Ron Briley: Review of Robert Brent Toplin’s Radical Conservatism: The Right’s Political Religion (University Press of Kansas)
Many political commentators now employ the label “liberal” as a pejorative word. Robert Brent Toplin is an unabashed liberal who takes exception with how liberalism is often distorted in contemporary political discourse. Toplin, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and a prolific scholar of American cinema, maintains that this unfortunate state of affairs is due to the domination of American politics by radical conservatives, who have dislodged traditional conservatives and taken over the Republican Party.
Toplin uses the term “radcon” to describe “ultra-conservatives of modern times that judge controversial political issues primarily on the basis of preconceptions honored by their radical ‘faith’ rather than in terms of open-minded analysis of conflicting evidence” (5). The major line of argument in Radical Conservatism is not that the conservative movement is dominated by Christian evangelicals. In fact, there is little discussion in this volume of such cultural questions as abortion and gay marriage. Toplin, instead, asserts that in their moral certainty, failure to examine conflicting evidence, and faith in the declarations of their prophets and seminal texts, radical conservatives are similar to religious fundamentalists.
A significant contribution of Radical Conservatism is that Toplin does not limit his argument to the rather easy targets of the radcon talk show circuit: the hyperbole of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Michael Savage. Rather, Toplin devotes more attention to the high priests of the movement and their treatises. Toplin examines the work of such influential figures on the right as Irving and William Kristol, Leo Strauss, Milton Friedman, Allan Bloom, William J. Bennett, Norman Podhoretz, Richard Weaver, and Dinesh D’Souza. He concludes that the theology of radical conservatism may be subdivided into three major categories: stealth libertarians, culture warriors, and hawkish nationalists.
The radcons believe that business should be freed from government regulation and the wealthy liberated from the burden of taxation. Perhaps the only legitimate role for government lies in providing for the national defense. This is essentially the ideology of libertarians; however, Toplin argues that radcons do not want to be identified with the more laissez-faire approach of libertarians to such social issues as drug use, pornography, and sexual conduct among consenting adults. But the economic ideas of libertarianism are embraced by the radcons who cling to these fundamental precepts despite evidence that large tax reductions on the wealthy contribute to a growing deficit and that most Americans favor government regulation to protect the environment.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter of Radial Conservatism deals with the culture warriors of the right. Rather than revisit the debate over gay marriage or abortion, Toplin traces the radcon cultural perspective back to the ideas of Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1987). According to the case made by Bloom and championed by the radcons, American civilization is in a crisis brought about by the cultural relativism adopted by the liberals during the 1960s. Many of these liberals from the 1960s are now in positions of power, especially within the universities, and are indoctrinating the youth with concepts destructive of traditional American values. Toplin insists that this reading of the politics from a turbulent era is distorted; reminding readers that during the 1960s the liberals in power were attacked from both the political left and right. While much attention was given then and now to the counterculture and radical leftist politics, the real story of the decade, as David Farber suggests, is how conservatives were preparing to topple the liberal consensus. Toplin is incensed by the failure of radcons to distinguish between liberals and leftist radicals. Lumping the two together allows radcons to paint with too broad a stroke, distorting the past as well as obscuring contemporary political discourse.
In his discussion of hawkish nationalism, Toplin observes that radcons believe the Vietnam War was lost because liberals lacked political resolve. On the other hand, the Cold War was won because Ronald Reagan provided moral clarity with his denunciation of the Soviet Union while negotiating from a position of strength. The legacy of Reagan bringing freedom to the world is continued in the radcon vision of liberating Iraq and ushering democracy into the Middle East. Toplin acknowledges that some conservatives have expressed reservations regarding nation building and war-related budget deficits; however, this criticism from the right is tepid at best. Toplin laments that radical conservatives have maintained their ideology despite conflicting evidence questioning American goals in Vietnam, Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War, and the progress of the Bush administration in Iraq.
While some on the political left will likely challenge Toplin’s vehement defense of liberalism, those on the right will probably confirm his thesis by denouncing him as a radical leftist out of step with the American people. But all that Toplin is asking is that economic, cultural, and foreign policies be subject to political debate based upon facts rather than dogma. He asserts that so-called think tanks of the right, such as the Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and Heritage Foundation, are no more than “propaganda mills” for the radcons. Toplin is also critical of conservative media such as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal for failing to present conflicting opinions. Toplin champions the New York Times as a liberal publication for printing editorials both for and against military action to topple Saddam Hussein. Rejecting the sectarianism of the left and right while raising the banner of liberalism, Toplin writes that liberals embody such traditional American values as “tolerance, openness, diversity, and tolerance” as opposed to the radicon’s “intolerance, close-mindedness, a dominant perspective, and bias” (249). While conceding that Reagan could sometimes act in a pragmatic fashion, Toplin maintains that the Presidency of George W. Bush exhibits no such tendencies. The unreflective President embodies the dogmatic fundamentalism of the radcons. On the other hand, Toplin comes off as somewhat of a modern-day Arthur Schlesinger calling Americans back to the “vital center.”
In conclusion, Toplin implores conservatives to recapture the Republican Party from control by the radcons. Toplin might also suggest that Democrats demonstrate the same type of confidence in defending liberalism that the professor displays in this volume. The path to power by the radcons has been paved by liberal Democrats unwilling to make the case for their ideas. The November 2006 Congressional elections offer the Democratic Party an opportunity to dislodge the radcons and the fundamentalist political philosophy of radical conservatism. Will they have the courage of their convictions?
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