Two large factions now define conservative politics across American universities. There are the right-libertarian or “classical liberal” students, and there are the traditionalist conservative students. Joined in opposition to the leftist academia, these factions cooperate with some hesitation.
Many libertarian students favor social and cultural policies that are more commonly found in the mainstream of the American Left, such as same-sex marriage and marijuana decriminalization. In contrast, traditionalist students oppose drug legalization, open borders, the sexual revolution, and crony capitalism. These fault lines appear everywhere, from College Republican meetings to fraternity houses.
Divisions on the Right, especially among the young and passionate, are not news. Much more curious is the endurance of an at least nominal coalition between these two opposed groups. This improbable alliance is predicated on a shared intellectual tradition, often attributed to the Enlightenment and Edmund Burke.
Recently, however, a seemingly forgotten group of American statesmen and intellectuals have become new symbols of this supposed heritage. In my interactions with peers at conservative conferences, meetings, and social functions, I keep hearing familiar references to the “Old Right.” Both libertarians and traditionalist conservatives reminisce about it as a way to imbue their hopeful entente with some intellectual vigor.
The definition of Old Right remains a subject for debate in conservative circles. The term can be glibly described as those who were conservative long before Barry Goldwater and Bill Buckley captured the spotlight in the 1950s and ’60s. Beyond that exists a whole host of competing definitions and evaluations of the Old Right’s history and legacy.
The Old Right, as Justin Raimondo put it in Reclaiming the American Right, “was that loose grouping of intellectuals, writers, publicists, and politicians who vocally opposed the New Deal and bitterly resisted U.S. entry into World War II.” It is not, however, the Old Right’s isolationism that is most commonly (or favorably) remembered by students. Libertarians champion the Old Right’s prewar commitment to economic liberty, while traditionalists view the group’s members as defenders of a social and moral order. Interestingly, members of both factions often proclaim appreciation for the same Old Right figures.
President Calvin Coolidge has become something of a right-libertarian icon. My fellow students view him as a consistent opponent of the expansionary state and a free-market classical liberal. Coolidge’s reputation seemed to rise on the Right after the release of a popular 2015 PragerU video, called “Coolidge: The Best President You Don’t Know.” Moreover, the 30th president’s famously laconic, subdued manner gives him an air of refinement and pragmatism that many young conservatives long for amid a chaotic political arena.
Many of my colleagues disregard Theodore Roosevelt as too much of a “progressive” to align with the modern GOP’s libertarian bent; instead they laud Coolidge as the patron saint of the early 20th-century Republicans. Due to his pronounced support for black and American Indian rights, Coolidge remains palatable to modern tastes, while Roosevelt the Elder’s racism renders him anathema to today’s “woke” libertarians.
Traditionalist conservatives, too, have found much to admire in Coolidge. Among fans of agrarianism and localism, the folksy, Yankee president has a certain provincial charm. For populists and elitists alike, there is something to regard in the upright, even-handed New Englander. They might also praise Coolidge’s commitment to immigration restrictions and his pragmatic, reserved foreign policy.
Traditionalists skeptical of crony capitalism and consumerism are reluctant to completely embrace the president who presided over the Roaring Twenties of unfettered greed and cultural excess. Nevertheless, Coolidge has become a resurgent darling of the campus right, and sometimes their reasons for praising him overlook the nuances of his time in the White House. Coolidge was a trade protectionist. Dismissive of Wilsonian internationalism, he nonetheless did little to reduce American involvement in Central America and the Caribbean.
The writer and intellectual historian Russell Kirk, another well-known figure of the Old Right, is similarly idealized by both factions of conservative students. Kirk himself was unequivocally traditionalist, but libertarians appreciate his affinity for Burke, Calhoun, and Tocqueville, all of whom can be wielded in opposition to big government. Nonetheless, given their affinity for Objectivism, it is surprising that young libertarians claim a thinker who declared, “Conservatism is not simply a defense of ‘capitalism.’”
To this point, Kirk has been lauded in my presence by radical peers, including a self-proclaimed “philosophical anarchist,” who might count doctrinaire libertarians like A.J. Nock and Murray Rothbard among the ranks of the Old Right.
The essential traditionalist, Kirk declared that “we need to guide ourselves by the moral traditions…bequeathed to us by our ancestors.” Such a statement is hardly in line with contemporary libertarian libertinism on issues like narcotics and homosexuality. A devout Catholic, Kirk held that divinely ordained natural laws transcend all human affairs. Moreover, he rejected the liberal Enlightenment ideas of human perfectibility and utopian individualism. Following a great tradition of conservatives, Kirk believed that liberty requires order, a reversal of the characteristic libertarian view.
Young libertarians must thus limit their appreciation of Kirk to the aesthetic. Quite deservedly, Kirk’s enduring image is one of great learning and distinction; invoking him signals intellectual legitimacy and rigor. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that libertarians should attempt appeals to his authority. If only for some intellectual cachet, they’ve welcomed the quintessential traditionalist into the fold of libertarianism.
There are others from the Old Right, such as H.L. Mencken and Strom Thurmond, who are remembered well by my peers. Yet general appeals to a mythologized “Old Right” are more common among them than are mentions of its associated figures. Most conservative students are content to reduce the Old Right to the ambiguous definition that falls closest to their beliefs.
None of my peers, libertarian or traditionalist, mention New Deal critics like Garet Garett. Other figures, such as William Randolph Hearst, are remembered for things beyond their involvement with the Old Right. The movement itself, as Raimondo says, is long dead. Paleoconservatives such as Patrick Buchanan carry on the torch of non-interventionism, but diverge from the social beliefs of avowed libertarians.
All of this suggests a broader trend at work in the GOP and on the American right. Since the “fusionist” Reagan years, there has been a great effort underway to expand the tent of conservatism, so that classical liberalism, laissez-faire capitalism, and prairie populism fit through the flaps. This ongoing broadening is not necessarily bad: intellectual diversity is healthy and necessary for productive discourse. As a deliberate political strategy, however, the proposed alliance has failed in the past.
In 1992, the anarcho-capitalist Rothbard devoted himself to Patrick Buchanan’s presidential campaign and suggested a strategy based on the synthetic, diverse anti-New Deal coalition that once formed the Old Right. He believed that with right-wing populism, a conservative-libertarian alliance might break “the clock of social democracy.” Unfortunately for Rothbard, Buchanan lost bitterly, just as the anti-New Dealers lost in their battle to dethrone FDR. The Old Right might be trending, but it ultimately fails as an effective model for “big tent” conservatism and does little to strengthen a decaying coalition.
Daniel M. Bring studies history and economics at Dartmouth College.