Whither the Conservatives for Peace?
The good folks at the Know Your Enemy podcast (Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell) did a recent episode w/ Erik Baker called “Bomb Power,” named after the 2010 book by Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State.
As someone who spent the first half of his career doing guns-and-bombs security studies, I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of this book before listening to the podcast.
Upon Google-Scholar-ing Bomb Power, I discovered it had 166 citations—very, very modest for an author as well-known as Wills. And scanning through who’s been citing it, I see mostly historians (not international-relations or strategic studies scholars). So I suppose my ignorance about the book is normal within my field.
But their discussion on the episode triggered me in a few ways, leading me to ponder what happened to the conservatives who support peace—that used to be a thing.
A “Don’t Break Things” Conservative
Wills’s politics don’t map well onto our current context.
He had ties to William F. Buckley and the National Review crowd. And his prolific writing often went after liberals, especially Kennedy (though his book Nixon Agonistes was a masterclass and did not spare Nixon of his critical prose).
But Wills recognized that power had a tendency to corrupt. That America itself had been guilty of great evils whose consequences it never repaired. And that if a preference for limited government meant anything at all, it meant a commitment to limiting the power of the national security state—there was no military exemption from the “limited government” mantra.
When I was finishing my PhD at the Catholic University of America (I enrolled there having no idea about its very conservative reputation), I studied under and socialized with conservatives like Wills. They mostly hated the Bush administration, generally thought the Iraq War was insane, and were critical of what had become the imperial presidency.1
These days, it’s fairly common for people to claim they’re progressive while actually being center-right economic liberals with limited tolerance for anything redistributive. Wills cut in the opposite direction. As the Know Your Enemy guys talk about in the episode, Wills at times took up policy positions that we would think of as progressive, but he identified as a conservative. Why?
Aside from personal affection for the label, I suspect this has to do with his Burkean “don’t break things” sensibility, as well as the sense that 1) the common good is achievable within the nation-state itself, 2) the Founding Fathers had something to teach us and/or were extraordinary, and 3) the Constitution is a holy-adjacent document.
I think that perspective is intellectually unsatisfying and a political dead end. But YMMV.
The important thing is that folks who believe that stuff are folks you can work with sometimes. And if you’re in mortal danger, they’re the kind of American who just might help you out. More importantly, if any part of the right is recruitable into an antifascist coalition, it’s the “don’t break things” conservatives.
An Endangered Species
You can still find conservatives like Wills out there in American society. I know of one or two pundits who would fit this category of principled, preservationist conservatism. And, funnily enough, there are a lot of these types in New Zealand (a country with every type of conservative).
But in Washington, this species of conservative doesn’t exist. Not a single Republican official can claim fidelity to the Willsian template. To a man—and they’re mostly men—the electoral GOP has repudiated everything meaningful in the “don’t break things” tradition.
Talking Like a Peacenik
The remarkable thing about Wills’s Bomb Power is how much it reads like a leftist critical text. It would go too far to call Wills a historical materialist, but his implicit philosophy is not incompatible with it.
His invocation of the national security state—a term with which any Un-Diplomatic reader is by now very familiar—originated with Marcus Raskin, a co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies (the first progressive think tank in Washington). IPS was and remains an expressly antimilitarist presence in Washington, and one of the few institutions there that can claim ties to the peace progressives who constitute what I think are the grassroots of the Democratic Party.
Wills’s reference to permanent war and the economy that supports it owes to Seymour Melman, a left-aligned peace intellectual who popularized (and possibly coined) “permanent war economy” through a series of books and essays that deserve a much wider reading.
And Wills’s claim that nuclear weapons are fundamentally tools of despotism that have permanently disempowered democracy is a pretty common view on the left going back to George Orwell’s classic essay, “You and the Atom Bomb” (which I still teach!).
What all this suggests is that Wills was a conservative who read widely. You might even say he was open-minded.
As such, he made analytical use of the criticisms against the powerful rendered by people with whom he likely disagreed. And he did so, at least partly, in the name of peace. Good luck finding someone like that in the Republican Party today.
Before you romanticize them too much, they also hosted Brett Kavanaugh and Newt Gingrich at various times, they largely believed in civilizational (as in clash of civilizations) politics, and some of them seemed to think race science had merit…