“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 long recognized as just and final.”

—Thomas Carlyle

Both Justin Raimondo’s Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement and Joseph Lowndes’ From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism tell stories that the mainstream conservative movement, exemplified by National Review and The Weekly Standard, does not want told.  Raimondo’s book focuses on the men and women who opposed both the New Deal and America’s entry into World War II, while Lowndes charts how former Dixiecrats were assiduously courted by an earlier incarnation of National Review and helped Barry Goldwater win the Republican nomination, and Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, the presidency.  Both isolationists and traditional Southern conservatives are deeply embarrassing to the current tenders of the conservative flame; indeed, their less-educated acolytes who swarm about the internet most likely do not even know that serious men of the right ever opposed FDR’s drive to war or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of civil rights, believing instead that such opposition must have come from the “liberal fascists” of Jonah Goldberg’s imagination.

That is where the similarity between the two books ends.  Raimondo’s book has been reissued by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, with a valuable new introduction by George Carey and incisive, scholarly essays by Scott P. Richert and David Gordon, because it is a modern classic: Raimondo tells his story in clear, readable prose, with real understanding of and sympathy for his subjects.  Lowndes, by contrast, makes no effort to understand how most Southerners once came to hold views he despises, and his thoroughgoing leftism cannot be obscured by his sometimes jargon-laden text.

To give Lowndes his due, he does prove his central point: Southern support was indispensable to the electoral triumph of modern American conservatism, and that support was won by conservative opposition to at least some aspects of the civil-rights movement.  The first tentative steps toward the future fusion of Southern conservatives with the GOP began with opposition by Republicans and Southern Democrats to FDR’s Federal Employment Practices Commission, which would have barred racial discrimination by any defense contractor.  By the early 50’s, Robert Taft was suggesting to Eisenhower that he make Harry Byrd, the Democratic senator from Virginia who advocated “massive resistance” to school integration in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, his treasury secretary.  In 1957, conservative activist and legal scholar Clarence Manion approached Arkansas Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus, famous for his opposition to Brown, to urge him to seek the White House, an effort that became moot when Barry Goldwater made clear that Brown should “not be enforced by arms” because it was “not based on law.”  Although supportive of voting rights for Southern blacks, Goldwater opposed government-mandated integration and, in a speech written by William Rehnquist, denounced what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it violated freedom of association: “Our aim is neither to establish a segregated society nor to establish an integrated society as such.  It is to preserve a free society.”  Goldwater’s opposition to federal civil-rights legislation helped him become the first Republican candidate since Reconstruction to win Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia, presaging the eventual Republican conquest of the entire South.

Lowndes also makes clear that it wasn’t only Republican politicians who were seeking Southern support based on opposition to federal civil-rights legislation; conservative intellectuals did so as well.  As William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote in National Review in 1957, in an unsigned editorial,

The central question that emerges is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in the areas in which it does not predominate numerically.  The sobering answer is Yes . . . because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

NR opened its pages to segregationists like Virginia newspaperman James Jackson Kilpatrick and Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge, as well as such Southern scholars as Richard Weaver, who, according to Lowndes,

invested the South with the quality of being the most anti-liberal region of the country, because of its commitment to the preservation of history, “principles of exclusion,” and rigid hierarchies.

Now, over five decades after these sentiments appeared in NR, it is clear that such principles no longer animate the South, and it is only permissible to remember that they once did if the South is being castigated.  Lowndes begins his book with the story of Trent Lott, who made the mistake of saying, during a celebration of Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday,

When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him.  We’re proud of it.  And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all those problems over these years, either.

As Lowndes makes clear, Thurmond was instrumental in the rise of the GOP throughout the South, backing Goldwater in 1964 and helping Nixon win the presidency and fend off George Wallace’s challenge in 1968.  The Republicans’ great debt to Thurmond did not protect Lott from the firestorm of controversy that followed his remarks, with neoconservatives like Jonah Goldberg and Charles Krauthammer rushing to denounce him, President Bush declaring that “Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country,” and Lott eventually resigning as Senate majority leader.  Three years later, GOP chairman Ken Mehlman went to the NAACP convention to apologize for the party’s Southern strategy of the 50’s and 60’s.  Lott’s defenders were few, as were critics of Mehlman, because the spirit of defiance displayed by Southerners so often in the past has been largely replaced by a resigned acquiescence in the prevailing wisdom that their forebears were wrong—an acquiescence apparent to all but diehard leftists like Lowndes, who improbably claims that we have seen a “steady retreat from antiracist political agendas in the past three decades, and with it a more general decline of egalitarian and democratic politics.”

Lowndes’ incomprehension of reality is not limited to the study of his native South.  He cites Theodore White, who wrote that, by 1964, GOP pollsters had found that “the Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, Ukrainian and other groups of Eastern European origin” were “in rebellion against the school bussing of their children and the threatened eradication of their old neighborhoods.”  Lowndes dismisses this rebellion as “morally dubious,” since it rested on the belief that “blacks would change the character of these neighborhoods for the worse.”  If Lowndes really harbors such doubts, I invite him to take up residence in several formerly ethnic neighborhoods in my native Cleveland and to send his children to the local public schools.  Later on, he quotes an Eastern European supporter of George Wallace in Milwaukee, who told black demonstrators that he was supporting Wallace because of the increase in crime he had seen in his neighborhood, including the muggings of a friend and of old ladies.  According to Lowndes, this person was not reciting particular grievances based on personal experience but expressing anxiety “at the thought that [his] newly established white racial status and its attendant privileges might be imperiled.”  Of course, since Lowndes elsewhere refers to “an alleged spike in the crime rate” in the 1960’s, it is easy for him to dismiss desires to protect neighborhoods from crime as rooted in fantasy, at best, and bigotry, at worst.

Raimondo’s history of a different strain of American conservatism is refreshingly devoid of such cant.  He writes about figures who had largely been forgotten by the time his book first appeared 15 years ago, but the narrative he constructs out of their stories has been hugely influential in helping to shape paleoconservative discourse.  Raimondo notes that “the neocons’ antecedents are to be found on the far left, in the movement of Marxist dissidents founded by the American followers of Leon Trotsky,” and he supports this conclusion in his study of American Trotskyite Max Shachtman and his followers, who included “Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Seymour Martin Lipset, Martin Diamond, Irving Howe, Michael Harrington, [and] James T. Farrell.”  Far from being harmlessly idealistic, Trotskyism was a murderous creed.  After consolidating power, Stalin carried out “his ‘left turn,’ collectivizing the land, ‘liquidating’ the kulaks, launching an industrialization program, and generally doing all the things the Trotskyists had been urging.”  The distant ideological descendants of the Trotskyites today “invoke the incantatory power of the magic word ‘democracy’ to justify any and every U.S. intervention” and “preach a new globalism that is messianic, universalist, and utterly subversive of the American character.”  Raimondo also underscores the centrality to the neocons of their belief in their own intellectual superiority.  He cites Christopher Lasch, who wrote of the first generation of neoconservatives,

The student of these events is struck by the way in which ex-communists always seem to have retained the worst of Marx and Lenin and to have discarded the best.  The elitism which once glorified intellectuals as a revolutionary avant-garde now glorifies them as experts and social technicians.

Raimondo contrasts this globalism and elitism with the nationalism, populism, and opposition to big government of such exemplars of the pre-World War II right as Garet Garrett, John T. Flynn, and Col. Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune.  The beliefs of such men grew out of the America in which they lived:

Old Right politics was simply an expression of Old Right culture—a culture that valued achievement, hard work, self-improvement, independence, self-discipline, and the entrepreneurial spirit.

As a consequence, these men opposed, in Garet Garrett’s phrase, the “mountains of debt and loss of liberty” that accompanied the New Deal.  They were also marked by a thoroughly American nationalism, which was “neither militaristic nor expansionist,” but based on a belief that America was superior to the Old World and therefore should be kept as separate from the Old World as possible.  As John T. Flynn wrote,

it is out of this abominable world of imperialism, the scramble for dominion, the fight for trade backed by armies and guns, that I want to keep this great peaceful democratic America of ours.

A natural companion to the desire to keep America as separate as possible from the Old World was protectionism, as Raimondo recognizes despite his own libertarian convictions.  Raimondo quotes the protectionist views of his hero Garet Garrett, and Albert Jay Nock’s accurate description of the Constitution (a document Nock deemed inferior to the Articles of Confederation) as envisioning a “nationwide free trade area walled in by a general tariff,” and concedes that “There has always been a strain of protectionist sentiment among conservatives, and the Old Right was particularly prone to it.”

The Old Right was eclipsed because of its views on foreign policy.  Having opposed America’s entry into World War II, Garrett and Flynn lost their jobs, and the Chicago Tribune was a target of the Roosevelt administration; FDR ultimately launched an unsuccessful prosecution of the Tribune under the Espionage Act.  Despite the calumny to which they were subjected, much of what the Old Right said about the drive to war has been proved correct.  We now know that FDR was indeed lying to the American people about what he intended to do, and that the British were running a hostile espionage campaign in America designed to suborn American politicians to do Britain’s bidding and to defame Americans opposed to entering the war.  Flynn prophetically warned that any peace treaty coming out of World War II “will have to satisfy Communist Russia,” even as McCormick asked, immediately after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, “Should we enter the war to extend [Stalin’s] rule over more of Europe, or having helped him win, should we then have to rescue the continent from him?”

The Old Right’s continued opposition to foreign intervention meant that there was no room for it in the new conservative movement being created by Buckley, which placed support for the Cold War at the center of its agenda.  However, the Old Right was staunchly anticommunist and supportive of Joe McCarthy.  It saw McCarthy “as a battering ram against the Liberal Establishment” who also helped to turn “the main thrust of the people’s suspicions inward, rather than outward.”  This was in marked contrast to the men who later became neoconservatives; Irving Kristol dismissed McCarthy as a “vulgar demagogue.”

Among those who refused to denounce McCarthy was James Burnham, whom Raimondo incorrectly tags as the “first neoconservative.”  Burnham’s support for McCarthy is only the first sign that Raimondo has misread him.  After all, even today McCarthy is a target of neoconservative opprobrium, as shown most recently by Ronald Radosh’s scathing attack in National Review on M. Stanton Evans’ positive assessment of McCarthy, a book wisely and favorably reviewed in these pages by John Willson.  As Scott Richert notes in his illuminating critical essay in Raimondo’s book, Burnham also would not have supported the powerful presidency that the neocons have long sought; his Congress and the American Tradition is an able defense of the legislative branch that has been losing power to the executive since the New Deal.  Nor is Raimondo’s dismissal of Suicide of the West as a “standard anticommunist tract” persuasive.  Burnham’s most popular book is instead a profound critique of the liberalism Burnham brilliantly analyzed as “the ideology of Western suicide.”  That liberalism included many elements adopted by the neoconservatives, including globalism and an abstract, universalist understanding of human rights.  And it must be remembered that Burnham’s greatest exponent and exegete was the late Sam Francis, whom Raimondo favorably quotes regarding the strategy conservatives should pursue today:

[A] new American Right must recognize that its values and goals lie outside and against the establishment and that its natural allies are not in Manhattan, New Haven, and Washington, but in the increasingly alienated and threatened strata of Middle America.

Raimondo recognized that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented an opportunity to reshape American conservatism, since many conservatives remembered that the Cold War was supposed to be “a temporary expedient, an extended but necessary diversion from the task of building a free society.”  Raimondo was perhaps too optimistic about how easy it would be to move American conservatism away from militarism.  Sadly, it is no longer true that “There is no constituency on the Right for the New World Order.  And as for ‘exporting democracy,’ enthusiasm for such a cause seems limited to those few who will directly benefit.”  Thanks to George W. Bush and the neoconservative co-optation of most conservative media outlets, many of today’s Middle Americans now view “exporting democracy” as an integral part of our country’s role in the world.

But reality cannot be ignored forever, and the Bush presidency in its final months witnessed the spectacular collapse of an economic policy based on unprecedented debt, and of a foreign policy based on a desire to control the planet.  This spectacle should remind Americans of the enduring merits of the ideas advanced by the figures Raimondo so ably chronicles in this book.  



[Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, by Justin Raimondo (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 375 pp., $18.00]

[From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism, by Joseph Lowndes (New Haven: Yale University Press) 224 pp., $35.00]