Conservatism

What is Paleoconservatism?

May 24, 2008

Multiple Pages

At the end of the Cold War, conservatives found themselves in a state of disunity and intellectual ferment. The neoconservative faction demanded a continuation of the Cold War model of interventionist foreign policy and rejected the domestic small government conservatism popular in the South and West.  Neo-nationalists, such as Pat Buchanan, pushed for a turn inward, the rejection of various liberal cultural trends, and a dismantlement of much of the welfare state, while advocating restrictions on immigration to reduce the growing welfare state’s largest and growing constituency.

If the expanded government power of the Cold War was conceived of as a necessary evil in the eyes of paleoconservatives, for neoconservatives it was America’s finest hour. In the beginning, neoconservatives were chiefly made up of liberal, Jewish defectors from the Democratic Party who rejected its embrace of the New Left at the tail end of the Vietnam War. In the New Left, the neoconservatives saw nihilism, indifference to Soviet expansionism, solidarity with anti-Western (and anti-Israeli) movements for “national liberation,” and deep alienation from the consensus American position of the Cold War. As liberals with strong ties to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, neoconservatives also saw themselves as the conscience of the conservative movement, natural moderates without the taint of racism that fueled some southern conservatives’ opposition to the civil rights movement.

In the early 90s, the burgeoning Welfare State and its invasive focus on the activities of private life and private businesses presented itself as a natural locus of unity among traditional conservatives.  Paleoconservatives were uneasy with the compromises of the Cold War, and after 1989 these could no longer be justified as necessary and temporary measures to oppose the Soviet Union. Even quasi-authoritarian Catholics (who lionized Franco and Pinochet) had little use for the federal state’s invasiveness because so much of it was in the service of evil and revolutionary ends:  undoing state prohibitions on abortion, imposing crushing tax burdens on small business, interference with naturally patriarchal sex relations, and preventing self-defense through gun control.  This anti-Welfare-Warfare-State coalition included the self-described paleolibertarians. As the “emergency” needs of the Cold War ended, paleoconservatives urged a major reduction in America’s foreign policy commitments, just as they had urged an end to the “emergency” programs of the New Deal after the crisis of the Great Depression had passed. The divisions between traditionalist paleoconservatives with the neoconservatives–temporarily hinted at in the derailment of Mel Bradford’ appointment to the NEH–became thoroughly manifest during the reign of George H.W. Bush.  The FDR coalition refugees never fully embraced the goal of dismantling the welfare state, including the New Deal.  More important, the end of the Cold War led neoconservatives to find new dragons to slay, advocating permanent US interventionism in the Middle East, the quixotic goal of expanding democratic capitalism, protecting Israel, resisting a revanchist Russia, and generally preserving the beneficent applicaiton of US power.  Pointless interventions in cases of dubious national interest—particularly in Somalia—hardened divisions between these two disparate wings of the conservative movement.

Earlier friction on such varied issues as antidiscrimination laws, the meaning of the Civil War, and the existence and nature of “racism” provided additional friction. This friction burst into flame in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.  Where paleoconservatives described the attacks as the fruits of excessive intervention in the Middle East and an overly generous immigration policy, neoconservatives saw the attacks as a pretext to cleave closer to Israel, pursue long-established plans to defang Iraq, and generally pursue an “American greatness” foreign policy.  Since liberals, libertarians, and traditionalist conservatives all had various degrees of opposition to the War in Iraq–or developed opposition as the war’s long-term idealist project became manifest–pacifist libertarian ideas on foreign policy allowed paleoconservatism to be reduced to a single, small government principle in the eyes of recent arrivals. This was a natural enough inference considering the focus of publications like Chronicles and The American Conservative during the last five years.  It is erroneous, however, and this is apparent to anyone involved in conservative politics prior to 2001.  The identification of paleoconservatism as coterminous with absolutist small government ideas has confused fellow travelers with long term believers and wrongly substituted part of its authentic conservative vision for the whole. 

Like any species of conservatism, paleoconservatism demands different treatment of differently situated people.  If paleoconservatism is for small government at the federal and international level, it often embraces “republicanism” at the local level, a tradition that extols the idea of a small, self-governing society where happiness and virtue follows the salutary act of considering and debating the good, being an active citizen, and expressing that commitment politically in law.  By way of illustration, anti-democratic interference in the name of newfangled liberties is one of the core sources of conservative opposition to judicial activism, which interfered with the right of states to organize schools, address vice, find and punish criminals, and chart a course attuned to local circumstances.

Conservatism is defined above all else by the instinct to defend a known way of life that is under threat. In today’s America, that certainly includes the constitutionalist limited government traditions of the Founders, but it also includes the moral leadership of the WASP elite and the Low Church culture originating in rough-hewn Scotch-Irish pioneers that finds expression today in the scorn for elitism and disdain for dependency among a significant fraction of longer-established Americans.

A “conservatism” that decries everything from 1789 onward and rejects large swaths of historical American practice is not conservatism, but is instead a kind of ideological romanticism. Like any ideology, it does not have to deal with compromise, results, facts, and lived experience.  For the ideological romantic, the past and the present can both be dismissed as cynical compromises accepted by inconsistent and unserious men. For folks like these—whether liberal, libertarian, socialist, or something else-–the best is yest to come, and, if we enact their a priori proposals, the perfect society will appear just over the the next hill, like the Lost City of El Dorado.

[An earlier version of this essay is available here.]

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