What is Paleoconservatism, Part III: An Excursus on Politics

Each generation does what it can in its own time and in its own way.  Fundamental principles—political as well as moral—do not change, but the challenges that require a political response are always changing.  There is little point in quarreling with the conservatives who defined themselves almost exclusively by their opposition to Communism, an entirely evil political doctrine implemented and reinforced by actions and policies that were equally evil.  Nonetheless, whatever their virtues might have been, those defenders of the New Deal status quo had little to say of any use to people of the year 1990, and their attitudes, in this brave new millennium of ours, are as relevant as Emerson’s Transcendentalism.

The abject failure of the American Conservative Movement was not only inevitable; it was built into the movement from the beginning.  Instead of aiming at the cultural and political transformation of the United States, postwar conservatives and libertarians were content with forming a movement (or movements).   They were (and are still) short-term investors in get-rich and get-powerful schemes that do only harm, in the long run, to the country they claim to be defending.  They are merely opportunists, much like the marketers who care only about labels and packaging and could not care less about the quality of the contents.

The very fact that these people wanted to belong to a “movement” was a good indication of their low character.  Back in the 1980’s, I was asked more than once to name the writers and intellectuals who had inspired me to become a “conservative.”  Sometimes they supplied options:  Bill Buckley, Ayn Rand, Bob Tyrell.  It was hard to give a polite answer.  Usually I said something like, “Sophocles, Vergil, and Plato.”  When asked about my conservative “creed,”  I usually gave the one word answer “Nicene.”  Finally, when asked about my part in the movement, I had to explain that the only movement to which I adhered was the Christian religion.  And, if I weren’t a Christian, I suppose I should be some kind of Aristotelian.  The whole idea of joining a movement and signing declarations and manifestos filled me with horror.  

Movements are characteristically American and symptomatic of a people who take their beliefs from Reader’s Digest articles, executive summaries, and Rotary Club speeches.  As a Hollywood scriptwriter might put it, we are a “high concept“ nation that will not feed its mind on anything that has not been already chewed and twice digested in our bovine stomaches and finally turned into the cud of sound bites and slogans.  Left or right, Republican or Democrat, Populist or Progressive, Traditionalist or Libertarian, Neocon or Paleocon, we are babies that must be spoon-fed our political pabulum.  If leftist Democrats can only talk of “compassion” and “caring” and the “richest one per cent of the population,” mainstream Republican conservatives display a talent for reducing every issue to sentences like, “I thought America was ‘all about’ opportunity,” or “We’re a nation of immigrants,” or (and you will hear this from hard-eyed tycoons and think tank executives who believe in nothing) “Say, this is still about the greatest country that has ever existed in the history of the world.”  It’s like talking to Dinesh D’Souza or Newt Gingrich.  Jeezum Crow, as some of used to say as teenagers, Jeezum Crow!

Politics, in the ancient sense, was a set of skills and institutions that aimed at the improvement of our common life as members of a society.  People have always been corrupt and ambitious. (Ambition, which used to be a vice is now a virtue—and what a tale that tells!) But men as different as Cimon and Pericles, Cicero and Cato, Dante and Thomas More, Adams and Jefferson viewed themselves as having a responsibility to the people they helped to govern.  Politics in the modern sense, however, has power as its primary, perhaps its sole objective.  Poor Machiavelli!  He has been routinely abused for degrading political theory from noble idealism to a study of power, when, in fact, he was only taking account of a world that had changed.

The objectives of a modern political career are few. Since power requires money and since money makes possible the life of hedonism that power-seekers desire, money must be reckoned as at least a secondary object, and, along with money, we should include celebrity and easy satisfaction of sexual appetites. So long as we understand this, we cannot be taken in by the knaves and scoundrels who promise to outlaw abortion, liberate the poor, or save the planet.  The principal reason for a normal human being to vote or take part in politics is to protect his income, help his business, and take a symbolic stand for what he loves. 

I was once talking politics with a wealthy woman who supported candidates in the naive belief that they were good men who were going to save the country.  I turned to her husband and asked if he agreed.  He told me that he gave money to her favorite politicians because they worked to keep the regulators off the back of his large business interests.  I told him he was a wise man.

I am far from criticizing plutocratic conservatives who turned their base-metal credo into the gold of wealth and power. They, at least, have their reward in the here-and-now.  It is the members of the more sophisticated “traditionalist” right that I most object to,  with their affected drawls, Victorian mannerisms, and obsession with the imagined glories of imperial Vienna or Franco’s Spain.  Compared with their free-market Liberal rivals, the traditionalists and reactionaries were mere children.  Content to spend their time writing unscholarly articles in unrefereed journals, posing for pictures with their Carlist berets, Betsy Ross flags, and “I Like Ike buttons,” lovingly poring over their complete sets of Triumph, Modern Age and National Review, they have never posed the slightest threat to the regime they think they are opposing.  If there was going to be  any future for the American right (and, reflecting backward, I say this with equal parts amusement and incredulity) it lay in the hands of the odd birds who called themselves (or were called by others) paleoconservatives.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

10 Responses

  1. Irv Phillips says:

    Dr. Fleming, is the Carlist reference to Bozell, Sr. (et al)? Did he have a break with Buckley over the latter’s posh lifestyle or was it something else? I do believe Bozell edited a traditionalist Catholic magazine in the early 70s. It was around for only a few years.

  2. Irv Phillips says:

    Ah, I see. It was Triumph, as mentioned in your article.

  3. Robert Reavis says:


  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    WFB broke with his brother-in-law over questions of the Church, particularly the fuzzy socialist economics of Paul VI, who looks in retrospect like a dream Pope compared to what we have. I don’t have anything to say against Triumph, for which many good people wrote, though the writing did not always rise to a very high level. I have or had many friends who inclined in that direction but i always found it sterile and theatrical. I understand the appeal and sympathize, but, to cite an old proverbial expression, c’est ne pas la guerre!

    My point was that people who used Triumph as a fetish or a shibboleth were playing at politics. My great friend Reavis is apparently offended that I distinguish between the absolutism that is necessary in matters of aesthetics and morals and the pragmatism that is necessary in politics. Buckley, by the way, was right on the economic question–or more nearly right–but he was hopelessly wrong on the more important questions. As a classical liberal he was a moral heretic, and the economic ignorance of John XXIII and Paul VI were trifling errors compared with his puny rebellion against the magisterium. Similarly today, it is one thing to ridicule the ridiculous Francis, who is now making war on adjectives (Good grief, has any public figure ever been such an idiot?) , and quite another to challenge the Church. Francis the Talking Pope will some day be old history along with the Medici and Borgia popes. The less attention we pay them, the better.

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    Dear Tom,
    No I understand the distinction but was never a subscriber to Triumph or red berets. I knew a lot of the writers and thought generally speaking they were usually the men in any room. But if my opinion after the Kennedy/Nixon debates, most national politics was dominated by television and radio with “conservative” views framed by folks like Roger Ailes, fox news and that crowd. The beauty of Mel Bradford, Bozell, Landess, Wilhilmson, Sam Francis, Rothbard and the rest of all the pieces of the old cantankerous ones, at least for me, was their total irrelevance.

  6. Clyde Wilson says:

    Great series, Dr. Fleming. I hope you keep it up. I would add another evil to the record of anti-communist empire building, which played a bigger role than is usually noticed: The idea that to appeal to the Third World against the Communists we had to embark on an egalitarian social revolution from the top. How else was Obama’s African father enjoying the benefits of the U.S. and the idea made current that America was a proposition and not a real people?
    In addition to all the weak zombieism of the people that you rightly pointed out, let me add another: obsession with commercial sports spectacles.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, important observation. The appeal to the Third World was the international parallel to Buckley’s defense of the welfare state.

  8. Dot says:

    The church in my town is building a much larger church. It is Roman Catholic but some statues and paintings planned for when it is completed will be different. For instance there will be a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and one of St Catherine Drexel. The paintings will include one of Blessed Thea Bowman, St. Oscar Romero, San Pedro Calungsod and St. Juan Diego. This last painting looks like he is taking Jesus’s place because in front of him is a picture of what looks like St. Mary. It’s still Roman Catholic but with a Spanish or Latino bent. I guess this has nothing to do with your topic but more and more I feel taken over by the influence of other people who come here and bring there country with them so that it is I as an American citizen who has to bend to these newcomers who may not ever become citizens.

  9. Konstantin Solodov says:

    @ Dot
    “It’s still Roman Catholic but with a Spanish or Latino bent.”
    Do you prefer Roman Catholic with Anglo-Saxons bent?

  10. Konstantin Solodov says:

    @ Mr. Fleming
    “Instead of aiming at the cultural and political transformation of the United States, postwar conservatives and libertarians were content with forming a movement (or movements).”

    What kind of the cultural and political transformation of the United States did you consider as alternative?