Today I Learned – 12/22/2016

Today I Learned a little bit about the difference between civilizational conservatism and ideological conservatism, thanks to Peter Beinart’s recent article in The Atlantic, where he discusses the shift of American conservative foreign-policy thinking as it relates to Russia and Islam/Muslims.

During the cold war, conservatives were united in their opposition to Russia, but Beinart argues that underneath this opposition were divergent worldviews whose appreciable differences have manifested themselves only in today’s unique political climate. He states that two types of conservatives existed during the cold war: “Civilizational,” i.e., those who saw America’s struggle against Russia through the prism of religion, and “ideological,” i.e., those who saw this struggle through the lens of governance.

To understand this shift, it’s worth distinguishing two different strains of conservative foreign-policy thinking during the cold war. Civilizational conservatives like Jerry Falwell and Pat Buchanan saw the cold war as a struggle between two countries defined primarily by their view of God: The Judeo-Christian United States versus the atheistic Soviet Union. Ideological conservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Elliot Abrams, by contrast, saw the cold war as a conflict between two countries defined primarily by their view of government: the liberty-loving United States versus the totalitarian USSR.

He mentions that a third group also existed, though this group hasn’t significantly shifted in today’s political juncture.

(A third group, composed of realists like Henry Kissinger and George Kennan, saw the cold war as a traditional great power conflict between two countries defined primarily by their geopolitical heft.)

I found Beinart’s analysis to be especially trenchant because as a theoretical framework, it helped me understand today’s conservative schism a little better. For one, I no longer see it as a paradox that some conservatives are kowtowing to Russia, but as an action consistent with deeply-rooted beliefs. This of course, does not make it any better.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought about an end to the convergence between these two classes of conservatives and the resulting cleavage demonstrated the possibility of each side taking an opposing view of the other depending on the circumstance. Beinart gives the example of Serbia:

In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed, ideological conservatives and civilizational conservatives parted ways. The clearest example was the former Yugoslavia. In the 1990s, Serbs brutalized the largely Muslim breakaway republic of Bosnia. Ideological conservatives like Robert Kagan urged NATO to intervene in the name of human rights. Cultural conservatives like Buchanan wondered why the U.S. was going to war to defend Muslims against Christians. Ideological conservatives saw Russia, Serbia’s traditional ally, as defending tyranny and ethnic cleansing. Cultural conservatives saw Russia as defending Christendom.

After 9/11, the two sides converged once again and much of the distinction became blurred. George W. Bush and much of the Republican party during and after his time maintained a politics of ideological conservatism. But the events precipitated by 9/11, including the ‘War on Terror’, arguably incubated the civilizational narrative because it conveniently aligned with the ideological narrative of the war being inherently just and good. Despite the divergent worldviews of civilizational and ideological conservatives, they dovetailed well in a post-9/11 world.

So while the Bush administration and conventional republicans like Mitt Romney and John McCain vocally advocated for an ideological conservatism and distanced themselves from impugning Islam as a religion, their concomitant alliance with civilizational conservatives on the war (perhaps tacitly) gave opportunity for the latter’s ideas to gain traction within the conscience of the GOP’s base.

And thus, civilizational conservatism has now recrudesced itself under a Trump administration.

Trump’s approbatory remarks towards Putin and the GOP’s generally softening stance toward Russia have once again manifested the difference between the two conservative camps:

Ideological conservatives loathe Putin because he represents an authoritarian challenge to the American-backed order in Europe and the Middle East. But many civilizational conservatives, who once opposed the Soviet Union because of its atheism, now view Putin’s Russia as Christianity’s front line against the new civilizational enemy: Islam.

The resurgence of a civilizational conservatism, perhaps in its most staunch, untrammeled, and vicious form, creates the stage for an internecine conflict within the Republican party whose winners may decide not only the future of conservatism, but of the country as a whole, and perhaps the world.

Will the GOP define Americanism as the defense of a set of universal principles or as the defense of a racial and religious heritage? The answer won’t only help determine how well liberal democracy fares overseas. It will help determine how well it fares at home.


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