The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Paul Gottfried - 05/18/12

The term “paleoconservative” has been applied to more than one conservative grouping, from the pre–World War II opposition to the New Deal and the formation of an American welfare state to current critics on the right of the neoconservatives. Most often the term pertains to post–World War II conservatives centered on National Review and Modern Age and concerned with reconciling economic and political liberty with traditional social and religious values. Paleoconservatives did not agree on all philosophical and policy questions, as witnessed by the bitter, prolonged debates between Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk, but they do appear, in retrospect, to have shared a number of sentiments and principles. Among these was skepticism about democracy and equality and a belief in freedom, both personal and corporate, coupled with respect for social authority.

Most paleoconservatives backed an active American role in combating communism and the Soviet Union as its most menacing armed advocate, but had little patience for big government and nonmilitary foreign aid. They advocated victory over communism for two reasons: because they viewed the communists as irreconcilably hostile to both traditional Western order and political liberty, and because they saw the communists as the extension of a violent revolutionary impetus going back to the French Revolution and now threatening the United States and the rest of the Western world. Though not all were Catholic, most paleo-conservatives expressed respect for the Catholic Church. They praised it as a moral bulwark against communism and as an institution coextensive with and long dominant over Western civilization.

Paleoconservative becomes a conceptual and political counterpoint to neoconservative in The Conservative Movement by Thomas Fleming and Paul Gottfried (1988). Here the term no longer refers merely to conservative traditionalists of the 1950s and 1960s, e.g., Southern Agrarians, Catholic anticommunists associated with National Review, and Taft Republicans who rallied to the Cold War. Instead, the term is now applied to embattled conservatives who opposed the growing influence of anticommunist New Deal Democrats on the Reagan presidency and on the conservative movement of the 1980s. Some of these paleoconservatives—e.g., Russell Kirk, Thomas Molnar, Stephen Tonsor, George Carey, Forrest McDonald, George Panichas, and Robert Nisbet—were clearly among the traditionalists of the postwar conservative movement; others—e.g., Claes Ryn, Samuel T. Francis, Clyde Wilson, and Thomas Fleming—were too young to have belonged to that generation, though they were shaped by it. In contradistinction to first-generation paleoconservatives, this second generation is less Catholic in its point of reference. It is also more open to the social sciences and sociobiology and less preoccupied with the self-described Left than with the neoconservatives. Unlike the traditionalists of the 1960s, who supported Barry Goldwater, the new paleoconservatives speak about a return to the anti-interventionism of Robert Taft, a political position now defended principally by Patrick J. Buchanan. They have also reached out to libertarians who share their disdain for the “welfare-warfare state.”

Since 1989 paleoconservatives have been eager to abandon anticommunism as an issue. The waning of the Cold War and neo-isolationism are certainly factors here; but equally important is the perception among paleoconservatives that anticommunist enthusiasm has benefited their neo-conservative detractors. The centrality of fighting Soviet and communist aggression, it is believed, forced an earlier generation of conservatives to make their peace with the welfare state. Paleoconservatives blame the same anticommunist fixation for the loss of the conservative movement to anticommunist welfare-staters, exemplified by figures such as Norman Podhoretz and Ben Wattenberg.

In the present conservative wars, National Review, which played a critical role in the founding of postwar conservatism, has leaned unmistakably toward the neoconser-vatives. This split has allowed the paleocon-servatives to move more daringly toward new policy positions without the baggage of Cold War politics. It has also encouraged paleo-conservatives to take their bearings not from postwar conservatism but from the pre–World War II, anti–New Deal Right. What has been called the “conservative crackup” has actually reproduced almost exactly the political alignments of the 1930s, which pitted pristine New Dealers (neoconservatives) against anti–New Deal Republicans (paleo-conservatives). It has also brought forth (unsubstantiated) charges of anti-Semitism against the paleoconservatives from their pro-Zionist neoconservative opposition. The paleoconservative consensus against Third World immigration is a further source of dissension. Neoconservatives, who are overwhelmingly pro-immigration, have at times accused their rivals on the Right of xenophobia as well as anti-Semitism. In fact, there are Jews and Christians in both camps, and Middle Eastern politics is by no means the only point of contention between them. More basic to the split are opposing attitudes about domestic equality and the exportabil-ity of democracy.

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