“Paleoconservatism” is an awkward word, but then what it purports to describe is an awkward thing. The word in the English language that it most resembles is “paleontology”—the scientific study of fossils—and a fossil is precisely what most of the enemies of paleoconservatism accuse it of being. Coined in 1986 or ’87, the word was originally supposed to characterize an intellectual and political movement that continued what George Nash called the “conservative intellectual movement” after World War II, and to distinguish it from the newer neoconservatism. As the fissure between neoconservatism and what Paul Gottfried called the “Second Generation’ of the “Old Right” widened, however, it soon became evident that the latter was not quite the same thing as the school of writers gathered around National Review and its sister institutions in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Nor were its exponents exactly specimens of the “New Right of the 1970’s and 80’s. “Paleoconservatism” eventually developed into a distinctive movement with an identity of its own, quite different from postwar intellectual conservatism, neoconservatism, libertarianism, New Rightism, and other schools of the American right.
There is not much question that paleoconservatism is distinct from most of these other identities of the right, but there remains a good deal of confusion regarding it and the “traditionalist” wing of the postwar “conservative intellectual movement.” That is entirely understandable, since paleoconservatism has been deeply influenced by the thought of that generation, especially by James Burnham and Richard Weaver, and in its beginnings was supported by two major adherents of the postwar traditionalist right, the late M.E. Bradford and the late Russell Kirk. But while there remain many beliefs and themes common to both contemporary paleoconservatism and postwar traditionalism, there are important differences as well, and these are not due merely to the emergence of different political and cultural issues today in place of those with which the traditionalists were confronted. Differences in issues—and in enemies—have forced a subtle yet far-reaching metamorphosis of paleoconservatism in some of its basic assumptions and attitudes, to the point that the very word “conservatism,” let alone the combining form “paleo,” is probably no longer an accurate or useful label.
This fall, when the quadrennial demonization campaign against Patrick J. Buchanan was again cranked up as he discussed his break with the Republican Party and as his new book, A Republic, Not an Empire, was published, a host of neoconservatives began saying that Buchanan no longer belonged in the GOP at all or even in the ranks of “movement conservatism.” They were largely right, but for the wrong reasons. Buchanan remains far closer to the mainstream conservatism that prevailed from the 1950’s through the 1970’s than any figure now associated with “movement conservatism,” and, as paleos know, it is difficult to find very many fundamental ideas of the contemporary conservative movement with which they are in sympathy. Ironically, Buchanan’s expulsion from “Conservatism, Inc.,” was due to his very adherence to something close to the more authentic conservatism of the 1950’s that the contemporary “right” has abandoned. But his decision to leave the GOP and the “conservative movement” as it currently defines itself was also due to their defection from the premises and fundamental ideas that shaped the right with which Buchanan continues to identify. Buchanan’s separation from the contemporary movement, whatever its immediate or long-term political consequences, is entirely welcome and somewhat overdue, since it now offers an opportunity for him and paleoconservatives generally to purge themselves of a good deal of ideological baggage carried over from the traditionalism of the 1950’s, from what Murray Rothbard called the “official” conservative movement as it exists today, and from the Republican Party. It is largely that baggage that has retarded a more complete emergence of an intellectually mature and politically serious movement of the right.
Paleoconservatism remains conservative in the sense that it incorporates the philosophical content of the “classical conservatism” of the 19th century and draws important lessons from the 1950’s traditionalists, but the lessons it draws and the uses to which it applies them are rather different. Unlike the 1950’s traditionalists, who saw themselves as the defenders of a legitimate postwar political system in resistance to totalitarianism, paleos increasingly reject the legitimacy of the current system of rule in the United States, increasingly perceive the falseness of its claims to be a representative political order, and increasingly anatomize and unmask its political and cultural pretensions—the “two-party system” (which is really one party), the “free-enterprise” economy (which is really a highly regulated and oligopolistic economy fused with the bureaucratic state), the “open society” (which is open to no one but its own defenders and apologists), the “Judeo-Christian tradition” (which is neither Judaic nor Christian), “tolerance” and “diversity” (which are in fact merely licenses for the demonization and even the physical brutalization of white. Christian, heterosexual males and their traditional institutions and values), “global democracy” (which slaughters en masse or starves to death entire civilian populations that have never even thought about harming the United States or its citizens), and a dozen other impious frauds built into the regime and its public formulas. Increasingly, paleoconservatives approach these formulas and the structures of power they mask and serve in much the same way that postmodernist critics approach literary texts—as defensive armor that needs to be deconstructed before it can be penetrated and discarded. So far from taking Burke and Metternich as their icons, the paleoconservatives of the 1990’s are more likely to adopt Antonio Gramsci as a more reliable guide to understanding and undermining the hegemonic cant of the regime.
Moreover, what the 1950’s traditionalists, regarding themselves as a soi-disant aristocratic right, sniffed at as “the masses,” more populist-oriented paleoconservatives today see as a still structured middle class that is the only available social base for political resistance from the right. The distrust of the “masses” that 1950’s conservatism affected, as Willmoore Kendall and James Burnham came to see, presented an obstacle to any alliance of the right with working-class social conservatives; and long after the hatred for cultural tradition among incumbent elites became obvious, the archaic conservatism of the 1950’s continued to posture and moon about the beauties of “aristocracy” and the repellent dirtiness of “populism.” Eventually it became simply irrelevant, as issues and threats to the nation, its people, and its civilization arose that conservative traditionalism either failed to recognize or refused to confront.
What paleoconservatives incorporate from classical conservatism is less the latter’s preoccupation with legitimating the incumbent system and its aristocratic ideology and rejection of populism than its critique of social-contract doctrine and the cultural and political universalism of the Enlightenment. Paleoconservatives today are perhaps less attracted to Ortega’s ominous rumblings about the “revolt of the masses” than to Joseph de Maistre’s sardonic dismissal of universalism in his Considerations on France: “During my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on . . . but I must say, as for man, I have never come across him anywhere; if he exists, he is completely unknown to me.” This dismissal, of course, is the counterpart to the particularity—in nation, region, family, race, ethnicity, and religion—that most paleoconservatives affirm in one way or another.
It is true that many paleos still have not entirely rid themselves of the archaic models, rhetoric, and preconceptions of 1950’s traditionalism, but as American society becomes increasingly polarized and destabilized by the existing power structures, the archaism that some versions of paleoconservatism affect will continue to wither and to be replaced by a more radical and more popularly based movement.
As for the separation of paleoconservatism from the contemporary conservative movement, the differences are far more clear than those with its traditionalist mentors of the 1950’s. The obvious differences lie in radical disagreements on practical policies—immigration policy, trade policy, and foreign policy most significantly, but also civil-rights issues and the larger issue of federalism and states’ rights as opposed to the “Big Government Conservatism” of Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush. Almost all of these differences can be resolved into the conflict between particularism and universalism, with the paleos on the side of the former and the neos and mainstreamers (insofar as there is a difference anymore) allied with universalism. Yet that differentiation implies other, perhaps less obvious, differences as well.
One such difference revolves around the paleoconservative view that liberty and rights are rooted in the cultural, historical, and institutional fabric of a society. Liberty is not a “natural right” in the sense that it exists independently of or prior to, the social fabric; if the fabric withers and vanishes, liberty will vanish with it. The alternative view common today among “conservatives” (neo or not) is that liberty is a natural right, with universal claims in time and space; those claims (“human rights”) are absolute throughout the world and so distinct from particular cultural and historical expression that even Third World immigrants can be expected to display a perfect grasp of, and commitment to, them. The precise content of this absolute, universal liberty always varies, of course, depending upon which college sophomore or Asian immigrant is spouting off about it in the Weekly Standard or National Review this week, but then the content and meaning of such abstractions always vary precisely because they are mere inventions of the mind rather than anything that really exists. The contemporary conservatives’ absolutism and universalism of rights is, of course, the ideological basis for “global democracy,” the happy neoconservative embrace of “civil rights,” and the political centralization necessary to enforce “civil-rights” statutes and court rulings against states and private institutions. Its heroes are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and (to some extent) Thomas Paine—all of them most improbable icons for conservatism.
If the paleoconservatives’ affirmation of the rootedness and particularity of liberty is one difference from movement conservatism that is directly related to the conflict between particularism and universalism, so also is the paleos’ willingness to entertain the question of legitimacy. In this respect, neoconservatives are perhaps closer to the right of the 1950’s than are the paleos, and one of the major and most bitter objections that neoconservatives lodge against paleos (and especially against Buchanan) is that they question the legitimacy of the current system. It was precisely the suggestion of illegitimacy that incited the controversy at First Things a couple of years ago, with neoconservatives denouncing such suggestions and anyone who uttered them as “anti-American.” For the neoconservatives, it is precisely the universalism they perceive as an integral part of American society that makes the current system the legitimate fulfillment of the American identity, and in their shallow reading of the nation’s history, we are the “first universal nation,” a “proposition country,” where mass egalitarian globo-democracy, mass egalitarian globo-capitalism, and mass egalitarian globo-kulcher define the nation and its way of life. Anyone who challenges this way of life is un-American, probably a McGovernite but possibly a Buchananite, as well as an antisemite, an isolationist, and a xenophobe, if not an outright fascist or Nazi.
In stark and direct contrast, paleoconservatism argues that, while the current system may be legally legitimate, it is definitely not historically legitimate—i.e., it is not an authentic continuation of traditional American or Western identity but rather its revolutionary antithesis and its betrayal (the “great betrayal,” as Buchanan called it in his book on trade) precisely because of its incorporation of a universalist ethic and imperative that arc the enemies of traditional American institutions, identities, and values. It is this very claim that is the ground of the neoconservative charge that paleos are not really conservatives at all. When William Bennett, the Weekly Standard, and National Review all say that Pat Buchanan is “no longer a conservative,” they are not just talking about his differences with “mainstream conservatives” on trade, foreign policy, and immigration. Those policy differences themselves mainly derive from the perception of Buchanan and other paleos that current trade, immigration, and foreign policies reflect a system at odds with the norms that have pertained throughout most of American history. That is precisely what Buchanan argues in his two recent books—that most presidents in our history, especially Republican ones, have been economic nationalists or protectionists as well as supporters of an “America First” foreign policy of “enlightened nationalism” and that only in recent decades have free trade and globalism prevailed. The neoconservatives sense that Buchanan is declaring a kind of war against the whole political, international, economic, and cultural system—the regime—that has imposed itself in the United States since World War II, and one major reason the attacks on Buchanan are so enraged is precisely that, in his new book, he questions the very legitimacy of World War II itself, a major (if not the major) foundation myth of the regime.
To the simpleminded, the criticism that Buchanan and the paleos are not really conservatives because they reject the legitimacy of the current system is compelling, but the criticism confuses “conserving” the regime with a “conservatism” that distinguishes between the current regime, on the one hand, and the historic norms that define the American identity, on the other, and which opposes the former insofar as it threatens the latter. Hence, it would be entirely consistent to say that a figure like Buchanan is a conservative since he seeks to conserve—or even restore—what he takes to be the historic norms and identity of American society, government, and culture, and at the same time that he is not a conservative in his challenges to the dominant system of government, economy, and culture. In other words, he is, like other paleoconservatives, a radical conservative, committed to or influenced by the philosophical content of classical conservatism (at least in its American formulation) and also to the view that the current system does not reflect but in fact threatens the institutional incarnation of that philosophical content. By contrast, movement conservatives and neoconservatives today are neither committed to the philosophical content of classical conservatism (the libertarians have always been quite up-front about this) nor to any opposition to the current system. Indeed, their defense and rationalization of the current system in their political ideology is the only thing that defines them as “conservative” in any sense at all.
The differentiation of paleoconservatism from both its 1950’s ancestor and from its increasingly remote cousins among neoconservatives. Republicans, and movement conservatives is part of a process of major intellectual and social-political significance, a process of which Buchanan’s departure from the GOP and the angry recriminations visited upon him by many in the party and the “movement are convenient symbols. Intellectually, it is a reasonably clean and sharp schism between political particularism (defined by Buchanan as “nationalism”) and political universalism (defined by the dominant right as “globalism” or “democracy”), and it is the historical roots and legitimization of this particularism—not its allegiance to the current hegemonic system—that make it conservative. Socially and politically, the differentiation is part of the continuing formation of a socially rooted resistance to the hegemonic system in “Middle America” rather than in merely a “conservative intellectual movement” confined to academic seminars and Latinate magazines written and read by Ivy League alumni. Yet the radicalization of the right that Buchanan’s break symbolizes and the political success that radicalization could produce can be fulfilled only if a paleoconservative—or rather, what should now be called a radical or revolutionary conservative—vanguard is able to define and articulate it further and more clearly than it has been articulated so far. The opportunity to accomplish that articulation and to institutionalize it finally in a separate and permanent political party and a distinct political and cultural movement is the task to which paleoconservatives should now turn.