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As Neoconservatism Wanes In The GOP, Will Libertarianism Take Its Place?

Recent trends indicate major shift in GOP

Keith Farrell

Last month, Liz Cheney quietly withdrew from Wyoming’s Senate race, marking what may be a turning point in Republican politics. The daughter of former Vice President and neoconservative figurehead Dick Cheney famously challenged Republican Senator Mike Enzi last summer to a primary contest. Cheney withdrew after an embarrassing campaign which saw her trailing the incumbent by 50 points.

If Cheney had attempted to run for senate six years ago, she likely would have been wildly successful on name recognition alone. What happened in the interim? Perhaps a new Republican Party is emerging, one which is rejecting the neoconservative influence that has dominated it for the past 30 years.

Some of neoconservatism’s origins can be traced back to a group of 1960’s Democrats who were disillusioned with President Lyndon Johnson’s domestic policies, especially surrounding the Great Society, as well as the party’s growing antiwar movement. In 1972, the Democrat’s antiwar consensus swept George McGovern to become its presidential nominee. The more hawkish opponents of McGovern that would become neoconservatives instead backed Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson in ’72 and ’76, later leaving the party in protest.

One idea that facilitated the shift of these disillusioned Democrats to the Republican Party was that a new center had emerged in American politics: economic liberalism combined with social conservatism. A major intellectual influence in the emerging neoconservative movement was Professor Leo Strauss of the University of Chicago and his political science students. Strauss, who has been called the father of neoconservatism, believed Western society had lost its purpose and that conservative values, rooted in Greek classical political philosophy and Judeo-Christian morals, could restore it. The Chicago neoconservatives crafted a narrative of America as a force of moral good in the world, locked in a struggle against evil. Their new conservatism was one of nationalistic pride, an aggressive foreign policy, and liberal economics.

Neoconservative intellectuals argued throughout the Cold War that the US was involved in a moral conflict. When the Soviet Union fell, the neoconservatives needed a new face for evil. They found it in their ally against the Soviets: radical Islam. In the 1980’s America had armed and trained militant Muslims in Afghanistan to combat Soviet occupation. This group would go on to become al Qaeda, and similar interventions into Islamic lands such as the U.S. base in Saudi Arabia, soon provided them with the motivation to attack America.

While the motives surrounding the attacks of September 11, 2001 are complex, neoconservatives simply recycled their old narrative of a moral crusade. Namely, America was a virtuous nation engaged in world conflict against the very embodiment of evil. As they had hyped the Soviet threat, they now argued that al Qaeda was a highly organized, sophisticated terrorist network bent on Western destruction. President George Bush even labeled al Qaeda and several Islamic nations an “Axis of Evil.”

By the turn of this past decade, the flaws in the narrative had begun to emerge. Al Qaeda is more of an idea than a radical network, and fighters who lived in caves without shoes were not the greatest threat to Western society. Dismayed, the neocons began trying to hype a new cold war with Russia, even going as far to allege Russian involvement in the 2010 bombing of the US embassy in Tbilisi .

With a looming debt and wars that were sold as easy in-and-outs dragging on without end, the GOP, along with the nation, has had its fill of neoconservatives and their doctrine of conflict. The party is now entering a renaissance of the principles it was founded upon: limited government and personal liberty.

The divide began during the 2010 midterm elections, which saw the rise of libertarian and conservative candidates associated with the Tea Party, a movement that sought to challenge the establishment GOP. In Delaware, nine-term Representative Mike Castle was defeated in a primary battle with Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell. In Kentucky, Rand Paul, son of the Texas congressman who was one of the Tea Party’s original inspirations, took the seat of retiring senator Jim Bunning, defeating the establishment GOP’s pick of Trey Greyson. Paul has gone on to become one of the leading figures of the new GOP.

As Paul and others work to move the party towards the libertarian ideals of free markets, limited government, and civil liberties, the divide in the party grows. America’s role in the world is at the heart of this divide. Neoconservatives support a large national security apparatus, including the NSA surveillance program, regardless of any infringement of American rights. Libertarians feel a large government is dangerous, and that the privacy and rights of Americans should be a priority.

In a clear sign of where the party is headed, the Republican National Committee recently passed a resolution condemning the NSA surveillance program. Neoconservatives responded in objection, but were largely ignored. Republican strategist Karl Rove even made headlines when he appeared on Fox News’ On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, and defended NSA surveillance methods. Republicans couldn’t believe that Rove, a juggernaut of right-wing politics, was defending the Obama administration over what is arguably one of the biggest presidential scandals ever.

These neoconservative arguments are not as persuasive to the public anymore. Even Senator John McCain, who only five years ago was nominated for the office of President of the United States, has lost tremendous amounts of popularity since then. His record on NSA surveillance, military intervention, gun control and spending has put him at odds with much of his party. As a result, he was recently censured by his local constituents. McCain hasn’t changed, his party has.

McCain and the faction that had sold the American public the War in Iraq and supported Obama’s intervention in Libya, were unable to rally support for military intervention into Syria’s civil war. Rand Paul, and the libertarian Right were the leading opposition to an intervention proposed by the Obama administration and supported by neoconservatives. The libertarians won that battle for public opinion, with eight out of ten Americans opposing military action in Syria.

Cheney’s defeat was the latest in a long line of indicators that neoconservative control of the GOP is quickly vanishing. As the libertarian faction is successful in taking control of the GOP, it will completely reshape American politics into two camps — big government proponents on one side, defenders of personal liberty on the other.

About the author: Keith Farrell is a writer, political commentator and community organizer. A frequent contributor to The Libertarian Republic, he is also an Advocate for Young Voices, and founder and president of Spirits of ’76 national nonprofit organization.  SFL black and whiteHe holds a BA in American Studies and Urban & Community Studies from the University of Connecticut.