When people tell me we need a third political party in America, I tell them they are wrong. What we need is a second party in America.
I endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 against John McCain because McCain presented himself as intemperate, reckless, and, in the midst of a near-collapse of the financial system, utterly ignorant about public finance. Obama, on the other hand, presented himself as a clean break with a president who had launched two wars, expanded entitlements, ignored the resulting deficits, made extravagant claims to executive authority, and embraced torture as an official policy of a nation that only a generation ago prided itself as being “a city on a hill.”
Back in 2000 when I supported Bush, I believed he was a more authentically conservative version of his father. When I supported Obama in 2008, I knew he was a liberal. But at least he seemed an anti-war liberal. And he seemed to be that rare Democrat who recognized the root causes of the deficit: out-of-control entitlements and out-of-control military spending. I admired his personal history and, much as I did with Bush, read into it a tendency to prudence, thoughtfulness, and restraint. As with Bush, I was wrong on all counts. In voting against McCain, I voted against Bush Squared. In voting for Obama, I got Bush Lite.
Let us pretend for a moment that the words “conservative” and “liberal” don’t exist. Let’s pretend that the squawkers on Fox News and MSNBC, the editorialists of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the flamethrowers on one side who yell “socialist” and on the other side who yell “extremist” don’t exist. Erased of our labels of convenience, it becomes clear that on the two fundamental problems of self-government, there is only one party in America.
Those two fundamental problems were identified in the Federalist Papers as money and power. With a few notable exceptions such as Tom Coburn, Bernie Sanders, and Rand Paul in the Senate, and Paul Ryan and Ron Paul in the House, minor differences on these two questions spur most of the public debate. But once in power, the two sides fundamentally agree. In office, Obama has accepted Bush’s expansion of the executive as a settled doctrine, ordered the military into a war without even the pretence of protecting national security, and continued his predecessor’s ruinous fiscal policies (and doubled down on them at that).
So, putting aside labels and partisan loyalties and marginal squabbles, ask yourself as I am asking myself: does it even matter who is president now? Judging solely by his actions, would there be any major difference on the two central questions of American government if the president today were Bush, McCain, Clinton, or Obama?
My serial disillusionment with Bush and Obama is not an isolated experience, I think, although I was one of only a handful of conservatives whose disillusionment led them to endorse Obama. Most conservative intellectuals were craven or cowed during the Bush years. To give but one example, John Goodman at Dallas’ National Center for Policy Analysis, a right-wing think tank, fired economist Bruce Bartlett because he dared question Bush’s egregious deficits.
Now it is the liberals’ turn. They were opposed to war when it was Republican induced. But they were silent about Obama’s surge in Afghanistan and his lethal dalliance in Libya. War for “national security” reasons is bad. War for “humanitarian” reasons is good. The left-wing Nation is today as much a partisan hack for Obama as the right-wing National Review was a partisan hack for Bush.
Neither the liberal nor the conservative intellectual tradition has survived this slavishness intact. On television and in their paid speaking engagements, public intellectuals have learned that it pays to perform like trained seals. They clap when they are supposed to. Critiques are meant to be delivered in sound bites, prepackaged for consumption by the party apparatchiki, not to actually address with serious thought how a republic turned itself into an imperial Leviathan and never, ever to be directed to their own side.
This is nothing less than trahison des clercs, a betrayal by our intellectuals of their foremost duty, which is to be thinking men and women. Because of it, America now finds itself embroiled in three countries whose culture we do not understand, to accomplish objectives that are ill-defined, at a cost we cannot afford, with a price tag in prestige and safety whose final tally will be written not by ourselves but by those who wish us harm.
When it comes to intervention, how is one party different from the other? Whichever is in control, the Leviathan of big government feeds itself and grows.
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