Conservatism in America

By Paul Gottfried, 2007

In the subtitle, Gottfried promises to help readers make sense of the American right.  For him, the words “conservatism” and “the Right” are not synonymous.  By “the Right”, he means either any opposition to the revolutionary left in general, or—more often—defenders of the bourgeois social order in particular.  By “conservatism”, he means defenders of traditional, aristocratic societies, i.e. nineteenth-century counterrevolutionaries like Burke and Bonald.  Gottfried believes that a political movement draws its character at least as much from the social class whose interests it defends as from its formal ideological commitments.  The problem with the American Right, in his view, is that it represents no particular social class (or even any fixed social order).  It is thus unanchored, and so its content tends to drift leftward with society at large.  It claims to represent unchanging conservative principles (or “values” in Gottfried’s paraphrases), but these principles have in fact been altered radically in the past half century.

American conservatives have no historical sense, Gottfried claims, and their understanding of their own past is particularly poor.  In his telling, the American right has had three phases.  First were the anti-New Deal Republicans of the 1930s-40s—classical liberals in ideology, primarily Protestant in belief, defenders of the bourgeois social order, and enemies of central government expansion.  This right seems to be the one with which Gottfried most sympathizes.  After the Cold War started, a new group of intellectuals, lead by Russell Kirk, reshaped the right’s image of itself.  They asserted (counterfactually, in Gottfried’s view) that the American right was part of the European counterrevolutionary tradition.  Ideologically conservative, strongly Catholic leaning, these friends of order and authority were much less hostile to the central government and rather saw it as a potential ally against the communist menace.   Gottfried has some respect for conservatives like Kirk and Nisbet—although he questions their relevance to American politics.  He does think that this first transition helped lead in the 1950s to a conservative movement defined totally by anti-communism.  Gottfried has generally negative things to say about William Buckley’s eventual leadership of the movement, which he says consisted mainly of expelling members of the Old Right.  A mythology has grown up about these expulsions—that Buckley cast them off for being kooks or for being anti-Semites.  Gottfried shows that neither charge is true; nor was it even made at the time.  The offense of the Old Right was that they weren’t committed to prosecuting the Cold War as aggressively as Buckley thought necessary—they were “isolationists”.  Eventually, the conservative right too would be displaced and expelled, this time by the neoconservatives.  Gottfried hates, hates, HATES the neoconservatives.  Primarily Jewish, admirers of the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement, and having an almost idolatrous devotion to American liberal democracy, the “neocons” transformed the American conservatism into a movement devoted to spreading democracy throughout the world.  In other words, conservatism had transformed into what anyone a hundred years ago would have called Jacobinism.  The expulsion of Southern Agrarians by Lincoln-worshipping neocons was fairly inevitable.  Less so was praise for Trotsky and attacks on Joseph de Maistre in the pages of National Review itself.  The displacement of the older conservatives generated a mythology of its own.  The neoconservatives somehow managed to argue that the right had no intellectual seriousness before they came to champion it.  This is obviously not true.  In fact, older incarnations of the right had often addressed social, moral, and cultural issues with more depth and serious than is generally found on the right today.

This is a rambling book, and Gottfried is not entirely fair to his enemies.  However, some of his criticisms of American conservatism are quite painfully true.  There is no way an impartial observer could see the history of the American right as anything other than a capitulation to the Left.  One doubts that the conservative movement has even slowed down America’s march to the Left.  However, I think the neoconservative takeover should be regarded as a symptom rather than the cause of this drift.  The outside pressures from the liberal media and universities to move left proved simply overwhelming.  Gottfried also compares the way the conservative movement controls its base’s view of the world to the control the French communist party had over the thoughts of its members.  Both bases were manipulated in degrading ways.  Gottfried does point to a difference between the two cases, though.  Unlike the contemporary American right, the communists did have a serious intellectual and historical consciousness.  That point was quite painful to read, because of course it’s true.  Because there are no conservatives among artists and intellectuals, the conservative subculture is not illuminated by these things.  However, I think the more appropriate response to such realizations is despair rather than anger.  Even if there had been no Catholic traditionalists or Jewish neoconservatives, what high culture there is and what life of the mind there is would still certainly belong to the Left.  They hold all the cards.

8 Responses

  1. […] to Scialabba’s.  In his books on conservatism (see Jim Kalb’s review here and mine here), he argues that the problem with American conservatism is precisely that it doesn’t defend […]

  2. RE “The offense of the Old Right was that they weren’t committed to prosecuting the Cold War as aggressively as Buckley thought necessary—they were “isolationists”. ”

    Intellectuals shouldn’t be allowed the write books. But seeing inasmuch as they can’t be stopped, a few words are in order. First, my personal bias. The idea of a Left,Center and Right is a concept of the Left. As I see it there was never a Right in America. There was, and is, the Left and Americans – that’s it.

    Now for the few words. The Americans (aka Right) were opposed to Buckley Conservatism because it didn;t fight the Cold War hard enough – that is, it sought balance and accommodation with the Soviets and the Red Chinese. It also failed to enforce the Monroe Doctrine by allowing Castro’s Cuba to remain intact.

    As for the Cold War origins, the Americans Buckley were opposed to spent most of their ink detailing the unquestioning sell out of our East European Allies to Stalin, and our Chinese Allies to both Stalin and Mao.

    How this qualifies as isolationism sure beat the heck out of me.

  3. Hello Lawrence,

    That is an interesting claim. Can you give me an example of a more aggressive policy towards the communists that had public approval but was not supported by mainstream conservatives? I don’t doubt you, but since this is the opposite of what we usually hear, I would kike to know more.

  4. Robert Welch of the John Birch Society speaks on the Vietnam War in 1965:
    http://www.jbs.org/news-center/birchtube/94-Robert+Welch+Explains+Purpose+of+Vietnam+War?userid=80

  5. And Welch is still an anti-interventionist in 1974:

  6. If Welch were alive today he’d probably agree with what Moldbug says below :
    http://www.cnas.org/blogs/abumuqawama/2011/04/what-im-reading-instead-doing-my-work.html#comment-84043
    (…)

    Well, communism has consequences! American voters have been happy enough to elect communists, Democrat and Republican, since 1933. They must like what it’s doing to their country and their children. They want their Detroits as ruins and their sons with arms and legs blown off. What’s important is that the country is ruled by Rolling Stone, etc, and not some stupid general with a bad haircut. So we still have our freedom, you know.

  7. Hello icr,

    Thank you for the information on Beckman and Welch.

  8. […] characterization of its predecessors as ignorant bigots more credit than it deserves.  The closest parallel to neoreaction of the 2010s is neoconservatism of the 1960s-1970s.  Even the names are parallel. […]

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