The New Right Faces an Old Problem
by Ryan McMaken
Given that human life-spans are so short in the big scheme of things, and the presence of the more troubling problem that reading books has gone so far out of fashion, it is often difficult for people to keep in mind that the current ideas of Left and Right and liberal and conservative are little more than 50 years old. Now I’m sure that if your favorite show is The West Wing or The O’Reilly Factor, fifty years probably seems like such a very long and boring amount of time, but trust me, it’s less than the average American lifespan.
In spite of the movement’s brief time on stage, few Americans can conceive of the fact that our modern concepts of political affiliation are little more than a taxonomy created to fit the specific realities of the American political landscape following the end of the Second World War. The clash of the militant ideologies of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Hitler caused such a major reshuffling of everyone on the Left and the Right, that when everything stopped moving, people simply swept some parts to the Left and some to the Right. It’s wasn’t random, but it certainly wasn’t based on some kind of coherent ideology either. The kind of conservatism that we are now familiar with was a novelty of the 1950s and called itself the "New Right." The term was used to distinguish the new class of anti-Communist "conservatives" from what Murray N. Rothbard dubbed the Old Right: conservatives such as Garet Garrett, Robert Taft, Howard Buffett, John T. Flynn, and Charles Beard.
Just as the Old Right had distinguished itself in opposition to a drive to war (WWII), the New Right distinguished itself as a movement committed in its support of a new war: the Cold War. By 1955, the New Right had created itself a magazine, National Review, and the Old Right was not invited to join in. This latter point was driven home when William F. Buckley, the magazine’s founder invited the Old Rightist John T. Flynn to write an opinion piece for the new magazine, which he did. Flynn wrote what one might expect him to write: a piece condemning the militarism that the United States had adopted under the leadership of Roosevelt and Truman, and apparently destined to be unrepealed by Eisenhower. The article was refused, apparently unfit for the new realities of the New Right and its ideology built on the military annihilation of the Soviet Union and its satellites.
With the exception of Rothbard and his circle, the Old Right disappeared soon afterward through death, retirement, and the public’s general obsession with the Communist "threat" as imagined by the influential members of the New Right and their disciples. The few publications that would still publish anti-interventionist tracts by conservatives like Left and Right and Faith and Freedom enjoyed only very limited circulation and lasted only a few years. The movement virtually disappeared with no institutions to rally behind and no national publications to write for. Only when the Cold War finally came to an end through Soviet implosion (with no thanks due to militant anti-Communism, but to Communism itself) did any light appear at the end of the tunnel. Freed up from their fear of international communism, the traditional conservatives like Russell Kirk were free once again to sympathize with libertarians like Rothbard who had always believed the communist threat to be overstated. I don’t have to tell you however, that the heady days immediately following the end of the Cold War were misleading at best. National Review moved quickly to rid itself of Joseph Sobran for opposing the first Iraq war, and it dismissed him and Patrick J. Buchanan with charges of anti-Semitism, and continued on its merry militaristic way speaking of the "Pax Americana" with approving editorials. The remnants of the Old Right continued to be confined to publications of low circulation like Chronicles and the Rothbard-Rockwell Report (LRC’s predecessor), and the New Right, invigorated by a continued infusion of money and the abortive "Republican Revolution" of 1994 continued to hold on as the "respectable" kind of conservatism although the Cold War, its stated reason for existence, was a thing of the past.
As it waged ideological war against libertarians and traditionalist conservatives, the New Right, led by National Review, simply bided its time until a new Cold War could be manufactured to use as a further justification for the ideology of empire. It never seemed to bother anyone in the post-Cold War New Right that some anti-Communists like Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk had been explicit in their claims that Communism was unique in its evil, and that only evil on such a scale warranted the kind of militarism that they wanted to be brought to bear against the Soviets. How could Islamic extremism, Chinese post-communism, or third world thuggery possibly be compared to Communism as seen by the New Right? It couldn’t be, but with many of the more principled conservatives safely dead, it really didn’t matter.
These were all questions that the proponents of the Old Right, otherwise known as paleo-conservatives and paleo-libertarians would have liked to ask the New Right publicly. No publications widely available to the public allowed such a debate, however, until the Center for Libertarian Studies launched antiwar.com and LewRockwell.com. For the first time in decades, scholars and writers well versed in the tradition of the anti-interventionist Right were given a place to air such doubts about the Pax Americana, and were so successful that not even the National Review could ignore them. Sure, the writers were dismissed as anti-Semites and backwater rubes, but this time they simply couldn’t fire the people they didn’t want to hear from. The gadfly wouldn’t die.
The launching of The American Conservative is the latest chapter in the long and painful resuscitation of the anti-interventionist Right. Finally convinced to abandon the ideological mess that is presidential politics, Pat Buchanan, with Taki Theodoracopulos, and Scott McConnell, has decided to put together a print magazine to disseminate the opinions of the libertarian and paleo-conservative Right on matters of war, culture, immigration, and economics. While other publication like Chronicles have courageously kept the flame of the Old Republic alive through the dark times, this is the first time that a beltway pundit has attempted to bring to life a magazine to compete with the New Right among the activists and ideologues of the New York-Washington axis. The fact that these men feel that something can even be attempted with any glimmer of a chance of success shows chinks in the armor of the New Right that have not been visible before.
The fact is the New Right has run its course, and no longer has anything to offer as an intellectual movement. It was always a movement based on fear and anxiety, but the rhetoric has become so overblown, so utopian, and so paranoid, that even many of the old Cold Warriors find it to be dangerous. The pages of The American Conservative are clear in their belief that this is so. In his article "Why I Am No Longer a Conservative," Kevin Phillips examines the New Right as the party of the establishment, doling out government favors to its supporters and upholding the militarism of the imperial State that it has so successfully wrested control of. The New Right’s current position is comparable to the corrupt and power drenched Liberal establishment of the 1960s, yet the New Right clings to its fantasy that it is the upholder of the "permanent things" and guardian of freedom against the opportunists of the Left. The lack of self-awareness is astounding.
Phillips’ article is representative of the publication as a whole, and the editors are clear that this magazine is to be one that stands against the wars and political opportunism of the New Right and the conservative movement that it now controls: "So much of what passes for contemporary conservatism is wedded to a kind of radicalism — fantasies of global hegemony, the hubristic notion of America as a universal nation for all the world’s peoples, a hyper global economy." In this issue, the coming invasion of Iraq is the central topic. The antiwar theme of the magazine is clear for all to see, and this is heartening. The other core issues are issues that Chronicles and LewRockwell.com have dealt with (if not from the same standpoint) for years: immigration, omnipotent government, and free trade.
While it can be assumed that everyone who does and will write for TAC will not agree on everything (especially the free trade issue), this publication seems more concerned with promoting debate where there was none due to the propaganda machines at National Review and the Wall Street Journal. The anti-capitalist populism that any good libertarian might fear in such a magazine is present, but not shoved down the reader’s throat, and it is clear that Buchanan wishes to attract more people to his magazine than simply those who happened to vote for him in the last election.
The founders of The American Conservative are clearly trying to create an Old Right alternative to the New Right National Review and its clones like The Weekly Standard and Commentary Magazine. New Rightist extraordinaire Bill Kristol has declared that he plans on not paying much attention to The American Conservative. Kristol edits The Weekly Standard, a magazine that loses money continually and does little more than parrot everything the Wall Street Journal and National Review have to say with added militant vigor.
Kristol’s contention is that The American Conservative is just another conservative rag in a sea of Right wing opinion mills, but this only reveals his ignorance of the history of the movement and his assumption that what has been true for a mere 47 years has always been true. The New Right had always claimed that the Cold War was unique in its struggle to preserve mankind. Now they are hoping beyond hope that it is not, since with each passing year, the intellectual bankruptcy of the New Right is becoming more apparent, and one can only hope that The American Conservative is successful in making this fact apparent to conservatives everywhere.