Fusion or confusion?

Author:Derr, Thomas
Position:Correspondence - Letter to the Editor

Joseph Bottum's intelligent and clever essay on "The New Fusionism" (June/July) offers a possible hypothesis, but as the last surviving Protestant Democrat on the editorial boards of FIRST THINGS, I am bound to see things a little differently. I cannot accept the Republican party as the leader of the new moralism. It pays selective attention to the "life issues," while ignoring too much else of moral import. The Bush administration's "preferential option for the rich," in all its manifestations, is not morally defensible, nor is the widespread support for the death penalty among Republican stalwarts. Meanwhile, the Republican Senate majority was built solidly on the infamous "Southern strategy," whose moral implications are painful. Republican protestations of moral sentiments are all too often purely for the sake of votes and not from conviction. Hypocrisy is the right word.

Nor can one seriously claim that the Democrats, on the other side, are the locus of moral relativism. That is not a very convincing way to describe half the electorate. It is worth noting that liberal Massachusetts, the quintessential blue state, has the lowest divorce rate in the nation, while Wyoming, Dick Cheney's home state, a quintessential red state, has the third highest. Painting your opponents roundly as immoral, against what the "vast majority" of Americans want, as the Republicans do, is just wild political exaggeration.

As for reading the electoral tea leaves to yield an emerging fusion which produces an electoral shift, the formation of a new majority is solemnly announced from time to time, and either it crumbles soon enough or is shown to be wishful thinking in the first place. Republicans now have a way of crowing that "the American people" elected them to do whatever they now propose to do, finding an electoral "mandate" in 51 percent. I don't think we should take that very seriously as anything more than political boilerplate. The winning coalition, I think, will last only until the next economic downturn.

My principal reason for voting for Kerry is the gross economic incompetence of the Bush administration, almost shockingly wrong-headed, risking the American future. I have more mixed feelings about the Bush foreign policy, but on the whole I judge that severely wanting also. Interventionism is not the issue, but how it is carried out: the degree and manner of unilateralism involved. Morally driven foreign policy is in our tradition (thought not always in our practice), and it has served us well, earning us a "decent respect" from "the opinions of mankind." But the maladroit Bush administration has actually managed to squander our reputation for virtue, and that will hurt us badly in the long run.

In sum, there are many, many ethical reasons for opposing this administration. It is absolutely not morality ascendant.

Thomas Derr

Northampton, Massachusetts

Joseph Bottum's "New Fusionism" is certainly the best account I have read about both the history of the fusion between social conservatism and conservative "internationalism," and the best representation of how smart social conservatives and smart neoconservatives view their political project and the political landscape in which it has unfolded.

Nonetheless, may I offer two criticisms from someone who is a fairly conventional European-style centrist social democrat but who, in the context of FIRST THINGS or the Weekly Standard, would obviously be viewed as a leftist?

The first is that Bottum's account does not accurately describe the debate between liberals and conservatives on terrorism (as in my case, I would submit to you that only in the United States, and nowhere else in the world, could Nick Kristof be described as a "leftist"). Bottum recapitulates, without any acknowledgment that there are other views, the administration's argument, which is that the war in Iraq is part of the war on terror. The advantage to this argument is, obviously, that one can "moralize" the war on terrorism--particularly after the WMD justifications wilted and were replaced by human-fights justifications.

But as Bottum knows as well as I do, there is a critique of the Iraq war--it has been made and continues to be made eloquently by both Richard Clarke and Michael Scheuer, much as (it is rumored) they otherwise loathe each other--that the war in Iraq was and is a distraction from the war on terror.

The corollary to this argument is that terrorism...

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