What Becomes a Paleo
Jim asks whether there is anything paleoconservatives could have done to retain or expand their influence. Here is one idea: they could have stuck with paleoconservatism. Let’s look at what we know happened. On policy prescriptions paleoconservatives in the 1990s distinguished themselves in three areas: immigration, foreign policy, and trade.
On immigration, paleoconservatives were ahead of their time in anticipating a popular reaction against mass immigration that was rooted in cultural and economic anxiety –almost too far ahead. On foreign policy, paleoconservatives and other dissident conservatives looked for models in everything from America First to Robert Taft and the realists for guidance. On trade, they extended their desire for some form of strategic independence to the economic sphere and promoted protectionism. Trade protection would help middle class families maintain their standard of living, they believed. These would be the building blocks of a new nationalist conservatism.
Sam Francis argued that this nationalism required, “a radical rejection of what historically has been the basis of American nationalism — the cult of economic growth, material acquisition, and universal ‘equality of opportunity’ — and its reformulation in a new myth of the nation as a distinctive cultural and political force that cannot be universalized for the rest of the planet.” By focusing on the preservation and enhancement of the American nation, conservatives could connect with a social base (of MARs) and “advance to a principled confrontation” with the managerial elite. For strategy, Francis first proposed a Gramscian strategy of building a counter-culture that would generate its own set of rival elites, and hasten the end of the managerial elite.
This seems like a kind of politics that could work. (Francis’ later speculations about a reviving white racial consciousness is inconsistent with my own conscience and lived experience. It also seems like a dead-end politically.)
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. They supported and shaped only one candidate (Patrick Buchanan in ’96 and ’00). They retreated from Francis’ developed concept of a new nationalism into a variety of interesting right-wing garden patches: Chester-Bellocian distributism, agrarianism, the Old Right, Nietzschean philosophy, romanticism. Eventually the populist anger on immigration that they anticipated was articulated and shaped by mainstream conservatives. This last development was inevitable — though paleos could have done a better job of claiming the credit.
NATO’s intervention in Kosovo revealed to paleo-conservatives everything they hated about the American Empire. This intervention, paleos said, was aimed at discrediting the nation state and legitimizing global managerialism. But the paleo response seemed to amount to a defense of Serbian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity -not exactly two causes that turn MARs on.
Paleoconservatives should have focused on their unique contributions to political debate and should have pursued the “Revolution from the Middle” however they could.
Obviously the Iraq War has revived paleoconservatism and transformed it. Paleos were equipped with a trenchant critique of neoconservative foreign policy. Gradually opposition to the Iraq War from the right became almost synonymous with being “paleo.” Tucker Carlson said he was “getting more paleo” everyday as he came to oppose the war. (He remains somwhere on the masthead of The Weekly Standard)
The Bush presidency then proved so disastrous that a flotilla of conservative dissenters have been drifting toward paleo-island. Institutions like TAC have created space for every kind of dissenter from the conservative movement to sound off and while remaining on the right. There is a danger that paleoconservatism (already losing focus in the late 90s) will be overwhelmed with the refugees from movement conservatism. Not all of these dissenters are interested in what paleos care about. As the Iraq War goes on, more and more young conservatives are forming themselves in reaction to it. Looking at the recent hires at National Review, and The American Spectator, and the interest of other movement institutions, I already see the growing influence of anti-Iraq War voices. Even taking into account their lack of influence on policy, it is clear that anti-Iraq War conservatives are now overrepresented among intellectual conservatives and journalists.
So, what is to be done now? It seems there are two approaches –which can be pursued simultaneously, and will be pursued according to each person’s temperament and circumstances. 1) We can build, sustain, and improve independent institutions like Chronicles, TAC, and the Mises Institute, as Dan suggested we do. The difficulty here is finding money and people. 2) Or some of us can collaborate with movement conservatives when our interests are the same. Many mainstream conservatives are demonstrating an interest in addressing the economic anxiety of the middle class, and taking up the cause of immigration restriction. Surely some of us will start working with them. The danger in this strategy is selling out.
On the whole, I do think paleos need to formulate a more coherent set of political goals than they currently have. Overwhelmed by the Bush presidency, I fear we too often just say: whatever neoconservatives want, we’ll take the opposite. If they want John McCain, let’s make a case for Barack Obama. But one gets the feeling that if The Weekly Standard urged caution and prudence, some newly born paleocon would write a 10,000 word diatribe in favor risk and audacity. (The older generation of paleoconservatives doesn’t fall into this –to their credit.)
The short version of my answer is that paleoconservatives could have retained their 90s influence (whatever it was) by sticking to their vision of nationalist conservatism. In the future they should think hard about what kind of things they’d like to achieve (I’m sure we all have some ideas) and work hard at building their own institutions on the one hand, and forming tactical alliances with the mainstream right on the other.