It took only a few days after the rout of the Republicans in their battle to drive Bill Clinton from office for the leaders of the Beltway Right to decide that the war was over and the only thing left to do was announce surrender. Four days after the Senate “acquitted” the President of the two charges on which he had been impeached, the grand marshal of the Beltway Right himself, Paul Weyrich, seemed ready to limp toward Appomattox. In a letter privately circulated to friends and allies, Mr. Weyrich declared that the political conservatism he has led since the 1970’s has been a failure and that the premises on which it was founded are now (if they had not always been) wrong. The news that Mr. Weyrich had given up was in fact somewhat exaggerated, but that was the conclusion to which the left and not a few on the right immediately leapt, and frankly there was not very much in Mr. Weyrich’s letter to contradict it.
Paul Weyrich, of course, was a major founder and leader of the “New Right” of the 1970’s, a movement that sought to differentiate itself from the “Old Right” by devising a populist political strategy, invoking explicit moral and religious issues, shunning (or at least de-emphasizing) philosophical rigor and sophistication, and insisting that political victory was not only possible but also necessary and sufficient for the achievement of conservative goals.
Under Mr. Weyrich’s direction or with his collaboration, the New Right actually did accomplish a good deal more, on a practical political level and for a brief time, than the right associated with Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, and the “conservative intellectual movement” had in previous decades. Yet the 15 minutes of fame the New Right enjoyed came to an end rather more quickly than most of its apostles expected and certainly sooner than they wanted.
The main problem with the New Right, as with most political movements that bark their contempt for serious thought, was its intellectual shallowness. I distinctly recall, in the late 1970’s, talking to a young lady closely associated with the New Right who had recently returned from her first visit to the Philadelphia Society, at that time one of the more intellectually interesting organizations of the Old Right. She told me she had enjoyed the visit and meeting the nice people there, but she didn’t understand the point of “sitting around talking about whether Edmund Burke would have agreed with Thomas Aquinas and that sort of stuff.”
No, indeed, the New Right had no time for such idle froth as Burke and Aquinas. Its leaders were made of sterner stuff than the limp-wristed eggheads who were always gushing quotations from dead Greek philosophers. There were congressional and presidential elections to win, policies to implement, and legislation to pass, and, as one prominent New Right leader announced publicly soon afterward, “There’ll be time enough for reading books when we’re all in jail.”
One result of the New Right’s contempt for intellectualism, of course, was that neither its leaders nor its followers ever thought through the slogans and truisms they spouted well enough to understand that they often were implicitly jettisoning or undercutting other ideas of the right or that their own pronouncements might soon become obstacles to fulfilling other, longer-term goals and political and cultural objectives. Another result, arising from the first, was that the whole New Right movement was rather quickly captured by the neoconservatives, at least insofar as the latter wished to absorb it. Lacking the intellectual foundations for perceiving, let alone resisting, the far less radical ideas of neoconservatism and scornful of anyone who suggested laying such foundations, the New Right, by the mid-1980’s, had ceased to exist as a distinct political movement. In 1984, when Irving Kristol’s manifesto of neoconservatism, Reflections of a Neoconservative, was published, it was Mr. Weyrich himself who, reviewing it in the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review, hailed the book as “a vital moral force in America” and crowed that several passages “come closer to a general statement of what some in the New Right strain of conservatism believe than anything else in popular print.” If there was any one broker of the marriage of the New Right with neoconservatism, it was Mr. Weyrich himself.
Today, after 15 years of neoconservative dominance of almost the whole of the American right, Mr. Weyrich bellies up to the bar to inform us that the war is over and “we” lost. The reason “we” lost, he tells us in his February letter,
is that politics itself has failed. And politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture. The culture we are living in becomes an ever-wider sewer. In truth, I think we are caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.
Whether “we” have lost or not, however, Mr. Weyrich is in large part correct in what he says about the relationship of culture and politics, and indeed no magazine has drummed that message more than Chronicles. In 1991,1 wrote in this magazine that “in the absence of a significant cultural base,” conservative political efforts “were bound to fail.” I do not quote this passage to prove that I was right while Mr. Weyrich was wrong (in fact, Mr. Weyrich was talking about the importance of “cultural conservatism” in the late 1980’s) but mainly to show that the failure of the right he now laments and acknowledges was predictable years before it actually occurred. Perhaps (indeed, probably) Mr. Weyrich himself saw or was beginning to see that some time before he wrote his letter last February, but most others did not, and many still don’t. Some conservatives even continue to imagine that their “movement” has actually won. As Paul Gottfried has written, if this is “victory,” I really don’t want to see what defeat is like.
I have no disagreement with Mr. Weyrich, then, in his conclusion that the right has lost and that it lost because it failed to find or create an adequate cultural base for political success. I would perhaps go further than he and suggest that the reason it has failed to do so is that (partly through Mr. Weyrich’s help) the right fell under the control of neoconservatism, and neoconservatism has never been willing to break with the dominant culture definitively or to ally itself without reservation to the authentic American culture that the super-culture dominates and seeks to destroy. Hence, any suggestion of cultural and political radicalism by the Old Right or the New toward the goals of uprooting the dominant culture has been greeted by the neoconservatives as “extremist,” “reactionary,” “racist,” “antisemitic,” or “anti-American.” That is how they greeted Chronicles, as well as Pat Buchanan in the 1980’s and 90’s. That is also how they greeted their own colleague Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the symposium his magazine First Things published in 1996 on the “end of democracy,” and, not surprisingly, that is how they greeted Mr. Weyrich’s letter last February.
Thus Wall Street Journal neocon columnist Paul Gigot, in a column entitled “New Right Now Sounds Like Old Left,” calls Mr. Weyrich’s letter “anti- American” for suggesting that American culture is corrupt and for “blaming America first.” When neocons talk about “America,” what they mean is the soft managerial regime that has evolved since the New Deal, what the late Murray Rothbard called the “welfare-warfare state,” and when they compare people on the right to the “Old Left” (the same charge was made against Chronicles and later Pat Buchanan), they mean that the right is as anti-American as George McGovern and Ramsey Clark. While they may dislike or have some reservations about the exact contours and content of the next metamorphosis of the managerial state into the New World Order, neoconservatives generally have much more of a problem with radicals of the right working to reverse the direction of history’ than with forces of the left pushing history “forward.”
Mr. Weyrich, however, appears to think that political conservatism has failed not because it has neglected the authentic American culture but because that culture itself is corrupt or has withered. He now asserts that “I do not believe that a majority’ of Americans actually shares our values” and that “if there really were a moral majority out there. Bill Clinton would have been driven out of office months ago.” But the failure to dump Clinton proves very little, and there are several other reasons why it occurred. Mr. Weyrich himself acknowledges one—”the lack of political will on the part of Republicans”—but there are others: the inability of the “moral majority” (if that’s the right term for it) to mobilize its political will in a society where national political expression has become largely a monopoly of the dominant culture; the fact that many Americans, while not approving of Mr. Clinton’s sex life, believe he has been a good President who has kept the economy strong; and lastly, the failure of the self-proclaimed opposition to Mr. Clinton—the conservative movement—to persuade most Americans that the President should be dumped.
Two reflections emerge from considering Mr. Weyrich’s lamentations about the Waterloo of the right. In the first place, almost every complaint he lodges against what he thinks is the moral wreckage of American society, the “ever-wider sewer” in which he seems to think most Americans are wallowing, is in fact a complaint against the dominant culture. “Even now,” he writes, entirely truthfully,
for the first time in their lives, people have to be afraid of what they say. This has never been true in the history of our country. Yet today, if you say the “wrong thing,” you suddenly have legal problems, political problems, you might even lose your job or be expelled from college. Certain topics are forbidden. You can’t approach the truth about a lot of different subjects. If you do, you are immediately branded as “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” “insensitive,” or “judgmental.”
But as correct as this passage is, it is still a complaint against the dominant culture, not the traditional one. People get fired for expressing forbidden thoughts in universities, corporations, TV networks, and newspapers, but not at locally ov^’ned and operated farms, schools, and businesses. Mr. Weyrich does not cite a single instance to support his claim that “Americans have adopted in large measure the MTV culture that we so valiantly opposed just a few years ago.”
Secondly, one should also reflect that, among the alternative reasons suggested above for the failure to dump Clinton, the most important have to do simply with the failure of the political right. The “majority,” whether moral or not, never does much of anything; elites — minorities—always rule, and this is as true of organized conservatism as of organized socialism and communism. The elite of organized conservatism in the United States for the last 20 years has been the neoconservative-dominated “conservative movement,” in which Mr. Weyrich and his New Rightists were captains, and when he complains that “Americans have adopted the MTV culture” and ceased to be moral, one has to suspect that the problem is not that the majority of Americans have ceased to be moral but that the majority just doesn’t pay much attention to Paul Weyrich and the “movement” he helped create. The majority has paid little attention to the movement’s insistence that it was Ronald Reagan, not Bill Clinton, who fixed the economy and destroyed communism so that we no longer have to go to war against it; the majority has paid little attention to the concoction of conspiracy theories, pornographic speculation, and thinly masked partisan gloating that has characterized the clumsy conservative crusade against Mr. Clinton; and the majority has displayed very little interest in submitting to the political leadership of the “conservative movement” or anyone associated with it. The majority, to put it quite bluntly, pays no attention whatsoever to organized conservatism, and it does not do so for a very good reason: The kind of conservatism that has come to prevail in the United States over the last generation—neoconservatives and their unemployable children and in-laws, the Beltway Right, and the flying squadrons of semi-literate “New Right bumpkins—has virtually nothing to say worth paying attention to.
If the campaign to dump Bill Clinton is a flop, that’s too bad, but the nation will survive it. What the nation cannot survive is a politics without a right—at least a right in opposition but, one would hope, also a right that is able to become the dominant force in national politics and culture. Mr. Weyrich is correct that today the nation doesn’t have a right of that kind and that the one it does have is a total and absolute dud. He’s not correct that the absence or failure of the right is the fault of the American majority or proof of the collapse of the real American culture: It’s the fault of the right itself and of the course on which the organized right has been traveling for the last decade. Mr. Weyrich himself helped place it on that course. If he has now learned how to redirect it onto a more fruitful one, he will have something useful to tell us in the future.