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The conservative movement in discontinuity.

THE FALL 2005 ISSUE of Modern Age included George W. Carey's "The Future of Conservatism" that attracted my attention for several reasons. It was forcefully written and testified to Professor Carey's accumulated knowledge of constitutional history. It also raised points of contention within what seems the current "conservative" coalition, an arrangement that he obviously disapproves of. And his argument against the bellicosity of the neoconservative and Republican leaders of this coalition is stated throughout his polemic in such a way that Carey, a scholar known for his judiciousness, makes it clear that he has gone on the offensive. This kind of vigorous debate is long overdue. The themes touched on in this provocative essay bear unmistakably on the future of the American intellectual Right.

Carey's text recalls complaints that I, too, brought up in an issue of Intercollegiate Review (Spring 1986) dealing with the transmutations of conservatism. Of those who wrote for this symposium, two contributors (M.E. Bradford and Russell Kirk) are now deceased, while the rest of us, George Panichas, Carey, Clyde Wilson, and myself, are still around and still hostile to the new order that we lamented twenty years ago. An overarching charge back then was that the neoconservatives were "interlopers," which was Professor Wilson's term, but one that was congenial to us all, who had crossed into the postwar conservative camp and tainted its beliefs. In Carey's position one recognizes the same "traditionalist bewilderment" turned against Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. In France in February 2005, at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, Rice had praised the "intertwined" histories of the United States and France. Both countries, according to the Republican Secretary of State, had carried out domestically, and then tried to apply beyond their borders ideologically identical revolutions. This reduction of the American and Jacobin traditions to the same armed, revolutionary doctrines has plainly disturbed Carey. Like me, he can recall a time when such comparisons would have made American conservatives shiver with rage. In his essay he not only goes after the neoconservative propagators of such ideas but also takes on those Republicans who are eagerly embracing them:
  [I]n a very short period of time a major transformation in the
  American political landscape has occurred. The Republican Party has,
  so to speak, changed its spots virtually without attracting much
  critical attention, the major exception being that of disillusioned
  and disgruntled traditionalists. Moreover, along with the
  transformation of the Republican party, we have witnessed a
  corresponding transformation of the popularly accepted understanding
  of conservatism. The two, this is to say, go hand in hand, with
  neoconservatism providing a "cover" that allowed the administration to
  drastically transform the character of the Republican Party without
  its spokesmen being obliged to renounce conservatism.


I have no trouble accepting most of the lament Carey has placed before us. And though I do not agree with his hope for the Democratic Party to retake of the Congress in order to check a neoconservative Republican President (a change that could precipitate a move toward the social Left without reining in an aggressive foreign policy based on "human rights"), Carey is right about the "cover" for Republican-endorsed Jacobinism. The neoconservative media provide this tool by steadily redefining the meaning of "conservatism" in terms of their policies and predilections. Having just finished a long study of my own on "value conservatism," I continue to be astonished by the extent to which neoconservatives control the discourse of the political center-right. Their funding and privileged access to the media have put them in a position to play this pivotal role, and, as my colleague Wesley McDonald keeps reminding me, their "conservative values" have less and less to do with the kind of conservative thinking with which he grew up.

A new hagiography has replaced and, particularly in the cases of Southerners and anti-welfare state Republicans, driven out the older one. And it is almost laughable how since the Congressional Act by which he became the only American to have his birthday declared a national holiday, Martin Luther King has gone on from being a despised villain on the American right to a profound Christian theologian and a "conservative" theorist par excellence. One wonders what happened to the Marxist philandering demagogue whom Harry Jaffa and Will Herberg as well as William Buckley and Frank Meyer denounced with outrage in National Review and about whom President Ronald Reagan (hardly a right-wing extremist) expressed negative thoughts. As a Catholic priest recently observed to me, it took Thomas Aquinas six hundred years to acquire the undisputed theological reputation that King achieved with minimal intellectual effort and no evidence of religious orthodoxy overnight. The explanation for this riddle is that until the late twentieth century there was no American conservative movement trying to show that it was "sensitive" on racial questions. Nor was there one that felt driven to discard as its heroes Robert Taft for Harry Truman and Russell Kirk for Allan Bloom.

Having underlined my points of agreement with Carey, I must nonetheless dissent from his use of the phrase "in a short period of time" to describe the space in which the "major transformation in the political landscape occurred." The Republican party had made its peace with the welfare state by 1936, with its nomination of Alfred Landon as a moderate presidential opponent to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and even before the neoconservatives became an entrenched Republican brain-trust, Richard Nixon introduced racial affirmative action in his federally-funded plan for urban renewal in Philadelphia. Over 90 percent of Republican congressmen, as opposed to slightly over 50 percent of Democratic ones, lined up behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and both the Voting Rights Act and the immigration reform of 1965 received Republican majorities. It is simply wrong to believe, from listening to the media and to the grumbling of black leaders, that the Republican party was or is a "conservative" force. What this designation really means is that Republican politicians are slightly less to the left than those in the other national party.

Nor do I see any reason to believe that the Republican party has pulled leftward because of the neoconservatives. It is where it is because it is looking for votes, without giving undue offense to the predominantly leftist media, whose slings and arrows it tries to avoid. Although Carey and I are justified to worry about the impact of the neoconservatives, the fact that the Republicans are tending leftward is not one of my complaints against their present advisors. It is hard to recall when in recent decades Republican congressmen were not hot to trot for war. In the nineties, support for Clinton's decision to bomb the Serbs was more audible among Republican congressmen than it was among neoconservative journalists. If only the warlike John McCain and Trent Lott had taken the advice of neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who had emphatically challenged the wisdom of Clinton's war.

It is also misleading to equate the Republican party with standard-bearers Robert Taft in the 1940s and Barry Goldwater in 1964. Taft never won the Republican presidential nomination and barely held on to his Ohio seat in his last senatorial run in 1950. (Taft had prevailed earlier, in 1944, because Jewish Democratic voters crossed over to him in Cuyahoga County owing to his then outspoken Zionist views.) Goldwater, by contrast, did receive his party's nomination but was hardly an isolationist and lost badly in the national election. Thereafter Republican candidates gave little indication that they would roll back the welfare state, as opposed to making tax cuts or speechifying about "getting government off our backs." If Republican presidents have until recently avoided foreign entanglements, I must have missed these administrations.

The even bigger point to be made here is that the conservative movement did not transform itself overnight--at least not to the degree that George Carey and I believed in 1986. The conservative movement that George Nash chronicles in his magisterial history had held to a vigorous, interventionist foreign policy since the 1950s, and one stated reason that William F. Buckley and National Review went after opponents on the right, as my research indicates, was to isolate isolationists. The postwar Right, to which most paleos in the mid-eighties were looking back, had not opposed giving power to the executive or to any other branch of the federal government to prosecute and to expand the Cold War. That was the position of even postwar conservatives like James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall, who wrote in defense of congressional supremacy. Although I still applaud the vigorous anti-Communism of such figures, it may nonetheless be useful to note that the passion for intervention on the American right did not start yesterday. Nor has this tendency required neoconservative and Wilsonian rhetoric to

keep going what has been ingrained behavior for decades.

Equally relevant, the American conservative movement did not start its march in the direction of the social left in the eighties, whatever paleos may have thought twenty years ago. The postwar conservative movement, which included Rockefeller-Republicans and JFK-Democrats, was never as conservative as some of us thought, and by 1971, Margot Hentoff, in a review of Buckley's The Jeweller's Eye in the New York Review of Books, came to the conclusion that its author, save for his hardened anti-Communism, was lunging toward the left on civil rights. In the seventies Buckley and National Review began to feature Harry Jaffa and his disciples, whose ideas on democratic equality and human rights became ideas of choice in the movement. Obviously this occurred without causing the differing views of M.E. Bradford and James Burnham to disappear from the same publications at once. But what we are looking at is not instant change but long-range developments.

Equally important, as Jonathan Schoenwald demonstrates in A Time for Choosing (Oxford, 2001), following the disastrous defeat of conservative Republicans in 1964, what occurred was more than a regrouping, which then culminated in the Reagan victory of 1980. Conservative leaders pushed leftward or, as Schoenwald states, toward "moderation," on economic and social issues, lest they expose themselves to further electoral disasters, of the kind that had overwhelmed them in 1964. Thereafter they would talk not about abolishing the welfare state but about the need to run entitlements more efficiently. In his 1980 campaign Reagan questioned the justification for federal departments that had been created in the 1970s--but did nothing to dump them once elected. Note this observation is not intended to condemn those conservatives or Republicans, including Reagan, who drifted leftward after 1964. Perhaps they were convinced that not enough votes could be found for anti-welfare state politics--and they may in fact have been justified to believe this. What is being questioned is the misleading image of an immutable "conservative movement" extending from the 1950s down to the present. There is too much provable discontinuity in that movement to warrant such a view of its past.

Still and all, by the 1980s enough of an ideological overlap between the two sides was present to explain how Cold War liberals were received as the directors of the establishment intellectual Right. Although this overlap in the mid-eighties was less than apparent for some of us, it is the business of historians to look for why many thought that they were part of a continuing movement. The changes in that movement that some of us have stressed were there but also escaped the attention of many who spent their lives as "movement conservatives." Perhaps some of those who fit this description are time-servers, but others may well believe as they state, that Buckley, Burnham, Jaffa, Podhoretz, and the Kristol family belong to a single unbroken tradition of thought.

One might observe that Russell Kirk's well-remembered attack on the neoconservatives in 1988 began with a revealing admission. No less an Old Rightist than Kirk emphasized this: "I had expected the Neoconservatives to address themselves to the great social difficulties of the U.S. today, especially to the swelling growth of a dismal urban proletariat, and the decay of the moral order." Moreover, Kirk "had thought that the Neoconservatives might become the champions of diversity in the world." That Kirk, like others, had changed his mind on this subject is less relevant than the indisputable fact that he had once considered the neoconservatives in a very positive light.

Significantly, however, neoconservatives and paleos, once the neoconservatives had come to power, saw the changes on the right in a similar fashion, as an engineered turn toward the welfare state, the civil rights project, and a neo-Wilsonian and strongly pro-Israeli foreign policy. Although shift did occur, it did not evoke more than a rearguard resistance. Carey and I belonged to that resistance, and so we may exaggerate its scope or the break with an older conservative tradition brought about by the neoconservative takeover. But what must be conceded is that most self-identified conservatives reacted to the turning point in the eighties less passionately and may have grown accustomed by then to what we found to be outlandish.

However we got to what is analyzed by Carey, it should be a source of concern to social traditionalists and classical liberals alike. It is not even clear that we can keep the drift toward social radicalism and toward an assisting public administration from getting worse. The public political conversation, I note in the German weekly Junge Freiheit (January 20, 2006), operates entirely within a "left liberal" universe of discourse, and those who define its ambits here and in Europe have no intention of letting in other critical perspectives. In his introduction to the controversial symposium in Intercollegiate Review to which I earlier alluded, the editor Gregory Wolfe makes the perceptive observation that the leftward movement of American conservatism corresponds to "the increasingly rapid decay in the social fabric of the United States." Wolfe was of course right, although it may be useful to stress that there has been a further breakdown of Christian bourgeois civilization in the intervening twenty years. Gay and (in Europe) group marriage was not even on the scene back in 1986. But Wolfe makes the entirely valid point that one cannot begin to understand why the Right has moved leftward and why this fact begets so little discomfort even among "movement conservatives" without taking into account a much broader social picture.

By now the younger neoconservatives, typified by David Brooks and John Podhoretz, have come to terms with or have emphatically affirmed "moderate" feminism and gay marriage, while nonetheless appearing to be authentic spokesmen for the non-fascist Right. The fault is not entirely theirs but related to an acceleration of the trend noted by Wolfe. One is reminded here of the gloss usually provided for the phrase in Genesis, "Noah was righteous in his generation." According to standard medieval Jewish interpretation, what this means is that Noah was not particularly virtuous but that in comparison to his depraved contemporaries, he seemed worthy of being saved from the Flood. In the same relativistic sense, one may have to look at neoconservative journalists. They are those who belong to an exceedingly bad lot but are least hostile to conservative thinking, although even these relative exemplars of virtue get worse and worse because of the environment in which they function. Such people, needless to say, have more in common with others in their vocational and social group than with the typical readers of this magazine; likewise, most Republican politicians have more in common cosmologically as well as professionally with their Democratic counterparts than with Richard M. Weaver, Russell A. Kirk, or George W. Carey.

Although I am not sure how to arrest the larger social problem to which these lamentable changes on the right are related, it may be possible to address the political issues at hand. The one unavoidable way to do that as political practice is by weakening the central administration, by reducing its functions, revenues, and reservoir of powers, most particularly in family and educational matters. What we should be aiming at is decentralizing managerial democracy, in such a manner that neither neoconservative Jacobinism nor the social policies of Senators Schumer and Clinton can be routinely inflicted on their opponents. While this is undoubtedly a hard task to pursue in a largely deracinated population accepting administrative control and until recently porous borders, there is no other course that could lead to effective limits on the federal behemoth.

Certainly a Senate full of Bidens and Boxers will not help arrest the process criticized. The prescribed move would require the election of multiple Ron Pauls, that is, those who are willing to stand up for strict constitutional government and against bureaucratic, judicial, congressional, and presidential overreach. This may be beyond fulfillment in a mass democracy, but nothing less can help us to rein in arbitrary and concentrated power. A more equal form of power-sharing between two leftist national parties equally devoted to the present system of control will get us nowhere. Rousing the public, or that part of it not owned by the managerial state, to demand an end to managerial government is the only course that can lead to beneficial results. It goes without saying that the media will do all that is possible to prevent this shift from occurring. As for the urgent need in the United States for a genuine small-government party, Carey and I are in agreement on this implicit point in his essay.

PAUL GOTTFRIED is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and author, most recently, of The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium (University of Missouri Press, 2005).
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Author:Gottfried, Paul
Publication:Modern Age
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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