April 11, 2008
A few weeks ago Jim Antle and I went a few rounds on our personal blogs over Antle’s criticisms of Sen. James Webb here at Taki’s Magazine. Antle showed that Webb is no conservative; if anything, Antle argued, Webb is to paleoconservatism, what Daniel Patrick Moynihan was to neoconservatism. My response: yes, but the neocons were correct by their own lights in supporting Moynihan, and we’re right to support Webb, even if he isn’t really one of us.
Then again, maybe Webb is one of us—what left liberal could say the things Jim Webb has said about the decency, honor, and patriotism of the Confederate war dead? Before Webb arrived in the Senate, there was no doubt where he stood in America’s culture wars. But culture is different from politics, and when Webb decided to run for the U.S. Senate he may not have jettisoned all of his personal principles, but he did embrace a political program not much different from the rest of the Senate Democrats. Webb is a cultural conservative in only the most restrictive sense.
His politics aren’t entirely worthless—he’s against the Iraq War, and he does differ crucially from most Democrats on the right to keep and bear arms—but we cannot expect much from him as a legislator. And it’s on the basis of his politics that paleos should support or oppose his election. But Webb’s cultural conservatism accounts for why some of us like him even more than we can justify supporting him politically.
Culture aside, though, does Webb represent a political trend that paleoconservatives (I’ll continue using the word, despite Paul Gottfried’s epitaph) and libertarians should support? Should we lend our votes and dollars to antiwar candidates of any stripe, even if that means supporting pro-abortion, tax-and-spend, gun-grabbing liberals like Barack Obama? If not, whom do we support—and what is the political reasoning behind our strategy?
On categorical grounds, I’m not going to examine in these brief notes the case for not voting or for supporting third parties. Both of those are honorable, even sensible courses of action, but neither will have any effect on policy-making in Washington. There is more to life, of course, than policy-making in Washington. But what happens in the empire’s capital tends to have serious repercussions even for outright quietists—both in this country and around the world. I’m going to take it for granted that the people reading this post would like to see some policy changes, and would like to see them as soon as possible.
“Paleos”—by which I loosely mean individuals who are antiwar, believe in reasonable immigration restrictions, and have a strong preference for political and economic decentralization—are a tiny minority, negligible in most elections. Ours is not a majority movement, and we commit a democratic fallacy if we believe that it is. (If the majority is always right, and we know that we’re right, we must have a majority behind us, yes? Sadly, no.) Ours is not even a mass movement. A few tens or hundreds of thousands of people in a nation as large as the United States amount to a vanguard, not a mass base. That is not necessarily a bad thing: organized minorities can achieve a great deal. Unfortunately, we are not very well organized. There are only a handful of paleo institutions, most of them academic organizations or publications, and they rarely coordinate their efforts. At times, they seem as determined to anathematize one another as they are to battle the men behind the reigning ideology of the State.
Suppose, though, that paleos were to act as a bloc. How could they affect policy change in the shortest possible time frame? I see three plausible strategies.
The first strategy is integration with the establishment Right. Work within the system. As a practical matter in 2008, it might have entailed supporting Mitt Romney, a well-funded (albeit mostly by his personal fortune), seemingly viable candidate who was not a hard-bitten neocon—in contrast to McCain and Giuliani. Fred Thompson, had his campaign taken off, might have been another potential beneficiary of this strategy. As a small minority, paleos would have the most effect on candidates like these, not as voters but as opinion-mongers and political insiders. Would Romney have listened to paleo voices in 2008? His willingness to campaign on restricting immigration may provide some encouragement. And his serial tergiversations on abortion, gay rights, and other issues suggest that Romney was nothing if not susceptible to change. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see paleos, even had they worked diligently for his success, having much sway over him.
Integration is not an immediately effective strategy, but it may hold promise for the future. Perhaps given enough time, paleos can work their ways up through the magazines and think-tanks of the establishment Right, to the point where they can have a significant say on some mainstream candidate in 2012 or 2016. Yet I doubt that very much. It is not unreasonable to think that if, say, National Review had opposed the Iraq War in 2002 or 2003, Bush might at least have paused, and conservative Republicans in Congress might have put up token resistance, if nothing more. And there were, in fact, antiwar voices close to the magazine at that time. Neal Freeman was on its board of directors—a status that it is difficult to imagine any journeyman paleo journalist aspiring to. Yet Freeman could not even make the magazine seriously consider the peace position, nor could he prevent David Frum’s attack on antiwar conservatives, published the week the war began. As of 2004, Austin Bramwell, also a war skeptic, was one of the five trustees to whom William F. Buckley turned over control of his magazine. But Bramwell could not change the NR‘s direction either. Freeman and Bramwell both resigned.
I know of hopeful young paleo(-ish) journalists who think that one day they will be running institutions like NR. The historical record suggests otherwise. And so far, none of these young men have had much luck—any luck whatsoever, as far as I can tell—at getting antiwar articles into print. Even when they write for their institutions’ websites, they must be careful and circumspect. More than once I have heard them complain that the paleo grassroots are ungrateful for their efforts. But the grassroots have no way of knowing how sound a young paleo journalist is, if his employer lets him publish nothing overtly critical of Bush’s war, while the articles he writes on Ron Paul or Sam Francis, say, turn out to be quite critical indeed. All the grassroots can do is judge the evidence before their eyes.
Integration, then, has a history of failure and at present shows little promise, but perhaps I am too pessimistic, and the young paleo writers of today will succeed where board members and trustees of conservative institutions have failed in the past. Let’s hope so.
If the prospects of moving the Republican mainstream to the right, turning conservative Republicans into paleos, are poor, a radical alternative might be to attempt to push the Democrats to the right instead, turning liberal Democrats into moderates. (Or improving the ration of moderates to liberals among the Democrats in Congress, at least.) In very close elections, such as the Virginia Senate race in 2006, a statistical draw, even the relatively small cohort of paleo voters can make a difference. The logic of this course of action is twofold. In the near term, the Democrats are likely to have more political power than the Republicans, and a change in their political complexion would thus have more effect than a change in that of the minority party. And the Democrats may be closer to paleos’ positions on the Iraq War—and perhaps no farther away on immigration—than John McCain-style Republicans are. It may be easier to push the Democrats in a restrictionist direction than to push the Republicans in an antiwar direction. But that remains to be seen. There is also the question of whether the Democrats’ tax-and-spend is really any worse than the Republicans’ borrow-and-spend, which inevitably saddles the country with debt and inflation: backdoor taxation. The Grand Old Party’s free-market credentials are so tattered that the Democrats may not be worse economically. The subset of paleos who actively oppose the economic ideology of growth may be especially tempted by the marginally less corporatist party.
A more theoretical and long-term logic to attempting to influence the Democrats rather than the Republicans might run as follows: the Left, from at least the time of Woodrow Wilson until today, has been the motive force in American politics and culture. Imagine American politics as a car with front-wheel drive. The Democrats represent the front wheels, with power behind them. The Republicans are the rear wheels. Steering the front wheels will have much more effect on the direction of the vehicle than steering the rear wheels, which would have an effect, but not much of one.
A third consideration in the perverse case for supporting the Left is that it may hasten a reconfiguration of the Right. Reduced to a permanent majority, Republicans and conventional conservatives may radically re-evaluate their beliefs, and perhaps in the course of that re-evaluation they might be influenced by paleos. This is optimistic, but not beyond the pale of possibility.
The downsides to this second strategy, which might be called the balancing or breaking strategy, are obvious. For one thing, the situations in which paleos can affect the outcome of Democratic races or general elections in which there is a moderate Democrat are few. There is no indication that even Democrats as culturally conservative as Webb are much inclined to listen to—let alone act upon—paleo suggestions. And the compromise of principle involved in paleos supporting candidates who oppose them on almost every policy issue could be literally damning.
The third strategy is the one I favor: insurgency. Either of the other two strategies may work as short-term tactics. But if paleos are going to affect policy significantly in the long term, they cannot depend on the magnanimity of either the Left or the establishment Right. They—we—must have institutions of our own, however small they may be to begin with. In politics, this does not mean creating third parties, it means organizing outside of a party structure to take over existing vehicles, including the GOP. Goldwaterites did this during the 1964 campaign—it’s easy to forget that at the time, the GOP was dominated by Rockefeller Republicans. It still stood in the shadow of “modern Republicanism,” which had eclipsed Taft Republicanism. (Unfortunately, Goldwaterism was no restoration of anti-interventionist Taft Republicanism. It was a new Cold War ideology unto itself.) Other organized minorities have achieved similar feats. The Religious Right, through the Christian Coalition and the various organizations of James Dobson and others, took over several state Republican parties in the 1990s and still has considerable influence in Red States. (The national Christian Coalition is a shell of its former self, but state-level organizations are still potent. The Religious Right’s influence has become attenuated as it has assimilated into the Republican Party, effectively switching from insurgency to integration. People who know him say that Ralph Reed, for example, has never known whether he wants to be a Christian first or a Republican.)
This strategy too has its pitfalls. First, it must be noted that both the Goldwater movement and the Religious Right sooner or later blended in with the Republican establishment and vice versa. Rockefeller Republican George Romney begat “conservative Republican” Mitt Romney. Just how changed was the Republican Party—and were whatever changes did take place always for the better? If paleos adopt this strategy they may find themselves, sooner than they realize, becoming indistinguishable from the establishment Right. And that’s assuming that the paleo Right has any success in organizing and taking control of the GOP in the first place.
(As difficult as that may be, however, remember this: There are many fewer voters in a primary than in a general election. A concentrated paleo vote is more likely to have an effect within a majority party’s primary than in supporting a marginal third party in the general election. Consider, too, that there are vast numbers of party loyalists, who will vote for just about any nominee of their team. Winning in primaries automatically gives paleos the support of these unreflective loyalists.)
The Ron Paul movement is adopting something like this third strategy, thanks to Dr. Paul’s decision to remain in the Republican Party and the spontaneous emergence of candidates running as Ron Paul Republicans in a dozen states. To make this strategy work, however, will require endurance and discipline—political trench-work rather than technical glitz and publicity stunts. I see some encouraging signs that political acumen is developing in the Ron Paul ranks. Certainly my own time with the campaign reawakened in my mind principles of grassroots political organization that I had forgotten years before. (I have an article in the April 21 issue of The American Conservative that discusses some of the current and upcoming developments with the Ron Paul revolution.)
I don’t know whether any of these strategies will work. Quietism may well be in order if we cannot effect political change—if we can’t stop the next war or reduce immigration to a legally manageable level and shore up our flagging economy. But the Republic isn’t lost quite yet, so I hope my fellow paleos will give hard thought to what strategy is most likely to pay dividends. We cannot afford to act on whim. For nearly 20 years, the paleo movement (or non-movement) has been getting by on ad hoc measures. We’ve been losing ground all the while. It’s time to think about long term strategy: in politics, a plan will always beat no plan.
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