Eclipse of superconservatives lets core conservatism breathe

Two balloons have popped on the right side of American politics: neoconservatism and religious superconservativism. Core conservatism can breathe again.

The United States media are full of Republican candidates in next week’s election struggling for a saleable position on the Iraq war or just plain calling for an end.

This was the neoconservatives’ war, a pre-emptive strike against an enemy said to threaten Americans’ way of life and then elevated into a mission to turn an ethnically and religiously torn territory into a beacon of representative democracy to enlighten the Middle East.

It was initiated without United Nations sanction and contrary to the principles of both international law, as the great majority of legal experts read it, and the “just war” of the Christian tradition as even some Republican Christians read it.

A new semi-official biography of Colin Powell, Secretary of State when the war began, recounts his sidelining by the neoconservatives around President George Bush in their rush to war. Francis Fukuyama, one of the most eminent intellectual proponents of neoconservatism and the war, has recanted. Bush himself has been tacking before these breezes.

The war, potent for Republicans two years ago, is working for Democrats this time, according to opinion polls and both parties’ campaign managers. Long-drawn-out wars are not popular with voters, the more so when the death and disability toll mounts monthly and when they can no longer see the point — for example, when an official intelligence report says Iraq is now breeding terrorists.

It goes to competence, which is critical to a governing party seeking re-election.

This is a measure of the damage the neoconservatives’ radical deviation has done to core conservatism.

Core conservatives are not radicals, whether on taxes, personal morals or war. They lean. They don’t lunge. The same goes for the great majority of voters.

So superconservative religion, too, looks to be losing potency in the United States. For example, gay marriage appears from polling and campaign managers’ assessments to have lost the profile it had in 2004.

Add in statistics suggesting wages and salaries have not risen in line with the overall economy and the decay of pension and health schemes, which also affect voters’ judgement of competence, and there is a real prospect the Democrats will take back control of the House of Representatives in the election next Wednesday (our time), an outside possibility they will control of the Senate, and good prospects for a number of state governorships — despite a distorted electoral system that borders on the undemocratic.

The eclipse of the neoconservatives and religious superconservatives opens options for left-of-centre parties abroad and at home.

Religious studies academic Paul Morris spelt out one option to the Labour party conference in workshops on the Exclusive Brethren, who intervened on National’s side last year. Christianity’s core message, Morris said, is more consonant with Labour’s emphasis on social justice, helping the poor and evening up life-chances than with moral rigidity.

So Labour might usefully resurrect the first Labour government’s slogan that its programme was “applied Christianity”.

That is essentially a left-of-centre conservative message, part of Labour’s tradition but eclipsed over the past 25 years by the dominance of left-liberalism and its emphasis on improving the rights of women, gays, ethnic minorities and society’s marginalised.

So there is a challenge and a risk for Labour.

The risk is that it might read the eclipse of the neoconservatives and religious superconservatives in the United States and the outing of the Exclusive Brethren here as the eclipse of right-of-centre core conservatism generally.

In fact, core conservatism (with its fellow-traveller, moderate liberalism) is alive and well and a big factor in the runup to the 2008 election.

There is now a firm four-year upward trend in the polling averages for National and a moderate four-year trend down for Labour. The trend lines were 2 per cent in Labour’s favour on election day last year (surprise, surprise), crossed at the end of 2005 and are now 6 per cent in National’s favour and widening.

This rise essentially tracks National’s emerging reclamation of its core conservative tendency after its radical deviation in the early 1990s and 10-year wander in the ideological wilderness.

Trend lines are driven not by passing excitements but by underlying long-run shifts in sentiment. Turning around a long-run trend is not as simple a matter as getting the election spending rort out of the headlines.

For example, Don Brash’s Orewa speech which scrambled the polls in 2004 did not in the long run alter the upward trajectory which was already developing before Brash became leader.

So reversing the trend, Labour’s challenge, is a very big ask. Paying back $800,000 of misspent taxpayers’ spending is a doddle by comparison.