Gerald makes several important points, and it is something that I think the paleo discussion, including my earlier contribution, has missed almost entirely. It is difficult to grow good fruit in rocky or sandy soil, and likewise it is difficult to imagine a significantly large body of Americans with the kind of temperament that would find paleo answers attractive unless there is a culture that instills restraint, virtue and attachment to one’s people, history and place. These seem unrelated to the policy agenda we’ve been discussing, but, to take one example, these things lay the foundation for nurturing an instinctive aversion to intervention overseas. If we started to build up social institutions and work within existing institutions that foster such a culture, slowly we would begin to create intermediate institutions and centers of resistance to the center that become the constituencies that paleo policies will serve. That is one of the long-term goals of the proposal I made to decentralize conservative institutions and have people go or stay at home. More to the point, the goal is to begin doing work in existing social institutions and building up the cultural capital without which all the talk of constitutionalism in the world will change nothing. Unless the people’s habits are suitable to limited and republican government and what James Poulos calls the responsibilities of citizenship, conservative political projects are more or less destined to be rejected or to be unsustainable beyond one or two election cycles.
In this there is actually a ray of hope, but it also means that the work to be done is going to take a lot longer and yield few obvious fruits for a while. Again and again, I am brought back to that phrase from Max, when the title character asks, “What would you rather do? Change the way people see, or the way they pay their taxes?” Changing the former is much more difficult, but ultimately much more enduring and meaningful, and it is inculcating the right “vision of order” that will lead to both more desirable popular responses to paleo policies but more importantly will contribute to some important measure of renovatio.
This goes directly to something Michael said when he wrote:
But paleo-conservatives did not pursue politics. (Many of them believed it was counter-productive to try.) They did not build sophisticated think-tanks to produce white papers on trade, or foreign policy. They didn’t have the resources, manpower, or personality to do so.
This last point is important for explaining why they didn’t pursue a political agenda, but the first point is much more crucial for understanding the difference between a (paleo)conservative disposition or temperament and acceptance of a Buchananite policy agenda. The personal aversion to or distaste for doing the political work is to some extent idiosyncratic, and tends to be self-reinforcing; those who instinctively dislike politicking will find this temperament and the people who have it more interesting than others. Nonetheless, the personal aversion is also potentially very good, since it can prevent distraction from more important things.
Both the temperament and acceptance of the agenda are good, and they tend to overlap, but many of the people who possess the temperament, even though they may hold a non-interventionist view on foreign policy and the like, are also profoundly skeptical of the possibility of correcting the larger cultural transformations they, we, find undesirable through any kind of political action. It is significant, I think, that the question of the culture wars, while never absent from the ’96 and ’00 campaigns, took something of a backseat to the three policy areas where paleos offered sharp contrasts with the GOP leadership. We can find in this same period the paleo shift towards more and more of a cultural education project in an effort to preserve and pass on as much of Christian and American traditions as possible and an intensification of the belief that we cannot trust in princes. The “failure” of paleos to act politically in the ’90s was an early recognition of the problem Gerald has described so well, because they had already determined that cultural problems cannot be remedied through government and the most important conserving work that could be done was in the realm of cultural preservation and education. I would suggest that this is actually the right long-term approach, but it needs to be replicated on a much larger scale.
On one of the specific points, let me add that Kosovo certainly radicalized me and turned me decisively towards paleoconservatism, and it was because of the inexcusable aggression and interference in another country’s affairs that I became so strongly non-interventionist in 1999. It was because of Washington’s interventionism, which I came to see as antithetical to American foreign policy tradition, that I was so strongly opposed, and I think that also went for most established paleoconservatives writing about it at the time. The charge that Michae makes that the response “seemed to amount to a defense of Serbian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity” is really only half true, to the extent that it was a defense of Orthodox Christians and an insistence that Eastern Christendom was as deserving of American Christian respect as any other. That was part of my view at the time (several years before I converted to Orthodoxy).
I have always understood the general paleo sympathy for the Serbs to have been based in first of all a respect for truth and a sense of fairness. After a few years of relentless Serb-bashing in the media and government, it became impossible for me to see reporting about the Balkans as much more than propaganda, and taking up the Serbian side in the interests of balance was a necessary and obviously thankless task that paleos took up out of a sense of cultural-religious solidarity with an historically Christian people that seemed to them to be targeted principally because it was an historically Orthodox people engaged in conflicts principally with Muslims. What some have come to call Pravoslavophobia seemed to be everywhere and seemed to be poisoning American attitudes towards both Serbs and Russians with significant consequences for the quality of our government’s relationship with Moscow. It is therefore somewhat ironic that those defending the Serbs against unfair and malicious criticism and urging non-interference in the Balkans were, by and large, traditional Catholics who had no obvious confessional reason to sympathize with the Serbs, except that they saw that the people that had fought on the Allied side in two world wars was no enemy of America and no American interest could possibly be served by mauling and dismembering our historic ally. If that kind of argument is unattractive to the MARs, I’m not sure what can be done about it.