According to most prominent Democrats, the United States is being seriously hurt by the conservatives running Washington today.  While their allegations about the damage being done by those in power may be plausible, what warrants skepticism is the premise behind the allegations.  Do those whom the Democrats criticize deserve to be called “conservatives”?  Given their willingness to accept enormous budget deficits and massive national debt, they do not qualify as fiscal conservatives.  Similarly, their embrace of big government fueled by budgetary pork falls short of the conventional notion that conservatism stands for minimal government.  Perhaps most important, their enthusiasm for Wilsonian interventionism in international affairs falls far short of genuine conservatism.  If these policies can be labeled “conservative,” then what are the “liberal” policies on these issues?

The major role of neoconservatives in shaping relatively liberal policies and bestowing the label “conservative” on the results has contributed to the controversy surrounding the authenticity of contemporary conservatism.  In the international arena, the neoconservatives’ philosophical roots are deep in the Wilsonian-Stimsonian globalist wing of the Democratic Party.  Just as the co-opting of many Republicans by the post-World War II liberal internationalist vision of the Truman administration divided conservatism, in the post-Vietnam era—after the McGovernites divided Democratic Party ranks with their leftist advocacy of disengagement—the Democrats’ extreme interventionists broke ranks and shifted allegiance to the Republican Party.  That was plausible, in part, because of the legacy of such men as Henry Luce (of Time fame) who deemed it conservative to oppose noninterventionism and to favor an American leadership role in the world based on moral imperatives.  The neoconservatives’ growing influence among Republicans from the Reagan administration to the current Bush administration comes at the expense of mainstream traditional and libertarian conservatives.  For better or worse, however, conventional wisdom today—especially in the mainstream media—identifies “conservatism” with neoconservatism.

When the neoconservatives were still in the ascendancy—at the height of major combat in the Iraq War—a genuinely conservative member of Congress, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), blasted the neocons’ credentials in a piece that appeared on (July 15, 2003):

They have successfully moved the Republican Party away from the Goldwater-era platform of frugal government at home and nonintervention abroad, toward a big-government world of empire mentality more reminiscent of Herbert Hoover or Woodrow Wilson.  In doing so, they have proven that their ideas are neither new nor conservative.

Congressman Paul’s critique was on the mark and will remain valid as long as the neocons persists in their attempt to define American conservatism.

The neocons deservedly bore the brunt of much of the criticism that spilled over from the Bush administration’s pursuit of the “War on Terror” during a tangential war in Iraq, which raised profound questions about their staying power.  Yet, it would be unrealistic to expect the neocons to lose influence as long as they enjoy the kind of exposure they receive through the Weekly Standard, Fox News, and the American Enterprise Institute.

The situation within the Republican Party will not change any time soon.  For all those conservatives who dissent from the media’s conventional wisdom about who defines conservatism and who hope to revitalize the traditional/libertarian approaches to conservatism, a third-party option may make sense.  In terms of existing parties, the most widely recognized is the Libertarian Party, which has well-defined positions on noninterventionism and small government and will be on the ballot in all 50 states.  The Constitution Party, which has taken a pointedly anti-neoconservative position on international affairs, will likely be on the ballot in about 40 states.  The fledgling America First Party, which evolved from the Reform Party and whose goals are clearly defined by its name, was gaining momentum until factional frictions halted it.  One of these parties may yet prove to be a credible conservative alternative to the Republican Party over the long run.  Just as the Republican Party emerged in the mid-19th century from a Whig Party that had lost its bearings, it is conceivable that a more authentically conservative party could do the same thing today.

Unfortunately, the Libertarian Party has an image problem.  For many conservatives, “libertarian” sounds too much like “liberal.”  They should know better, considering the philosophical roots of classical liberalism.  One way to get past this problem would be to persuade the Libertarian Party to modify its name by inserting the word conservative.  Many more conservative voters are likely to be drawn to a Libertarian Conservative Party.  It also would be far better positioned to attract authentically conservative politicians with significant reputations and name recognition to run for president and lesser offices under its banner.  Similarly, the “America First” label on a national political party can be a hard sell for those who see that phrase as symbolic of what went wrong with U.S. policy on the eve of World War II.  That should not deter those conservatives who grasp the sound logic of putting America first in our foreign, defense, and economic policies from pursuing this entirely legitimate form of conservatism as the basis of a third-party alternative, but they may not want to use that name.  The Constitution Party’s name does not send any ambiguous signals, but it remains much less known than the Libertarian Party.

It is plausible that such a third party could become credible enough, fast enough, to establish itself as the truly conservative party.  If such a party could avoid the fate of virtually all third parties, it could survive and prosper politically.  It could prevail electorally and replace the Republican Party by absorbing its genuinely conservative constituencies.  On the other hand, it would be sufficient if such a third party could pose enough of a challenge to the Republicans to cause that party’s remaining true conservatives to rid themselves of pseudoconservatives—abandoning big deficits, big government, and global interventionism—and reach out to the conservative challengers in a constructive manner intended to transform the Republican Party.  This would be reminiscent of how the former Whig Party evolved into the Republican Party in the 1850’s, without going quite that far.  Here, too, genuinely conservative Republicans could learn something from the Nader experience, as the Democrats seeks to convince his supporters that their party has not lost its liberal compass.  Either way, a more authentic conservative political option would be presented to the American people.

If conservative Americans—through either a transformed Republican Party or its replacement—could pursue a genuine conservative agenda for the 21st century, they could avoid future electoral choices where the differences between Republican and Democratic versions of internationalism are difficult to detect, where both parties can be accurately described as devoted to big government, and where the quest for budgetary pork undermines fiscal conservatism.  Americans in 2004 will choose between two candidates who proclaim their virtues as global leaders, favor big government, and are not fiscal conservatives.  This overlap is more pronounced today under the influence of neoconservative ideas on Republicans, but it evolved throughout the Cold War electoral cycles.  While interventionist internationalism had become acceptable in conservative circles as a Wilsonian-Stimsonian way to cope with the threats of global communism, it remained a questionable precept, as demonstrated by U.S. entanglement in a number of controversial conflicts—notably Vietnam.  It became still more questionable as U.S. leaders from both major parties, adapting President Roosevelt’s aspirations for “four policemen” to guide the United Nations hegemonically toward maintaining postwar world peace, positioning the United States to play the role of global cop on her own.  All of this became still more questionable in the post-Cold War era, where the Wilsonian internationalist similarities in a series of presidential races (Bush-Dukakis, Bush-Clinton, Clinton-Dole, and Bush-Gore) were striking.

Given this legacy of Wilsonian internationalism, the 2004 choice is by no means surprising.  After all, both President Bush and Senator Kerry fit the definition of proactive Wilsonian interventionist internationalist.  This was underscored after September 11 by a prominent neocon, Max Boot, in a Wall Street Journal column entitled “George W. Bush: The ‘W’ Stands for Woodrow” (July 1, 2002).  As predictable as the internationalist similarities are in today’s Republican and Democratic parties, and despite partisan wrangling over who should be anointed the best internationalist based on differing road maps, this situation should be unacceptable for genuine conservatives.

The old imperial-age moral metaphor from Rudyard Kipling about the “white man’s burden” clearly has become politically incorrect in the 21st century, but many Americans—Democrats and Republicans—believe the United States should embrace an equivalent that could be labeled the “free man’s burden,” imposing a mandate on the United States to export U.S.-style freedoms worldwide to help assure global peace.  Furthermore, that burden entails a geopolitical commitment to intervene where necessary to assure that others will have an opportunity to embrace the American way of life.  This is a flawed paradigm that is not at all in keeping with the conservative noninterventionist traditions rooted in the admonitions of Presidents Washington and Jefferson to avoid permanent and entangling alliances.  This internationalism does not focus clearly on U.S. national interests and blurs the line by injecting transnational and pan-national criteria.  It is time for American conservatives to revive priorities based on American strategic independence within U.S. foreign and defense policies.  By no means does this entail a revival of stereotyped “isolationism.”  A number of creative conservative ideas have been raised in the post-Cold War era as viable alternatives.  A notable example is libertarian conservative Ivan Eland’s appropriately titled Putting “Defense” Back Into U.S. Defense Policy (Praeger).

Conservatives should use strategic independence priorities to reengage in an essential national debate over the United States’ proper role in world affairs—a debate that will help them either transform the Republican Party or create its successor.  If conservatives succeed in this endeavor, those revised international priorities predicated on rejection of rampant Wilsonian interventionism would, in turn, lead to a smaller  and less-expensive government.  In short, it would be a truly conservative approach to governing the United States.