(Con)fusion on the Right
For the last year or so, neoconservatism has been the subject of an astonishing number of discussions, examinations, and denunciations by the far and “mainstream” left as well as by the right, soft and not so soft. The reason for the scrutiny, of course, is that you cannot expect to engineer an entire war, concoct a series of bold-faced lies about why the war should be fought, and identify the interests of Israel as being indistinguishable from those of the United States, and then denounce everyone who disagrees or criticizes you as “unpatriotic” and “antisemitic” without inviting comment. Nevertheless, the neoconservatives’ poor cousins, the paleoconservatives, have not been entirely exempt from scrutiny and criticism themselves. There was the botched hatchet job undertaken by David Frum in National Review last year, but, more recently, two other writers, both hostile to the paleos, have delivered their own 40 whacks at the paleo head.
The first is Adam Wolfson, editor of the Public Interest and virtually unknown outside of it. In the Winter 2004 issue, Mr. Wolfson, himself a neoconservative, published an article entitled “Conservatives and Neoconservatives.” Much of what he says about conservatism, its history, and the various subspecies included in it is simply wrong, and, in general, the article is not worth reading. What he has to say about paleoconservatism, however, is of some interest, because it reveals what the average neocon mind thinks.
What Mr. Wolfson thinks is that paleoconservatives are just plain oddwads who are “not conservatives so much as reactionaries or pseudo-radicals” and who “can fairly be said to despise much of contemporary American life and would like somehow to move beyond the modern American political debate.” In itself, that is probably not a bad description of most paleos and what they think, but, to Mr. Wolfson, it is simply inconceivable that any sane person would think it at all, let alone frame it in the body of ideas that some paleos seem to invoke. Thus, Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming “has looked to sociobiology, evolutionary theory, and anthropology—hardly traditional conservative guides—for a new beginning,” while paleo historian Paul Gottfried has “sought solutions in the philosophy of Carl Schmitt as well as varieties of historicist ideology,” and “Samuel Francis . . . has called for ‘radical opposition to the regime.’” Clearly, the idea that someone could mount a serious critique of contemporary American life, want to move beyond the “modern American political debate,” demand “radical opposition” to the dominant forces in national life, and then frame such “pseudo-radicalism” in ideas drawn from sociobiology and anthropology, Carl Schmitt, and historicism is just too weird. Like most neocons, Mr. Wolfson is deeply frightened by unconventional thought of any species and has trouble assimilating it within the conventions that comfort him. Supposing that his brief and grotesquely simplified account of paleoconservatism has sufficiently exposed its absurdities, he passes on in the bulk of his essay to expounding the brilliance of neoconservatism. There is no need to follow him there.
Mr. Wolfson and his fellow neocons like America the way it is and the way it promises to become in the future—the First Universal Nation, a vast plastic palace of shopping malls, canned sitcoms, fast food, elevator music, two mass political parties that say and do the same thing, and Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace—and anyone who dislikes this or sees a problem with it is a “reactionary or pseudo-radical.” In this sense, the neoconservatives really are “conservatives” who wish to conserve the “regime”—the system of domination by which the First Universal Nation is constructed, ruled, and enforced.
It is not very surprising that neocons such as Mr. Wolfson do not like paleo-conservatism, but the other critic who popped up recently was perhaps less predictable. Donald J. Devine, vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, launched a critique of the paleos on the ACU Foundation website last December. More precisely, Mr. Devine launched a critique of me.
The criticism was mainly a reply to my column in this space in the December 2003 issue, in which I discussed the recent admissions of failure of the “conservative movement” by various of its elders and concluded that the movement was dead. Mr. Devine apparently did not care for that conclusion, but then, to judge from what he wrote, he did not quite grasp what I was talking about.
In the first place, Mr. Devine writes that I concluded that “fusionism ‘died childless.’” In fact, I said nothing whatsoever about “fusionism”—the label for a 1960’s makeshift conservative ideology to which Mr. Devine seems to adhere religiously—but addressed the “conservative movement” as a whole. Fusionism was mainly the brainchild of National Review editor Frank S. Meyer, an ostensible attempt to wed the ideas of the “traditionalist” wing of the movement (e.g., Russell Kirk et al.) with the libertarian wing (e.g., Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, et al.). Meyer more or less defined “fusionism” (I don’t believe he actually used the term) by the mantra that the American tradition was “a tradition of liberty,” so that the True Conservative did affirm the importance of “tradition” so long as the tradition he supported was the one that affirmed “liberty.” In fact, Meyer’s fusionism amounted to little more than an effort to swallow “traditionalism” and conservatism itself by libertarianism and to read out of the movement anyone who disagreed—including Russell Kirk himself. When Kirk was founding the journal Modern Age, a traditionalist organ, Meyer’s ally, Frank Chodorov, sent Kirk’s founding editors copies of Meyer’s attack on Kirk’s The Conservative Mind in The Freeman to try to strangle the new journal in its cradle. The art of the backstab was not invented by neoconservatives. A former Communist Party apparatchik, Meyer quickly set himself up as the pope of postwar conservatism through his column in National Review (Principles and Heresies—Meyer was the Principle; everyone else, the Heresy) and his indefatigable work as a conservative activist. Meyer was, in fact, a sound conservative on most political issues, but his command of political theory seems to have been confined to a textbook knowledge, and his dogmatism helped drive from the “movement” just about anyone with an independent mind, including some of the best ones.
His manifesto of fusionism, In Defense of Freedom, was pounded with criticism by almost every major thinker associated with conservatism—not only Kirk, in a devastating review in the Sewanee Review, but Fr. Stanley Parry, Willmoore Kendall, Richard M. Weaver, and Whittaker Chambers, among others. The value of fusionism, however, was that it offered an ideology, a quick and dirty formula by which wet-nosed conservative activists could crib a few slogans from John Stuart Mill or John Locke when they needed to craft a fundraising letter or debate with the campus communists. As such, Meyer’s book and the simplicities it offered were a smashing success among the Teen Age Republican set and helped to shape the “conservative mind” of the ensuing generation of the right. Baptized in the ideological kiddie pool of fusionism, the “movement” was ripe for takeover by neoconservatives who despised it but recognized its usefulness for their own purposes.
Fusionism, however, was never identical with the conservative movement, nor did it serve as its chief ideological vehicle, which is what Mr. Devine seems to think, and my criticism of the “movement” had little to do with Meyer or fusionism per se. Mr. Devine lurches from one bald inaccuracy and distortion of what I actually wrote to another, the most serious of which is that I denounced “fusionist conservatism” for its preoccupations with “‘pet abstractions’ of liberty, national security, and the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Of course, my point was not to denounce or reject these concepts in themselves but to criticize conservatives for having turned them into little more than convenient slogans and catchphrases. I have been writing columns and articles for literally decades defending all these concepts, but apparently Mr. Devine has missed them.
What seems really to have hurt Mr. Devine’s feelings, however, is my claim that conservatism (he says “fusionism”) “died childless,” and so hurt by this was he that he “sent a memo challenging fusionists to show themselves if, in fact, they still existed.”
Happily, “they poured out in hundreds of e-mail responses,” although “Of course most were unfamiliar with the term fusionist . . . but as good conservatives, they knew it when they saw it.” Well, that’s terrific, but, if the “hundreds” who responded did not know the term fusionism, in what sense can it be said that they were fusionists at all? Moreover, “hundreds” do not constitute a serious social and political force. You can get “hundreds” to show up at conventions about the existence of Bigfoot and the Roswell Incident, and, if you have to send out e-mail memos to locate the “hundreds,” they are probably not exactly a rising tide. My larger point, however, was that the ideology of conservatism as it came to be understood in the 1950’s and 60’s is now defunct because the social framework—the class and cultural institutions that allowed the abstractions to flourish—has now largely vanished. The counter-attack of the fusionists—all the “hundreds” of them—cannot revive that.
As a fairly typical representative of the moribund “conservative movement,” Mr. Devine exhibits most of its weaknesses, many of which his hero Frank Meyer helped to import and lock into conservative psychology in the first place: a narrow and arid dogmatism; an impatience with ideas that deviate from the “principles” of conservatism; and an unseemly eagerness to ferret out “heresies” and deviant thoughts. In these respects, he is not very different from Mr. Wolfson, who is so upset at the prospect of a conservatism that knows about sociobiology and Carl Schmitt. Frank Meyer certainly would not have approved of them either, but, of course, Mr. Devine’s conservatism and Mr. Wolfson’s are quite different—I think.
I know what Mr. Wolfson wants to conserve—the regime of the First Universal Nation—but exactly what it is that Mr. Devine wants to conserve, I cannot tell you, other than the high orthodoxies of fusionism and the pet abstractions of “liberty, national security, and the Judeo-Christian tradition,” and I have no idea what any of that means. Does he think that the incumbent ruling class of the United States in the federal and state governments, corporations, media conglomerates, and universities and think tanks supports something like fusionism and the catchphrases of which he is so proud? Does the leadership of any major religious denomination preach them and reflect them in their theology and social beliefs? Do the schools enforce the ethics of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” or the universities teach and explore it with their students and professors? The answer, at least for most paleoconservatives, is obvious enough, which means that the regime, the apparatus by which those who have power in this country maintain it, is not something to be “conserved” but is alien and hostile to the concrete meaning of these concepts; that it is not a “conservative” regime but a regime destructive of tradition, community, order, and liberty; and that those who really do believe in the pet abstractions (which means that they wish them to cease being abstractions and to become animating values and forces in American society) need to work seriously on behalf of “radical opposition to the regime.”
I get absolutely nothing from Mr. Devine or his colleagues at the ACU or from any of the other fossils of fusionism that still flop about inside the Beltway that they have any disposition to think or do any of that. What I see among the remnants of “movement conservatism” today is an obsessive devotion to electing Republicans, to denouncing Bill and Hillary, to applauding any and every war the ruling class decides to drag the country into, to carrying water for Big Business whenever and wherever possible, to deluding voters and donors with constant jabber about “family values” and “free enterprise,” and to denouncing and “turning away” any “heretic” who seems not to be totally on board with their vaunted “principles.”
What paleoconservatism tries to tell Americans is that the dominant forces in their society are no longer committed to conserving the traditions, institutions, and values that created and formed it, and, therefore, that those who are really conservative in any serious sense and wish to live under those traditions, institutions, and values need to oppose the dominant forces and form new ones. I do not expect that Mr. Wolfson and his neocon buddies will agree with or like this position, because they like precisely the forces paleoconservatives oppose. As for Mr. Devine and his hundreds of fusionists, I do not know. Maybe there is still hope that they will see what has happened to the country that they say they want to conserve. But, quite frankly, so irrelevant has the “conservative movement” become that I do not think it makes an awful lot of difference whether they do or not.
This article first appeared in the March 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.