Politics & Policy

Conservatism, Post-9/11

Notes toward a new New Right.

I gave a little talk at the Fabiani Society in New York last night. If you haven’t heard of the Fabiani Society, you’re forgiven — so long as you are not a movement conservative living in New York City who loves hard-core conservative wonkery, tomfoolery, and hootenanny. Named (with all the mockery and scorn one can muster in a free and democratic society) after Mark Fabiani — the now-forgotten Clinton administration official who wrote the now-forgotten memo denouncing the “vast right-wing conspiracy” which now runs the country — Fabiani Society meetings have a certain classical feel to them. You see, conservatives in New York City have always felt a bit like Christians in ancient Rome. (When I was a small child, my own father taught me to draw a little stick figure of Robert Taft in the dirt. If a fellow conservative recognized it, he would in turn draw a profile of Barry Goldwater.) So Fabiani meetings are a bit like clandestine gatherings where you can kick off your sandals, loosen your toga, and speak freely — though there’s always the fear the Praetorians might kick in the door and force everyone to submit to diversity counseling (“You will read — and enjoy — I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or you will never see your children again!”).

Anyway, it was a nice, thoughtful bunch of people. Though, as with any group of true believers, there were a few folks I’d really rather not be stuck in an elevator with.

I was asked to discuss “Divisions on the Right Since September 11.” Since my talk was off-the-cuff and pro bono (ask for something for free and you’re likely to get what you pay for), I can’t say I thought it all through at the time. But it was interesting enough, I think, for a further discussion here — so long as the nice lady sitting next to me on the Metroliner stops reading from my laptop screen.

But even though I think today’s is a fascinating topic, it’s also one of those inside-baseball “Whither Conservatism?” columns which cause a sizable number of readers to exclaim, “Column… boring… losing consciousness…” and slump headfirst onto their keyboards. So I invite you to read my more timely syndicated piece on Israel and Arafat, if that’s more appealing.

Now, where was I?

The Anti-Left Versus the Anti-State

The Right has always been split between those who consider themselves anti-state and those who see themselves as anti-Left. And before you say, “Of course, bonehead — one is called a ‘Libertarian’ and the other is called a ‘conservative,’” give me a second.

It’s an interesting question to ask yourself: Which ticks you off more? The state or the Left? Does it bother you when the government “legislates morality” of any kind, or does it only really get under your skin when it legislates secular-humanist, lefty, socialist stuff?

Last night, for example, I got into an interesting conversation with a very bright, very conservative lady about my old grade school’s policy of banning Mother’s Day in order to accommodate the feelings of kids with two dads (it never bothered the administration when just orphans were left out of the fun). She said, “A private school has every right to do what it wants.” She’s right, of course. But her instinctive response was to say that if the state’s not involved, who cares? My instinctive response is to say, Let’s criticize, mock, and ridicule these institutions, even if there’s no public-policy angle. She’s anti-state; I’m anti-Left. It’s like being a little bit rock-and-roll versus a little bit country (that is the first and last favorable Osmond reference in this column).

It’s an interesting exercise to run through the big conservative issues and ask yourself where the most compelling arguments come from. Would you want federally mandated condom-use instructions taken out of third-grade classes because it teaches bad morals, or because it’s not the government’s business to teach such (or any) lessons — including such conservative values as, say, abstinence?

Take me, for example. I have always believed, and have written, that a conservative case can be made for the NEA, PBS, and the public schools. Conservatism has always understood the important role institutions play in transmitting culture, so if these institutions could be trusted to transmit cultural values which didn’t tell people that American is racist, that your soul resides in your gonads, or that Cuba is a workers’ paradise — I could be open to keeping them around. The problem is that once the Left politicizes a government-run institution, the best cure is to cut before the cancer spreads.

Meanwhile, many anti-state conservatives and libertarians think you’d have to be higher than a moon bat to support even the theoretical idea of a government-run TV network. Still, they are perfectly happy to make anti-Left arguments (“Do you really want the federal government teaching homosexuality?” ) if it will help them win allies in their cause.

Obviously, one need not be all one or all the other. Besides, federalism solves about 98 percent of all conservative-versus-libertarian arguments (see “Among the Gender Benders” ). And for most of the last five decades, this was a distinction without a difference, practically speaking. The Left had tried to use the government for all sorts of loopy things, so whether you were anti-state or anti-Left, your position was largely the same.

The Ignorance of Liberals

Still, and it’s worth noting, nonconservatives were totally, completely, thoroughly, entirely — and every other word in the thesaurus connoting “100 percent” — clueless about such distinctions. In fact, liberals were and continue to be, for the most part, more than completely wrong on this point — they are aggressively, proactively, tenaciously stupid about it. How else to explain the Left’s heartfelt belief that conservatives are crypto-Nazis? Every conservative I know, or have ever met, thinks it’s idiotic for the government to set policies about how many gallons of water go in a toilet flush; but for some reason, according to liberals, we’re supposed to be pining for the day when we can socialize the economy and put millions of people in death camps. It is the Left that wishes to use the government as a cudgel — to divide according to racial categories, and design every nook and cranny of the society and economy — not the Right. Say it with me, brothers and sisters: The Nazis were socialists.

As I noted in my last spleen-venting on this topic, I’ve never met a liberal who had an uncomplicated answer to the question, “Except for all the murder, war, and genocide, what exactly is wrong with Nazism?” Every conservative I know can answer that without pause. Every liberal I know has to think for at least a moment.

Anyway, I’m getting into a bit of a Metroliner Rage, so let me get back on topic.

The Coming Fight

This split between the two flavors of conservative will, I predict, only become more pronounced if the war on terrorism becomes a war between the West and the rest.

Consider the largely absurd civil-liberties debate taking place right now. Conservatives in good standing (like the Washington Times’s Wes Pruden) as well as “conservatives” with very little standing among conservatives (like William Safire) are terrified by military tribunals, because they don’t trust politicians not to become corrupted by the power such commissions afford. Other conservatives see no, or few, problems with the commissions because we tend to be less concerned when the state exercises its authority for morally and constitutionally correct purposes.

A small example: Have you noticed how all of a sudden, Bob Barr has been dubbed a “libertarian” ? I could have sworn that during the impeachment struggle, Bob Barr was a recognized member of the Church Lady’s bedroom police. Don’t get me wrong — I always thought the liberal labels for anti-Clinton figures reflected the ignorance and bad faith of people incapable of admitting that the former president is a very bad man. But the salient point is that a lot of mainstream journalists are very confused by the idea that a movement conservative can be opposed to government authority.

After all, in their eyes we’re all authoritarians — members of the “Taliban wing of the Republican party,” to use a phrase only very silly people think is clever. So, since it’s impossible for a conservative like Bob Barr to agree with the ACLU and still be a conservative, according to outsiders, they make the square peg round and relabel him a libertarian, rather than bothering to understand that you can be both anti-state and deeply conservative.

The Old Right Fight

Indeed, what interests me is the fact that we’ve seen this fight before. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, at the dawn of the modern conservative movement, the Right was deeply, deeply split between conservatives who hated the state, particularly the New Deal and the expansive wartime controls on the economy, and conservatives who focused their concern on the Left, namely the Communists abroad and their apologists (and agents) here at home. Recall, if you will, that William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Henry Regnery, Frank Chodorov and a host of other early conservatives were isolationists, until Pearl Harbor. Even more conservatives were operational isolationists, Jeffersonian democrats, agrarians, etc.

Most of these intellectuals and activists were also, for the most part, anti-state, and saw no inconsistency between their social conservatism and anti-statism. For example, Kirk called for the immediate demobilization of the military after the war, fearing that the New Dealers would prolong the war and create an enemy — i.e., Russia — simply to justify increased war socialism.

George Nash’s indispensable The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945 has a wonderful section discussing the fights on the Right between those who subscribed to the views of, among others, Albert J. Nock (author of the unsubtly titled Our Enemy, the State) and Murray Rothbard (who wrote that all government action is akin to a criminal endeavor), and rightists who held that the state was a problem, but the Communists were a bigger problem. During the Korean War, Leonard Read agreed with the view that the draft was little more than slavery. “This war could not have happened short of involuntary service,” he wrote. “To fight evil with evil is only to make evil general” — which sounds an awful lot like the peaceniks of today.

War seems to make both forms of conservative ask some very fundamental questions, because it forces decisions to be made based on necessity and survival, rather theory and abstractions. In 1952, William F. Buckley wrote an election-year essay which Nash identifies as something of a bellwether. The first half extols Nock and Herbert Spencer, heeding their warnings of the threat from the leviathan state. Buckley, after all — like almost all conservatives — was deeply sympathetic to the anti-state argument that the government is an enemy of freedom. But, in the second half of the essay, Buckley concluded that the Soviets were a graver threat: We can fight the state another day; the Soviets want to kill us.

It was this calculus that basically forged Cold War conservative ideology. And when the Cold War ended, lots of social conservatives went back to their anti-state, “anti-imperial” criticisms of America. Pat Buchanan declared the Cold War “the Great Exception” and reverted to a Robert Taft-style conservativism.

We are seeing today another great reshuffling. I think most of the trends existed prior to September 11, but the new climate has hastened and sharpened them. So-called “National Greatness” conservatism — considered silly by most conservatives during a time of peace and prosperity — suddenly sounds a lot more like a vigorous defense of America and Western civilization (though, please, do not consider this an endorsement). David Brooks, its chief (and perhaps only) major spokesman, has written powerfully about how 9/11 has reinvigorated America’s central institutions, particularly its law and order functions.

Meanwhile, the libertarian magazine Reason — which has declared it wants to pick up more support from the Left — is sounding increasingly paranoid, like they actually believe Ashcroft’s Brown Shirts are going to break down their dorm-room doors and confiscate their bongs. At the same time, Jim Glassman, a libertarian and one of National Greatness’s harshest critics, has come out in favor of a national ID card — which, for an anti-statist, is akin to defending the Drug War.

Look: I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I do know that my train has just arrived. So, let’s just say I’m going to keep pondering this, and if any of you are left reading what may be the longest G-File ever, I hope you will too.


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