Conservatism: A Vanishing Tradition

[The Vanishing Tradition: Perspective on American Conservatism. Edited by Paul Gottfried. Cornell University Press, 2020. 223 + pages.]

Paul Gottfried’s excellent anthology of essays on American conservatives chronicles a key phenomenon of our times. Understanding it is important not only for those, like Gottfried and his contributors, who are traditionalist conservatives, but for anyone concerned with freedom. The phenomenon in question is the takeover of American conservatism by neoconservatives.

Why should this development concern us? In brief, the neocons, interested in their own agenda, have joined with the left in enforcing a public orthodoxy that excludes certain views from discussion. As Gottfried explains: “We might note some of the offenses for which an older Right was read out of the movement by the 1990s. Such presumed enormities included opposing the First Gulf War, supporting Patrick Buchanan’s presidential bid in 1992, and complaining about the influence of the American Israeli lobby. Some of the same people had also been critical of the cultural effects of Third World immigration, the extensions of the Voting Rights Act that would increase the electoral strength of the Left and bring the electoral process almost totally under federal administrative control, and the elevation of Martin Luther King — a controversial figure of the Left in his own time — to iconic status with a national holiday.”

Obviously, those who favor the suppressed positions should be concerned, but others should be as well. The Left, joined by the neocons, not only insists on its agenda but will not allow dissent. If, for example, you don’t think that Martin Luther King was a “moral saint,” as more than one eminent philosopher has termed him, the Left will not try to show that your arguments for your view are mistaken. It will deny you a forum to express your arguments at all and then try to destroy you personally. Even if you admire King or accept other tenets of the public orthodoxy, you should be troubled by the suppression of free speech.

Two of the contributors, Keith Preston and Boyd D. Cathey, discuss in detail one such smear campaign against a dissenter from the Official Truth. This was directed at Mel Bradford, a literary scholar and historian, who criticized Abraham Lincoln. In 1981, Ronald Reagan intended to nominate Bradford to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Bradford’s opinions about Lincoln would on the surface seem irrelevant to his fitness for the post. But Lincoln’s role as the savior of the Union and scourge of slavery is a key part of our public orthodoxy. The Left joined forces with the neocons to strike at Bradford. Preston writes: “As a legal scholar, Bradford was an advocate of a ‘strict constructionist’ approach to interpreting the Constitution, his view of the American founding as a conservative revolution, and his defense of the South against what he considered to be the usurpations of state sovereignty by President Lincoln during the Civil War [aroused neocon ire].”

Because he had attacked Lincoln, Bradford had to be denied the nomination. “Among the prominent neoconservatives who expressed opposition to Bradford were Irving Kristol, a former Trotskyite and the coeditor of The Public Interest, who is credited with having coined the term ‘neoconservative.’ The neoconservative movement’s other leading intellectual, Norman Podhoretz, another former leftist and the publisher of Commentary magazine, also expressed opposition to Bradford’s nomination.”

Why are the neocons willing to join forces with the Left? Doing so permits them to advance more effectively their own goals, strong support for Israel and for an interventionist foreign policy. Marjorie Jeffrey gets at the heart of the matter: “In what may be considered one of the founding documents of what became Bush-era neoconservatism, [William] Kristol and [Robert] Kagan wrote in ‘Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy’ that instead of either Clinton’s ‘Wilsonian multilateralism’ or Buchanan’s ‘neo-isolationism’, America should seek a policy of ‘benevolent global hegemony.’” Those who opposed this policy were assailed: “Against these efforts [opposing war], David Frum penned his famous ‘Unpatriotic Conservatives’ essay in the pages of National Review, charging antiwar conservatives and libertarians with being anti- American: ‘They have made common cause with the left-wing and Islamist antiwar movements in this country and in Europe. They deny and excuse terror. They espouse a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism. They publicize wild conspiracy theories. And some of them explicitly yearn for the victory of their nation’s enemies.’” As Jeffrey accurately notes, Ron Paul has with characteristic insight brought into question whether an interventionist foreign policy is in America’s interests, and for this he has been vilified.

Preston in his excellent essay makes the same criticism of neocon foreign policy, but he wrongly traces interventionism to the Jacobins: “A former assistant secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan administration, Paul Craig Roberts, has described the foreign policy views of the neoconservatives as emanating from the fanaticism that emerged during the French Revolution, observing ‘there is nothing conservative about neoconservatives. Neocons hide behind ‘conservative’ but they are in fact Jacobins. Jacobins were the 18th century French revolutionaries whose intention to remake Europe in revolutionary France’s image launched the Napoleonic Wars.” A similar critique of the neoconservatives has been offered by the conservative scholar Claes Ryn.” The Jacobins in fact were mainly concerned with internal reform: it was the Gironde that wished to spread the Revolution abroad.

But this minor error pales into insignificance when put beside Preston’s indispensable point, also drawn from Ryn: ”The ongoing project of the neoconservatives has been to purge from the American Right any tendency that is suspected of opposing aggressive military interventionism, the revolutionary spread of ‘democratic capitalism’ on an international level, the geopolitical agenda of Israel’s Likud Party, or the cultural values of urban cosmopolitanism. Meanwhile, the neoconservatives will make common cause with anyone on the left they deem aggressively militarist enough.”

Some of the contributors find an epistemological source that in their opinion accounts at least in part for the errors of the neocons. The neocons favor principles that are universally true, regardless of historical time and circumstance. This contention seems to me mistaken. Isn’t the problem rather that the neocons favor the wrong universal principles? If like Murray Rothbard we support self-ownership, property rights, and peace, we would not fall victim to neocon delusions.

Mention of Rothbard of course brings to mind that he too was the victim of smear campaigns by both Buckley’s National Review and the neocons. As Gottfried remarks: “In some cases, however, those thrown off the bus were subject to at least intermittent abuse intended to justify their fall. This happened in a particularly bizarre way to Murray Rothbard, in the form of an obituary that Buckley inserted into National Review shortly after Rothbard’s death. Here Buckley offered a comparison between Rothbard and cult leader David Koresh. Neither apparently had more than a handful of followers: Rothbard had ‘as many disciples as David Koresh had in his redoubt in Waco.’ ‘Yes, Rothbard believed in freedom; David Koresh believed in God.’ It had not been enough for National Review’s founder to scold Rothbard during his lifetime.”

Fortunately, neither Buckley nor the neocons succeeded in suppressing Rothbard. His teaching continues to guide and inspire us.

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