[This review was published in the Fall 2004 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 359-363.] 

 

Book Review 

 

Where the Right Went Wrong:

How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution

And Hijacked the Bush Presidency

Patrick J. Buchanan

St. Martin’s Press, 2004 

 

            This is another important book by Patrick Buchanan, whose writings provide some of the most thoughtful and comprehensive discussions of vital social, political and cultural issues to be found anywhere.

            Each of his most recent three books prior to this one has dealt with an issue that is critical to the existence of the United States in anything like its present form.  The Great Betrayal discusses the hollowing-out of the American economy by a deindustrialization that is well underway and that has come from what Buchanan sees as a slavish devotion to Free Trade ideology in the context of a global economy where business enterprise will move about the world seeking the lowest labor costs regardless of what that does to the American workforce and manufacturing base.  A Republic, Not an Empire examines the change that occurred in American foreign policy in 1898 when the United States shifted from its historic policy of leadership-by-example to a philosophy of benevolent imperialism through which the United States would undertake to be the policeman and social worker of the world.  In common with Samuel Huntington, he sees this global interventionism as both morally presumptuous and highly dangerous, inviting resentment from those who prefer to make their own decisions and live within their own cultures.  Accordingly, he sees it as a key cause of the Islamist radicalism that has declared war upon the United States.   In the most recent book, The Death of the West, Buchanan tells of the existential crisis for Western civilization that is rapidly taking form because of declining birth rates in Europe and America combined with massive immigration from the Third World.

            Where the Right Went Wrong contains a lucid and detailed explanation of each of these three crises, in effect summarizing the material brought out in the preceding three books.  (He also goes beyond these into others of substantial importance, and they will be mentioned later.) Because of the nature of the crises, it would be a serious mistake for a reader to suppose from the title that the book is a discussion of a narrowly sectarian matter that is of interest only to members of the American Right.  If, as Buchanan implicitly supposes, each crisis will only be deflected if American “conservatism” electrifies the country with appropriate ideas and leadership, the destruction and dissolution of that “conservatism” is a fact of significance to people generally, not simply to conservatives themselves.  What is at issue is not just the fate of the Right, but the fate of the United States, with all that that implies.

            It is Buchanan’s thesis that America’s erstwhile “conservatism” is now supplanted by forces that are so fragmented, so steeped in illusion, and so lacking in appropriate ideas that a “conservative movement” in any meaningful sense has ceased to exist.  Despite much unhappiness among  those directly impacted by downsizing and outsourcing, an unalloyed doctrine of Free Trade has become the conventional wisdom in the United States – and offers simply “more of the same” as the shift of work and enterprise to outside the country continues.  The Wilsonian gospel of “making the world safe for democracy” is repeated as a mantra, and draws the American people into ever-more commitments.  And in the name of “multiculturalism,” the elites within the United States and Europe welcome the demographic flushing-out of a civilization that heretofore has been profoundly European (and Christian).  Those who now call themselves “conservatives” are often strong on a given point – but virtually all are willing to “give away the store” on one of more of these vital issues.

            Nevertheless, the very fact that we are reviewing this book causes us to note that the “conservative” light is not entirely out.  Alternatives to the existing illusions exist precisely within his own writings, and within the pages of his journal The American Conservative, which gives voice to a coterie of writers who provide quite a lucid scholarship.  Thus, a candle burns within the world of ideas. 

            The question will be how the American people are to become conversant with those ideas and motivated to give them political expression.  Buchanan concludes the book with a call to those who share his insights to stay within the Republican Party, keeping their standing there for the purpose of waging a struggle for control of the party in the future, just as years ago the Goldwater and Reagan Republicans did in wresting the party away from the Rockefeller Republicans.  Whether, especially if George W. Bush is reelected, such a profound reorientation of today’s party is possible, given the ideological fragmentation that impedes coalescence on an alternative, seems to this reviewer extremely doubtful.  On the other hand, those who wish for a total defeat of Bush and the Republican Congress so that a “new American mainstream party” can rise from the ashes are almost certainly indulging in just as much wishful thinking.   The root of the problem lies in the fact that most “mainstream” Americans don’t read serious books, and hence give themselves no access to ideas beyond those they already hold.  The average “mainstream” American and Republican Party activist knows little of Buchanan’s prescriptions for the crises of our time.

            The American Right has long consisted of a variety of philosophically divergent factions.  These were held together by the anti-Communist imperative during the Cold War, so much so that the divisions were hardly visible.  But victory in the Cold War, Buchanan says, spelled the beginning of the end for that coalition.

            To Buchanan, the most proximate cause of the ensuing fragmentation and dissolution has been the ascendancy of the “neoconservatives.”  This gives rise to the book’s subtitle: “How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency.”   During recent years, neoconservatives have come to occupy the commanding heights of the erstwhile conservative movement.  They have captured the think tanks, foundations, journals of opinion, talk radio and the Fox television network.  (Their power over opinion is well illustrated by the exceptional drum-beat for war that reached a crescendo during the weeks before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  The American Right has long been accustomed to thinking the American media dominated by the Left.  But, with the exception of the late 1960s, nothing from the Left has ever matched the 2003 crescendo.)

            Who are the neoconservatives?  Buchanan is blunt in his critique: they are “…a cabal that betrayed the good cause of conservatism, because, from the very beginning, they never believed in it.  They had another agenda all along.”  Further, “the neoconservatives are not really conservatives at all.  They are impostors and opportunists.  They were Leftists in the 1930s, New Deal and Great Society Democrats through the 1960s, and slid to the right and the Republicans after Nixon and Reagan began rolling up forty-nine state landslides.”

            The content of their ideology is fully at odds with Buchanan’s.  While Buchanan urges an “enlightened nationalism,” the neoconservatives call for a global campaign to “wage democracy”; for an American world hegemony that will prevent the rise of competing powers on even a regional basis; and for a “new American century” while at the same time caring far less about national sovereignty, including that of the United States.  One of the driving forces behind this interventionist program is a fervent support for Israel, something that would clearly take a back seat in a foreign policy centered on the United States’ “own vital interests.”  To Buchanan, who sees the United States as having been dragged into quarrels that aren’t its own, “we have a vital stake in a just peace” between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  On what Buchanan sees as the demographic threat to American existence, the neoconservatives are among those who welcome the tidal wave of immigration from Mexico and other non-European sources.

            The other issues Buchanan discusses as having great national importance include the following:

            .  The essence of American conservatism has been its commitment to “individual liberty” (which is something substantially different from the special rights claimed by minorities under the banner of “freedom” during the past half-century).  Buchanan sees a serious threat to Americans’ personal freedom if instead of removing the root causes of the hatred against the United States the country launches, as it seems to have, into a potentially decades-long struggle with much of the Islamic world.  He quotes James Madison, who said “no nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”  The Patriot Act and Department of Homeland Security will serve best if they can be like the old Roman “dictatorship for a year.”  If they must exist for many years, the danger becomes palpable.

            .  Buchanan believes the Bush administration has adopted a misdirected strategy in the war with Islamic radicalism.  It is much better to comprehend the reasons for hatred against oneself than to take refuge in a gross simplification, denouncing opponents as “evil ones.”  Reflexive interventions invite the weak to use the only weapon they have – terror.  “The war Netanyahu and the neocons want, with the United States and Israel fighting all the radical Islamic states, is the war bin Laden wants.”  The invasion of Iraq was “the greatest strategic blunder in forty years,” taking the focus off of eliminating al Qaeda, substituting an unnecessary war in its place, and exacerbating hatreds.

            .  Domestically, he sees a decline in American education at all levels; a decline in religion and morality; and an activist judiciary, led by the U.S. Supreme Court, that pursues a revolutionary agenda.  “Though seven of the nine sitting justices were nominated by Republican presidents, Republicans have failed to rein in a Supreme Court that is imposing a social, moral, and cultural revolution upon our country.”  The danger Buchanan sees in this judicial activism is so great that it is a principal reason he favors the reelection of George W. Bush.  That may seem incongruous in light of the inability of earlier Republican presidents to fashion a non-activist court, but Buchanan knows that the election of a Democratic president will certainly lead to appointments of more activist judges.

            His discussion of these many issues causes Buchanan to give extensive background on a number of subjects that are worth knowing about in themselves: the nineteenth century Russian nihilists; the long struggle in Ireland; the use of terror by Zionists in forcing the formation of Israel; the “War of Algiers”; the use of “war terror” in the American Civil War and in Allied bombing of civilian targets in World War II; the rise of China; the history of American protectionism; and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  Each of these is a history lesson in itself. 

                                                                                           Dwight D. Murphey