Moderate and paleo conservatism

At times the distinction between moderate and paleo conservatism seems too ill-defined and polemical to be useful for analysis. Still, there’s something important in it worth discussing. At bottom, it’s the distinction between conservatism as a pure principle of caution, so there’s no limit to what can be negotiated or naturalized as part of the social order a conservative is called to defend, and conservatism as a defense of truths that must be maintained in the face of whatever opposition or defeat.

In some ways moderate conservatism may seem to fit the theory of conservatism better. Conservatives tend to trust the actual functioning of society more than grand theory. As a result, they are tempted to accommodate persistent social tendencies, whatever they may be, rather than insist on particular principles not everybody agrees on. A moderate conservative may feel, in fact, that all he can demand in the end is that change be cautious, piecemeal, and consistent with practicalities.

Still, conservatism can’t just be a principle of slow acquiescence. The jibe that yesterday’s liberalism is today’s conservatism is a bit too pointed. If it is worth having, conservatism must recognize realities and limits, including difficult realities and limits on the value of moral skepticism. Not everything can be compromised. A conservative cannot accept, in the name of continuity, moderation and loyalty to the concrete society to which he belongs, social trends that make nonsense of those things. The New York Times to the contrary notwithstanding, old-line dogmatic communists are not conservative.

Nor is it conservative to accept other forms of Leftism that are radically at odds with the human connections on which the well-being of society depend. Where that point hits home today is that moderate conservatism fundamentally if critically accepts the 60s, while paleoconservatism rejects them. To the moderate conservative, America is fundamentally secular, the sexual revolution is mostly a done deal, equal participation by women in the economy and public life is a permanently worthy goal, and Martin Luther King is a great American hero and prophet.

Paleoconservatives reject all that, on the grounds that to accept such views is to accept the disruption of stable prerational connections necessary to a society worth having—in the long run, to accept the replacement of culture with technocracy and therefore rational freedom and humane values with money and an inhuman system of centralized compulsion as the basis for social order.

In the next couple of days I’ll deal more specifically with the grounds for rejecting current moderate conservative positions.

4 thoughts on “Moderate and paleo conservatism”

  1. Ilustrations for Mr. Kalb
    I agree there is a marked distinction between moderate conservatism and paleoconservatism. Moderate conservatism proposes the following:

    “(Accept) the 60’s…. America is fundamentally secular, the sexual revolution is mostly a done deal, equal participation by women in the economy and public life is a permanently worthy goal, and Martin Luther King is a great American hero and prophet.” Kalb, James. MODERATE AND PALEO CONSERVATISM. Turnabout, January 11, 2005,

    For example, George Will is an unfortunate moderate conservative who rejects the prerational. Culture, language, and ethnicity are prerational, yet he celebrated when he discovered the business of Major League Baseball preferred profits to the prerational. He heralded the surname Martinez as the most familiar name in MLB some years ago (which is when I stopped reading his columns). Will is obviously very smart; so he must know Hispanics have a different culture, language, and ethnicity. Yet he in effect celebrated the liberal and supposedly rational ideas (1) Hispanic culture, language, and ethnicity is equal to ours, and (2) America must surrender its culture, language, and ethnicity because….huh.

    It is astounding that such an intelligent person could conclude one can envision a successful way of life from one or two propositions unrelated to God? Could such a person be corrupt—perhaps Mr. Will has found a lucrative, prestigious niche and lacks the motivation to do the right thing?

    Pat Buchanan is a paleoconservative. He rejects the 60’s, secularism, the sexual revolution, an equal rights amendment for women, and Martin Luther King as a hero or prophet. Moreover he has said off and on that there is an American culture that deserves preserving.

  2. When Distinctions Become Apparent
    Granted everything Mr. Kalb writes, when did these distinctions between moderates and paleos become apparent for those with eyes to see? The major paleo publication (Chronicles) of which I’m aware has existed *as such* since the middle-to-late ’80s. (Granted, The American Conservative is only two years old.) I suspect many conversions to the paleo side were deferred till after the Clinton impeachment and the neoconservative reaction to 9/11. In other words, a lot of us felt pretty comfortable with the mainstream conservative journals until about 1999 or 2000. Any thoughts?


    • Interesting question. Larry A
      Interesting question. Larry Auster has claimed that America ceased to exist in early 1999, and I suppose I agree to the extent that some sort of substantial change did take place in our national identity during the Clinton years that made it hard to think of America as the same country it had been, and it makes sense to say the change came to a head at the time of the abortive impeachment. To the extent it’s hard to think of the actual America as the same as the America to which one is loyal, mainstream conservatism of course becomes hard to support.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  3. The flaw in conservatism as mere caution
    “Persistent social tendencies” may in fact be a result of one or a few changes in laws, or in the accepted public rhetoric. One change in public mores can lead to numerous consequences. For example, propagating the idea that marriage is a private matter that is primarily about the romantic love and happiness of the married couple leads to, at the very least: (1) Rampant divorce; (2) A push for easier divorce laws; (3) Rationalizations about how divorce is not so bad for kids after all; (4) Lots more single mothers in the workplace; (5) Increased demand for day care, after-school programs, etc.; (6) Demands for “gay marriage” (after all, they desire romantic love and happiness, just like we do); etc. The list could go on for quite a bit longer.

    By taking a stand against the intellectual attack on the institution of marriage a few decades (almost a century) ago, conservatives could have saved themselves uncountable battles over all the consequences. By “slow acquiescence”, they did not save themselves the blood and pain of a major fight. Instead, they bought themselves nothing but controversies and fights as far into the future as the eye can see.


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