Conservatism in America: Making Sense
of the American Right,
by Paul Edward Gottfried;
Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007, US$39.95.
This book can be read as the tale of a tremendous irony—how a false notion that led a movement and a whole superpower astray became in the end the plain truth.
Author of many works on intellectual history, Professor Gottfried has taken part in the struggles he writes of here, and that fusion of scholarship and hard experience creates a compelling tone. He is a “paleo-conservative” but is far from pushing a mere factional line. Like most “paleos”, he is above all his own man.
A key idea in the book is that any genuine movement needs a real social base, a relation to actual ways of life and lines of historical identity. These provide what Max Weber called “a binding character, which is ‘legitimacy’”.
Before the Second World War, the main base of the American Right was what Gottfried describes as the “small town Protestant” one, by which is meant something ampler than it might sound. It was a bourgeois liberalism that still had its old virtues of personal restraint, local autonomy, and aversion to hubristic power. And its leaders just called themselves “liberals”.
The fateful nudge away from that true base came with Russell Kirk’s 1953 best-seller The Conservative Mind, which posited a rich heritage of Anglo-American “conservative” thought running from Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot. It urged that the American Right was really Burkean. But the model held up was not so much the earlier Burke who had sympathised with the moderate American revolution, but the later figure, implacably at war with the radical French one.
Admirable in itself, that Burkean counter-revolutionary spirit didn’t square with grass-roots American reality. For one thing, it had notions of “a mystical social order” which included—quite validly in its own European context—feudal and royalist aspects alien to that more or less Calvinist heartland.
The ill-match was even more striking in the writings of the French aristocrat Louis de Bonald who died in 1840 and whose work also drew postwar attention. Bonald viewed the counter-revolutionary state as, in Gottfried’s words, “not an entity to be kept at bay but rather one worthy of being empowered to restore and protect traditional orders”.
Why did this “florid decor” of imported ideas gain so ready a welcome? One factor was gentrification. Many were glad to have a stylish Old World pedigree for their politics, one that distanced them from Hicksville USA. Another was the burgeoning Cold War, a good enough cause in itself but one perilous to the self-understanding of Americans. Burke as exemplar conjured a link between one epic struggle and another, a continuity of heroic thought and action against Jacobin and communist alike. In that context Bonald’s wish to “empower” the counter-revolutionary state had resonance.
But the new persuasion lacked Weber’s “binding character”. It was too much a figment of vanity and opportunism, and these coalesced, says Gottfried, around the key figure of William F. Buckley and his magazine National Review.
A small-town ethic of self-sufficiency was now up against the fervour of a world crusade with high overtones of a “mystique of the state”. From that issued two evils which Gottfried examines at length—a growing intolerance of dissent within the Right itself, and the adoption of bogus “values” to hide a growing lack of integrity.
Cold War zeal and corporate rapacity were both impatient with the old way of thought, which now began to be painted as either unpatriotic or pathological. Gottfried argues that the movement took on certain traits of the communist foe, like a taste for total control of obedient cadres, and for vilifying anyone who went out of favour. And the gentrifying impulse played its part. Those not up with fashion could be given the flick as “bigots” and “kooks”.
The movement grew adept at throwing people “off the bus”, as in the 1965 denunciation of the 80,000-member John Birch Society for alleged anti-Semitism. But the actual crime of the Birchers in the eyes of the movement bosses, says Gottfried, was their failure to endorse the Vietnam War. They were guilty of old-time “isolationism”.
The “values” question goes back to an ancient clash of ideas about the particular and the universal, and this book charts the movement’s change of preference from the former to the latter. Paleo thinker Sam Francis caught the essence when he wrote of “Family Values activists who haven’t seen their own kids in twenty years”. On one hand are the proper duties owed to the real people you’re connected with. On the other are abstract formulas of universal benevolence, the righteous hype that becomes the rant of tyranny.
So the movement came to peddle “abstract universals” as a kind of “moral glue” applicable to anything, or as a “Sunday dress worn to create a good impression”. That hype fitted the whole chaotic drift of the zeitgeist, for words like family or freedom or justice can mean whatever you like in a television soundbite. And it helped to conceal the “shadow side” of the outward political success being won through the Republican Party and the huge electoral sweeps of Nixon and then Reagan.
By Reagan’s time the movement had gained the world but lost its soul. That’s the short answer to the question Gottfried poses: Why was there so little resistance to the Great Neocon Takeover of the 1980s? Aside from the fight put up by the paleos around Pat Buchanan, the response was mostly “active collaboration” and “eager surrender”. The neocons were interlopers from the Left—“Trotsky’s Orphans” as they’ve been called—and were after a new platform for their agendas. They were abstract universalists with a vengeance, and they took over so easily because the previous decades had instilled a “robot-like conformity” in the ranks.
After 9/11 the neocons were a world-historical force, for they ran not just the movement and the party, but US government policy. The ensuing calamities on all fronts—social, political, military and economic—led former senior Reagan official Paul Craig Roberts to write in 2008: “In truth, American power is already broken, and the country is already lost.”
But destruction is the aim, and if driven out of formal office the neocons can simply merge back into that overall “political class” which runs the entire West, that new Jacobin malignancy whose main concern is to keep the tumbrels rolling and the guillotine busy in one form or another. This is what Sam Francis meant by “The revolution of our time, the internal onslaught against traditional identities and values”.
And so the grand irony. The Burkean example that was a florid import in the 1950s now stands as the only proper recourse for what remains of the true American Right. Buchanan declares: “A conservative today must be a counter-revolutionary.” And to nail the point he invokes those heroic traditionalists of western France who defied the Revolution regime in the early 1790s: “And we are of the Vendee.”
While only too ready to defy the regime, Gottfried remains wary of that European model at least partly because he sees it as prone to Catholic chauvinism. (On the other hand he himself has written of the harm done to the human fabric by some modes of Protestant thought.)
He grants that even without its own failings, “the Right might have lost its struggle in any case because of political and socioeconomic changes and a cultural imbalance of forces”. The old base has been “denatured” and it’s hard to see how a stable base is even possible in a time so blitzed by change.
So what else is there? Gottfried says “populism”, and that’s where a contradiction seems to enter. He illustrates populism by reference to veteran activist Phyllis Schlafly. She “brought out of her childhood the image of a virtuous American nation that needed to be re-empowered”. And that kind of image can inspire “an almost mystical belief in the demos, whose instincts and natural goodness must be released in order to restore the nation and its freedom”.
In this scenario Left and Right compete for the support of the demos, but with very different aims. The Left “wishes to broaden the consensus for managerial government”, while the Right “seeks to mobilize the masses for a counter-revolution”. But this seems a long way from small-town bourgeois empirical caution. A “mystical belief’ in the American demos sounds more like the Romantic reaction that once effused mystical faith in the French monarchy or German gemeinschaft or whatever.
And fair enough. As Chesterton said: “Mysticism keeps men sane.” It’s just that it’s hard to see how this equates with other parts of the book’s analysis. Another paleo scholar may throw some light.
Claes Ryn holds that conservatism failed because it was “enthralled by politics”. The crisis of the time has been “moral-spiritual and cultural”, and yet those on the Right displayed “an inability to understand what most deeply shapes the outlook and conduct of human beings”. The key role of the imagination “did not even occur to most of them”.
Professor Gottfried is of course not in that category, but in a recent article he made an illustrative comment. He wrote that he had no idea “how appeals to Mary Queen of Scots … will save our political society”. On Ryn’s view one could reply that it’s precisely because we can’t see the relevance of Mary Queen of Scots that our politics are so futile.
In Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver wrote: “Are those who died heroes’ and martyrs’ deaths really dead? It is not an idle question. In a way, they live on as forces, helping to shape our dream of the world.”
The key thing about Gottfried’s populist scenario is not the politics of it but the “dream of the world” that it conveys, either consciously or not. And what Weaver means by the “dream” is nothing like the enemy’s abstract universal humbug, for it relates to real lives and attachments. To evince a “mystical belief” in the natural goodness of multitudes is at least to plant one’s flag on the right side, for the enemy’s ploy for centuries now has been to insist on the inherent badness of almost everything, the need to renounce most of what we are, the need for commissars to root out the evil, even if it means gutting the world and starting again at Year Zero.
The whole point can be clarified by going further back in time. Gottfried stresses the distinction between “conservatism” as the outlook created by Burke and others in response to the French Revolution, and “the Right” as a twentieth-century response to radical attacks on a bourgeois social order. But he is silent on a third frame of reference that overarches them both and goes back 500 years to the Reformation. It’s commonly seen in terms of a Catholic–Protestant divide, but that’s too pat. Better to see it in terms of whether one’s basic outlook on life is of gratitude or grievance.
In his classic Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, R.H. Tawney sets out a useful pair of symbolic types drawn from the English Civil War period. The Cavalier type (whatever his vices) views the world as essentially a good place that deserves to be cherished as a “Sacrament”. The Puritan type (whatever his virtues) views it as basically a bad place that deserves to be repudiated as a “Snare”. To the former, life is there to be lived. To the latter it is there to be policed.
These opposed paradigms clearly don’t rest on a glib Catholic–Protestant distinction, for most of the Cavaliers were Protestants, like their martyred King, grandson of none other than Mary Queen of Scots. And of course the two outlooks later took on secular forms. And the Burkean outlook by and large took up the torch from the “Cavalier” one, as the Jacobins more or less enforced the “Puritan” line.
Using that lens, it isn’t hard to tell from which side spring our regimes of political correctness with their rage to police all life to the last inch. Or again, it enables us to see pockets of one worldview within the camp of the other. Ultra-tough “law and order conservatism” is really a Puritan mentality, while much of the hippie culture of the 1960s, derided by conservatives, was Cavalier in spirit.
Paul Gottfried might insist there is more to be said on the Puritans’ behalf. In any case one wishes he had given his analysis a touch of that 500-year perspective. Indeed one would like to see him write a whole book about it.
In the meantime, with his view of a “mystical” populism, he seems to have come to a kind of Burkean position in the course of trying to avoid it. There’s another irony.
Peter Kocan’s novels The Treatment and the Cure and Fresh Fields have recently been republished by Europa Editions of New York.