The late Joe Sobran used to refer to liberal high society as "the hive.” What Joe was highlighting were certain qualities that he associated with the fashionable left, e.g., extreme clannishness, the exclusion of those who deviated from authorized political doctrines, and a sense of moral superiority. Without having to deny that such a “hive” exists on the left, it is equally obvious that the conservative establishment is at least as guilty of the supercilious behavior that Joe attributed to the “hive.”
But I’ll substitute a timelier image for this apiarian one to explain my drift. The subject here is a club, whose custodians determine who may apply for membership and who is considered socially unworthy. This club image popped irresistibly into my head, as I noticed the nonresponse to Ed Welsch’s dignified and detailed answer (“First Things First,” March 2020) to R.R. Reno’s attack on Chronicles in the February issue of First Things. The caricature that Ed was addressing was the view of our magazine as a crude xenophobic publication which the late Father Neuhaus was forced to break with before founding First Things. Ed graciously suggested that Reno had been understandably defending the origins of his own monthly when he misspoke about the reasons for its fateful break with The Rockford Institute and Chronicles 30 years ago.
That response was offered in such a friendly fashion that one might have expected the editor of First Things to have answered, however briefly. Chronicles has respectfully discussed other material published in First Things, and normally publications that engage similar topics and which supposedly share political and cultural perspectives (e.g., National Review and American Spectator) also establish friendly working relations. But that couldn’t happen in this case. Unlike Reno, Rich Lowry, and Jonah Goldberg, we are not members of the Club, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever be admitted. Obviously, we’ve committed some terrible faux pas that has brought about our exclusion—perhaps by not accepting R. J. Neuhaus’s authoritative account of the split that occurred in 1989.
I know that I’ve personally committed many inappropriate acts over a long life that have resulted in my being banned for several lifetimes from Club premises. My boorish acts include, among other sins, posting critical columns about the then-proposed Martin Luther King, Jr., national holiday and the 1965 Voting Rights Act and, even more shockingly, suggesting that Palestinians may have been expelled from their homes (something most Israelis admit—but not so some sponsors of the mainstream conservative movement). I’ve also written widely on American conservatism, and I can’t think of anything positive I’ve had to say on that topic for at least several decades.
But the Club comparison came to mind as I noted the obvious ignoring of Ed’s comments about how First Things manhandled our reputation. Of course, things would have been different if Chronicles were not Chronicles but instead a publication under the direction of Club members. If we were talking, say, about National Review or The Atlantic Monthly I’m sure the buds involved would have held a cordial conciliatory dinner for everyone concerned.
Although our magazine has been around for 44 years, has a growing subscription list, and offers genuinely provocative articles, we remain both unclubbable and unmentionable. That is because, among other reasons, we represent what the mainstream right was before the neoconservatives took it over in the 1980s and pushed it to the left.
The conservative establishment has continued to move away from where it was circa 1980 mostly on social issues; and it has done so for careerist reasons. Aspiring young “conservative” editors and would-be media celebrities are not likely to draw any benefit from right-wing associations. Instead, they can hope to move up and increase their prestige by cultivating contacts with leftist journalists and politicians. Thus, we see on the Murdoch channel a steady procession of leftist Fox News associates, but never members of the Old Right. We also find lavish praise being bestowed on leftists like writers for The Atlantic and The New Republic’s former editor Peter Beinert, by Rich Lowry, Kevin Williamson, and other National Review editors. By contrast, “conservative” editors would never acknowledge serious thinkers on their right, because there would be no professional value in doing so.
Moreover, our present establishment conservatism looks mostly like a breakaway faction of the left. For example, what may be called Conservatism, Inc., favors second-wave feminism—but not yet third-wave; it supports federal anti-discrimination laws—but not yet having such laws applied to the transgendered. The movement also seems genuinely cool with gay marriage, but not with forcing certain religious groups to perform gay weddings or to bake cakes for them. Not yet, anyway.
Cultivating drag queen converts to Charlie Kirk's Turning Point USA-brand of conservatism is just dandy, but only if this gesture aims at getting LGBTQ activists to vote for the GOP. It’s also OK from a “conservative” perspective to pull down statues of Robert E. Lee, but we shouldn’t do the same to statues of Lee’s fellow-Virginian Thomas Jefferson. That’s because Jefferson, although a slave-owner, set this country on its way toward standing for human rights, by inserting into the Declaration the now famous “all men are created equal” passage.
Of course, party lines do change; and when they do, the new position for Club members may be that Tom is out and someone else is in—perhaps Harriet Tubman. One can go through a long list of positions in which established conservatism looks like what the left used to be not so very long ago. The only thing that remains immutable is the Club.
The only reason I mention this go-along tendency is by way of noting a peculiar feature of the Club. The Club premises have a communicating wall with the left. In fact, Club members are delighted to have leftist guests, provided they can find friendly opponents who are willing to hang out with them. The people who are truly unclubbable are those who are noncompliant—that is, those who refuse to cooperate when the Club board decides that it’s time to move further to the left. These are the true Deplorables, whom Club members may insult or stiff with absolute impunity. In fact, if accredited members make enough of a point of scorning unclubbable extremists, prominent leftists may allow them to write for their publications and appear on their Sunday news programs.
For those who think I’m suggesting that Club members have nothing substantively in common with the subjects of our ongoing “Remembering the Right” series, allow me to indicate that your suspicions are correct.
Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.