It is natural for libertarians to identify more with the side out of power. In a democratic system, those not wielding government force are, categorically, less guilty of crimes against individual liberty. Their rhetoric tends to be much better. An appeal to constitutionalism, founding principles or balanced budgets is much more often heard from those not at the reins of the state. It is music to libertarians’ ears, even when we know the song was ripped off and is being lip-synced.
The pattern has been this way for a long time. Under Clinton, the right condemned federal welfare, police abuses, internationalism in foreign policy, and almost all erosions of the constitutional limits on the central state. The 1990s right flirted with revisionist history and a radical rethinking of the post-New Deal government, helping libertarians to find at least some common ground. The Kosovo War, in particular, demonstrated that the leftist attachment to peace was an illusion and that perhaps as much headway could be made on war issues in conservative circles as could be made anywhere.
Then we had the Bush years. The conservative movement became almost completely enthralled with the very worst of what government is capable of: mass murder. The American right began to take on the character of a truly totalitarian movement. Calls for deporting dissenters, shutting down the press, nuking tens of millions of people, banning Islam and other such despotic proposals were heard all over talk radio. At the height of Bush’s power and prestige, it almost looked like liberty was doomed in America, thanks primarily to the same crowd that gave us Reagan, the Contract with America and the defeat of Al Gore. Lew Rockwell’s "The Reality of Red-State Fascism," as well as many other works by him and by others on this site and elsewhere, perfectly summed up the problem of the time.
Things have swung back somewhat. Conservatives now talk about the Founding Fathers again. They have put up a noble resistance to Obamacare, Cap and Trade and the rest of the administration’s truly terrible domestic schemes. Unfortunately, they fail to go all the way in condemning domestic socialism, but it is a start. Conservatives have even taken an interest in nullification and other radical doctrines of classical liberalism. At times, it seems like they are all that is standing between our imperfect state of freedom and the total socialization of America. Rightwingers are even becoming skeptical of "nation-building" in Afghanistan. Ann Coulter of all people has become a qualified dove, all the while Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and the other leaders of progressivism have become fixated on demonizing the tea parties, hysterically prophesizing the rise of racist militias, and championing the national security state.
But, tragically, the rightwing is still locked into its post-9/11 mentality – which is to say its Cold War stance or even its classical attachment to the ancien régime. It is as Hobbesian as ever. It is dedicated to domestic freedom in theory but with more than a huge blind spot on questions of social order and especially national security. While today’s conservatives are in substantial areas better than the managerial progressives on the left, they are hardly a welcome alternative overall. Every indication suggests that when they regain power, they will be even worse than they were under Bush.
Not infrequently in Obama’s America, the conservative movement seems so on point, so focused on battling the federal government at home, so close to adopting Jeffersonianism or even Misesian radicalism, that we who love liberty are almost tempted to root for them and not just against our common enemy, the statist progressive left. But then, like clockwork, practically the entire rightwing is whipped back into a frenzy of bloodthirstiness, intolerance, and belligerent nationalist collectivism. Whether it’s illegal immigrants or Muslims, such scapegoats serve to distract conservatives from their supposed goal of shrinking the state. And the distraction is not a minor matter – it speaks directly to what modern conservatism is still all about.
Consider the "Ground Zero Mosque" issue. The idea of religious tolerance should be sacred in America. If there is any reason to be patriotically proud of America’s legacy of freedom, religious freedom is at the top of the list. We were all taught as children how great America was in this regard. And, unlike some other examples of American exceptionalist propaganda, there is actually truth to this. We have no religious wars within our borders. We have no official state religion, thank God. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, atheists, Buddhists and others get along in nearly perfect harmony. This is the crown jewel of American liberty.
The rightwing, however, considers it "politically correct" or even "treasonous" to defend the right of Muslims to pray on their own private property. The explosion of hysteria over the Islamic Community Center in Manhattan was not, as some would have it, an example of political trivia taking over the national debate – it was rather an important national debate over a very fundamental issue on which Americans should by now be mostly united, but instead the rightwing clearly took the wrong side, showing their craven willingness to reject private property rights and the foundation of civilization simply to express their love of the U.S. government and their hatred of Islam.
Consider the very common conservative mentality here. The site of blowback in retaliation of U.S. war crimes – Ground Zero – has become "hallowed ground." To allow Muslims to build a mosque on their own property nearby would be a "victory" for "Islamofascism." This pits the American government against all Muslims in a religious war, where the U.S. is sacred and even Muslim Americans are denied the most basic of American freedoms.
Last weekend, Glenn Beck had half a million folks, many of them very well intentioned and understandably angry about the direction of our country, convene at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech. While I expected a mix of good and bad messages – Beck still has a love of the military state, but is also the highest-profile media personality to attack Woodrow Wilson regularly, which I consider a major point in his favor – what I saw was something else entirely. It was a religious revival, with ecumenical theism as the unifying principle. So long as you believed in God (or, as one speaker seemed to repeatedly put it, "gods") you would be welcome in the Beck extended family, regardless of your denomination.
But there was more to it than that. You must, above all else, accept the core elements of America’s secular civic religion. The Pilgrims and Native Americans were God’s "chosen people," as Beck said. The U.S. government, forcibly united under Lincoln, represents the hand of God on earth. The Civil Rights movement was also a holy, blessed and distinctly American endeavor. The whole event was a pseudo-religious mass prayer to the alleged U.S. values of egalitarianism, militarism, and soft theocracy. Everything good about America – which was tied inextricably to the federal government, its military wing and unifying power over the states and people – has God’s signature right on it. Sarah Palin’s speech was particularly awful, as she spoke of the righteous destiny of women since ancient times to see their children grow up and die for the holy state.
This is frightening stuff – the stuff of a theocratic national socialism, when taken to its extreme. This is not to say most of Beck’s fans are Nazis, or anything like that. But there is something at the core of modern conservatism that still contains the seed of the most wretched political horrors you can imagine. And we could reasonably worry that we have yet to see the worst from this bunch. In fact, Bush perhaps moderated some of the right’s worst impulses, in particular the explicit Islamophobia. With Obama as president, the right is looking for a political savior even more unambiguously hateful than the Bush regime. The culture war, too, has again reared its ugly head, with conservatives predictably neglecting the obvious solution of opposing state encroachments on their own families and cultural values, and instead politicizing everything and depending on government as the final moral arbiter in society.
The religious devotion to the military and nation-state – whether wrapped up in Christianity or secularism – explains why some people can never be trusted on the question of war. When Ann Coulter expresses skepticism toward Afghanistan, it is the function of a watered-down and vulgar America First sentiment. But America First is only a bulwark for peace when it’s radical, consistent and coupled with a concern for the dignity and humanity of foreign victims of the regime. If the only reason to oppose war is it’s a waste of American blood and money, there will be no stopping the next Republican president from unleashing even more death and destruction than did Bush, so long as it can be excused in the name of "national security." For Americans to embrace peace, they must accept the notion that foreigners have all the natural rights Americans do, and dropping bombs on them while they sit peacefully in their homes and neighborhoods is every bit as barbaric, monstrous and murderous as 9/11 or any other terrorist act. Most left-liberals are too poisoned by nationalism and love of government to fully admit this. But conservatives, in particular, are generally incapable of even wrapping their heads around the notion.
And so it is that half of the rightwing critique of Obama is completely off-base. The president is "handcuffing the military" or "dithering" on the war. He is cutting Pentagon spending (a total lie). He is neglecting Afghanistan, when in fact he is much, much more belligerent there than Bush was. He is a secret Muslim who doesn’t really believe in U.S. wars. He is a product of the anti-American pacifist left. He is dedicated to destroying Wall Street. He is anti-police. He has weakened Bush’s war on terror. He is "soft" on suspected terrorists. Much of what the right says about Obama makes him sound infinitely better than he actually is. It was the same way under Bush, but to a much lesser degree. The left did critique Bush disingenuously, talking about how he was slashing the public sector, which was not true in the slightest. But more of what the left said about Bush was valid, than what the right seems to be saying about Obama.
The right’s criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy are especially dangerous, as they help foster a rapid expansion of militarism. Just as under the Cold War, when out-of-power conservatives did little to curtail the welfare state, all the while encouraging Democrats to send ever more troops into combat, we cannot expect much to improve with conservatives taking their current hypocritical and incoherent stance.
So here we are, stuck between two alternatives that are as bad as ever. The left is now more devoted to destroying private property and individual liberty than it has been in decades. The right is only somewhat less egregious, due to circumstance, than it was under Bush.
The answer, as usual, is to be found in libertarianism. Those who reject all statism and uphold the individual rights of all persons everywhere by virtue of their humanity can show us the way out of the darkness, the economic stagnation, the endless war. The libertarian movement is much bigger than ever and is constantly gaining adherents from both left and right. There are many on the tea party right who can be reached, but they must abandon conservatism to become reliable opponents of the regime. So long as they retain the baggage of nationalism – perhaps the worst of all forms of tribalism and collectivism – and cling to their reactionary culture war, they will continue to be unreliable allies at best, losing sight of the state that enslaves us all, or worse, petitioning it to expand its power and crack more skulls so as to protect their sense of cultural and national identity.