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The headless Right

I’ve been reading Paul Gottfried’s recent book, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right. The book presents two of Gottfried’s tendencies as a thinker: his tendency to treat expressions like “liberalism” and “conservatism” as names for particular historical constellations of principles, institutions and interests rather than long-term tendencies that show up differently in different settings, and his quasi-Marxist tendency to treat class interest as primary in ideological disputes.

In accordance with the first tendency, he says that “conservatism,” like “liberalism,” doesn’t have much content when applied to present-day factions, whose principles and policies are subject to sudden change in accordance with the needs of the moment. You might as well call them Blues and Greens or Ghibellines and Guelphs. In accordance with the second he says that American conservatism never amounted to anything very solid because it never represented the interests and outlook of a particular class.

Instead, he says, conservatism has claimed to stand for certain values that anyone could sign on to or not as a matter of taste. Tastes vary, so in the absence of definite class and institutional interests to stabilize and orient things the movement, in order to become coherent and effective, had to include some arrangement whereby those at the top were able to define true conservative values and their true supporters. Those definitions changed in accordance with the personal, political, and even ethnic interests of the journalists and operatives in possession of the commanding heights of the conservative apparatus. Initially, perhaps, conservative values were the ones set forth in Russell Kirk’s canons of conservatism, which included things like orders, degrees and natural distinctions. Later on they became, variously, anti-communism, equality of opportunity, global democracy, and what not else.

Hence the emphasis on team spirit, dogmatic assertiveness, and excommunication that has often characterized the official movement. W. F. Buckley and later the neocons were able from time to time to redetermine what conservatism was and kick out isolationists, Birchers, Randians, Southerners and others who were not willing to follow the most recent change in course. In the 50s it was the isolationists who were tossed overboard, in the 80s it was those who could not see Martin Luther King, Jr. as a conservative icon, and most recently it has been “unpatriotic conservatives” opposed to spreading global democracy by force. In each case the excommunications were accompanied by ill-founded abuse about provincialism, bigotry, fever swamps and the like, and supported by media and liberal elite readiness to recognize as worthy of attention only conservatives in good standing with the respectable official movement. Also in each case, the changes were met by surprisingly little resistance within the movement itself.

This book is indispensable for what it covers, but it doesn’t cover all topics. Life goes on outside establishment conservatism. I’m more inclined than Gottfried to pay attention to “conservatism” as an overall tendency to preserve the standing of inherited and transcendent standards and of local connections and particularities in opposition to liberal and leftist rationalization of social relations on more or less scientistic lines. From that point of view I’d identify American conservatism more with the desire of ordinary people to keep God, country and family in the picture than the directions in which various operatives and journalists have directed such impulses. I’d agree though that a major problem conservatism has had is that it has no institutional base: our dominant institutions are bureaucratic, managerial, and market-oriented, so they have no sympathy with conservative impulses and push economic and administrative rationality at the expense of other possible standards. That makes them reliably liberal to leftist. Conservatism today is populist, and populism gets nowhere because it can’t define its principles and pursue them in a coherent way.

Gottfried declines to suggest solutions or explain why his generally paleoconnish/classical liberal preferences should have any particular standing other than personal preference. It seems that the natural remedy for the situation would be to attach conservative impulses to some institution that may have the durability, independence, and intellectual tradition to articulate those impulses and justify them in connection with social life as a whole, as well as the standing and authority to make the resulting point of view a continuing presence in public life. Consciousness of such a need may be part of the reason for the recent tendency among paleocon types, which Gottfried comments on without much apparent sympathy, to become Latin-Mass Catholics. If you think there’s something basically wrong with the tendency of things, you need a place to stand to oppose it, and if the tendency just keeps getting stronger you’d better anchor your opposition in something fundamental enough to trump social authority generally. Otherwise your position will be ill-founded and you’ll eventually become unable to make sense of it.