Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Conservative Movement in Discontinuity

The Fall 2005 issue of Modern Age included George W. Carey’s “The Future of Conservatism” that attracted my attention for several reasons. It was forcefully written and testified to Professor Carey’s accumulated knowledge of constitutional history. It also raised points of contention within what seems the current “conservative” coalition, an arrangement that he obviously disapproves of. And his argument against the bellicosity of the neoconservative and Republican leaders of this coalition is stated throughout his polemic in such a way that Carey, a scholar known for his judiciousness, makes it clear that he has gone on the offensive. This kind of vigorous debate is long overdue. The themes touched on in this provocative essay bear unmistakably on the future of the American intellectual Right.

Carey’s text recalls complaints that I, too, brought up in an issue of Intercollegiate Review (Spring 1986) dealing with the transmutations of conservatism. Of those who wrote for this symposium, two contributors (M.E. Bradford and Russell Kirk) are now deceased, while the rest of us, George Panichas, Carey, Clyde Wilson, and myself, are still around and still hostile to the new order that we lamented twenty years ago. An overarching charge back then was that the neoconservatives were “interlopers,” which was Professor Wilson’s term, but one that was congenial to us all, who had crossed into the post-war conservative camp and tainted its beliefs. In Carey’s position one recognizes the same “traditionalist bewilderment” turned against Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. In France in February 2005, at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, Rice had praised the “intertwined” histories of the United States and France. Both countries, according to the Republican Secretary of State, had carried out domestically, and then tried to apply beyond their borders ideologically identical revolutions. This reduction of the American and Jacobin traditions to the same armed, revolutionary doctrines has plainly disturbed Carey. Like me, he can recall a time when such comparisons would have made American conservatives shiver with rage. In his essay he not only goes after the neoconservative propagators of such ideas but also takes on those Republicans who are eagerly embracing them:
[I]n a very short period of time a major transformation in the American political landscape has occurred. The Republican Party has, so to speak, changed its spots virtually without attracting much critical attention, the major exception being that of disillusioned and disgruntled traditionalists. Moreover, along with the transformation of the Republican party, we have witnessed a corresponding transformation of the popularly accepted understanding of conservatism. The two, this is to say, go hand in hand, with neoconservatism providing a “cover” that allowed the administration to drastically transform the character of the Republican Party without its spokesmen being obliged to renounce conservatism.
I have no trouble accepting most of the lament Carey has placed before us. And though I do not agree with his hope for the Democratic Party to retake of the Congress in order to check a neoconservative Republican President (a change that could precipitate a move toward the social Left without reining in an aggressive foreign policy based on “human rights”), Carey is right about the “cover” for Republican-endorsed Jacobinism. The neoconservative media provide this tool by steadily redefining the meaning of “conservatism” in terms of their policies and predilections. Having just finished a long study of my own on “value conservatism,” I continue to be astonished by the extent to which neoconservatives control the discourse of the political center-right. Their funding and privileged access to the media have put them in a position to play this pivotal role, and, as my colleague Wesley McDonald keeps reminding me, their “conservative values” have less and less to do with the kind of conservative thinking with which he grew up.

A new hagiography has replaced and, particularly in the cases of Southerners and anti-welfare state Republicans, driven out the older one. And it is almost laughable how since the Congressional Act by which he became the only American to have his birthday declared a national holiday, Martin Luther King has gone on from being a despised villain on the American right to a profound Christian theologian and a “conservative” theorist par excellence. One wonders what happened to the Marxist philandering demagogue whom Harry Jaffa and Will Herberg as well as William Buckley and Frank Meyer denounced with outrage in National Review and about whom President Ronald Reagan (hardly a right-wing extremist) expressed negative thoughts. As a Catholic priest recently observed to me, it took Thomas Aquinas six hundred years to acquire the undisputed theological reputation that King achieved with minimal intellectual effort and no evidence of religious orthodoxy overnight. The explanation for this riddle is that until the late twentieth century there was no American conservative movement trying to show that it was “sensitive” on racial questions. Nor was there one that felt driven to discard as its heroes Robert Taft for Harry Truman and Russell Kirk for Allan Bloom.

- continue reading Paul Gottfried's piece here.

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