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.