriage and gay rights. Some social conservatives want to extend the
counter-revolution to battle the use of contraceptives.
inaugural issue of National Review in
1955, William F. Buckley Jr. declared that conservatives wanted to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” rather, it must be supposed, as Joshua made the
sun stand still in Joshua 10:12-13. The religious right has been more
ambitious, wanting to stand athwart history and yell until it goes backward, as
the sun went backward in Isaiah 38:7-8 and 2 Kings 20:8-11.
speaking, the religious right’s agenda has been counter-revolutionary, seeking
to restore the sexual norms that prevailed as recently in the 1950s, when
abortion was illegal, homosexuals were persecuted as criminals or lobotomized
as lunatics, and premarital sex and divorce were scandalous. But a
counter-revolutionary movement that has no prospect of success becomes just
another kind of utopianism. If the libertarian right and the neocons are
“metaphysically mad,” the religious right has been theologically mad.
is the art of the possible. It follows that utopianism is unpolitical, even antipolitical.
When combined with violence, utopianism produces horrors like the guillotine,
the Nazi death camps, the gulag and the killing fields of Cambodia. When it is
insincere, like late communism in the last days of the Soviet Union or in
contemporary China, utopianism is far less deadly and revolutionary rhetoric
tends merely to serve to divert attention from pervasive, low-level corruption.
utopianism of the contemporary American right is of the latter kind, and the
outsiders rebelling against the insiders in the GOP know it. Few if any elected
Republicans or conservative pundits actually believe that there will be a
borderless global market or the end of tyranny in the world or a return to the
sexual norms of 1950s America in their lifetimes, if ever. These promises of
revolution or counter-revolution are by now just stale ritual formulas deployed
in elections, like talk about “the revolutionary camp” against “the
imperialists” in the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union. Meanwhile, away from the
talking heads on TV and the op-eds and the blogs and the magazines, the actual,
mostly-transactional business of conservative politics goes on between
lobbyists and legislators and staffers, many of whom will become lobbyists.
Millenarian rhetoric is a cover for transactional kleptocracy.
interpretation of the support for Republican outsiders like Trump and Cruz over
establishment candidates like Jeb Bush holds that it is the GOP masses who are
the unworldly utopians. This interpretation tends to be popular among
progressives. Conservative leaders, it is sometimes suggested, promised
conservative voters what they wanted, and the voters are punishing them for
failure to deliver utopia on demand.
buy it, mainly because there is no evidence that in the post-Reagan era there
has ever any popular demand for the three utopian projects of libertarian
economic policy, neoconservative foreign policy or “theoconservative” moral
restoration. The first two were elite projects, at odds with the popularity of
Social Security and Medicare among working-class Republican voters—and at odds
as well with the unpopularity of neocon wars of regime change and
nation-building, in countries which are not immediate threats to the United
States. The “moral majority” was always a moral minority, even among white
working-class Republicans. The success of Trump in winning the support of many
evangelical voters shows that even those voters care about issues other than
sex and school prayer.
anything, the Republican masses are more conservative, in the traditional
sense, than the so-called conservative intellectuals. They want the federal
government to enforce existing immigration laws and to retaliate against the
attempts of state-capitalist mercantilist regimes like China to gain unfair
market share in the United States and the world. These policies have costs, but
as long as Americans are willing to pay the costs it is quite possible to deter
illegal immigration and retaliate against cheating in international trade.
illegal economic migration is demand-driven, not supply-driven. Slap a few
high-profile employers of illegal immigrant labor with fines or jail sentences,
and the flow will dry up with employer demand, even without a sea-to-sea border
fence or wall.
imposing penalties on foreign mercantilism and/or enacting local content
requirements mandating a degree of in-market production in the United States or
North America technically is quite easy to do. One can argue that the costs, in
the form of higher import prices or foreign counter-retaliation, exceed the
benefits, but the policy is hardly utopian. A few trade treaties might have to
be torn up, but what is the point of treaties that already have been rendered
dead letters by foreign cheating?
purpose is not to defend Trump voters, much less Trump himself, but to point
out the absurdities of establishment conservatism. Many establishment
conservatives claim that enforcing immigration laws or protecting American
manufacturing are crazy, utopian pipe-dreams. And yet many of these same
conservatives are committed, at least in public, to the far more utopian
orthodox conservative agenda of a borderless global market and ending tyranny
by American force or suasion in every country in the world. These conservatives
can be compared to Soviet hacks in the 1970s or 1980s who insist that modest
market reforms at home were too difficult even to attempt; best to stick to the
party line of the global overthrow of capitalism, comrades!
American right already has a non-utopian voter base whose voters are evidently
uninterested in the revolutionary projects of global free trade and wars for
democracy, and far less religious than their parents and grandparents. This
means reconciling Republican voters with Republican policies is simply a matter
of changing the policies to what the voters want.
simple, really. The conservative movement merely needs to jettison its three
utopian projects of libertarian economics, global democratic revolution and the
reversal of the sexual revolution. Once this operation takes place, plenty of
differences will remain to distinguish the American right from the American
left and center, even if conservatives end their war on Social Security and
switch from foreign nation-building to nation-building at home.
sure, a post-utopian American Right might disappoint and drive away some
conservative thinkers and activists who actually believe in one or more of the
three utopian crusades. But if I am correct, and most movement conservative operatives
are really just paying lip service to these policies, I would expect them to
adapt quickly to a new, post-utopian American conservative movement. All they
need to do is drop the pretense of believing in utopian fantasies that hardly
anyone believes in anyway.