(Originally posted in Conservative Donnybrook.)
I’d like to mention a terrific little book I’ve recently read called “Conservatism in America.” It’s written by Paul Gottfried, a fixture of the various paleo fever swamps of the web such as LewRockwell.com, VDARE, and Taki’s Top Drawer. If a study whose subject matter encompasses Joseph de Maistre, German historicism, Harry Jaffa, Bill Buckley, FOX News, and Sean Hannity appeals to you, then you, too, will find this book to be a rollicking good time! (Okay, that might be overstating things a bit.)
(Incidentally, Gottfried, who coined the term “paleoconservative,” also penned the entry on paleoconservatism for the excellent American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, which, if you don’t own already, you should buy immediately!)
Gottfried’s acerbic prose and endless annoyance with the depredations of the Neocon usurpers casts him as the prototypical angry paleo, but his views don’t fit neatly into any ideological category. The basic theme of this book is that what is termed “conservatism” in America has basically morphed into what is essentially a leftist-type movement, which promotes abstract human rights, “equality” as a foundational American value, and a liberalizing and democratizing mission abroad (to the point of fomenting revolution) while acquiescing to increasingly centralized and intrusive federal government at home.
The transformation of the conservative movement took a big step forward with the ascent of Harry Jaffa as a central thinker of the movement. (Jaffa being a theorist holding that the phrase “all men are created equal” is the paramount directive of our political tradition–superseding even the Constitution. He is also an inveterate name-caller and practitioner of argumentation-by-smear.) Finally, things were brought to their current state with the takeover by the neoconservatives in the 1980s and 90s, and the marginalization of most of the movement’s remaining traditionalists, paleolibertarians, constitutionalists, and the like.
However, Gottfried argues, the groundwork for all this was laid early on: conservatism was originally set down this path when Russell Kirk attempted to root conservatism philosophically in supposedly transcendent “values,” i.e. his list of ten conservative principles. He did this while also attempting an ahistorical synthesis of 20th-century America with inherited English tradition and constitutional principles. Because, in Gottfried’s view, American “social reality” does not conform to Kirk’s romantic vision, Kirk had to offer a checklist of “values” onto which any sympathetic person could sign up.
(I personally am not nearly as well-read in Kirk as I should be, so while I enjoyed reading Gottfried’s critique of Kirk I am not at all well equipped to evaluate it–I say this lest this review come off as an unqualified endorsement of Gottfried’s argument.)
Because of this unsure footing of the conservative movement, which lacked the social roots of the European conservatism of the 19th Century, its supposedly timeless values have proven ironically to be endlessly malleable, leaving the present conservative movement in a state that is distinctly un-Kirkean and basically liberal in character. Conservatives successively appropriate liberal ideas such as abstract, universal rights to “equality” and “democracy.” Meanwhile, contemporary conservatives (wrongly) tar their adversaries with the label that has become the great bugaboo of the Right–cultural relativism. Witness, for example, the Straussian Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which attempts to trace the roots of modern American liberalism back to German relativists and historicists. (Gottfried discusses the “value” game in more detail here.)
In the course of his narrative, Gottfried engages in some interesting digressions in which he discusses, and often criticizes, various thinkers and writers inside and out of conservatism, such as Jonah Goldberg, a favorite target of Gottfried’s web columns–e.g. here, here, here.
Gottfried also takes on some familiar points of Buckleyite hagiography. For example, to the oft-repeated example of the early National Review-based movement ejecting the John Birchers and other supposed kooks, racists or anti-Semites, Gottfried responds by pointing out that the Birchers, who featured some black and Jewish writers, were in fact banished because of their isolationism and firm opposition to the Vietnam war. Also ejected from the NR orbit were such Jewish libertarians as Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand. The common thread, then, was a failure to conform to NR’s interventionist-anticommunist line. (See this column for more of Gottfried on Buckley and the early movement, plus bonus swipes at Jonah Goldberg.)
This brings us to what is, to me, the most provocative part of Gottfried’s study: the parallel he draws between the conservative movement and midcentury American communism. In Gottfried’s telling, the NR conservatives, many of whom were ex-communists, endeavored to re-create a top-down ideological structure, based (probably unconsciously) on the Communist Party example, for the NR-based conservative movement. Apostates were “thrown off the bus” of the movement just as Trotskyites and assorted socialists were ejected by the Reds and then denounced, usually even more harshly than the capitalist swine the Commies were ostensibly opposing. Meanwhile, the members of the movement are happy to take direction from organs such as NR, and adhere unquestioningly everchanging conservative dogma.
This argument struck me as serious overreach, and a most unfair characterization of a movement that, despite its flaws, has contributed a great deal to our political discourse. But the more I think about the last dozen years or so, the more I come to think he may have a point.
Take our experience with the Iraq War (–please!). The phenomenon of “cocooning” has been noted with regard to the netroots Left–the retreat of a group into an echo chamber of discussion, increasingly cut off from dissenting opinion, leading to self-congratulatory narratives and analysis that leave members of the in-group stunned when the real world fails to conform to their views. Thus, the Left was repeatedly blindsided (until recently) by repeated Bush and GOP electoral victories. However, cocooning on the Right has been at least as prevalent, particularly with regards to the Iraq War.
Conservatives retreated into comforting, like-minded outlets like FOX News, Rush Limbaugh, NR, and the conservative blogosphere in the several years following the war, which constantly drove home the “liberal media’s” failure to report all that “good news from Iraq,” and the media’s steadfast refusal to notice all those schools we were rebuilding, the adoring throngs of children who mobbed US soldiers, and the glorious civil society that was supposedly taking shape. I myself was a victim of this mindset. Only recently have some of the more thoughtful conservative outlets begun acknowledging the full scope of the situation there, and even now I cannot imagine Limbaugh, Hannity, or Ann Coulter publicly questioning, even for a second, the wisdom of the war. Genuinely conservative antiwar figures like Ron Paul are excluded, marginalized, and even denounced as liberals by the keepers of the “conservative” faith.
Let me hasten to add, I am not suggesting that continuing to support the Iraq War and the War on Terror is intellectually indefensible, or that those who do are unreflective saps in the grip of a malign ideology. But it is strange that such a thing as the invasion and occupation of Iraq–which, in hindsight, was by no means an obvious response to 9/11–should have commanded such widespread and enduring support from the conservative establishment and its millions of followers. Maybe Gottfried is on to something!