Paul Gottfried, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 189 pp., (hardcover), $39.95.
It would be hard to think of a scholar more essential to American conservatism—real conservatism—than Paul Gottfried. Perhaps no one else writing today combines such deep erudition and keen insight with a real sympathy for conservative thought. Building on his previous work in The Conservative Movement, After Liberalism, and Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, Professor Gottfried’s latest book authoritatively recounts “the evolution of the American conservative movement from the 1950s to the present.”
This is not a primer; Prof. Gottfried does not write for beginners. But for those prepared to follow its concise arguments, this is a vastly rewarding account of how the American Right was invaded and denatured by ex-liberals and ex-Communists who have stripped the word “conservative” of virtually all meaning.
Prof. Gottfried begins by pointing out that the United States does not have a conservative movement in the proper, European sense. The fathers of conservatism, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, wrote in reaction to the French revolution and in defense of monarchy, tradition, aristocracy, social deference, and the established church. They defended specific societies and traditions they loved and hoped would endure. The closest American parallel would be Southern secessionists and anti-abolitionists, but they were practical men, not philosophers.
American conservatism today does not defend a distinct way of life. Instead, it promotes “values.” A conservative therefore need not be of a particular nation, race, class or religion; if he checks the right boxes on the political equivalent of a Cosmo-girl quiz, he can call himself a conservative. Prof. Gottfried notes that this is more akin to an ideological Right, which need not be rooted in class or tradition and that stands for a particular set of ideas, but that this is not the same as traditional, organically rooted European conservatism. Today, American “conservatism” therefore means opposition to the Left, but its current standard bearers may be the most accommodating opposition the Left has ever met.
At the same time, our conservatives have an almost comic blindness to their own ineffectiveness. Prof. Gottfried writes: “Despite the patent fact that the political landscape has been moving generally leftward since the fifties, conservatives celebrate a ‘Reagan revolution’ while turning out books that hail their imagined transformation of American society.”
It is common to pretend there was no American Right until William F. Buckley established National Review in 1955, but Prof. Gottfried reminds us there was vigorous opposition to the New Deal and even to our entry into the Second World War. Men such as Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, John T. Flynn, Col. Robert McCormick, Henry Hazlitt, John Chamberlain and H.L. Mencken despised Franklin Roosevelt, believed in war only in defense of vital interests, and hated the specter of intrusive government. They did not call themselves “conservatives,” however. Some called themselves “Jeffersonians,” and could have correctly been called “constitutionalists” or “classical liberals.” It was only after the Second World War that the term “conservative” became common, and Mr. Buckley strongly promoted it. Prof. Gottfried suggests that Russell Kirk gave the new name a big push in his 1953 book The Conservative Mind, in which he tried to give the American Right artificial roots in Edmund Burke’s traditional conservatism.
In the beginning, National Review really did defend a traditional view of the American republic. As James Lubinskas has shown in a comprehensive AR article, the magazine took racial differences in IQ for granted, scorned Martin Luther King, supported South African apartheid, and opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took equally traditional positions on welfare and government meddling, although it was prepared to overlook federal excesses in support of the big military organization Mr. Buckley thought necessary for defeating Communism. Once he even famously warned that conservatives should accept “totalitarianism on these shores” if that was what it took to rout the Commies. “Conservatism” itself was already becoming a tool for the accumulation of government power.
It was the neoconservatives who finally neutered Mr. Buckley’s “conservatism,” but his magazine was already backpedaling by the 1960s and 1970s, honing the uniquely conservative talent for “treating a general retreat from its original positions as a progression of victories.” Some of this came from a craving for respectability, which meant turfing out comrades from the early days who refused to trim their sails. As Prof. Gottfried notes, “conservative leaders have marginalized their own right wing more than once as they have presented their movement as suitable for a dialogue with ‘moderates’ on the other side.” They have long been willing to shed principles if that was what it took to get a share of the public spotlight.
As for the ex-lefties who were to become neocons, their break with Communism did not send them immediately into the conservative camp. When they first began to emerge as a school of thought they resisted the name of conservative, associating it with racism, nativism, and anti-Semitism, and they did not hesitate to accuse National Review of these crimes. They submitted to being called “conservative” only after they took over most of the Buckley movement, and emptied it of anything left that deserved the name.
At that point they also began to treat Mr. Buckley as if he had been one of their own all along. As Prof. Gottfried writes of Mr. Buckley, “By the 1980s, he and his magazine had moved into a predominantly Jewish-Zionist and, from all appearances, Teutonophobic neoconservative camp, which graciously allowed him to revise both his past, and, by implication, that of his movement.” Unlike AR, National Review’s on-line archives go back only to 2003. The early material—now moldering only in libraries—would be embarrassing.
There is no question that neoconservatism conquered its rivals on the right, but how? How did people like Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Midge Decter, and Gertrude Himmelfarb manage to gain a following for a movement that was predominantly Jewish and ex-Communist? First, the entire country had moved leftward, and compliant, ingratiating “conservatives” made a much better showing in the TV age than men with backbone, in the mold of Col. McCormick or H. L. Mencken. At the same time, as Prof. Gottfried explains, neoconservatives were “relentless, methodical empire builders.” As they took over the old institutions and publications of the Right and started their own, they were able to offer jobs and prominent positions to followers. Once they had annexed much of the Republican Party, even plum administration jobs came within their gift. And as the state became both a tool for pet policies and a source of jobs, they lost whatever faint impulses they might once have had to reduce the size of government.
Neocons also consolidated their status as official opposition by savagely purging the Old Right, making it virtually impossible for long-standing opponents of welfare, Martin Luther King, or overseas adventuring to get a hearing. Neocons never lost the old Communist habit of calling their opponents “fascists,” and this is still their favorite word for anyone to their right. Prof. Gottfried scoffs at this fraudulent name calling, pointing out that Fascism was a distinctively European inter-war phenomenon that arose in reaction to Soviet Communism. “It is hard to imagine,” he writes, “what, if anything, fascism would look like in today’s society. Equating fascists with European or American critics of Third World immigration is a propagandistic ploy, when it is not simply an anachronistic exercise.”
Prof. Gottfried is familiar with the racially-oriented paleoconservative Right, and he is thinking of American Renaissance and The Occidental Quarterly when we writes, “it is hard to find groups on the present American Right calling for a Mussolinian state or who, in contrast to the neoconservatives, associate ‘national greatness’ with an expanded central government.” He points out, correctly, that racially conscious whites tend to be libertarians, and would love to get the government out of their lives. When neoconservatives shout about “fascism” they are completely missing the mark. They keep doing it because, in a movement that Prof. Gottfried describes as having “declined into robot-like conformity,” demonization works.
Once they had cast what was left of the genuine Right into outer darkness, neoconservatives became the perfect foil for Democrats. As Prof. Gottfried explains, they “stand closer ideologically and sociologically to the Center-Left than any other group identified with the ‘conservative’ side.” As the official lap-dog opposition, they now merely compete with the Center-Left on how to interpret positions that are broadly accepted by the Left.
What do today’s neoconservatives actually stand for? They prate constantly about “permanent values,” but Prof. Gottfried notes that this is largely a charade designed to give the appearance of a moral and philosophical pedigree. Their so-called values are mostly mush. Prof. Gottfried quotes neoconservative Jonah Goldberg as saying that what unites conservatives is a belief in “human rights” and “universal values.” By this standard Trotsky and Ted Kennedy are “conservatives.”
The “permanent value” with which neocons justify their foreign wars is “global democracy.” They have decided that welfare-with-elections is the only acceptable way to run a country, and are prepared to kill people if that is what it takes to get them into voting booths. Prof. Gottfried notes that this neo-Wilsonian war-mongering is an essential aspect of neoconservative support for Israel.
“Values” are also a conveniently fluid way to give ground. Prof. Gottfried cites David Brooks of the New York Times, who explained that his support for homosexual marriage grew out of his conservative support for “family values”! Of course, the Left, too, whoops so much about “values” and its “moral compass” that the squabble over virtuousness has left many Americans politically dyslexic: A February 2005 poll found that one third of Hillary Clinton’s supporters called themselves “conservative.” The “values” game has so blurred political boundaries that neoconservatives get away with promoting a concept that would have left the Old Right gasping: “big-government conservatism.”
More insidiously, “values” detach “conservatism” from any association with place, tribe, or nation. It doesn’t matter if America is flooded with Hmong, Haitians, and Somali Bantus. Once Jonah Goldberg has taught them “human rights” and “universal values” they will be flawless conservatives.
Needless to say, if conservatism is to conserve anything, it must start with the biological and cultural patrimony of a people. When neoconservatives promote mass immigration from anywhere and everywhere—though with some signs of skepticism about Muslims—they are destroying the country as surely as are the worst liberals. It is partly to prove their indifference to race and peoplehood that neocons trumpet their support of Martin Luther King, whom they hold up as the champion of pure race unconsciousness and equal opportunity. Of course, King would almost certainly have whinnied with happiness if he had lived long enough to see race preferences.
Prof. Gottfried writes that it is possible to imagine a different and more authentic conservatism, one that never lost its hatred of big government or of overseas adventures—but that it is possible only to imagine it. This would be a Right that would be far more difficult for the regnant liberals to co-opt or refute, but Prof. Gottfried says such a Right shows no sign of emerging. What remains of the Old Right opposition to neoconservatism “is now battered and without friends in high places.”
Prof. Gottfried has inhabited the Right for a long time and knows what he is talking about. And yet, there are signs of hope. Ron Paul’s startling success as a fundraiser is proof that many people admire the one politician who actually reads the Constitution. The massive outrage that smashed the recent plan to grant amnesty to millions of illegal Mexicans shows how few people have swallowed neoconservative rubbish about America as a “universal nation.”
There is still good sense deep in the bones of the people. That it is why it is increasingly only real conservatives who want to circumvent legislative sausage-making and submit as many questions as possible directly to voters. Traditionalists have always held government in deep suspicion (though they also worried about the people running off in wild directions if they had unchecked power). Today, thanks in no small part to the fakes who call themselves “conservatives,” there is no question that the establishment threatens our nation and way of life far more than would the blunt instincts of ordinary Americans.