Antiwar Conservatism Comes to Cato

Bill Kauffman’s event yesterday was great fun — a provocative talk from Bill, a friendly rejoinder from Michael Tomasky, and about 20 minutes of audience Q+A, plus a reception afterwards. Catch up if you missed it by listening to the MP3 or watching the RealVideo.

About three-quarters of the TAC office trekked down to the event, where we found, as expected, a great many familiar faces: Jeremy Lott and Stacy McCain of the American Spectator, Jesse Walker of Reason, my Robert Taft Club associates Richard Spencer and Marcus Epstein, Twilight at Monticello scribe Alan Crawford, as well as Cato’s own Justin Logan and Gene Healy, and many others. Lots of people Dick Cheney would like to see in Gitmo, in other words.


Senator Mencken

A few words of wisdom — true then and true today — from H.L. Mencken’s favorite politician, the great Sen. James A. Reed (D-Mo.):

Truth to tell, Washington has become the universal Mecca of human freaks. To that city protagonists of vagaries gravitate by all known routes, some by election, some by appointment, and some by “divine command.” The great majority, however, merely follow noses that itch for the business of others. There they bed and breed. They haunt the corridors of the public buildings, crowd into the offices of congressmen, and insist upon displaying their fantastic and sometimes loathsome wares. Consumed by passion for experimentation, they regard the public corpus as a legitimate subject for ceaseless exploratory operations and clinical vivisection.

To this array of freaks, the Constitution is not a bulwark of liberty but a shackle upon progress which they hold in contemptuous disregard. Congress itself is full of men who do not think of the Constitution save as an obstacle to their desires. They study it only to devise some plan for its circumvention. There is no subterfuge they will not employ, no deceit to which they will not resort, if peradventure the limitations imposed by the Constitution may be cheated.

A favorite device is, by a false recital of the real objects of a bill, to bring it apparently under some specific power granted to the federal government. Witness:

The Mann Act which, pretending to be an exercise of authority to regulate commerce between the States, in fact sought to regulate commerce between the sexes.

The penalization of doctors for prescribing beer as a medicine under the pretended authority of the amendment prohibiting liquor as a beverage.

The attempted prohibition of interstate commerce in the products of child labor on the pretext that the use of such goods was injurious to the public health.

The recent effort of the Nebraska Legislature to forbid the teaching of any other than the English language on the false recital that the child’s morals would be thereby impaired.

Under another grouping, but even more monstrous, is the proposal by Congress of a constitutional amendment empowering the federal government to pass laws denying to all human beings under eighteen years of age the right to work. Happily, that barbarous and tyrannical proposition is being rapidly rejected by the States. Evidently, there is an awakening of the States, if not of Congress.

A single further instance. Very recently, a joint committee of both Houses proposed a bill to send to jail in certain cases any citizen who failed to inform against himself or his neighbor. Seemingly no member of the committee ever heard of the constitutional provision: “nor shall [any citizen] be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Instances might be indefinitely extended. The Capitol is choked with the advocates of changes.

What shall the end be? Will that race of men who for a thousand years have asserted the “right of castle,” rejected governmental interference in domestic affairs, proclaimed the right of free man to regulate his personal habits and to rear and govern his children in accordance with the law of conscience and of love, now become subject to a self-imposed statutory tyranny which from birth to death interferes in the smallest concerns of life? Shall we endure a legal despotism, the equivalent of which would have provoked rebellion amongst the Saxons even when under the Norman heel?

I doubt not these statutory bonds will be eventually broken. The right of the free man to live his own life, limited only by the inhibition of non-infringement upon the rights of others, will again be asserted. But before that day arrives, will the splendid symmetry of our governmental structure have been destroyed?

Read the whole essay, “The Pestilence of Fanaticism,” here. It originally ran in Mencken’s American Mercury 1925. As with most Mercury material of the time, the essay bears the imprint of the editor’s heavy hand. But Reed and Mencken were close enough of mind that I suspect the HLM flourishes don’t deviate much from Reed’s own thoughts.

Two Takes on Bill Buckley and a Look at the Future of the Right

WFB’s memorial service was yesterday. Matthew Richer and Austin Bramwell offer some reflections on the man they knew — lightly in Richer’s case, somewhat better in Bramwell’s. As you might anticipate from the venue, Richer’s VDARE commentary is rather scathing. Bramwell is affectionate but also judicious; this bit from his article is particularly revealing:

The net result of his divesting himself of control of National Review was to turn over ownership of the magazine to its employees. Today, Rich Lowry is the editor-owner of National Review to nearly the same extent that Buckley himself was. Lowry is by no means an untalented journalist. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that anybody would have chosen him as the man to control NR for the next fifty years. This result could have been avoided, if Buckley had cared enough to prevent it. As far as I could tell, however, he did know enough about NR even to begin to have any influence. His ignorance of the affairs of his own magazine at times astonished me. Although Bill congratulated me on my criticisms of movement conservatism and spoke candidly of its failings, its future simply did not concern him.

Meanwhile, the American Spectator blog has several items up — by Christopher Orlet, J.P. Freire, and Jim Antle — on Jeff Hart’s recent Buckley reminiscence in TAC and what it indicates about the future of the conservative movement. Daniel Larison comments as well.

Orlet asks whether a movement with as much young talent as conservatism has can really be doomed. Of course it can. Young journalists are one thing, but there’s no young Willmoore Kendall or young James Burnham or young Frank Meyer on the scene. No, I wouldn’t expect a 20-year-old or a 30-year-old to have the gravity of any of those thinkers — but even looking at our 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds, I can’t think of too many who are of much significance as theorists or academics. Some of the “Catholic Straussians” fit into that age cohort and are notable, but the best of them, Patrick Deneen, is at his best when he’s furthest from movement conservatism. There are some keen minds among the generation of conservatives ages 25 to 60, but few of them seem as keen as the minds of the conservatives who are in their 60s or older. (Maybe that’s not quite right: you could get another Stephen Tonsor or another Jeffrey Hart. But you won’t get another Robert Nisbet, I suspect.)

Part of the problem on the theoretical side is that too many of the best young minds in conservatism have followed Buckley’s example by shunning grad school and embracing journalism or the movement instead. That’s what I’ve done. (Daniel Larison is one of the few who hasn’t — he’s somehow writing more than anyone else and getting a Ph.D. too.)

In politics, the situation is even more embarrassing for conservatives. The failure to produce a single conservative leader of a caliber even close to Goldwater or Reagan (as flawed as both of them were) over the course of some five decades — for that’s how long the movement has been around — is conspicuous. Nobody who came out of Young Americans for Freedom went on to become a leading politician. Former College Republicans heads turn into backroom strategists like Ralph Reed and Karl Rove, advisers to awful politicians rather than awful politicians themselves. It’s ironic that a movement that become increasingly political over time has never become any better at cultivating young statesmen. Mostly, it just creates hacks and para-politicians; campaign managers rather than candidates.

There’s a silver lining to all of this. The conservative movement has gone so far off the rails over the last half-century that a wholesale reconstruction is in order, if not a replacement of the movement by something else. There’s some real intellectual fermentation going on in the exile quarters of the Right — among reactionary radicals and some of the more daring libertarians. This fermentation actually looks a lot like the Old Right, in the sense that it’s producing journalists who are more than just journalists (I’m thinking of people like Mencken or Bill Kauffman) and may yet produce some theorists. With the Ron Paul movement, it may have created some statesmen, too, though it will take some time to find out who they might be. For now, this alternative Right is more hoped-for than apparent, but it has the right ideas, and that’s more than can be said for the Bush-McCain movement.

Was the Conservative Movement Made in the 1970s?

That’s what Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer argue, not entirely persuasively, in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This bit, though, gets it just about right:

A number of scholars emphasize the emergence in the 70s of a conservative “movement” that turned the nascent New Right from an extremist ideology and a fledgling faction into a powerful electoral force. While modern American conservatism took shape in the 50s and 60s, it never cohered as a full-scale political movement.

The shift to the right, however, was anything but inevitable, even if previous accounts suggested that it was. After 1970, the New Right found its secret to success; it constructed its organizational infrastructure — the political-action committees, the volunteer operations, the radio talk shows, the think tanks, and the direct-mail network. The movement developed a post-Vietnam foreign-policy agenda that would define America’s position through the end of the cold war and establish the foundation for the war against terrorism. The agenda revolved around increasing the defense budget, using heated rhetoric against the Soviet Union, refraining from arms or territorial negotiation, and embarking on limited military interventions abroad. Ronald Reagan invigorated support for that agenda within the Republican Party when he challenged and almost upset President Gerald Ford, a Republican, for the nomination in 1976. Neoconservatives like Richard Perle and Jeane Kirkpatrick similarly popularized those ideas. Mobilizing previously quiescent evangelical Christians, the conservative movement also framed a new domestic agenda around cultural issues that would attract millions of voters into a reconstructed Republican Party. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson became known for shows that reached millions of Americans, calling on them to challenge the legality of abortion and to pressure broadcasters into refusing sexual material. The conservative movement of the 70s would become the motive force driving American politics for the next three decades.

There’s a stronger case to be made from all this than Schulman and Zelizer press, though maybe their book, Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, argues more forcefully. The conventional story of the Right is that before 1945, almost all was darkness and old night. Then several intellectuals, like F.A. Hayek and Richard Weaver, published important conservative books, and before long National Review appeared. That led to Goldwater, who led to Reagan, who led to Gingrich and Bush. (And the conservative movement thinks that’s a happy ending!) There’s a lot of truth to this narrative, but it’s basically a progressive “Whig history” of the American Right. The story can be told in other ways — stressing, for example, the quite vibrant political movement around Robert Taft in the 1940s and 1950s and the continuing strength of the Old Right up through the launch of National Review.

What neither the movement nor most of the movement’s critics talk much about are the continuities between the Old Right and the Cold War Right — while most Old Right thinkers were anti-statists and anti-interventionsists (think of Albert Jay Nock or Felix Morley), some of them were proto-Cold Warrriors or turned into actual Cold Warriors (Paul Palmer and John Chamberlain are two examples). The title of Murray Rothbard’s book is correct: the Old Right was betrayed. But that’s not the full story. Even the Goldwater movement, which can be seen as Cold War conservatism par excellence, had roots in the Old Right: Clarence Manion, who commissioned Brent Bozell to ghostwrite The Conscience of a Conservative and drafted Goldwater for his 1960 presidential run, was an Old Rightist, after all.

Just as there are continuities as well as discontinuities between the Old Right and the postwar Right, there are also discontinuities as well as continuities between the early Cold War Right of the Goldwater movement and the later Cold War Right of the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of the populist New Right and social conservatism. The discontinuities are rarely stressed, though, even when they’re acknowledged. There’s a case to be made — and perhaps Zelizer and Schulman make it in their book — that the Right that emerged out of the 1970s was as different from the 1950s and 1960s Right as the 1950s and 1960s Right was from the Old Right.

Certainly ever since the end of Vietnam, the American Right has continued to refight the Vietnam War on the homefront, continually campaigning against McGovern Democrats (whether real or imagined) and the archetype of the hippie radical. I touched on some of these themes a few years back in a piece I titled “The Authoritarian Movement.” This is a topic I’ll have to revisit sometime soon.