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April 22, 2005

The Theocon Threat
Posted by Michael Signer

Andrew Sullivan has a terrific piece up in today's TNR called "Crisis of Faith".  His argument, in brief, is that today's conservative movement -- while wildly successful -- is riven by a split between two radically opposed ideas:  what he calls the "conservatism of faith" and the "conservatism of doubt."

Crusades, however, are not means of persuasion. They are means of coercion. And so it is no accident that the crusading Republicans are impatient with institutional obstacles in their way. The judiciary, which is designed to check executive and legislative decisions, is now the first object of attack. Bare-knuckled character assassination of opponents is part of the repertoire: Just look at the swift-boat smears of John Kerry. The filibuster is attacked. The mass media is targeted, not simply to correct bad or biased reporting, but to promote points of view that are openly sectarian, even if, as in the case of Armstrong Williams, you have to pay for people to endorse your views. Religious right dominance of the party machinery, in an electoral landscape remade by gerrymandering, means that few opponents of fundamentalist politics have a future in the Republican Party. It's telling that none of the biggest talents in the Republican Party will ever be its nominee for president. John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Pataki, and Rudy Giuliani could never survive the fundamentalist-dominated primaries.

Indeed, by their very nature, conservatives of doubt are not particularly aggressive politicians. Fiscal conservatives have been coy in expressing their outrage at Bush's massive spending and borrowing, easily silenced by the thought that Democrats would be even worse. Defenders of an independent judiciary are drowned out by the talk radio/Fox News/ blog-driven megaphone of loathing for unaccountable judges. Many moderate conservatives voted for the law to protect Schiavo. Republican defenders of gay marriage are few and far between. Those few voices of dissent are increasingly portrayed as mavericks or has-beens. You will find precious little time for people like Christie Todd Whitman on talk radio or in the conservative blogosphere.

In my native Virginia, the schism between these two ideologies of ideology, if you will, has caused a small civil war within the Republican Party.  A new PAC funded by faith-based conservatives is actually fielding Republican candidates against the Republican legislators who supported Governor Mark Warner's tax reform package. 

For foreign policy, the question is how much longer we can sustain faith-based strategies.  As an erstwhile political theorist, what's fascinating to me is that the idea of American republican democracy -- which, in its original genesis, was less of a traditionally European (meaning German or French) metaphysically-driven enterprise and more of a prudential, pragmatist one -- has somehow been converted into an article of faith for the theocons. 

Why is this bad?  Only because the core belief of the liberal-minded progressive is that everything should be subject to debate.  And you should be able to have thoughtful conversations on, say, why the Administration isn't focusing more on democratizing Kuwait or Sudan or Russia, or why the more pure form of democracy we see in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela merits such disapprobation from the Administration.

These are complex questions and illuminate the spectrum of democracy, from the Greek ochlocracy (mobs ruled by demagogues) to the parliamentary system to American-style republican democracy.  But because the Administration has theologized the idea of democracy, we can't have the conversation.

So we're going to make a lot of mistakes.  I believe that progressives in general should be outrunning the Administration on democratization -- but not if it leads us to poor reasoning and to looking either silly or stupid, depending on the day.  Secretary Rice's prudential, diplomacy-based democratization (see her meeting with opposition reformers in Belarus for an example) looks different, and far better, than the Wolfowitz/Perle school of placing it all on black -- or red.


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Kuwait? what are we supposed to be doing in Kuwait? They just made a major advance on women's rights, all by themselves. I don't see how the Bush administration could have helped here. Best to lay low in situations like that.

As a Russian speaker, I have to say that she made a fool out of herself in Moscow and did not win any friends. It's all well and good to promote democracy. And that is certainly better than enforcing democracy as we did in Iraq. But a certain level of competence should come along with that. If you don't speak the language fluently, then don't try. Especially in Russia. They are even more prickly and and proud of Russian than the French are French.

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