There's more to a conservative than meets the eye

By

Calgary Herald [Alberta, Canada], August 26, 2000

In politics, ideology means everything. It doesn't matter whether you are a conservative, liberal or socialist - if you don't fully understand the mechanics behind a political philosophy, it is nearly impossible to become a true member of a respective political group. Naturally, this basic principle has never stopped uninformed people before from joining a political movement. But it is an understood principle nonetheless.

And in politics, ideology is ever changing. Older political movements of the left, right and center are evolving into different entities, or are slowly falling off the political map. Newer political movements are fighting their way into prominence with bold ideas and radical platforms. And while this principle seems quite logical when one considers how our fast-paced world is always looking ahead to the future, it has questioned on a regular basis. But it shouldn't be.

Consider the political ideology of conservatism. Most people believe that there are only a couple of different types of conservatives in the world. The average person on the street would probably say that there are two basic conservatives: Tories and Alliance members. But the average newspaper reader would astutely recognize the terms neoconservatism and social conservatism. These latter two concepts are supposed to be the "big tents" of conservative thought that encapsulates all right-wing thinking.

However, this is far from the truth. First, the word "neoconservatism" has been badly misused over the years. Some true conservatives, such as National Post columnist David Frum, Policy Options editor William Watson, and London Free Press columnist Rory Leishman, have used it in a positive manner to describe modern conservatives. Other conservatives, such as Toronto Star columnist Dalton Camp and IRPP President Hugh Segal, have written about neoconservatism in a negative light to attack the modern conservative movement.

But the fact is that neoconservatism was a phrase coined by the American socialist author Michael Harrington in his book The Other America (1962) to solely define his former left-wing allies. This small group of New York intellectuals, primarily Jewish, started off as young Trotskyists or socialists. Early members included the likes of Irving Kristol and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Norman Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter.

As the years went along, many of them abandoned their Marxist pasts and evolved into liberal anti-Communists, becoming active in politics with the Democratic Party and in journalism. But, as Kristol himself once wrote, "A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality." Over time, as the Democrats moved further and further to the left, many of these neocons gravitated to the Republican Party during the 1970s and 1980s. It was a natural - and understood - move forward. 

There really isn't such a thing as a neoconservative anymore. Kristol, co-editor of The Public Interest with fellow neocon Daniel Bell, believes that conservatives and neoconservatives have largely merged since Ronald Reagan's presidential victory in 1980. And Podhoretz wrote in the March 1996 issue of Commentary, the journal he edited for nearly fifty years, that "what killed conservatism was not defeat but victory; it died not of failure but of success ... the conservative work which remains to be done in every realm will be marked and guided and shaped by the legacy neo-conservatism has left behind."

Many of the original neoconservatives are still writing today. They still believe in a non-paternalistic welfare state, a free market with mild interventions, and the need for cultural tradition in the West. While these ideas don't always mesh with modern conservatives, they have a wide variety of admirers, from National Review editor-at-large William F. Buckley, Jr. to neoconservative culture critic (and ex-Marxist) David Horowitz. And the children of these powerful thinkers - including Weekly Standard publisher William Kristol and New York Post columnist John Podhoretz - are prominent conservative intellectuals in their own right.

Second, the theory of social conservatism, much in the same manner as neoconservatism, has been incorrectly defined as a "big tent." It has become relatively easy for left-wing commentators to situate Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day as being in the same camp as U.S. Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. They are both religious men that place their faith above most other principles. They have an avid interest in promoting concepts such as freedom of speech. They have a great love of populist politics. And they fully respect conservative traditions.

Yet, it isn't quite that simple. There are two larger camps that have evolved within this powerful movement in the last decade - paleoconservatives and what I like to call free market-oriented social conservatives. And this is really going to blow the minds of intelligent modern conservatives who call themselves paleos: You have been in the wrong ideological camp for some time now. But don't feel bad about it. So are many other conservatives due to the ever-changing ideological atmosphere we live in.

Let's start from the very beginning. As defined by Brad Miner in his book, The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia (1996), the term paleoconservatism means "that 'branch' of contemporary conservatism which rejects the internationalism of the New Right and of neoconservatism in favour of the Isolationism of the Old Right; indeed, paleoconservative is simply a renaming of the earlier 'discredited' term."

In the 1950s, there was a break in ideology between conservative and libertarian thinkers of the Old Right from the New Deal era and the post-World War II New Right thinkers. George H. Nash wrote in his book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (1996) that even with the victory of global anti-Communism over isolationism, "many conservatives of 1955 - including some of the most militant anti-Communist - had been 'isolationists' ... before Pearl Harbor."

Included in this list were well-known conservative thinkers such as John Chamberlain, Frank Chodorov, Henry Regnery and Russell Kirk.

As Nash points out, even William F. Buckley was an isolationist at first. But in a letter printed in the January 1955 issue of The Freeman, Buckley - after deciding that he would rather live with a powerful domestic state than a foreign policy that could allow the growth and spread of Communism - counted himself, "dejectedly, among those who favor a carefully planned showdown, and who are prepared to go to war to frustrate communist designs."

Over time, the anti-Communists persuaded most of the Right to join their global cause. The terms "New Right" and "Old Right" eventually became outdated, and conservatives were united on the side of internationalism.

But the conservative front began to split up again about two decades ago. As noted by Joseph Scotchie in his book, The Paleoconservatives: New Voices of the Old Right (1999), the roots of paleoconservatism are found in the 1980s, created "perhaps as a rejoinder of neoconservative influence on the American Right." This group of writers and thinkers were influenced by European philosophers such as Edmund Burke, classical elements from the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, the American Southern heritage, and the need for small "r" republicans. In Scotchie's view, "what remains indisputable is that an unapologetic paleoconservatism has represented an authentic opposition voice to the dominant cultural and political forces of our times."

No matter how paleoconservatism is defined, though, one thing remains crystal clear: it evolved from resentment against modern conservative thinking. Paleos, traditional conservatives to the core, were troubled by the interest of modern conservatives in non-traditional principles such as globalization and free market economics. The influence of so-called neoconservative thought - promoted by individuals the paleos viewed as liberals - on modern conservatism greatly frustrated the paleos.

The first crushing blow to the paleos came in 1981 when their choice for the National Endowment for the Humanities, literary critic M.E. Bradford, was passed over for neocon favorite William Bennett, then a professor at the University of North Carolina. Bradford had also enjoyed the support of Buckley, Buchanan and various Republican senators and congressmen due to his past credentials. But Bradford's past attacks on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, coupled with his support of George Wallace's 1968 and 1972 presidential bids, were too much for the neocons to take. A powerful campaign for Bennett, launched by Kristol, syndicated columnist George F. Will and Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner, soon won the approval of Reagan's Chief of Staff, James A. Baker. The final result was never in doubt.

For the paleos, this was the end of their love affair with Reagan. They felt that he and his staff were under the magical spell of the neocons. A revival of Old Right thinking in the Reagan White House was obviously not going to happen.

A second blow to the paleos was when Samuel Francis was passed over for the coveted job of editorial page editor of the conservative daily Washington Times by Tod Lindberg. As noted by David Frum , in his book Dead Right (1994), "Francis is a huge man with a bright red face, who puffs cigarettes below anachronistic black horn-rims." He had worked for Senator John East before moving to the Times. Never a great lover of neoconservatives to begin with, he was especially furious over this decision, since Lindberg was younger and less experienced.

For the paleos, this was the end of their influence in the conservative mainstream media. If the Washington Times - one of the strongest conservative voices in the U.S. - wouldn't give them a forum, they would march out on their own.

And so they have. The Rockford Institute, an Illinois-based research and publishing think-tank, has become the paleoconservative house organ over the last two decades. There are and have been many prominent writers and thinkers associated with paleoconservatism. Many paleos have enthusiastically supported the candidacy of Buchanan, both in the Republican and Reform primaries, over the last three elections. They have even found common cause with libertarian-type thinkers, including Justin Raimondo and Doug Bandow. The paleos also have a link with the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute. 

There are a number of paleoconservative publications in the U.S. The best of the lot is Modern Age, a non-isolationist quarterly for the Old Right edited by George Panichas. While modern conservatives will not always agree with everything they read in it, the pieces on the roots and history of conservative thought are valuable.

As well, there is Chronicles, a monthly magazine edited by Thomas Fleming. This publication often has a nasty tone to it and is very hard-edged. There have been many anti-neocon pieces, the occasional op-ed screed about Israel, opposition to U.S. military force, and the need for nationalism. And Francis writes a monthly column, where he relishes in telling readers that "since the 1970's, the neocons have proved themselves expert in the courtly arts of intrigue, backstabbing, and palace politics," as he did in the June 2000 issue.   

The paleoconservatives are a colorful (and offbeat) group of individuals, to be sure. But what do they have to with free market-oriented social conservatives? Not all that much. Modern social conservatives are a separate entity to the paleo brood. The fact that the two groups share some traditional beliefs in family and culture, and respect the works of Burke and Kirk, does not make them like-minded.

Let's consider four examples in this regard.

First, the paleos have a much heartier appetite in ethnicity, especially localism and decentralization, than free market-oriented social conservatives. For example, Chronicles has spoken glowingly of the Italian political party Lega Nord (Northern League) and its call for a confederal Italian state, Padania. Since Lega Nord is quite similar in theory to Canada's Bloc Quebecois, and its political aims are exactly the same, this has a similar ring to the Canadian Alliance's deconfederation position. But other forms of paleo ethnicity - including the "melting pot" theory, "white ethnic" arguments for European immigration, and the problem of assimilation of some races in society - are not matched by modern social conservatives. Most of these issues have nothing to do with our country, and a number of them are opposite to the makeup of Canadian society. Modern social conservatives believe in an inclusive society based on Judeo-Christian values.

Second, while elite theory works as a form of populist identity for paleos, it is not the same for free market-oriented social conservatives. As noted by Ashbee, the paleos hold a Marxist belief that society is being run by what Francis once termed a "managerial class" that has control over the economy and state apparatus. Even worse, "the governing ideology serves the purposes and interests of the dominant elite." The ideologies of modern social conservatives have never been tied to a conspiracy-oriented theory such as a managerial class. While there is the recognition of a power base in Ottawa -conservatives of all types would admit to this - the goal has always been to take political power and use it wisely. And the belief that government serves the interests of a chosen few is straight out of the Communist Manifesto, not the Alliance's policy handbook.

Third, paleoconservatism should be distinguished from "the religious right." Although Christianity is an important component of American society for paleos, "their thinking is derived ... from secular rather than Biblical premises," as one thinker has put it.

Paleos tend to consider themselves in terms of cultural and political matters, and question the future goals of religious Christians if they are ever able to attain such things as the elimination of abortion and the advancement of school prayer. Simply put, this paleo characteristic would eliminate most Canadian social conservatives - Ted Byfield, Link Byfield, Ted Morton, Preston Manning, Michael Coren, Paul Tuns, Rory Leishman, and Peter Stockland - from their ranks.

Fourth, paleos support protectionist measures in trade matters. Buchanan, a paleo sympathizer, wrote in his book The Great Betrayal (1998) that the U.S. should implement an "equalization tariff" on all imported manufactures from Asia, Africa and Latin America to protect the wages of American workers. Other paleos, including academic E. Christian Knopf and economist Pat Choate, also favor protectionist policies. This idea fell out of favor with modern social conservatives in Canada long ago - most favor a free market society and believe in free trade. The Alliance and Tories are united in their opposition to protectionism, as are fiscal conservatives and free market-oriented social conservatives.

Having said all this, I readily admit that there are free market-oriented social conservatives who have some paleo instincts, including Alliance M.P.s Jason Kenney and Monte Solberg. And there are a handful of paleo-type commentators in Canada. Various conservative intellectuals have an admiration for certain principles of traditional conservatism.

But again, this doesn't mean that they are true paleoconservatives. To respect a political ideology is one thing. To become a part of it, which means that you have to agree with most of its principles, is quite another. There is a history of intolerance, skepticism of various immigrants, pointlessness to religious thought, dislike of the free market, and a need for nationalist identity associated with paleoconservatism.

Modern social conservatives are not, have never been, will never be, and should not aspire to be like the paleoconservatives. And in truth, why would they ever want to join them?