Some paleoconservatives prefer to work within the mainstream movement, hoping to take it back from those they view as squatters. Others believe that movement is either too far gone, or was fatally flawed from the beginning, and instead seek to forge a “real Right” that will supplant mainstream conservatism. A third group believes that changing American foreign policy should take precedence over all other ideological concerns and therefore favors the creation of a Left-Right anti-neoconservative coalition.
Ron Paul is the obvious candidate for paleos, and, as Jim notes, in Paul’s campaign “there are elements of all three approaches—each of which has obvious flaws.” It remains an open question whether Paul’s campaign is the beginning of a new effort to “recapture” the movement from within, or marks the last attempt to work within the party and the movement before paleos completely reject this first approach. I have some thoughts on this question, but I am saving them for my next column. I am personally most inclined to the second approach, even as I am acutely aware of the limitations and problems of that route. I can see some ad hoc value in the third, but the third approach has a number of even more serious problems.
Depending on the degree of one’s disaffection, the Bush Era has either transformed the movement into something awful or it has simply revealed internal flaws that have been there for a long time. Certainly, I think the administration has done grave, probably irreparable, damage to the movement and to the reputation of conservatism in this country. As I think Sullivan said recently, Bush has managed to betray and discredit conservatism at the same time, which is far worse than his father’s indifference to the movement’s priorities and his moderate Republican proclivity to make deals with the left. Unlike his father, Bush effectively redefined conservatism in the eyes of most Americans as center-left meliorism at home and Wilsonian interventionism abroad. Depressingly, it has mostly been the first part of this redefinition that has generated the most movement opposition, while it is the latter that has probably done more damage to our country and more harm to the credibility of conservatives on vital policy questions. However, I also think that Bush could never have done what he did had the movement and party not been so acquiescent and willing to yield.
If foreign policy is the area in which the most damaging changes have occurred, it would seem reasonable that an alliance to counteract neoconservative influence on foreign policy would be most urgent and desirable, at least in the short term. That is the rationale for the third approach mentioned above, and it is initially an attractive one. But the third approach has two problems beyond the one that Jim mentioned (“all organizations that are not explicitly right-wing become left-wing over time”). The first is that it has very little chance of succeeding. Divorced from some significant power base and/or voting bloc, a coalition organised around a foreign policy agenda would be extremely unstable and would would not be able to draw much support beyond the relatively small numbers of progressives and conservatives who have found some way to cooperate in opposition to this particular war. If it grew it numbers, it would become increasingly fissiparous because of the limited number of goals holding the coalition together. As a generically anti-neoconservative coalition, it would have a broader appeal and could conceivably include realists and internationalists of various stripes, but within that coalition you would continually have friction between those internationalists and the non-interventionists. The latter would not see many sharp distinctions between the “multilateralists” who supported Kosovo but opposed Iraq and the neocons (perhaps because there are not many real distinctions), while the former would continually be frustrated by right non-interventionists’ opposition to the U.N. and any international treaty that was seen as a threat to national sovereignty. The candidacy of Obama is a good case in point illustrating this divide: many progressives who are against the Iraq war are nonetheless not terribly concerned about the insane, overreaching, hubristic nature of Obama’s overall foreign policy or his support for Israel’s war in Lebanon, while the antiwar Right sees very little about Obama to admire. Where some starry-eyed antiwar progressives (and perhaps even a few conservatives) see Obama representing a dramatic change in how the world will see America, we see someone who believes the U.S. has the right and indeed obligation, justified by our limitless security interests that are “inextricably” linked to everyone else’s security interests, to intervene anywhere and everywhere, guaranteeing more of the same disastrously arrogant treatment of other states.
The second and perhaps more significant problem is that it subordinates all domestic policy priorities and disputes to the goal of agreeing on changing U.S. foreign policy, which most of the constituent parts of this coalition would find deeply dissatisfying in many ways. It seems improbable that people who aready dislike the compromises required by the current Democratic and Republican coalitions would be likely to ally with others even farther from them in domestic politics. Personally, I see some substantial common ground between paleos and greens, but the number of paleos and greens who see this same common ground is even smaller than the already rather small numbers of both groups. While most right non-interventionists see their foreign policy views as the logical extension of their general anti-statism and constitutionalism, which puts them at odds with the welfare state, many of the progressives in this coalition would want to pursue expansions of the state in the name of social justice. Those on the right who chafed at the conservative movement’s acquiescence to a massive federal bureaucracy during the Cold War and in the decades since 1991 are unlikely to want to tolerate a similar bargain with progressives in the name of thwarting hegemonism. One of the reasons that most of us will ultimately not be able to go along with such an alliance is that we assume that there is something fundamentally progressive and left-wing about the neoconservative project (and further that this is one of the reasons why it so pernicious), and that it is because of its progressive, leftist origins that neoconservatism misunderstands human nature, society and politics so badly. We also assume, I think correctly, that as soon as the Iraq war is over neoconservatives will regain, or perhaps will never have lost, their reputation on the left as the “reasonable” and “respectable” Right, the sorts of people that “decent liberals” can work with and not feel guilty. Once the Iraq war is over, progressives will resume (not that they have ever really stopped) their denunciations of the “nativists” and “isolationists” on the right whom they will always make a point of loathing more than the mainstream Republicans whose policies we all oppose (albeit obviously for different reasons in most cases).