Young Men of the Old Right

The Kids Are All Right

by Daniel McCarthy by Daniel McCarthy

History took a detour in the late 1940s and early 1950s, putting American politics on a path that would lead to such non-events as the Clinton-Dole and Bush-Gore match-ups. The Old Right, "isolationist" and individualist, was routed, its ideals marginalized, its leading figures dead or incapacitated. Nock had died in u201845; Robert Taft followed him to the grave in ’53. A stroke ended Mencken’s career in ’49 and another would fell Frank Chodorov in ’61. For the next forty-odd years, Cold War and welfare state defined Left and Right alike. Liberals were a little less enthusiastic about the Cold War, conservatives about the welfare state — but both were part of an overarching consensus.

As the Old Right faded a younger and very different Right took its place, led by a twenty-something Yale graduate named William F. Buckley, Jr. Early on, he, like Nock or Chodorov, styled himself an individualist. But his views parted from theirs on foreign policy and indeed on the scope of State power at home, too. Around young Buckley and the magazine he founded, National Review, the new conservative movement coalesced — and later calcified.

Today Buckley is 78. He has given up public speaking, ended his long-running public television series, and, most recently, divested control of National Review. The movement he leaves behind has the kind of organization and political power that the Old Right never had — and never wanted. But the ex-Leftists and their offspring who now control establishment conservatism fear for the future after Buckley, because they find their authority challenged by a rising generation of antiwar, independently minded non-neoconservatives. Something like the Old Right is making a comeback.

At first glance there’s little cause for optimism in David Kirkpatrick’s recent New York Times profile of several rising stars of post-Buckley conservatism. Readers may find themselves wondering whatever happened to principle, and anti-statist or limited-government principle in particular. David Weigel, one of our Young Turks, writes for Reason magazine — but supports UN-sponsored condom giveaways in the Third World, funded, inevitably, by U.S. taxpayers. Yet Weigel looks like Murray Rothbard next to Eric Cohen, who rides the neocon gravy train to such destinations as the Weekly Standard and the President’s Council on Bioethics. Cohen holds a decidedly progressive view of "conservatism": "The conservative project," he says, "is making the case for progress abroad while confronting the dilemmas of progress at home…"

Progress abroad means war, of course, something about which another of Kirkpatrick’s subjects, Sarah Bramwell, seems ambivalent. She’s quoted telling a recent Philadelphia Society meeting, "Many conservatives especially since Sept. 11, believe that a major, if not the major, calling of conservatives today is to articulate and defend a certain brand of international grand strategy….I believe this view to be not only mistaken, but quite possibly harmful to the conservative movement." But according to Kirkpatrick, Mrs. Bramwell supports the Iraq War anyway. It’s an old story: movement conservatives have often decried foreign-policy interventionism in the abstract, only to support every particular war waged by a Republican administration.

But hold on — maybe there’s something more going on here. Look at how Kirkpatrick’s article has been denounced by the usual neocon suspects, from Roger Kimball to Jonah Goldberg. They don’t like what they’re hearing about the next generation. Goldberg, for example, professes to be perplexed that Kirkpatrick would so much as suggest that young conservatives harbor any doubts about the wisdom of world empire — "where Kirkpatrick got the notion that young conservatives are especially plagued with doubt about the justification of the war is beyond me," he writes.

Probably Kirkpatrick, a real reporter, got that impression from talking to young conservatives and doing a bit of research. He spoke to me, for one thing, but I didn’t exactly plant the idea in his head — in fact, I downplayed the notion. Most young conservatives are not antiwar or at all critical of Bush. But a surprising number are — especially among the smartest and most promising members of the post-Buckley Right.

Consider the emerging cohort of brilliant — nothing short of that will do — and principled young conservative journalists who have written critically about the Iraq War and related issues. These might be called the young paleos, although that’s more to set them apart from the neocons than to suggest they are a rigid movement in their own right. These writers, ranging in age from the early-20s to early-30s, don’t all agree with one another — not by a nautical mile — but all have roots that stretch back, one way or another, to pre-Rupert Murdoch, and in some cases even pre-Buckley, conservatisms.

There’s Tim Carney, for one, 25-year-old Wunderkind reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report and a frequent contributor to the magazine for which I work, The American Conservative. He hasn’t been afraid to report hard truths about controversial subjects, noting in the pages of TAC, for example, the disjunction between the Republican Party’s pro-life base and it’s pro-choice top-dollar donors. He doesn’t shrink from criticizing big business when it gets in bed with government, either, a subject he’ll be writing much more about in the future. Carney had the foresight and backbone to oppose the Iraq misadventure from the start.

Daniel Flynn is a few years older than Carney and a few years ahead of him in the publishing game: this October his second book, Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall For Stupid Ideas, hits the shelves. The book parses the follies not only of the postmodernist Left and various liberal political causes (animal rights, Alger Hiss) but, bravely, also puts Struassians and neoconservatives under a critical lens. He calls them "the Right’s Deconstructionists" and pillories their "esoteric reading" of intelligence regarding Iraq’s WMDs.

Thomas Woods, assistant professor of history at Suffolk Community College and author of The Church Confronts Modernity, is only in his early 30s but has already made a name for himself as both historian and thoughtful traditionalist Catholic. He, and his stand against the Iraq War, are familiar to LRC readers. (And elsewhere, too, such as in The American Conservative and Modern Age, Woods has written about the Progressive roots of the neocon jihad for global democracy.) Next out are his popular Politically Incorrect Guide to American History and a scholarly book on economics and the Catholic Church.

Also familiar to readers of LRC is Marcus Epstein, just 21 and still an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary. His journalism here, in print, and at provides only the first glimpse of what he’s likely to accomplish in the future. He’s an especially insightful student of the history of the Old Right (see his "Murray Rothbard on Sen. Joe McCarthy"). And, of course, he’s given apologists for Bush’s war an occasional case of indigestion.

These four are just a few of the most notable journeyman conservatives who’ve stood on principle and defied the neoconservative party-line on war and foreign policy. Add to them such twenty-something libertarian critics of the Iraq-attack as’s Matthew Barganier and LRC talents like (to name just a few) J.H. Huebert, Bob Murphy, and Bill Barnwell, and you start to get a sense of the strengths arrayed by the young men of the Old Right.

Where are the youthful neocons comparable to these writers — and who reads them? To be sure, there’s no shortage of right-wing social democrats at the undergraduate level in most major universities; certainly there are legions of Bushie-types. But a lot of them outgrow it pretty quickly, especially after being exposed to principled arguments. Some of them find Rothbard and attend Mises University; others read Russell Kirk and, if they actually absorb what he says, find that neocon Jacobinism is about as antithetical to Kirk’s traditionalism as anything can be. Those students who venture beyond talk-radio and the quickie books put out by the usual cast of blabbermouths and pundettes find a conservatism that cannot be easily reconciled with global empire.

Not all the young people who come to such conclusions can afford to say so, however. Kirkpatrick quotes me as saying that the conservative movement needs to get back to the time before it was a movement — back to principle and away from all the sinecures and employment agencies masquerading as think-tanks and Beltway publications. This, of course, is more easily said than done, especially where college or just-out-of-college conservatives are concerned. They have to make a living, after all; and for those who want to fight in the ideological trenches as a career there are not too many alternatives beyond the mainstream movement. You risk your job if you’re a young antiwar conservative and less than enthusiastic about Bush. I’ve heard from such people: they are a silent minority. They don’t abandon their beliefs, and when appropriate they speak out. But, understandably, they don’t try to attract undue attention.

Perhaps that accounts in part for why Jonah Goldberg thinks only "[m]aybe one out of fifty conservative kids I’ve met at YAF or C-PAC conferences or on campuses was even moderately against the war." Not that the pep rallies Goldberg is talking about would be the kind of places you’d expect to find thoughtful criticism. But even then, you might be surprised. Who’s the most popular speaker on the campus-conservative lecture circuit — not the best known or highest paid but, by most accounts, the most electrifying and inspiring?

The answer is Reginald Jones, a hip-hop musician and entertainment guru who was voted best speaker at YAF’s 1999 summer conference. Jones opposed the Iraq venture — he’s a principled opponent of all foreign-policy adventurism, in fact — and is not afraid to say so. His popularity with college conservatives is hard to overestimate: at one CPAC he gave a closed-door talk to one of the major right-wing youth groups and, after excoriating the socialism of the Left, went right on to blast "conservative" warmongering in equally firm terms. Young conservatives were coming up to him in throngs afterwards to hear more; he had to host an informal bull session later that night just to meet the demand. Not a party, not the kind of booze-fest that usually attracts college cons (and students generally), but an impromptu seminar on the foreign-policy follies.

Kirkpatrick’s article rightly suggests that there’s considerable variation to be found among young conservatives on questions of war and foreign policy. He’s right, too, that the young, post-Buckley Right is grappling with questions of definition. For this as well Kirkpatrick has earned the ire of the neos; both Goldberg and Roger Kimball try to quash this subject by saying that it’s really a non-issue: conservatives have always debated such things. Yes, but they have not always debated them in the kind of political climate that exists today, with the Cold War ended and lines of battle clearly drawn between neocons and everybody else. It’s heresy, though, even to think that the end of the Cold War should entail a re-examination of a movement that for thirty-five years had been dominated by Cold Warriors.

And so Kimball fumes about Kirkpatrick’s "subtext" and his alleged insinuating of "a sense of confusion and weariness among conservatives in the post-Soviet era." The trouble with this is that there is no such subtext, it’s right there in the text itself, not only coming from Kirkpatrick’s summary but also in the form of verbatim quotes from William F. Buckley ("The sweep of the Soviet challenge was what I call a harnessing bias, and now that harness has come apart") and Sarah Bramwell ("Modern American conservatism began in an effort to do two things: defeat Communism and roll back creeping socialism….The first was obviated by our success, the latter by our failure. So what is left of conservatism?"). Did Kirkpatrick and "his masters at 29 West 43rd Street" put Buckley and Bramwell up to saying these scurrilous things, or does Kimball set a new standard for what Richard Hofstatder called the paranoid style in American politics? Yes, it’s always liberal media bias, even when conservatives say it.

Kirkpatrick does make a couple of errors, however, and for those of us who are not-neos the real picture is better than it might have seemed. Caleb Stegall of the New Pantagruel website says that he does not, in fact, support government social programs (scroll down, and note, by the way, that they don’t seem to be too hot for the Iraq War — see their challenge to National Review, too). For my part, I’m bemused by Kirkpatrick’s suggestion that I "turned against" President Bush — something that’s hardly possible, since I was never for him in the first place. I certainly did not vote for him in 2000.

As great as is the shame that Bush and his cronies, inside and out of the government, have brought down upon anyone who identifies himself as being in any way conservative or, more generally, on the Right, these are good days to be young and non-Leftist. The distorting pressures of the Cold War have lifted, clarifying the differences between the partisan hacks and seekers after political power on the one hand, and principled men and women on the other. A real opposition to statism in both its welfarist and militarist guises is resurgent and it finds itself in a target-rich environment full of follies to lampoon, lambaste, and expose. Best of all, the market for new institutions and new thinkers to replace those of the last century’s ideological consensus is real and growing, and this demand is one that the young, returning Old Right is uniquely well suited to meet.