Politics & Policy

Ideologically Yours

The trouble with conservatism and Buchanan.

First, I apologize for my tardiness. I had to finish a piece this morning about Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West for another publication (it should appear Sunday, I’ll let you know). I’d like to write about the book here, but I’m limited by my obligation not to undermine the other piece and by my general exhaustion with the topic. Yesterday, I wrote my syndicated column on one aspect of the book, and my other e-mail box is already overflowing with people who want to discuss, disagree, debate, and denounce me to use, for no apparent reason, four words that begin with D.

Many objected that my column dodged tackling Buchanan head-on, suggesting I’m afraid of him or cannot refute him. That’s actually not quite right, for two reasons. First, I think Buchanan is actually right about a lot of things and he’s half-right about many others.

His concerns about declining Western populations are well placed. I used to work for, and later with, Ben Wattenberg, the author of The Birth Dearth and the host of the PBS series Think Tank. Ben used to make me go to population seminars and study demographic tables. (I thought mostly out of cruelty, but also because it was my job.) And so, I’ve been well aware for quite some time that the populations of Western countries are and have been plummeting. They are not, however, as Buchanan asserts on page after page, “disappearing” or “dying.” They are aging and growing smaller compared to non-Western populations. There’s a big difference.

Also, Buchanan’s interpretation of “Third World” is stunningly tendentious; all societies that aren’t white no matter how rich or poor, totalitarian or democratic they may be — with the possible exception of Japan — are “Third World” according to Buchanan. That means if California is dominated by billionaire Chinese scientists and Arab engineers it would be no less Third World than if it was populated by illiterate sheepherders from Bali and uneducated Zulu warriors. If South Korea becomes the most educated, wealthy, and Christian nation in the history of humanity, it’s still Third World according to the way Buchanan throws around the phrase. This is historically and logically inaccurate (the “Third World” is a Cold War term coined by a French demographer named Sauvy who was referring to the poor nations not allied with the West or the Soviets).

Anyway, I’m writing this on my laptop in the park (while watching my white, First World dog take on a Chihuahua with Buchanan-like gusto), so I don’t want to dwell on the data, as I don’t have it handy.

Besides, there will be plenty of time, if not necessarily demand or desire to discuss the data (more D’s!) or Buchanan’s central thesis when I’m less exhausted (and not trying to buy a house).

Still, there is one aspect of Buchanan’s book that might be worth discussing: the trouble with ideology.

Arming with Arguments

Let’s pick something uncontroversial. Hmmm, how about handguns? I believe in a right to own a gun. The Founding Fathers surely believed in the right to own a gun. For example, I once heard Robert Goldwin, a constitutional scholar (and author of my favorite essay on the constitution “Why Blacks, Women, and Jews Are Not Mentioned in the Constitution”) explain that no matter what you think of the meaning or intent of the Second Amendment, there’s no doubt that the Founders assumed that people would have the right to own a gun in much the same way we each have a right to own a dog. At minimum, guns were property, useful property. And the right to own private property is a big chunk of the whole Lockean ballgame (to mix a metaphor with brutal disregard).

Now, I believe in the right of people to own guns but I’m not very ideological about it. In other words I’m not normally inclined to imbue guns with a vast amount of meaning and significance. I’m sure the fact I grew up in a city and never fired a gun until I went to summer camp has a lot to do with my views. But I think a lot of people understand what I’m talking about. When I look at a gun I don’t see it as a bulwark of liberty or immediately start contemplating its place in the constitutional order.

A lot of people, however, do. They see a gun and they think civil liberties, the Constitution, and the right to revolution.

Why do they do that? I will bet you dollars to donuts (hmmm, donuts) that very few gun owners in, say, 1902, thought of their guns that way. I bet most gun owners a century ago simply owned guns. The cultural significance of firearms varied from community to community, but the idea that someone would have elaborate theories and ideas about guns would have probably struck gun owners and non-owners alike as very odd. What changed?

Well, I’m sure the gun folks are way ahead of me; what changed is that a bunch of people tried, and continue to try, to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. This in turn required people who didn’t want to give up their guns to organize, not just in terms of politics, but in terms of ideas. All of a sudden, if you wanted to keep your Colt .45 (and I’m not talking Malt Liquor — though they’re coming for that next) you needed an argument to explain why you “need a gun in the first place.”

In other words, what was required was an ideology — an internally consistent hierarchy of ideas and preferences on a specific topic or topics (my definition, but I think it works). The gun-grabbers certainly had an ideology — or at least a bunch of bumper stickers (“arms are for hugging”) that they thought substituted nicely — so you needed one too. In much the same way the good guys need a gun if the bad guys have one, if you don’t have an argument and the other guys do, you’re gonna lose.

So now we have a situation, almost entirely not of our own making, in which we have to offer an ideological defense of something that really shouldn’t be ideological at all. I have no doubt whatsoever that most gun zealots wouldn’t have problems with reasonable restrictions on guns — like they had in many towns of the old West — if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that the gun controllers don’t care about being reasonable. Their ideology calls for getting rid of guns. Period. So, the ideologues on the other side of the argument see every regulation as a surrender on a slippery slope because that’s what it is.

You can look at abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality — pretty much everything that is considered a “wedge issue” or “hot button” topic these days — and come up with a similar analysis. Personally, I think this is tragic.

In 1957 (of all times) Samuel Huntington wrote a wonderful essay entitled “Conservatism As An Ideology” in which he noted that unlike virtually all other ideologies — except radicalism — conservatism does not have an inherent ideal. Democracy, socialism, Communism, liberalism, these sorts of -isms have an endpoint in mind, a utopian goal or standard of some kind. Conservatism, however, does not. A conservative in Portugal wants to conserve what is good about his society. A conservative in Botswana wants to do similarly in his, even though what they are conserving could be completely different, even directly opposed institutions.

This is one of the reasons conservatives in the United States kick the TV every time they hear newscasters call orthodox Communists in Russia or North Korea “conservatives.” It’s as if wherever you look in the world the bad guys are always conservatives.

Well, in one sense that’s actually true. The United States was launched as a new kind of nation with new kinds of institutions. Hence, in America conservatives sought to conserve these institutions. Many of the ideas put forward by Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison are perniciously radical to conservatives in monarchical societies like those found in 18th-century Europe or 21st-century Saudi Arabia. But here you aren’t a radical, you’re a conservative if you try to conserve notions of liberty, private property, a free press, etc. This is why Friedrich Hayek believed that “conservatives” in the United States were still classical liberals and hence lovers of liberty — because we intend to preserve those institutions and ideas set forth by the Founders.

Today, so much of conservatism isn’t an attempt to conserve at all, but to impose an ideological agenda. We talk about “taking back” and “tearing down” left-wing institutions which shouldn’t be left-wing or right-wing at all. Universities, for example, are supposed to be dedicated to abstractions — truth, learning, free inquiry — not agendas. But the Left has decided to infuse their ideological agenda into the schools. They ridicule the “idea” that “Truth” exists and conservatives in response have been forced to make abstractions into ideological issues too. It’s just very sad.

Personally, I wish that we didn’t need ideology. As Russell Kirk was fond of noting (but as H. Stuart Hughes said), conservatism is “the negation of ideology.” Conservatism is supposed to be practical. It is supposed to muddle through and rely on democratic and undemocratic institutions (the university, for example, precedes democracy by centuries) to dilute and channel ideological fervor in a constructive manner. Politics is not supposed to be about everything. There should not be “conservative” universities or conservative “art.” When I hear people talk about the need for such things I find it deeply depressing because it shows how profoundly ideological considerations have penetrated into the warp and woof of everyday life.

Back To Pat

What does this have to do with Pat Buchanan? Well, everything. Buchanan’s a brilliant guy with a superb gift for pinpointing problems with our society. He’s looked at what the Left has done, how it has undermined our social consensus about our heroes and our traditions, our schools and our national priorities. Now, I disagree with very significant parts of his analysis and his solutions. I think his desire to construct a racial argument against the racialists on the Left is ill advised and unlovely. I think his desire to construct this argument has made him focus too much on “racial” problems that are not, in fact, essentially racial at all.

But the fact remains that he felt the need to come up with an ideology to combat one that is clearly winning. I may not want him to win, but I certainly want his enemies on the Left to lose.


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