“All great peoples are conservative; slow to believe in novelties; patient of much error in actualities; deeply and forever certain of the greatness that is in law, in custom once solemnly established, and now no longer recognized as just and final.”
—Thomas Carlyle

As the Clintons’ socialist steamroller grinds out new programs, new entitlements, higher taxes, more regulation, and ever larger deficits, conservatives are left scratching their scalps: How is it that, after recapturing the White House and holding executive power for more than a decade, conservatives failed to make a dent in the explosive growth of Big Government and that, after a dozen years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the power of the federal government to invade nearly every aspect of our lives through confiscatory taxation, burgeoning social welfare schemes, and invasive regulation is greater than ever? Libertarian Justin Raimondo argues that, unless conservatives are willing to confront the ghosts of their intellectual past, they will fail to understand just where their movement went astray. With the wreckage of the failed Bush presidency littering the political landscape, it cannot be said that there exists today a discrete entity deserving of the appellation “conservative movement.” Conservatives are united in nothing, not even in the traditional credo of limited government, and their ranks are riven by internecine warfare as vicious as that which currently bathes the hapless Balkans in blood.

Raimondo, a Media Fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, argues that the causes of the conservative movement’s ignominious failure are internal, to be found in successive “invasions” of the Old Right from the left—invasions that so co-opted and corrupted the movement that it ceased to be truly conservative in any fundamental sense. These intrusions altered the ideology of the conservative movement, while preserving its form.

In Raimondo’s analysis, the Old Right—typified by such stalwarts as the Saturday Evening Post‘s Garet Garrett, John T. Flynn, Senator Robert A. Taft, H.L. Mencken, A.J. Nock, and FDR’s bêtes noires, Colonel Robert McCormick and his Chicago Tribune—espoused values of individualism, anti-statism, laissez-faire, and libertarianism at home and isolationism and a wariness of foreign entanglements abroad. The first invasion of these ranks, Raimondo suggests, issued from the Trotskyite left. These new recruits, demoralized by the failures and barbarity of Stalinist Marxism, migrated to the Old Right, whose anticommunism was attractive to them; they soon set about rearranging the furniture in their new home. This trend, the first of three invasions of the Old Right roughly following generational lines, began late in the 19?0’s—the “Red Decade”—and culminated in the mid-50’s. Led by ex-Trotskyite James Burnham and William F. Buckley’s National Review (its early masthead heavily weighted with erstwhile communists), the New Right retained the globalist outlook of its Marxian ancestry as it preemptively sacrificed the fight against the rise of the total state—which the Old Right had waged so gallantly against the New Deal—on behalf of the Manichean struggle against international communism.

The results were catastrophic for the conservative movement, which, cut from its origins, was transmogrified into something unrecognizable. Having identified the fight against communism as the transcendent imperative, the New Right willfully acquiesced in the growth of the omnicompetent, custodial social welfare state. Its homage to limited government, defined by Mencken as “one which barely escapes being no government at all,” continued to receive casual lip service, but little else: everything, even liberty itself, became expendable in the eschatological contest with communism. Indeed, a collectivist state with imperialist pretensions and an economy fixed permanently on a war footing were precisely what was needed in the apocalyptic fight to the death with Sino-Soviet communism.

The second invasion of conservative territory came in the 1960’s and 70’s, as yet another gang of disaffected Marxists joined up. The so-called neoconservatives, characterized by such figures as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, had perhaps forsaken their faith in socialism and discovered that they felt more at home in National Review’ than in Ramparts. But they retained a residual distaste for capitalism and evinced a positive infatuation with the New Deal and the Europeanized social-welfare state it had produced. These are the oxymoronic “big-government conservatives” who in the 80’s coalesced into a powerful clique within the conservative movement. The neoconservatives are quite willing—even eager—to use conservative means to achieve liberal ends, and their outlook was—and remains—global and imperial. It is this faction of the conservative wing that spouts globaloney about a Pax Americana, the “end of history,” the unipolar superpower world, the triumph of the managerial revolution, and the messianic mission to preserve and protect “democracy” from Kuwait to Somalia to Haiti.

Raimondo argues persuasively (at least for me) that with the co-optation and corruption of the right the American political dialogue has tilted decisively, perhaps fatally, in favor of statism. Indeed, the “dialogue” has become a monologue. What remains of contemporary conservatism, save conservation of the social welfare advances enacted by the Democratic Party’s permanent legislative majority? Most conservatives holding (and desperate to retain) coveted positions of power and privilege have swallowed the notion that the American state is and should be no different from its European cousins: provider, protector, and policeman not only of its own crime-ridden streets and growing underclass of welfare dependents but of “democracy” worldwide. Few, if any, conservatives today speak of rolling back the welfare state. They merely quibble about who is able to run it more efficiently. The conservative movement, then, is about power—nothing else—and control of the apparat. It is a kind of mutated “me-too” conservatism, a decaffeinated Clintonism. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the conservative response to the Clintons’ national health plan, a federal power grab unequaled since FDR’s National Recovery Administration. Rather than opposing the monstrosity philosophically and on principle as “Marxism by the drink” (in P.J. O’Rourke’s delicious phrase), the Republicrats in Congress have ginned up their own versions of socialism-lite.

Is there reason for hope? Raimondo thinks there is, though I am less optimistic. He believes that the collapse of communism, the end of the Cold War, and the rise of a “new” Old Right (the so-called paleoconservatives grouped around Pat Buchanan) base combined to throw the larger conservative movement into a period of angst and introspection, possibly even renewal. Conservatives must decide what they stand for, as well as against, and that cannot be what the statist, internationalist Democrats approve of. And so Raimondo’s book takes on the character of a manifesto, a ringing call to arms for paleoconservatives and libertarians to join in a new populist crusade, not only to take back the conservative movement and restore it to its lost heritage but to return the country to its traditional republican principles. The Buchanan candidacy was, Raimondo believes, the opening volley in the battle. It is past time, he insists, for movement conservatives to rediscover the lost legacy of the Old Right’s American nationalism, which was antistatist and anti-interventionist and which proudly reveled in American exceptionalism.

Will the long-suffering middle class rise up against its tormentors, as Raimondo believes? Will a beleaguered people rebel against the crushing weight of statism, redistributive taxation, bureaucratic elitism, and global empire that is slowly crushing it underfoot? Perhaps, but sheep make poor revolutionaries. The genius of the Yankee socialism—or fascism, depending on one’s analysis—that has overtaken America is that it has democratized the dole through a monstrous, interlocking network of government handouts and entitlements. The vast majority of Americans, including many in the middle class, now stand at the receiving end of the Great National Nanny’s philanthropy. And, as Caret Garrett observed, habits of dependence are much easier to form than to break.

The rift in the conservative movement, the widening gulf between neocons and paleocons, is by now widely recognized. The narrative treatment of that history is not what sets Raimondo’s work apart from other post mortems of the conservative movement in the aftermath of Bill Clinton’s ascension to the presidency (the idea that George Bush should have been taken seriously as the leader of anything like a “conservative party” is patently absurd); the conservative crack-up has been well-chronicled, even as skirmish lines have been drawn and artillery unlimbered. Rather, the strength of his work is to be found in his sympathetic, though scarcely uncritical, portraits of the “forgotten” warriors of the Old Right and his inescapable conclusion that contemporary conservatism, as it is known and practiced in the precincts of power, bears scant resemblance to its progenitor. 


[Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, by Justin Raimondo (Burlingame, California: Center for Libertarian Studies) 289 pp., $17.95]