A Paleoconservative Return
A new anthology documents the history and writings of an American conservative tradition.
A Paleoconservative Anthology: New Voices for an Old Tradition, edited by Paul Gottfried, Lexington Books, 210 pages.
The rise of Donald Trump was both a symptom and an accelerator of divides within the American right, as the candidate and president stampeded through the pieties of Conservatism, Inc. The debate about what he represented continues: an aberration from true, principled conservatism of free markets, low taxes, free trade, and intervention abroad or the reapplication of old right-wing ideas in a new time, of foreign policy restraint, lower immigration, and economic nationalism?
A so-called New Right looks to take this vision forward in a more sophisticated and militant way in the face of an increasingly radicalized Democratic left. But a new anthology on paleoconservatism, prepared by political philosopher Paul Gottfried, reminds us that these debates and conflicts were presaged decades ago, by the emergence of the paleoconservatives and their subsequent swift ejection from Con., Inc. In light of the 20th anniversary this year of the Iraq war disaster—a disaster the paleocons warned of, were derided for as “unpatriotic conservatives," and were proved right over—there is much here from which the American right can still learn.
The word “paleoconservative” conjures images of Cold War fights between the newly ascendant neoconservatives in the 1970s and ’80s and those who hewed to an older conception of American conservatism. Gottfried was there from the beginning, and indeed coined the term itself in his and Thomas Fleming’s 1988 book The Conservative Movement, to differentiate between the two worldviews. What is paleoconservatism? As Gottfried stresses in his introduction to this book, there is a diversity of thought and belief within the paleocon section of the American right, ranging from Hamiltonian Federalists to Jeffersonian Anti-Federalists, Mid-Western populists to sceptics of mass democracy.
Despite this diversity, paleoconservatism coheres around the “shared idea of the good society, which is organic and cohesive. All paleoconservatives are deeply suspicious of our late modern administrative state, which they view as a threat to traditional social relations and as a vehicle for unwanted social transformation.” Moreover, “what is true … for all paleoconservatives is a belief in a fixed human nature, a conviction that leads them to be skeptical of attempts to reconstruct inherited social and gender roles.”
This is in sharp contrast to neoconservatism, which constituted a defense by disillusioned Trotskyists turned managerial liberals of a mid-20th-century consensus—as laid down by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Richard Hofstadter, and others—against a more revolutionary New Left. Any conservatism attached to the neocons derived only from their defense of an established managerial liberalism against something even more radical. Their support from the 1990s to today for intervention abroad, welfarism at home, mass immigration, and free trade, all in service to turning the old America into what they saw as truly democratic, marked them out as adherents of an “armed doctrine” of revolution rather than any recognizable conservative philosophy.
The neoconservative defense of, and entrenchment in, the managerial system under the guise of principled conservatism allowed for a rapid rejection of paleoconservative values and figures. The founding paleocon moment came in the shape of the neocons’ denying Mel Bradford chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities. As Gottfried notes, paleoconservatism has survived and intellectually thrived with little-to-no institutional depth or financial strength. The fact that, despite all this, the ideas of paleoconservative figures have seen a resurgence suggests there is more to them than the grumblings of a bunch of bigoted has-beens who stubbornly refused to get with the liberal program.
The history of the clash between the neos and paleos is recounted in a chapter by Keith Preston. As ever in such a collection, some chapters succeed better than others. This one gives a good, concise, but still detailed, rundown of the major events, including the defenestration of Bradford, the purging of various voices that pushed economic nationalism and immigration restrictionism, and the way in which the themes discussed by paleocons of old reappeared in the Trump national populist uprising of 2016. The chapter misjudges, however, in its dismissive assessment of the National Conservatism movement as Neoconservatism 2.0. Noting that I signed the NatCon statement of principles and have spoken at its conferences, this assessment seems quite detached from the reality of the situation, a movement in which foreign policy restraint, economic nationalism, and industrial policy, along with immigration restriction, are all central features.
A stronger chapter is that by David Azerrad, a Hillsdale College professor associated with the Claremont Institute school of “West-Coast” Straussian political philosophy, but nevertheless open to the lessons of paleoconservatism. As Azerrad writes, “If the mainstream Right wants to remain relevant, it will have to incorporate some elements of paleoconservatism into its worldview.” This is because “the first lesson of paleoconservatism is…American conservatism has completely failed to stem the tide of progressivism at home.” The American conservative movement made noises about resisting progressive advances in service to endless sermons to “timeless truths,” but really focused on the economic sphere, creating economic conditions of deindustrialization, financializaton, and corporate oligarchies that ripped out the material foundations on which their voting base stood.
America’s conservative base has therefore been left economically precarious and culturally homeless, while Conservativism, Inc. completely failed to restrain or roll-back the managerial state Leviathan—the quest that was its raison d’etre. As a result, American “Conservatism was, and largely remains, an ideology in search of a mass constituency.” By contrast, “The paleo political project is to develop a political ideology and program that will benefit Middle America in its class conflict with the elite-underclass governing coalition. The paleos therefore take their bearings primarily from the economic interests and cultural values of their base.” American conservatives must “temper [their] neoconservative impulses in foreign policy, moderate [their] libertarian approach to economics and government, and learn to fight the culture wars more aggressively and intelligently.” To implement a vision for government, one must actually use the levers of power to govern.
These themes are echoed in a chapter by C.Jay Engel, on leaving libertarianism behind for a more grounded, paleoconservative worldview. Engel argues that libertarianism is liberalism distilled and purified, depicting the individual as a placeless, timeless, non-relational atom from which society arises only from contractual consent. While libertarianism is superficially appealing due to its intellectual pushback against the administrative state, it fails because of its inability to address four fundamental problems: the nature of society, the nature of the political, the nature of power, and the nature of political hegemony.
As opposed to libertarianism’s mistaken view, we are social creatures born into an existing social order, with obligations and duties as well as rights and privileges. Political contestation between politico-cultural groups is inevitable; the fact of power and its use through the instruments of state is also inevitable. The issue under question is who uses them. This political, cultural, and economic realism is a defining feature of paleoconservatism.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
Finally, we should consider the two chapters on the thinker Samuel T. Francis, James Burnham’s chief ideological student. One is a biographical study by Pedro Gonzalez, the other an intellectual dialectic between Gottfried and Francis by Canadian academic Grant Havers. Gonzalez’s chapter ably covers the main themes of Francis’s writing on his theory of elites and managerialism. Francis is arguably Burnham’s most thoughtful interpreter, fleshing out Burnham’s concept of the managerial elite with his own perspective on an oppositional post-bourgeois “Middle American Radical class,” a concept borrowed from sociologist Donald Warren. As admitted by centrists such as David Brooks, Francis was farsighted about how national populism would develop and what shape it would take, anticipating Trump by more than twenty-five years.
Yet Francis’s writings also act as a warning to right-wingers against following a modernist, secular-materialist focus on power and structural forces to its conclusion. For Francis, politics became reduced to a racial struggle for managerial power, expressed by his move toward a deeply unpleasant, white nationalist direction from the mid-1990s on. As Havers demonstrates, this is where Gottfried’s analysis, which holds the soul of man to be as important as the spirit of politics, maintains its bearings. As Gottfried argues in opposition to Francis, while power structures may indeed matter, ideas and the beliefs that drive those who inhabit those structures are just as important. Gottfried maintains a more prudential approach in his political philosophy, without sacrificing the aspects of the human character and soul that give life its meaning, binding us to our past, grounding us in our present, and reminding us of our duty to leave a worthy legacy.
This anthology, not without the faults of any volume of this sort, serves as a useful introduction to a body of thought that continues to shape significant segments of the contemporary American right.