The Return of Non-Neocon Conservatism

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The Return of Fusionism

by Ryan McMaken

Just when you thought the neoconservatives could claim unquestioned control over the conservative movement, a little pocket of resistance erupted within the American Conservative Union. The ACU, the longtime lobbying arm of the mainstream conservative establishment has apparently had just about enough of the insults emanating from the adolescent know-it-alls of the neoconservative camp. The final straw came when David Frum, in an attempt to rid the American right of everyone who failed to agree with him on every little detail of foreign policy let loose in the pages of National Review on conservative icon Robert Novak, calling him unpatriotic and anti-Semitic. The response came from David Keene and Donald Devine, old-school activists and operatives of what they call "Reagan conservatism." Keene sprung to the defense of Novak, declaring Frum to be less than "intellectually respectable," while Devine called for an end to the big government conservatism and neo-colonialism of the neoconservatives that has now so obviously taken over the conservative movement.

For those of us with nothing better to do than read books on conservative philosophy, it is hard not to see in this exchange a revival of the old conflict between James Burnham and Frank Meyer, the central theorists of Cold War conservatism. Their names are still invoked liberally by many conservatives, although it is still puzzling why these two men should be mentioned next to each other so often when talking about a vision for the future of American conservatism. Pretty much the only thing that Burnham and Meyer could agree on was that Soviet communism was a terrible thing. Although both were willing to stop at nothing (including full-blown nuclear war) to prevent whatever they imagined the "victory" of communism to be, their reasons for hating communism, as well as their prescriptions for what should replace communist systems, differed considerably.

Today, the neoconservatives claim both these men as their mentors when appealing to mainstream conservatives, although Burnham is clearly the favorite. Some neocons of late have even taken to claiming that Burnham was in fact, more or less, the first neoconservative. This is stretching the truth a bit, since as Paul Gottfried has pointed out, Burnham lacked the neoconservative fondness for utopianism that the modern neocons draw upon so frequently. Additionally, Burnham was always rather pragmatic and grounded in the historical realities of the United States. Unlike those who claim to be his disciples, he would likely not claim to be able to export American style democracy to every corner of the globe or to bring about an end to ideological conflict among nations. Nevertheless, he did manage to come to a lot of conclusions that neocons must like. He was thoroughly Machiavellian, he supported an anti-communist Pax Americana in Europe, and he had a pronounced disdain for ordinary people. He preferred to address only the "ruling classes" whom he adroitly identified as existing in every society, even democracies. His primary problem with Communism, however, was not that it was anti-democratic, but that it destroyed the authority and stability of the nation-state, which he believed was the primary institution that gave meaning to human existence. Thus, if we look carefully, we can see that the underlying worldview of Burnham is fairly incompatible with the internationalist and democratic "end of history" that the neocons are so fond of whooping it up for, yet for the average neocon, there is still plenty to like about James Burnham.

So, we can grant Burnham to the neocons. He has been theirs ever since National Review editor John O’Sullivan resurrected him in 1990 to declare the virtues of the American pursuit of a British-style empire. Burnham was indeed a wily choice for O’Sullivan since Burnham’s unrelenting worship of power and of the "civilizing" force of the State meshed nicely with the neocon dreams of a world empire. While corrupted somewhat, the Burnham legacy lives on.

It was particularly interesting then, that in recent weeks, the shade of Burnham’s antagonist, Frank Meyer, seems to have inspired the few pockets of resistance finally cropping up against the neocons in their recent war against everyone on the right who has dared to disagree with them. The dissent emanating from the American Conservative Union is appropriate enough given that it was none other than Frank Meyer who had been a central advisor and activist for the ACU since its founding in 1964 until his death, and it was Meyer who put much of his energy into reconciling disparate groups on the American right instead of throwing them out on the street as Frum has recently attempted to absolutely no avail. As one might expect, Meyer tried to use the ACU to back up his own agenda of fusionism, a strategy that sought to unite the libertarians and traditional conservatives around an opposition to communism. Regardless of how well this actually worked at the time, this strategy now has little relevance today given the disappearance of the Soviet threat. Devine’s suggested plan, however, is a new fusionism founded not on an anti-Communist platform, but on "opposition to big government." Devine refers to Meyer as the "intellectual muscle" of the conservative movement, and identifies Meyer’s death as contributing to the rise of "national greatness" conservatism and neoconservatism. According to Devine, such grandiose thinking has obscured the real goal of the conservative movement: promoting freedom and limited government.

It should be immediately obvious, however, that even though Devine possibly intended his remarks to promote reconciliation, such a foundation for the conservative movement is absolutely unacceptable for the neoconservatives in their obsession with an expansionist foreign policy. As with both the neoconservatives and with the "New Right" as the Buckley, Meyer, Burnham gang was called in the 1950′s, any concern for rolling back the power of the government was always just tacked on the keep the support of the Old Right and libertarian remnants within the movement. Frank Meyer was the only big name who ever spent any real time or effort discussing the virtues of free markets and free association. Most conservatives of the New Right busied themselves with planning the nuclear holocaust that would eliminate half of humanity, but would take Soviet communism with it. Meyer was not immune to these delusions of victory by self-destruction, but at least while Burnham was declaring that man is too pathetic and weak to ever be truly free, Meyer — fueled by an excellent understanding of the centrality and dignity of the individual person — actually seemed to value liberty. For all his libertarian tendencies, however, Meyer was primarily an anti-communist, and through this, he was able to reconcile his libertarian thought with the anti-individualism and State-worship of Burnham and the conservatives who believed that domestic policy must always give way to foreign policy considerations, and no sacrifice of liberty was ever too much.

Some conservatives made efforts at truly protecting human liberty, but they rarely got far. When Meyer came out in opposition to the draft in 1967 with Russell Kirk, Barry Goldwater, and Milton Friedman, Burnham denounced them by pointing out that leftists and pacifists also opposed the draft, ergo, Meyer was supporting the enemies of conservatism and the war against communism. Freedom never had a chance. How proud Burnham would be today of the neocons who incessantly rely on pointing out that the allegedly unpatriotic conservatives happen to agree with some leftists on the matter of war in Iraq. Then as now, the destruction of foreign governments and political advantage was the real goal, not the liberty of Americans. Conservatives had to decide whether it was men who gave the State meaning, or if it was the State that gave men meaning. Unfortunately, it was the latter than often won out.

One could go on and on about how the stated line of fighting big government was nothing but s sideshow in the conservative movement after the Second World War, but now that even the ACU is willing to say that the movement’s been hijacked by big government conservatives, it’s not really all that necessary anymore. Devine pulls no punches in describing the "domestic policy drift" to the left since the neocons took over, and he notes that their flexibility on welfare has been ever present as long as they have gotten their way on pursuing empire. Real conservatism, Devine claims, was always based on limiting government. Well, even if it wasn’t true in the past, now is as good a time as any to revitalize what Murray Rothbard called "the party of liberty." The first order of business, of course, would have to be to get rid of the neoconservatives and all their fondness for wars, taxes, spending, and mindless jingoism.

Devine calls for "utilizing libertarian means for traditionalist ends." These ends, apparently, are those of "returning power to states, communities, and the people rather than support the lesser-evil big government solution." It’s difficult to argue with an agenda like that, but its also hard to imagine an agenda that could possibly be any more unlike the agenda that is currently being pursued by the Republican party and the "conservative" media like National Review, Fox News, and the Weekly Standard. Devine says the ACU recognizes this and would like to put a stop to it. If this were to actually happen, it would finally be the realization of what so many of us have been hoping for since the end of the Cold War — An American right devoted to actually increasing freedom instead of destroying it in the name of whatever crusade captures the public imagination at any given time. I wish Mr. Devine the best of luck. He’s going to need it when everyone at the ACU discovers in the pages of National Review that they are all now unpatriotic anti-Semites. At least then they’ll be in good company.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] writes from Colorado. His personal web site can be found here.

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