What is modern American conservatism? “A movement without a social core,” complains one of its more penetrating observers, “that latches on to temporarily usable constituencies . . . contrived . . . a media phenomenon.”
He goes on: “It has a viewing public and numerous publications, which can provide the Republican Party, when necessary, with PR. Whether this also renders it a popular social movement remains at the very least debatable.”
That’s the voice of intellectual historian Paul Gottfried, from his 2007 book Conservatism in America. It is also, of course, the voice of the Old Right, of what we nowadays refer to as the “paleocons.” You know how the conversation goes:
P: The conservative movement has sold out to big government, multiculturalism, and save-the-world adventurism. What happened to conservative principles?
N: They came up against democracy. When the mass of people are asked, they want a bureaucratic-managerial welfare state and the righting of international wrongs.
P: They don’t want confiscatory tax levels. They don’t want a New Class of arrogant scholar-bureaucrats bossing them around. They don’t want mass Third World immigration. They don’t want ten-year wars. They don’t want affirmative action. They don’t want federal inspectors in school cafeterias. They don’t want . . .
N: If they don’t want those things, they’re free not to vote for them. For guys who haven’t won an election since 1928, you seem awfully sure you know what people want.
P: Media kiss-up!
N: Superfluous man!
Et cetera, et cetera. There is of course something to be said for being right (which is to say, Right) at any price. Gottfried in fact says it very well in his new book Encounters, in reference to his friends Murray Rothbard, Russell Kirk, and Sam Francis:
Not one of these figures possessed the burning careerist ambition of Beltway “conservative” journalists. . . . They thirsted for what they understood as righteousness. They exemplified Socrates’ prayer that one should “be content with those riches that lie within.” Sam [Francis] was as much a “beautiful loser” as those he mocked, and this was to his credit as well as theirs.
Encounters is, like its author, modest and good-natured. After a chapter on his family background, followed by another one offering a very brief autobiography, Gottfried gets down to the main business: his acquaintance with 16 intellectuals of widely varying prominence in later-20th-century political philosophy. The names range from indisputably Old Right (Russell Kirk, Murray Rothbard), through more idiosyncratic types (Will Herberg, John Lukacs), to some who defy classification (Herbert Marcuse, Paul Piccone — neither of whom, I note, appears in the ISI’s encyclopedia of American conservatism).
The overall tone of the book is elegiac, and not only because most of Gottfried’s subjects — eleven of the 16 — are dead. Gottfried describes himself as “an author who has been asked, ‘Do you give out suicide razors with your books?’” (That’s a question I expect to be hearing myself soon.) The Old Right was of course the losing side in the conservative wars of the 1980s. Thirsting for righteousness is all very well, but losing is always and unavoidably a melancholy business.
There is something to be learned from one’s lost battles, though. Gottfried makes clear, to anyone to whom it is not already clear, why Pat Buchanan’s 1992 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was doomed to fail. Buchanan was, he shows, at once too combative and too civilized to win big political prizes. He took on too many enemies at once, with too much gusto; and he placed too much faith in the power of reasoned argument:
[Buchanan] emphatically believes that while contentiousness may be essential to a free society, there should be fair play in the way argument takes place. . . . Pat considered his detractors bullies who would not debate according to a gentlemanly code, and he therefore went after them with unconcealed anger. And he struck out against them while other self-declared conservatives were knuckling under. By contrast, Pat responded in a manly and principled fashion, even if his rhetoric was not always carefully chosen.
As the cliché says: Politics ain’t beanbag. It is a telling measure of the coarseness of modern American political culture, though, that Pat Buchanan, who got his education in practical politics in Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, should have underestimated the thuggish brutality of his 1992 enemies.
The Buchanan pen-portrait is in a chapter titled “Two Pugnacious Republicans.” The other pugnacious Republican is Richard Nixon himself. Gottfried was an occasional guest of Nixon’s from 1989 on, and greatly enjoyed his company. Nixon was, as George Will noted, a “closet intellectual” with a vast stock of knowledge about history. Gottfried reproduces a letter he received from the ex-president in 1990. In the letter, Nixon passed a remark about Disraeli, then added: “Incidentally, I have always thought that he was wrong and that Peel was right on the repeal of the Corn Laws.”
I wonder what opinion our current president holds on the repeal of the Corn Laws?
Gottfried dutifully lays out the case against Nixon’s being any kind of conservative at all. “It was Nixon who started the ball rolling for affirmative action. . . . During his presidency . . . the size and reach of the American welfare state grew more than it would under any of his presidential successors. . . . Nixon opened the door to relations with Maoist China, a monstrous tyranny led by a mass murderer.” Gottfried notes also Nixon’s strange affection for Woodrow Wilson, “a paradigmatic democratic crusader whom he never resembled.”
Nixon belonged to a tradition of pessimistic realism that would place him well to the right of his neo-Wilsonian critics — that is, of those who assailed the policy of détente with the Soviets that he pursued with Henry Kissinger in the early ’70s. The question is not whether this approach was correct. It is rather whether it was actuated by conservative assumptions about politics and human nature. By this criterion Nixon was more conservative than the global democratic crusaders, whom the anticommunist wing of his party happily embraced and often misunderstood.
Anyone who writes about Nixon must try to offer some kind of resolution of these knotty contradictions in the man’s character and presidency. Gottfried, I think, has done the job as well as it can be done in a dozen pages.
THE JEW THING
Gottfried argues that Nixon was, by any standard lower than the exquisitely hyper-sensitive one promoted by modern multiculturalists, “a model of political correctness.” Post-Watergate charges of anti-Semitism were particularly preposterous, leveled as they were against a president who, from the beginning of his political career, had surrounded himself with Jewish advisers.
Here, though, we enter a very fraught topic in the history of modern American conservatism — one so fraught it reduced even Bill Buckley to near inscrutability when, in 1992, he felt obliged to write a book about it.
Perhaps nothing has soured relations between the Old Right and the New Right more than the Jew Thing — the suspicion on the part of paleocons that neocons are too ready to place Israel’s interests before America’s; and the complementary suspicion on the part of neocons that the Old Right has a wide streak of anti-Semitism running through it.
As a Jewish paleocon, Gottfried is neither fish nor fowl to adherents of these simple-minded formulas. He records being “startled” to hear (from Peter Stanlis) that “Gertrude Himmelfarb, whose dislike for me I never doubted, had assumed I was a ‘German Catholic’ who was only pretending to have come from a Jewish refugee family.”
Gottfried is sanguine, actually quite charitable, about these slights: “People may suffer from atavistic fears that complicate social and professional relations. But one must take those fears into account if one is trying to understand their personalities.” He seems at any rate to be less bothered by them than his friend, the historian John Lukacs:
John . . . has also dwelled on his longtime poor relations with neoconservatives, of whom he holds a generally low opinion, and he maintains that these problems go back to the time when Sidney Hook and other neoconservatives in reviews of his books asserted that he was an anti-Semite. This accusation . . . has understandably grated on John, who spent the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 hiding from Hitler’s Hungarian collaborators with his mother’s Jewish parents.
Again Gottfried takes a balanced and charitable view of the matter, noting the praise Lukacs has received in neocon outlets like Commentary, the big and prestigious publishing houses that have produced Lukacs’s books, and Lukacs’s agreement with the neocons in, for example, condemning Pat Buchanan’s assault on Churchill’s statecraft. For a book written by a representative of the losing side in the conservative wars, Encounters is wonderfully free of rancor.
(I note in passing that six of Gottfried’s 16 subjects in Encounters, not counting his own family members, are Jewish or part-Jewish; and that at least three have, like the author’s family, a strong connection to Budapest.)
THE NEXT GENERATION
Gottfried nurses little hope for the future of conservatism. As good-natured as he is, currents of disillusion and despair run through Encounters and through the other two of his recent books I have read, After Liberalism (1999) and the aforementioned Conservatism in America. He believes, as he says in the quote I opened up with, that American conservatism has no social base; and this belief has come upon him only after years of observation and reflection:
The social class on which [Will Herberg] and I both once pinned our hope of national regeneration, those whom we jokingly referred to as “the Archie Bunkers,” has gone the way of the dinosaur. It has been replaced by a multitude of vastly more radicalized versions of Meathead, Archie’s fashionably liberal son-in-law who by now could be an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Being good-natured is not incompatible with the ability to throw an occasional well-aimed dart.
Teaching humanities to undergraduates in a small and undistinguished private college does not conduce to optimism, either. I see on Gottfried’s employer’s website that the college has an Office of Multicultural Affairs. But of course they do! “Pointing out the persistence of ethnic antagonism seems to my students ‘un-American,’” Gottfried tells us. I imagine this is primarily the case with non-Hispanic white students. Many minorities take “the persistence of ethnic antagonism” for granted, depending on it when they allege “discrimination” or “racial profiling,” or benefit from affirmative action.
Gottried tells us that only three of 30 students in one of his Western Civ. classes had heard of Julius Caesar. None of the 30 had read a historical narrative “before having been forced to take my course.” But then: “I asked whether my students knew which group had been the most persecuted: women, gays, or blacks. A lively debate followed full of varied claims to victimhood.”
The future looks dark indeed; and as dark as it looks to a dilettante like me, it must look darker yet to someone who takes the life of the mind as seriously as Paul Gottfried does. How intensely intellectual the Old Right is! If you haven’t read your Aristotle in the original Greek, these guys can sometimes be hard to follow.
In today’s political circumstances they are of course perfectly irrelevant. Is there any case to be made for paleoconservatism as a long-term investment? There is, although the case rests on deeply pessimistic premises.
It may be that the Old Right will come into its inheritance at last 20 or 30 years from now, in one of the little fragment nations that will emerge when corruption, fiscal incompetence, demographic idiocy, educational romanticism, willful scientific ignorance, ethnic warfare, and missionary imperialism have finally destroyed the United States of America.
But, as I said, Ive just written a book about conservative gloom.
– John Derbyshire is an NRO columnist. His book We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism will be published by Crown Forum in September.