After Paleoconservatism

April 07, 2008

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Paul Gottfried has written an epitaph for paleoconservatism, and it is sure to generate a fair amount of controversy among paleos and even among those who might identify more with what he calls the “post-paleo right.”  There is a lot in it to ponder.  I am not sure that I agree that paleoconservatism is dead or dying.  In the future, it may be no less marginal than it is today, but I don’t expect it to disappear.  Sometimes I have seen people refer to me as “neo-paleo,” which is such an awkward and bizarre description that I hope never to see it again, so I might be considered “post-paleo” in some way, but I am still not entirely clear on what distinguishes the “post-paleo” from what went before it, except perhaps for the difference between generations.

What is the “post-paleo right”?  Dr. Gottfried says:

This post-paleo right will follow the paleos in breaking from the “conservative movement” as it now exists or as it has been reconstituted since the 1980s. It will seek to return to the constitutional liberal traditions of the anti-New Deal coalition. Decentralization, restriction on immigration as a source of social disorder and as an excuse for the expansion of the government’s social engineering, and the total rejection of a global democratic foreign policy will likely be the pillars of the new political alignment. Most importantly, its advocates will have no “patriotic” illusions about our managerial regime.

I certainly agree that these should be the priorities, whether you want to call it paleo or post-paleo, but it seems to me that the “post-paleo right” has essentially the same priorities and goals that paleoconservatives have had for the last twenty years and more and that the “post-paleo right” has adopted them thanks to the arguments of paleoconservatives.  So the “post-paleo right” seems to be a second wave or second generation of paleoconservatism.  Dr. Gottfried says that the new coalition will not be “a paleo coalition,” but what does this mean?  Won’t the priorities of constitutionalism, decentralism, immigration restriction and rejection of democratist hegemony continue to attract a coalition that is broadly similar to the voters who backed Mr. Buchanan in his presidential bids?

Dr. Gottfried is correct that the substantial imbalance in resources and institutional support has been critical to the success of neoconservatism, and he is also right that its rise has been part of a particular set of historical circumstances that will pass away.  Usually, institutional support for ideas lasts longer than the relevance or influence of those ideas, so unfortunately we can expect neoconservatism to continue on in some form for years to come.  Actually, I fear that it may enjoy a revival under the next administration, whether in opposition or in government, as its adherents and defenders will keep claiming that the “real” neoconservatism was never really tried during the Bush years.  (Such is the self-justification of the ideologue: the idea was perfect, but we just didn’t go far enough, and besides we were undermined at every turn by counter-revolutionaries.)  An Obama administration will allow neoconservatives to consolidate their position on the right and play their normal role of the “respectable” opposition, while a McCain administration would offer them a certain vindication and new patronage.

To the extent that sympathy for Obama on the right represents a “post-paleo” acceptance of “the worse, the better,” I have some hope for the prospects of such a post-paleo movement, though the same argument might be made for a McCain victory that further reveals neocon delusions.  If it is, on the other hand, a case of supporting Obama out of the mistaken belief that Obama is, in fact, meaningfully “better,” I think it will have revealed itself to be little more than a faddish pose with no enduring appeal.  There is an important difference between, “I am conservative and I support Obama because I know his election will contribute to a major backlash against Washington and the establishment consensus on account of his terrible policies” and “I am conservative, but I support Obama!”  The former is a calculation of what would be in one’s best long-term interests, while the latter comes across as an expression of wanting to be trendy and up-to-date.  How “post-paleos” explain their support for Obama, if they do support him, will make all the difference in whether they are effective in working as a “counterforce” against neoconservatives and their allies.  

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