July 16, 2009

Carter Conservatism and Contrarian Conservatism

Dylan’s post highlights one of the dilemmas within the “Alternative Right” as it exists today.  Confronted by neocon triumphalism about America as the First Universal Nation, the End of History, and the Vanguard of the Global Democratic Revolution, many paleoconservatives, traditionalists, and libertarians have responded with what is essentially a culture of critique.  Ripping the American boobsie for their cultural ignorance, bemoaning the empty consumerism and materialism that has turned America into a giant strip mall, and most importantly, puncturing the bubble of American supremacy have all become staples of dissident conservatives arguing for policies emphasizing moderation, humility, and restraint.  As Dylan notes, when it comes from the Left these kinds of calls generally boil down to some fed telling you what to do or, at best, a time wasting commission of one sort or another.  From a true conservative perspective, it could be argued, there is at least the possibility of a truly critical examination of the Promise of American Life and suggestion of decentralized, local, and sustainable alternatives.  Hence, Carter Conservatism.

On an emotional level this is something I can never identify with.  One of the most important books in my journey to the Right was Tom Engelhardt’s The End of Victory Culture, a penetrating look at the myths and narratives used to justify the aggressive American foreign policy of the Cold War.  As I read the book, I had a reaction probably the exact opposite of what Engelhardt intended, as I thought to myself, “We need to figure out a way to bring Victory Culture back” and found myself rooting for all the figures you were supposed to despise.  This was pretty common for me when confronting left wing cultural products, as attempted deconstructions by various leftist professors or cultural figures simply increased my desire to reconstruct.  Even Bad Religion’s “American Jesus” becomes a right wing anthem once you remove the irony—which is some kind of reverse subversion in itself. 

I don’t think I’m alone in this.  I’d argue one of the most powerful undercurrents in contemporary American culture is the deconstruction of left wing deconstructions.  Hence, “Full Metal Jacket,” a supposedly powerful examination of the dehumanization the military experience forces upon individuals is enthusiastically embraced by the American military and launched R. Lee Emery’s acting career.  Everyone remembers Jack Nicholson’s speech from “A Few Good Men” (and I know a couple Marines who could repeat it verbatim without irony)—the sniveling Tom Cruise character’s do-goodery is usual forgotten.  I’d argue Fast Food Nation gave us the Hardee’s Double Thickburger and Gretchen Wilson’s claim to only eat McDonald’s.  Certainly, I can attest that one of the most important factors driving students into conservative activsm is a visceral disgust at the anti-Americanism of left wing professors and protesters, which leads them to think “If they are for this, than I must be agin’ it.”  One of the more clever segments of Michael Moore’s film career is when he lampooned this exact tendency in Canadian Bacon by highlighting how Bruce Springsteen’s bitter “Born in the USA” became a conservative anthem

This has policy implications as well.  The first and most obvious is that people with generally good, anti-Left instincts stampede into supporting stupid policies because it’s the opposite of what the Left wants.  It’s not some glorious triumph for conservatism if the American people eat Big Macs all day, dump oil in the ocean, or invade random countries for the hell of it just because it makes left wingers mad.  The resulting anti-intellectualism of the conservative Right is also an obvious result.  Even when you understand this though, after being around leftists for a couple minutes it’s so easy to want to lash out with an Animal Rights BBQ or some other lame brained stunt.

Given this reality, how much responsibility does the Alternative Right bear for its exclusion from the mainstream ranks?  George Hawley highlighted over at PostRight how American conservatives who argue for a restrained foreign policy often echo leftist arguments that do not appeal to the conservative contrarians that embrace militarism and interventionism.  Hawley maintains that we can harness the motivations behind the “To Hell With Them Hawks.”  A Carter Conservatism that emphasizes moderation and restraint is not going to appeal to the talk radio masses that want to bring back Victory Culture and believe that America can accomplish anything and that our resources, abilities, and conquering spirit are essentially unlimited.  This has launched a debate between various AmCon writers and Antiwar.com that is still ongoing.  Our own Southern Avenger chimed in, pointing out that the Alternative Right can seize on mainstream conservative rhetoric about limited government to push for the kinds of policy proscriptions most Takimag readers would support. 

For my own part, I don’t think the Alternative Right should make fun of the conservative base or call them Red State Fascists.  Nor do I think appealing to them on the basis of an abstract ideology of limited government is going to be enough.  The sentiments behind Red State Fascism, what some might even call Middle American Radicals, are entirely healthy—they are simply funneled into dead end policies.  The “Screw Them” motivation is not directed at foreigners (to whom I think most Americans are indifferent) but at a cultural elite and a specific government (rather than government in general) that they perceive as hostile.  Tapping into that, without being co-opted yet again by the phony Right is the real challenge that presents us.  The subversive spirit of the American Right and the simmering resentment against both the political and cultural order at least presents possibilities. 

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