April 07, 2008

Paul’s announcement of the death of the paleoconservatism”€”an article which we discussed at length and which I very much wanted him to write”€”has prompted me to reconsider something that Paul left out of his discussion, the Right’s trajectory throughout the 1990s. This period of time is also known as my childhood. 

I, too, was “€œRight from the Beginning,”€ and even came out strong for Buchanan in “€™92″€”just ask my 7th-grade history teacher who indulged me in much right-wing flamethrowing during “€œcurrent events.”€ It’s difficult to put into words exactly what about Buchanan appealed to me at this young age, but looking back, I”€™d describe it as a kind of healthy, instinctive individualism, with a few reactionary and nationalistic sentiments thrown in. “€œLook, bureaucracies are slow and stupid”€”we need less government!”€ “€œThe U.S. Constitution is good enough for me, damn it!”€ “€œHey, you can”€™t just sneak into our country and demand citizenship, geez!”€ I couldn”€™t summon the dramatic language of Rothbard”€””€œbreaking the clock of social democracy,”€ “€œrepealing the 20th century”€”€”but I would have raised a glass at the Randolph Club if I”€™d been there (or been old enough to drink).

I had not yet experienced the cultural Left”€”being rather sheltered and not yet having attended college. My main enemies at this time were liberals”€”who, I imagined, were all a bunch of boring Sunday school teachers or Beltway E.J. Dionne types. The other enemies were the high-minded conservative who tried to spoil all the fun. 

Was my adolescent conservatism immature? Sure. But looking back on it now, I still find it a completely healthy way of looking at the world. More importantly, I agree with Sam Francis in seeing this kind of rugged, reactionary individualism as in the hearts (or rather guts) of most of the rank and file conservative activists and avid GOP voters. They are the Men From MARs”€”Middle American Radicals.

(Although, to be sure, there’s a large contingent who identify with the Religious Right and who probably came to conservatism and the GOP for very different reasons.) 

There might not have been a direct connection between Buchanan’s (and Perot’s) insurgent campaigns of “€™92, and the “€œRepublican Revolution”€ of “€™94, but they certainly shared a common spirit. In retrospect, what Gingrich ultimately accomplished was to make sure that the Revolution never really overturned much”€”NAFTA was signed before the class of “€™94 entered Congress, the growth of government was never close to being arrested”€”and that the rebellious energies were properly aligned with the quasi-liberal GOP establishment”€”hence “€œDole in “€™96.”€ Gingrich’s current identity as the über-technocratic wonk”€”a laptop for every 4 year old!”€”is testament to a Revolution that never could have been.

The only thing of real significance that the Right accomplished in the 90s was the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Even if old Bill deserved it, this was a puny achievement in light of the real challenges of seriously reevaluating the role of government and American foreign policy after the Cold War. It also lent credence to the notion that Republicans are ultimately a bunch of self-righteous blowhards who are more interested in moralizing than policy making. (The GOP played to type again during their campaign to “€œsave Terry Shaivo,”€ another “€œfutile and stupid gesture”€ by Republicans at a moment when they were at the height of their power.)

In 2000 we got Dubya, who distanced himself both from the Clinton impeachment and the failed “€™94 Revolution, and kindled some kind of vague “€œcompassion.”€ I promptly dropped out, tuned out of conservative politics, stopped calling myself a conservative, began studying German, political philosophy, and 19th-century Central European music, and prepared for life as an “€œunpolitical man.”€ There was nothing about Bush or the conservative movement that interested me in the least.

This didn”€™t last very long, as 2001 and the Iraq War drew me back into American politics. I reenlisted, but this time in the dissident, oppositional fraction of the Right. I became a dedicated reader of The American Conservative and felt that I had come full circle”€”Buchanan was my hero again. 

Things were, of course, very different for those who stayed loyal to the movement. Looking back on it now, 2003 seems like a bizarro bastardization of the spirit of “€™92 and “€™94. I”€™ll give credit to my friend Marcus Epstein for the formulation: The Middle Americans revolted”€”and they did it while eating “€œfreedom fries.”€ The instinct to “€œsupport the troops”€ is usually something good; however, I wish the MARs would have recognized that it wasn”€™t just the “€œfar Left”€ who opposed the invasion of Iraq, and it wasn”€™t exactly rock-ribbed conservatives who were planning it, either. Whatever the case, the needless, disastrous invasion of Iraq brought the conservative movement and the GOP into closer unison than they had ever been before. The GOP gained much; MARs gained absolutely nothing. 

Paul is thus on the mark when he writes:

[T]his new generation sees itself not as the latest phase of the post-World War II conservative movement but as a throwback to the interwar anti-New Deal Right. It has become contemptuous of the conservatism that arose in the 1950s under the auspices of National Review, because all it knows of this movement is the iron control of the neoconservative ruling class. Unlike the older generation, these younger rightists nurture no fond memories about the way things were before the 1980s or possibly before the 1970s.”€

Studying the glory days of NR and the movement is often edifying and inspiring, but I”€™ve always approached this as an intellectual historian”€”now that the unifying menace of World Communism is long gone, what, if anything, is there to be salvaged from the political philosophy developed at the old NR? It’s equally enlightening to examine the golden days to try to discover why exactly the movement was so vulnerable, so easily transformed by neoconservatives on the one hand and the midnless hacks of FOX News on the other.

The Right needs a new beginning, and here I agree with Paul that in moving beyond the movement, we shouldn”€™t take a fantastical flight into the Never-Never-Land of Medieval Catholicism (or, in alternate versions, the Confederacy or some pre-industrial communal past). This has always stuck me as more resembling a game of Dungeons and Dragons than any serious appreciation of history.

More importantly, it is around things like opposition to “€œcomprehensive immigration reform”€ that the Right can still become unified as a “€œthird force”€”€”and when I sense the stirring of the rebellious spirit of “€™92. The same can”€™t be said of a campaign to retroactively oppose the Glorious Revolution.

May you live in interesting times”€”the slow erosion of neoconservative credibility (if not their funding) is undeniable; the GOP is set for a long decline; the expense of the Iraq War and system of entitlements is leading the country into a major financial crisis. Moreover, the lukewarm reception of John McCain amongst the talk-radio and Coulter set proves that the war doesn”€™t quite trump everything else.

All of this represents a major opportunity, and it is not as self-described paleoconservatives that we will be best prepared to seize it.  


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