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Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey: Another Woodrow Wilson or Another Ronald Reagan?

September 28, 2011

We have a stake in the outcome of their debates.

For example, a Middle East that is largely democratic and at peace will be a Middle East that accepts Israel, rejects terrorism, and is a dependable source of energy.

… history shows that mature democracies are less likely to resort to force against their own people or their neighbors.

At one time in our history … [w]hen there was a crisis in the world, America found a way to come together to help our allies and fight our enemies.

…setting an example, is not enough. The United States must be prepared to act.

-N.J. Governor, Chris Christie, September 27, 2011

Gov. Christie’s speech at the Reagan Presidential Library yesterday was promoted as a speech on American “exceptionalism.” The topic is an odd address for a politician who swears he is not running for President of the United States. Quotation from that speech, cited above, and the title “American exceptionalism” are code words used by the “neo-conservative” War Party faction in the Republican Party that have special appeal to an important and influential faction within the GOP.

Largely situated in opinion journals and think tanks between New York and Washington, DC this faction was wed to the imperial wars of President George W. Bush and became willing megaphones for an expansive military policy motivated by a religion of democracy. In the face of massive violations of limits on government “searches and seizures,” a colossal and ineffective Department of Homeland Security, massive deficit spending, these neo-conservative worthies were silent in the same way that Catholics and Protestants were silent of atrocities they committed during the religious wars in Europe from 1524 to 1648.

I have known of or about this faction within the Republican Party since the mid to late 1970s when I taught at a small Catholic college outside New York City and attracted the attention of Irving Kristol and joined him and others in his circle at regular events organized by the “Godfather.” Those attending these events were brilliant men and women with ideas they were not afraid to promote and the Godfather himself was a tactical genius when it came to survival in the hostile canyons of Manhattan and among the intellectual detritus of the socialist Left.

When they decided to leave the Democratic Party, they brought new life and energy to the Republican Party and took their rightful place in the conservative “movement.”

That was then.

In a later “second growth” of the neo-conservative movement during the Administration of President George Herbert Walker Bush, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the sons of the neoconservative founders became enamored of democracy much in the way that religious believers are champions of their sectarian creed.

Democracy became their religion—not a political theory of democratic government and promoting democracy throughout the world—by force—came to be seen as a panacea for peace.

Gov. Christie’s statements about democracy yesterday at the Reagan Library are symptomatic of the religion of democracy that is a first principle of this War Party. His speech was anticipated with excitement by American neo-conservative looking for their own Mr. Goodbar.

Of course, seeking “a Middle East that is largely democratic and at peace will be a Middle East that accepts Israel, rejects terrorism, and is a dependable source of energy” is wishful thinking. And history does not show that “mature democracies are less likely to resort to force against their own people or their neighbors.” The history of democracy is a Western phenomenon that cannot be applied to non-Western cultures. And, the France shaped by the French Revolution energized an era of conquest.

The regimes that make up the Middle East are rooted in ethnic tribal cultures for which “democracy” is antithetical. If they adopt Western democratic style government it is more likely democracy will be forced upon them from without. The so-called Arab Spring is not a democratic movement; it is a regional rebellion against autocratic rule. There is no guarantee that cosmopolitan leaders, deeply instructed in Western ideas, will dominate. Their world, its culture, religion, and traditions are unique and whatever political regimes develop will reflect that culture, not the ideas of opinion leaders in New York, Paris, or Bonn. Their regimes are more likely to look like Pakistan than Israel.

So if a “largely democratic” Middle East is to come about, that can be accomplished only through use of American military force.

The willingness to impose a Western political ideology on Muslims, of course, is not conservative or rooted in a well-thought political philosophy that resembles the philosophy of limited government of the Founding Fathers.

It is ideological, and finds its origins among American political theorists who interpret the Declaration of Independence as the theoretical fountainhead of knowledge upon which the American regime is based. If you read the “Preamble” to the Declaration of Independence, of course, you have a handful of ideas that make up an ideological “programme.” Marco Rubio enunciated that programme in an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he endorsed U.S. support of the NATO attack on Libya in terms of the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, Sen. Rubio isn’t alone. Many devout Christians believe that the prophecies of a Millennium should be taken literally and understand that the call to spread democracy in the Middle East is part of a divine plan that culminates in a literal Millennium.

What separates the War Party and what are called “Christian Zionists” from traditional American conservatives is very real. Traditional conservatives are participants in a community of ideas about government, civil society, and social order. The neo-conservative War Party participates in a political “movement.”

“Movements” are ideologically driven popular uprisings with an organization and programmatic goals. Their opposite is the “community” of citizens that makes up the conservative “community” of shared values: love of country, a sense of the limits of government power, a love for liberty and a desire to be left alone. “Get government off our backs” best expresses a commonly shared desire that we be left alone to live our lives, grow our families, and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Our negativity toward “big government” is balanced by more positive forces. For example, we who participate in the conservative community are committed to our religious faith, whether we are Catholic, Protestant or Jew. The freedom to worship God is very important to us, and that separates us from others who participate in the American political process for whom religion is an “opiate.”

In many ways, Barack Obama and many within the Republican Party are on the same dope. The willingness to use the coercive powers of the state of President Obama to regulate commercial behavior is mirrored in the advocacy of aggressive use of America’s imperial power to make the world safe for democracy.

That ideological aspiration can be traced all the way back to Woodrow Wilson—perhaps the most influential American president since the American Founding—because he shaped a political paradigm counter to the original paradigm of limited government of the Founding Fathers. Ever since the President Woodrow Wilson American politics has fluctuated between the two paradigms: an aggressive, militaristic, administrative state and the original paradigm of limited government of the Founding Fathers. The Tea Party activists’ appeal to the Constitution reflects the original paradigm. The aspiration to make the Middle East democratic reflects the Wilsonian paradigm.

Now, we can understand why a Governor of New Jersey may be attracted to some ideas of an earlier Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson. But at stake in the next presidential election is the choice between the Wilsonian paradigm of a coercive administrative state and the paradigm of limited government. That is the message that Americans are seeking.

Deep into Gov. Christie’s speech at the Reagan Library is this qualifying statement:

The United States must also become more discriminating in what we try to accomplish abroad. We certainly cannot force others to adopt our principles through coercion. Local realities count; we cannot have forced makeovers of other societies in our image. We need to limit ourselves overseas to what is in our national interest so that we can rebuild the foundations of American power here at home – foundations that need to be rebuilt in part so that we can sustain a leadership role in the world for decades to come.

Clearly the Governor or his speechwriter is aware of the dangers that reside within the democratic religion and this cautionary note was added for effect. The unanswered question is whether Gov. Christie aspires to emulate Woodrow Wilson, the neo-conservative salons of the Upper West side of Manhattan or Ronald Reagan.

When the dust settles, the right approach will be “let Christie be Christie.”

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