Bill Kauffman. Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism. Metropolitan Books, 2008.
This is certainly an interesting–and encouraging–book. Bill Kauffman shows us that people on the right side of the conventional right/left political spectrum have resources in their political heritage strongly to oppose American imperialism. He traces how political conservatives from colonial days have opposed “foreign entanglements” in the name of democracy and national health. He even goes so far as to present his views as fully pacifist.
In doing so he punctures the myth that opposition to imperialism has been primarily articulated by leftists. Kauffman focuses on the 20th century and makes the totally valid point that it has been the great “liberal” presidents, members of the Democratic Party all, who have led our country into war–Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. He does not deny that there have been imperialist Republicans–William McKinley and Richard Nixon come to mind. And he is harsh and devastating in his critique of the disastrous evolution of the Republican Party culminating in the Bush/Cheney takeover.
That is, Kauffman does not give us a Democrat bad/Republican good polemic. In fact, probably his biggest political hero of the last fifty years is Democratic senator and presidential candidate George McGovern. Before McGovern, the model of an anti-imperial national politician is Robert Taft, long-time senator from Ohio.
Kauffman agrees with the sentiment attributed to Barry Goldwater that in the end the “Old Right” (such as Goldwater) and the “New Left” (such as McGovern) may have much more in common with each other–especially in their critique of imperialism–than they do with the political “centrists”, neo-conservatives, and Cold War liberals who tend to be in positions of leadership in the U.S. and who are succeeding in driving our country over the cliff.
Kauffman’s argument should not be surprising to anyone who has some sense of traditional, “main street” conservativism in the U.S. It is good, nonetheless, to read an articulation of this view from someone on the Right. He doesn’t mention Andrew Bacevich in the book, but I think Bacevich’s books The New American Militarism and The Limits of Power complement Kauffman’s case for politically conservative anti-imperialism.
Kauffman and Bacevich help us a great deal in challenging the necessary association of political conservativism with imperialism and militarism. Conservatives should be challenged to repudiate the U.S. policies that rely on leading with military intervention and the creation of a global network of military bases and arms sales–in the name of political conservativism. Both of these writers may help us do so.
My only serious criticisms of the book relate to its style. Kauffman is witty and cutting in his critique–however he is sometimes a bit too cute and unfortunately a bit cryptic at times in his historical analyses. The book would have been strengthened had he given more background and explanation for his various examples. That is, his path is at times a bit difficult to follow because it isn’t always real clear what he’s describing unless one has a lot of historical knowledge. And a few of the issues that he raises as examples are a bit idiosyncratic (his hostility toward the income tax and day care for example).
But this is definitely a book for which to be grateful. May Kauffman’s numbers multiply greatly–and soon.