Politics & Policy

Conservative Zoology 101

We're all conservatives now.

I’m often asked, “Isn’t uncomfortable to sweat so much when you eat?” But that’s not relevant. Fortunately, I’m also often asked to explain all the different kinds of conservatism. Apparently, I throw around a lot of terms without a lot of explanation for the layman who’s got more important things to do than read The Public Interest with hi-lighter in hand.

Well, it’s kill-two-birds-with-one-stone Friday (by the way, when is PETA going to go after that phrase?). I’m gonna offer a little primer on conservatism and get some other work out of the way. You see, tomorrow I am appearing on a panel for Accuracy in Academia’s “Conservative University,” an annual summer event for undergrads. I am there to present the paper, “Buddy Hackett, Britney Spears, and What the Gnostics Saw.”

No, no, just kidding.

My panel is supposed to demonstrate the depth of intellectual diversity on the Right. Participants include Sam Francis, noted paleoconservative ideologist; James Bovard, libertarian eminence rise; Lori Cole, noted Christian conservative with the Eagle Forum; and, of course, me, the fat guy with the encyclopedic knowledge of women’s-prison soft-porn and Marvel Comics. Actually, in all seriousness, my knowledge isn’t encyclopedic, just disturbing.

I’m to carry the banner for the noble if fading cause of neoconservatism. That’s right, the no-batteries-required ideology of former Trotskyites everywhere. Now, this is a bit of a problem for me as neoconservatism doesn’t really exist anymore and I no longer really consider myself one. Moreover, neoconservatism, like Judaism, doesn’t proselytize. You either are one or you aren’t. But the real problem is that while I used to slide into these internecine definitional squabbles like a fat man on Prozac into a warm bath, I haven’t looked at a lot of this stuff in a while. So while I’m wading through all of this I thought it’d be useful to construct a glossary of sorts for readers who are heartened to know that people on the Right can get as mired in fights about labels as the Left can. Of course, labels on the Right matter; labels on the Left are different colors of paint for the same endless stretch of condemned buildings.


Depending on who you talk to, conservatism is either a philosophical and intellectual school of well-formulated and intricate ideas, or it is simply a disposition toward the world. Modern conservatism begins with Burke, because after the silliness of the French revolution, Conservatism had to be rediscovered as an intellectual rather than status-quo pure-monarchist worldview. “Before the reformation,” wrote Lord Hugh Cecil, “it is impossible to distinguish conservatism in politics, not because there was none, but because there was nothing else.” Since then, conservatism has always been a mix of the gut and the brain. Lincoln defined it as a preference for the old and tried against the new and untried. And when it comes to protecting the social order, pretty much all conservatives believe this, but whether they’ve arrived at this position through a lot of intellectual gymnastics or because it’s common sense is the source of millions of pages of commentary.


Phrase born, with “the Left,” during the French Revolution. In the Estates-General, those opposed to change — monarchists, smart people — sat to the King’s right. Slack-jawed morons, revolutionists, and murderers sat to the left. In America, by the mid 19th century, the Right became associated with laissez faire, in opposition to the Left, which championed government interference. Since then, the Right — as distinguished from conservatism — has become difficult to easily define, though very easy to spot when you see it. The easiest example is that most libertarians who get along with conservatives at all are people of the Right, even if they’d rather eat glass than be called a conservative. Whittaker Chambers was a “man of the Right.” The “Right” is becoming ever murkier as people like Pat Buchanan embrace the discredited economics of the Left but maintain a distinct cultural conservatism.


I will be brief, because libertarians tend to be the most defensive of all members of the Right. I have never written a word about libertarianism without someone accusing me of incredible ignorance, monstrous slander, or incomprehensible stupidity. Again, this is both a school of thought and a disposition. The libertarianism championed by the Cato Institute and Reason magazine is defined essentially by an irreducible faith in individual liberty and a free market undiluted by government interference. Some libertarians waver at the water’s edge when it comes to foreign policy (indeed, there is a subset of paleocons who call themselves libertarians, but that’s a different story). There is disagreement among others about criminal-justice issues. While libertarianism has much to recommend it and conservatives find common cause with it on many occasions, it is not conservatism. In all forms of conservatism, original sin and morality loom large. Libertarianism prefers to stay silent on such issues, cheering liberty without apology or concern for those who would abuse it. This is why conservatives like to say “libertarianism is not for kids” and why many libertoids like to say “Libertarianism is only a partial philosophy of life.”


Also known as the Old Right. They don’t much like being called paleocons because they believe they are the keepers of the True Faith of conservatism. These are the guys who have very interesting arguments about why Lincoln was a tyrant; believe that citizens should consider themselves Kentuckians or Texans first and Americans second; and revere people like Charles Lindbergh and Robert Taft. While the ideas which define paleoconservatism have been around for generations, the term itself became popular as the neoconservatives grew in influence in the 1970s and 1980s. Pat Buchanan is the only nationally recognized champion of paleoconservatism.


These are not neoconservatives, though Paleocons usually say they are. Rather these are the people you think of when you hear the word “conservative.” The term was originally used to describe all those guys like William F. Buckley Jr., James Burnham, and Peter Viereck, who emerged either slightly before, or aggressively after, Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. These are the guys who didn’t feel the need to amend the word conservatism by putting a “neo” in front of it. Rather, they wanted to take the term conservative and make it their own in order to spread the unadulterated conservative gospel. This process was of course started by Buckley, who, despite the fact that he ultimately approves my paychecks, is wholly deserving of my unbridled sycophancy. Buckley revived conservatism in the United States by launching National Review as a platform for conservatives while simultaneously kicking out those who most embarrassed conservatism, most notably the John Birch Society. The most important thing to remember about the New Right is that nobody uses the phrase any more, because the New Conservatives are simply conservatives.


Fusionism has come to mean the marriage of libertarianism and conservatism. The term was derisively coined by Brent Bozell in response to Frank Meyer’s attempts to create a big-tent conservative ideology in the pages of National Review and beyond. Meyer rejected the idea that he was “fusing” anything. Instead, he believed that the differences among libertarians, Whigs, traditionalists, classical liberals, et. al. were really age-old quarrels within the grand tradition of Western Civilization generally, and American conservatism since the Founding in particular. The basic point of Meyer’s fusionism was that virtue must be humanity’s aim, but virtue must be freely chosen — otherwise, it’s just so much conditioning. Fusionism was widely seen as impossible by many movement conservatives and libertarians. Some people — like me — think fusionism actually worked in the context of the Cold War. But now that leftist ideology is bankrupt, conservative ideology is also unraveling — because the need to fight ideological fire with ideological fire is gone.

And then, of course, there is neoconservatism. But as this is the topic for tomorrow’s talk and this column is way too long, too late, and too boring, I will be even more brief. Also, I don’t want to give the other guys my playbook, as it were.

So what is neoconservatism? Well, as with most labels that stick, the name comes from the . Michael Harrington, the big-hearted socialist, coined the phrase to describe a bunch of “renegade” liberals and leftists who were moving right. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. Indeed, in a very real sense, neoconservatism was from the beginning a more useful word to describe a phenomenon rather than a school of thought. At different times and in different ways, many of the brightest lights of the Left decided that the Left was organized lunacy. Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, James Q. Wilson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Robert Nisbet, Norman Podhoretz, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Michael Novak, Seymour Martin Lipset, Midge Decter and others woke up and smelled the coffee. As Irving Kristol once joked, a neoconservative was a liberal who’d been mugged by reality.

The first problem with calling neoconservatism a “school” of conservative thought is that achieving consensus among neocons is harder than herding cats. “When two neoconservatives meet they are more likely to argue with one another than to confer or conspire,” wrote Irving Kristol in 1979. Indeed, most neocons don’t even call themselves neocons (for years Irving Kristol was the only person to accept the term).

The second problem with identifying neoconservatism is identifying who you’re actually talking about. Do you mean the old Jewish guys — Kristol, Nat Glazer, Daniel Bell, etc. — from Alcove 1? (Alcove 1 was a little area at City University where the Trotskyites and anti-Stalinists sat and ate lunch in the 1930s. They hated the Stalinists, who sat in alcove 2). Do you mean Norman Podhoretz and the New Left gang, including maybe even David Horowitz? Or do you mean the anti-Communist Democrats from the 1970s who moved right, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, William Bennett, Ben Wattenberg, Joshua Muravchik, and the good half of Pat Moynihan’s brain?

The third problem is identifying what neoconservatism stands for. While there are some classically neocon formulations, like the law of unintended consequences, neoconservatism is essentially an approach to politics (and a recognition that politics is more important than economics). There is almost no neoconservative insight in domestic policy that wasn’t common sense a hundred years ago. The difference between a neocon and a con is that one needs to run a hundred studies using statistical regression analysis to conclude that children are better off with fathers, and the other knew it from the beginning.

The paleocons often berate the neocon menace because they think neconservatism is just Trotskyism of the Right. A bunch of citified Jews and intellectual Catholics have simply traded one ideology for another. In a lot of ways, that is a fair criticism. But in the big picture, the conservative cause was aided by the neocons. As former leftists, they could fight on the Left’s terms — and win. Indeed, in this sense the paleocon critique of National Review as a hotbed of neoconservatism has some merit. James Burnham, Frank Meyer, Chambers, and others on the early mastheads of NR were former Communists. They understood, in a way that only the convert can, that Communism was evil. This same process repeated itself later for people like Norman Podhoretz and David Horowitz, who saw the problems first hand with the nasty retail Stalinism of the 1960s New Left.

The great utility of the neoconservatives was that their old friends on the Left cared what they had to say. And, by using the language and the modes of analysis of the Left, they were able to persuade audiences that had, years before, written off the more conventional Right. In a sense, that’s why William F. Buckley argued that the major contribution of the neocons to the conservative movement was the introduction of sociology. The language of the intelligentsia in the 1960s and 1970s was often the language of sociology.

But more generally speaking, the language of the Left back then was Marxist ideology. And by being willing to construct a full counter-ideology they were able to win hearts and minds by forcing people to choose between freedom and tyranny. As Tom Sowell has written, it takes an ideology to beat an ideology.

Now, with the Left gone, the great triumph of the neocons is that, strictly speaking, we don’t need them anymore. We’re all conservatives now.


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