With a none-too-whopping lunch of 51 percent of the popular vote packed into their bellies, the nation’s “conservatives” quibbled and preached to one another about the true meaning of the 2004 presidential election even before the 51 percent had made it all the way down their political esophagus. “Now comes the revolution,” beamed Richard A. Viguerie, a faded star of the first (New Right) revolution that never quite happened back in the 1980’s, to a small clutch of “movement conservatives” in Arlington, Virginia, on election night. “If you don’t implement a conservative agenda now, when do you?” Mr. Viguerie—and other conservatives—may not really want an answer to that question, but they will soon get one.
As the New York Times noted two days after the election, conservatives were ebullient about Mr. Bush’s victory—and why not? For some little while, it was beginning to look like the President would go the way of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, with John Kerry ousting him and his neoconservative war wonks from the West Wing and sending the whole crusade for global democracy back to the Commentary editorial offices. Mr. Bush’s last-minute and razor-thin victory erased those thoughts. “Movement” stalwarts who, a few months before, were vowing not to vote for Mr. Bush and refusing to applaud him even when he graced their own fundraising dinners now swooned in delight at the mass affirmation of their doctrines they imagined the election implied.
And maybe it does, but the brute fact, whether the movementites remembered or not, was that, up to the very morning of the election, no one could accurately predict what would happen—especially the conservatives. The Washington Post two days before the election, published the projections of several conservative and neoconservative pundits, and every one of them was wrong, with some, like neocon Bill Kristol, foreseeing vast landslides of more than 300 electoral votes for the President. In any case, Mr. Bush won by the smallest possible margin and by carrying one big state—call it Florida or Ohio. Had he lost either, he would have lost the election, and he won each of them by margins no larger than his national average. The President’s final victory last year was therefore almost as unimpressive as his previous one in 2000. In that year, with only 47 percent of the popular vote, he would have lost outright had Ralph Nader not taken votes from Al Gore. As an incumbent wartime president with no major scandal or economic depression, Mr. Bush should have smashed John Kerry with landslides like those won by Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984, but his slim and unpredictable victory last year means not only that there is no national consensus whatsoever behind him or his policies but that his reelection was, in fact, a moral defeat for him and those very policies. If the “emerging Republican majority” can do no better than 47 percent of the popular vote one election and 51 percent the next, the GOP is in deep trouble. To say Mr. Bush now has a “mandate,” as Vice President Cheney was quick to insist and as every movementite in the country eager to clamber on board was soon braying, is absurd on its face.
What does the reelection of George W. Bush mean for the American right, however that term is defined? Before the election, observers as diverse as Pat Buchanan and the New Republic’s Franklin Foer were intimating that it would mean a “civil war” inside the Republican Party, as Mr. Buchanan predicted in his recent book, or would lead “antiwar conservatives” to break with the Republican Party entirely, as Mr. Foer suggested. Someone needs to tell Mr. Foer that most of them did that long ago. I can count on one hand the serious conservatives I know who supported George W. Bush this year—or in 2000, for that matter.
Of course, as Mr. Bush becomes a lame duck, there will be a struggle for the next nomination, and there might even be some superficial ideological distinctions among the contenders. But neoconservative Kenneth Weinstein, head of the Hudson Institute, was probably more accurate in his assessment the day after the election. “Certainly,” he wheezed to the New York Times, “we have avoided the blood bath in the Republican Party that would have taken place if Mr. Bush had been defeated.” The need to avoid bloodbaths is always a watchword for oligarchies, and the Bush victory, however narrow and however meaningless as a “mandate,” at least entrenched the neoconservatives in the power positions that they have occupied for the last four years. Some may go and some may come, but there was no reason to think they would abandon a ship that still floats, let alone that the captain would throw them overboard. Neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was quick to claim that the election meant a “referendum on the Bush doctrine,” and, while it was certainly no such thing, the effect of the President’s reelection will surely be the preservation of neoconservative hegemony of the American right, as well as of the federal government.
In that sense, Mr. Bush’s reelection is a disaster for radical conservatism. That should be obvious in the realm of foreign policy. Every rumble from the conservative press and from inside Cabal Headquarters at the Pentagon is that Iran is next on the liberation menu, through a strike by Israel or the United States herself at her nuclear facilities or, sooner or later, a full-scale war. Such major neoconservative pundits as Norman Podhoretz, Michael Ledeen, Frank Gaffney, and others have been badgering for more war in the Middle East for years, and, with the impending departure of Colin Powell, there is no one in the Bush administration who can offer much resistance. It is also unlikely that we will hear any more about the FBI investigation of Israeli espionage inside the Pentagon. Treason has every expectation of a bull market.
Foreign policy is what the neocons care most about, but their continued control is likely in other areas of policy, too. According to exit polls, Mr. Bush won some 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in the election, more than any other Republican president in history, and that factoid was immediately seized by the Open Borders lobby (mainly neoconservatives and libertarians on the political right) to argue against any further support for immigration control. In early 2004, Mr. Bush unveiled what amounted to a massive amnesty for illegal aliens, and, while the amnesty vanished in Congress, Mr. Bush revived it after the election. The lesson the administration and many Republicans have drawn from the exit polls is that amnesty and support for mass immigration wins Hispanic votes and yields victory, and the Open Borders propagandists have led them to that conclusion.
If that means that pandering pays, maybe they are right, but the exit polls need to be scrutinized more carefully. In the first place, as was soon notorious in last year’s election, the exit polls turned out to be simply wrong in many cases. In the case of Hispanics, however, they may be closer to the truth. A preelection poll in Florida put Mr. Bush’s support at some 61 percent among Hispanics, and the exit polls on Election Day reported that it was 56 percent, so there is not that much difference. (Then again, they may not be so accurate, since some exit polls of Hispanic voters showed Mr. Bush doing even less well among them last year than he did in 2000.) In any case, the President’s supposedly swollen Hispanic numbers came mainly from Florida and Texas, where he has long and significant personal and political connections. In the other two major locations of Hispanic voting power, California and New York, his increased share of the Hispanic vote was considerably less. If amnesty and soft immigration policies had been the reasons for the increase, the exit polls would have shown a similar rise in those two states as well.
Moreover, in Arizona, where a ballot measure directed against welfare and voting for illegal immigrants passed by 60 percent, 47 percent of the state’s Hispanics supported it. The unspoken assumption of the Open Borders lobby is that any and all immigration control will alienate all Hispanic voters, but that is just not true. Immigration restrictionists did well also in their congressional races last year, and their leader, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, won with some 60 percent of the vote in his district despite heavily funded opposition and virtually no support from the Bush administration, which has told him he is not welcome in the White House. If there was a lesson about immigration from this election, it was that immigration control pays, not amnesty and pandering, but it is not the lesson the White House or the Stupid Party is likely to learn.
If it’s a mandate you are looking for, “moral issues” are more plausible, though how much they have to do with Mr. Bush and his brood is an open question. Just after the election, the Washington Post ran a sizeable story showing how the campaign against “gay marriage” in various state referenda was engineered, not by the White House or the Republican Party, but by the evangelicals themselves. The White House and the Stupid Party did not want to push the issue at all, though they were the main beneficiaries of it. The revulsion against “gay marriage” is, of course, hardly a moral or social counterrevolution, but it is a clear indication that white Christian voters are now willing to say no to further moral erosion and to use political power to say it. The strength of the “moral issue” in the 2004 election confirms that the long-term historical and social process I have previously called the “Middle American Revolution” still flourishes.
It flourishes in the only place it can really ever take place—among Middle Americans themselves, which is what all the media catchphrases about “Red America” mean. The salience of the moral issue, as well as the positive response to immigration-control measures and candidates and even, in a perverse sense, to the “War on Terror” and the war with Iraq, all point to a serious rightward and antiestablishment trend in the country, rather further to the right and more antiestablishment than the Bush White House, the GOP leadership, and the neoconservative mafia would like. Quite aside from the very obvious flaws, moral and strategic, of the war in Iraq, a good deal of popular support for it derives from the perfectly healthy, natural, and normal instincts—national, religious, and racial—of Americans who have seen the country attacked in a massive, brutal, and sneaky act of terror and who understandably want blood revenge. The background of the September 11 attacks in our Middle East policies and the exact role and meaning of Saddam Hussein and Iraq are matters of information and misinformation, not principle. Much of the mass sentiment that supports the war in Iraq, in other words, is sound, despite its manipulation and exploitation by the government and the neocons for their own unsound and sinister purposes.
And that, of course, is why there will and can be no revolution, moral or otherwise, in America as a result of this last election. The forces that benefit from the election do not want a revolution and have no intention of leading one. What they want is what Republicans since at least the days of Richard Nixon have always wanted: to exploit the healthy and conservative instincts of Middle Americans in order to put themselves in office. If that were all that was wrong with the last election, we could perhaps overlook it, but today, there is more.
Today, the neoconservatives have succeeded in attaching themselves to the social and political forces of the Middle American Revolution and to at least some of the sentiments that animate it, including patriotism and moral traditionalism. At the same time, they have managed to paint paleoconservatives who oppose the war as “unpatriotic”—not without the assistance of some on the antiwar right, especially libertarians, who love to wallow with genuinely anti-American icons and images and such dubious characters as Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky. The neoconservative success in this respect is significant, because by co-opting “patriotism,” they have managed to give themselves what they have never previously been able to gain: a national constituency through a national political vehicle (the Republican Party) that can mobilize the constituency to retain national power. And neoconservatives will retain power as long as they remain able to preserve the illusion that they are the real voices of American patriotism. They will no longer be a mere attachment to whatever court they can creep into but will become a significant—and dominant—political force in their own right.
Mr. Bush’s victory last November does not by any means signify the end of radical conservatism, though no one should delude himself that it represents anything close to its triumph. What the election proves is that there persists a powerful and healthy determination among the American electorate to conserve its cultural, moral, and national being—its identity. What it also proves, however, is that the enemies of that very identity and those who are simply indifferent to its existence and survival are more than capable of capturing and using it for their own purposes. What the election should teach the real American right is that its principal mission is to separate those enemies from the people they have conquered.