The Conservative Bind

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by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

The latest commentary by David Brooks in the New York Times (October 25, 2005) on how "Bush has revitalized, rescued the right" illustrates the direction in which the "conservative movement" has been traveling for decades. Brooks thanks Bush for having taken over the country when the Republican Party was "was veering toward isolationism, its immigration policy was veering toward nativism, its social conservatism had crossed into censoriousness and after it had become clear that voters didn’t want to slash government, its domestic policies had hit a dead end." Bush saved American conservatism by fusing it with compassion and centralized control: "He rejected the prejudice that the private sector is good and the public sector is bad, and he tried to use government to encourage responsible citizenship and community service. He sought to mobilize the government so that the children of prisoners can build their lives, so parents can get data to measure their school’s performance, so millions of AID victims in Africa can live another day, so people around the world can dream of freedom."

There are many questions prompted by these assertions that readers of this website might raise, although none of them would likely occur to Brooks’s fellow columnists at the New York Times. Turning aside from such obvious queries as to whether Bush’s progressive conservatism achieved the effects ascribed to it, what are the federal government’s enumerated powers under our now obsolete, window-dressing constitution, and whether Walter Block could find a libertarian manner of achieving what Brooks claims Bush was trying to do, there is a semantic question that this column brings up for me. Why would anyone think that Brooks is a "conservative" or describing a "conservative" movement led by a putatively "conservative" president? At a gathering of the American Political Science Association in late August, I heard Brooks express views that were even less likely to qualify as "conservative." There before a room packed with neoconservative dignitaries and the employees of the "conservative" policy community, he spent about twenty minutes praising Hillary Clinton as a national politician who "understands the need for greater equality" in America. Unless memory fails, Brooks received a tumultuous ovation from those who were assembled and seemed to be hanging on to his every word. With the exceptions of my colleague Wes McDonald and me, it is unlikely that anyone who heard Brooks speak would have questioned his right that day to be a "conservative" spokesman. After all, the man who introduced him explained that even the liberal New York Times recognized Brooks’s merit as an insightful "conservative" thinker.

All of this brings me back to a book that I’ve been busily fleshing out for several months and which elaborates on an observation made by Murray Rothbard and published on this website on Wednesday. Murray, who had been ousted by an earlier incarnation of the movement from the one that later dumped me, noted that the American Right did not start considering itself "conservative" until around the time Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind in 1953. At least implicitly Murray raises the question whether this self-description was not dangerous for a movement that had seen itself as defending an old-fashioned liberal program of limited government. The answer given in my book is an emphatic "yes." There was in fact nothing as destructive that the Old Right did to itself as marching under the "conservative" banner, because it opened the way to the social democrats and Jacobins, who began to pose with leftist acceptance as the true (Buckleyite and later Brookean) "conservatives." The term in question should have been allowed to stay with Burke and the European Counterrevolution of the early nineteenth-century, with whom it belonged historically and sociologically. That frame of reference had as much to do with our country in the 1950s as did the medieval wars between Ghibellines and Guelfs. The anti-New Deal Right would have done better to fight to reclaim "liberal" from the welfare-state, social engineering Left, instead of being paradoxically dragged leftward while taking on the misleading label "conservative." Once this humbuggery was allowed to go on, it contributed to the mendacity that we now encounter daily in David Brooks and his multiple look-alikes. Publicists who make Hubert Humphrey look like a right-winger call themselves "conservative," and the Left applauds because it puts the rest of us farther out of the mainstream and because other moderate "conservatives" can call for Swedish socialism without having to abandon the term "conservative."

Note I am not an enemy of classical conservatism and, like Robert Nisbet, view some of its exponents as deep social critics. Unlike Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz, Burke and Joseph de Maistre offered observations about the implications of Jacobinism and the desire for world revolution that we would do well to continue to ponder. But such conservatives influenced our constitutional tradition only minimally and what the real Right, to the extent one is still permitted to operate, is defending is a bourgeois liberal tradition. Today’s acceptable "conservatives" stand well to the left of that.

October 27, 2005

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and The Strange Death of Marxism.

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