Making Sense of the American Right

Douglas A. Jeffrey and Claremont Review both deserve to be congratulated for violating the imperial ban that the neoconservative mafia has imposed on my book Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right. Unlike National Review, The Weekly Standard, the Washington Times, and other bona-fide members of the neocon agitprop empire, Jeffrey and his publication have dared to speak my name and to treat my work as something worthy of consideration. (A letter of mine was published in the latest issue as well.) Their review of my monograph is paired with a discussion of another one, dealing with the work of a hysterical anti-Christian author, Allan C. Lichtman. In White Protestant Nation  Lichtman puts forth the culturally illiterate view that acceptance of the divinity of Christ is a white Christian racist obsession. To his credit, Jeffrey considers my work to be “€œfar more interesting than Lichtman’s,”€ although he then adds that what I wrote is “€œirrelevant to American conservatism and so often infused with blinding vitriol that what might have been a short and lucid exposition of the paleoconservative position is something less.”€

There are problems with this passage, aside from the mixed metaphor, and the invective against me following the first paragraph. My book was never intended as an “€œexposition of the paleoconservative position.”€ In fact my scattered references to that position are aimed mostly at explaining why it has become increasingly irrelevant for combating the neoconservative lock-hold on the respectable American Right. Nowhere in my book do I suggest, however obliquely, that I “€œsupport Ron Paul’s non-interventionism in the face of the threat of Islamic fascism.”€ There is nothing in my study indicating whom I “€œsupport”€ in the presidential race, although there is a passage in it that compares Paul to Robert Taft, who in his day was viewed as a conventional small-government Republican”€”and one who wished to stay out of foreign wars. I am not against combating “€œIslamic fascism”€ but have questioned whether this term, borrowed by the neocon Left from the rest of the Left, really characterizes Islamic extremists. For the record, I wish to control the Islamicization of the Western world by controlling immigration rather than by sending armies around the world to spread democracy. But in any case nowhere does my book include a statement about “€œIslamic fascists.”€ Contrary to Jeffrey’s statement, I do devote two pages in Chapter Five to contrasting the Jaffaite position on the war in Iraq to the one taken by the neoconservative press. On pages 110 and 111 it should be clear that I find Charles Kesler’s views about the war to be far more nuanced than those of FOX news.

Jeffrey seems to miss the point of my book. It was not produced to get back at Buckley for “€œgiving Gottfried’s friends the boot.”€ Nor did I write this monograph to settle scores with “€œpersonal villains.”€ As I explain in my introductory chapter, I was trying to “€œcontextualize”€ the postwar American conservative movement, in such a way as to explain both its cohesion, which I compare to that of its archenemy, the American Communist Party, and its power to continue to be seen as standing for “€œthe same things,”€ no matter how often it changed its positions.

The “€œvalue game”€ is brought up in Chapter Five as a tool by which to clarify how a changing movement, engaging in frequent purges, could pretend to be “€œfundamentally”€ the same although it was moving leftward. As a European historian I dwell on the major difference between, on the one side, European conservatism and European liberalism in the nineteenth century and, on the other, that hodge-podge of intellectual and sentimental preferences that became American conservatism in postwar America. In my historical sections, I also observe that the prewar American Right looked a great deal like European liberalism, plus small-town American Protestant culture. It was this genuine opposition to the New Deal and to interventionist internationalism that for better or worse the postwar conservative movement replaced—and then proceeded to stamp out. This older Right, I also note, may have been doomed because of social changes and because of the increasing power of centralized administration. Although I express my preference for this older American Right to what supplanted it, I do not hide the obvious, that its social base was disappearing by the mid-twentieth century.

Jeffrey also misrepresents my discussion of values, something that the trained philosopher David Gordon immediately picked up on in his relevant observations in the Mises Review. For Jeffrey’s information, I agree that it is wrong “€œto rule another man as if he were a cow or a pig,”€ or for that matter as a fit subject for social engineering in a modern administrative democracy. The point is that, unlike him and his mentor, Harry Jaffa, I do not advocate wars against “€œfascist”€ countries that fail to meet my personal value expectations. I also disagree with the Jaffaites that the Left is full of “€œvalue relativists.”€ Would that leftists were what they claimed to be, namely relativists, who would make no attempt to inflict their “€œvalues”€™ on the rest of us! Unfortunately they”€™re not. It is the moral fanaticism of the Left, including that of the neoconservative Left, which scares the hell out of me.

Nor does my criticism of the appropriation of values, by those pretending to be “€œconservatives,”€ mean that I reject “€œobjective values.”€ One can believe in the existence of truth, beauty, and justice, without assuming that they translate into “€œAmerican democracy.” Unlike the Jaffaites but like George Kennan, I am a political agnostic, who believes that differing political arrangements are suitable for different cultures. And unlike Harry Jaffa, I also think this was a fundamental teaching of Aristotle’s”€™ Politics. Aristotle regarded the polis as a specifically Greek model of government. There citizenship would be jealously guarded while being confined to other Greeks. In response to the question of whether I believe that “value conservatism” can ever be a valid stance, my answer is that it depends on the historical circumstances. Not our generation but Burke and his disciples could be “value conservatives” because they were defending a “conservative” social order. Although we can resist the inroads of the multicultural Left in alliance with the administrative state, we do so as the modern Right—and not as conservatives since there is no longer a conservative order to be defended.

Finally, Jeffrey’s comments about my comparison of “€œvalue conservatism”€ in postwar Germany to its counterpart in the U.S. are simply unintelligible. But allow me to restate the point that he may have missed. The reason the leftward course of the CDU-CSU-Union “€œthrows light on the American experience”€ is that the postwar German non-Left took a disastrous turn resembling the one that we too are now taking. It promoted itself as a defender of global democratic values as opposed to representing an historic nation or people. Afterwards the German Union abandoned the Christian substance in the party name “€œChristian Democratic”€ or “€œChristian Social”€™ in Bavaria in favor of more fashionable “€œeternal values,”€ for example, when Chancellor Angela Merkel equated her ancestral religion with “€œwomen’s rights.”€ This now familiar form of the “value game”€ doomed the postwar German Right-Center to becoming what it is at the present time, namely a disburser of party patronage which stands for a leftward-drifting position based on “€œhuman rights”€ and “€œdemocratic values.”€ 

My book does note that there are critical differences between the U.S. and Germany, a country that had been under a brutal totalitarian regime and which then underwent “€œreeducation”€ at the hands of its conquerors. But there are also similarities between the two societies that deserve to be mentioned. In both countries, the middling center-right embraced a form of “€œvalue conservatism,”€ which permitted and even accelerated the leftward course of their “€œconservative movements.”€ Social and political movements, I suggest in my book, should be based above all on historic classes and historic peoples and not on the disembodied ideological preferences of journalists or the inventors of creeds. That is my position, put most directly, and without the German comparison. That position would probably not please Jeffrey and other Claremont Review contributors. But it may be helpful to present my actual view before assaulting me as an inconsistent historicist.

I am deeply puzzled by Jeffrey’s last and most enigmatic sentence, which is phrased as a rhetorical question. “What sense does it make to prescribe German historicism and then, as proof of our need of it, point to the morass into which it led Germany?”€ If by “€œprescribing”€ Jeffrey means that I place more store in the works of Max Weber and Karl Mannheim than in his mentor’s celebrations of democratic values, then I”€™ll be happy to plead guilty. And having searched my book, nowhere do I see a sentence there in which I claim that “€œhistoricism”€ led Germans into a “€œmorass.”€ In fact I”€™ve no idea what this quagmire refers to. Perhaps Jeffrey would be kind enough to provide a clarification of his tortuous complaint. Even with the aid of David Gordon’s considerable exegetical skills, I have not been able to fathom the full meaning of his word cluster. .


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