Category: Paul Gottfried

What Conservative Canon?


In 2012, I came across a scholarly article in a journal on rhetoric on “The Conservative Canon and Its Uses.”  The author, Michael J. Lee, undertook to explain why the American conservative movement had put together a “secular canon” featuring its leading thinkers.  According to Lee, this selection of books and seminal authors has been designed to forge a “spiritual bond” among groups that otherwise have exhibited sharp disagreement.  Conventional libertarians, social traditionalists, and anarcho-capitalists, to name just three such groups, have been able to cooperate on common purposes because a canon has been created that embraces figures from all of these traditions.  Certain rhetorical phrases, moreover, have been repeatedly identified with this shared heritage, including references to “permanent things” and “values.” 

This canon has been periodically updated, and with the ascendancy of the neoconservatives and Straussians in the 1980s, certain golden oldies, like the works of Russell Kirk and the Southern Agrarians, lost their place in the conservative canon.  This did not come about without protest, and I recall receiving angry notes from members of the Old Right complaining about how their favorites in the canon had been replaced by such relative newcomers as Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Irving Kristol.  In 2001, Jonah Goldberg wrote a commentary in National Review in response to his devotees who asked him to name the authors whom he would place in the “conservative canon.”  Goldberg proposed figures he identified with National Review.  He then almost sheepishly explained that he should probably add to his list Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind but couldn’t quite make it through Bloom’s exposition of the dangers of the “Nietzscheanization of the Left.”  As a scholar of German intellectual history, I would note that Jonah was missing very little.

The American conservative movement in all its permutations has steadily pushed the idea of a “secular canon.”  I myself used to compose “celebratory statements” for the old canon, and I constructed such statements for Modern Age in the 1970s and 1980s at the request of the editor, George Panichas.  In 1987, I commented favorably on a study by then-North Carolina senator John P.  East. In my remarks on East’s The American Conservative Movement: The Philosophical Founders, I dutifully praised some of those figures who supposedly prepared the way for a movement that was already rupturing in the 1980s.  The figures whom I extolled back then as “philosophical founders” were among others Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Ludwig von Mises, Frank Meyers, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, and Friedrich Hayek.  Except for the fact that some of them contributed essays or reviews to National Review or consented to give lectures at a conservative movement seminar, the heroes I would praise inhabited different “philosophical” universes.

It may therefore be useful to re-examine the practice of applying the term “canon” to the changing favs of a changing political movement.  This term came into common use with the authorization of sacred biblical texts by councils of the early church, between 382 and 419 A.D.  These councils were convoked to decide which writings showed indisputable divine inspiration.  The assembled doctors of the church excluded texts that were regarded as either false or less inspired than what they included.  The churchmen obviously took into account whether texts to be considered were congruent with their own theological positions.  “Canon” has also been applied, more loosely, to certain civilizational classics that once made up the core of humanistic education.  This list would have included the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thucydides, and later great Western and some non-Western thinkers.  The Bible was regarded as an integral part of this humanistic canon.

This seems quite different from what the conservative movement has in mind when it seeks to memorialize its stars.  Here the question is not about sacred texts or the educational foundations of our civilization.  Rather, we are discussing authors and texts that have helped a movement attract members, woo donors, and achieve mainstream political respectability.  Certain overriding concerns were already present in the conservative movement that William F. Buckley and National Review brought together in the mid-1950s.  Buckley’s own concerns – anti-communism, returning to more of a free-market economy, and recognizing the Christian or Judeo-Christian basis of our society – were uppermost in the construction of his project, and it undoubtedly influenced his choice of collaborators and the books he recommended.  The idea of a “conservative canon” came later and, in my opinion, was a pompous, unfortunate idea.

This is not meant to suggest that all those works that have belonged to various conservative canons are equally insightful.  James Burnham’s Suicide of the West is certainly for me more instructive than the book with the same title recently published by Jonah Goldberg.  I also view Burnham as far more of an authentic man of the right and far more of a scholar than the National Review senior editor.  But if I were trying to explain which author is more in line with the present conservative movement, my answer would have to be Goldberg.  Very few who now call themselves “conservatives” would likely relate to Burnham’s work.  Self-described conservatives of a younger generation would come away from it condemning the author as a hopeless reactionary.  In his Suicide of the West, Burnham dwells on racial and cultural inequalities and, from what I can tell, opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.  This does not diminish my respect for the author as a political critic, but it does suggest why a conservative movement that has moved to the social left along with the rest of our political culture would not want to showcase Burnham’s Suicide of the West.  Goldberg’s work is simply much safer.

In 2012, I came across a scholarly article in a journal on rhetoric on “The Conservative Canon and Its Uses.”  The author, Michael J. Lee, undertook to explain why the American conservative movement had put together a “secular canon” featuring its leading thinkers.  According to Lee, this selection of books and seminal authors has been designed to forge a “spiritual bond” among groups that otherwise have exhibited sharp disagreement.  Conventional libertarians, social traditionalists, and anarcho-capitalists, to name just three such groups, have been able to cooperate on common purposes because a canon has been created that embraces figures from all of these traditions.  Certain rhetorical phrases, moreover, have been repeatedly identified with this shared heritage, including references to “permanent things” and “values.” 

This canon has been periodically updated, and with the ascendancy of the neoconservatives and Straussians in the 1980s, certain golden oldies, like the works of Russell Kirk and the Southern Agrarians, lost their place in the conservative canon.  This did not come about without protest, and I recall receiving angry notes from members of the Old Right complaining about how their favorites in the canon had been replaced by such relative newcomers as Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Irving Kristol.  In 2001, Jonah Goldberg wrote a commentary in National Review in response to his devotees who asked him to name the authors whom he would place in the “conservative canon.”  Goldberg proposed figures he identified with National Review.  He then almost sheepishly explained that he should probably add to his list Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind but couldn’t quite make it through Bloom’s exposition of the dangers of the “Nietzscheanization of the Left.”  As a scholar of German intellectual history, I would note that Jonah was missing very little.

The American conservative movement in all its permutations has steadily pushed the idea of a “secular canon.”  I myself used to compose “celebratory statements” for the old canon, and I constructed such statements for Modern Age in the 1970s and 1980s at the request of the editor, George Panichas.  In 1987, I commented favorably on a study by then-North Carolina senator John P.  East. In my remarks on East’s The American Conservative Movement: The Philosophical Founders, I dutifully praised some of those figures who supposedly prepared the way for a movement that was already rupturing in the 1980s.  The figures whom I extolled back then as “philosophical founders” were among others Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Ludwig von Mises, Frank Meyers, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, and Friedrich Hayek.  Except for the fact that some of them contributed essays or reviews to National Review or consented to give lectures at a conservative movement seminar, the heroes I would praise inhabited different “philosophical” universes.

It may therefore be useful to re-examine the practice of applying the term “canon” to the changing favs of a changing political movement.  This term came into common use with the authorization of sacred biblical texts by councils of the early church, between 382 and 419 A.D.  These councils were convoked to decide which writings showed indisputable divine inspiration.  The assembled doctors of the church excluded texts that were regarded as either false or less inspired than what they included.  The churchmen obviously took into account whether texts to be considered were congruent with their own theological positions.  “Canon” has also been applied, more loosely, to certain civilizational classics that once made up the core of humanistic education.  This list would have included the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thucydides, and later great Western and some non-Western thinkers.  The Bible was regarded as an integral part of this humanistic canon.

This seems quite different from what the conservative movement has in mind when it seeks to memorialize its stars.  Here the question is not about sacred texts or the educational foundations of our civilization.  Rather, we are discussing authors and texts that have helped a movement attract members, woo donors, and achieve mainstream political respectability.  Certain overriding concerns were already present in the conservative movement that William F. Buckley and National Review brought together in the mid-1950s.  Buckley’s own concerns – anti-communism, returning to more of a free-market economy, and recognizing the Christian or Judeo-Christian basis of our society – were uppermost in the construction of his project, and it undoubtedly influenced his choice of collaborators and the books he recommended.  The idea of a “conservative canon” came later and, in my opinion, was a pompous, unfortunate idea.

This is not meant to suggest that all those works that have belonged to various conservative canons are equally insightful.  James Burnham’s Suicide of the West is certainly for me more instructive than the book with the same title recently published by Jonah Goldberg.  I also view Burnham as far more of an authentic man of the right and far more of a scholar than the National Review senior editor.  But if I were trying to explain which author is more in line with the present conservative movement, my answer would have to be Goldberg.  Very few who now call themselves “conservatives” would likely relate to Burnham’s work.  Self-described conservatives of a younger generation would come away from it condemning the author as a hopeless reactionary.  In his Suicide of the West, Burnham dwells on racial and cultural inequalities and, from what I can tell, opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.  This does not diminish my respect for the author as a political critic, but it does suggest why a conservative movement that has moved to the social left along with the rest of our political culture would not want to showcase Burnham’s Suicide of the West.  Goldberg’s work is simply much safer.



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Exonerating Mussolini?



Can Mussolini be raised from a stereotyped villain to someone who is at least worth understanding? 



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A Harmless Persuasion: Conservatives and Traditionalism


Several decades ago, Samuel T. Francis coined the phrase “harmless persuasion” to describe would-be conservatives who desist from saying anything that might evoke anger on the left.  Francis was referring to neoconservatives, who climbed to power in the 1980s at the expense of the Old Right.  But since then, there have been other contenders for the honor of representing the “harmless persuasion.”  My own favorites are Catholic and Orthodox traditionalists, who wear their piety on the sleeves but who rarely offend the left.  At least three of these soi-disant traditionalists, Ross Douthat, Ron Dreher, and Patrick J. Deneen, have been lavishly praised in the New York Times.  One might believe from seeing a review there of Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed that the Times had been converted to neo-medieval traditionalism.  Incidentally, all three of the aforementioned traditionalists extol one another’s traditionalism in what looks like a mutual admiration society.  

This problematic but self-congratulating traditionalism is certainly nothing new.  An entire movement in England, led by the Nottingham sociologist John Millbank, has been at the same game for decades.  It consists of occupying the extreme right of Anglo-Catholicism on certain liturgical questions while denouncing European counterrevolutionaries for being tainted by “liberalism.”  But the radical traditionalist then veers sharply left on contemporary political and economic questions.  Millbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward have constructed a “theological social theory” that is hostile to the “liberalism” that has supposedly poisoned Western society for centuries.  But propounding this theory also conveniently allows its bearers to join the anti-capitalist left – and the last time I encountered Professor Pickstock, she was attacking the callousness of Margaret Thatcher while calling for the acceptance of more non-Western refugees into Europe.

In the U.S., harmless traditionalists of a religious bent follow a path similar to that of the Radical Orthodox in England.  They generally avoid scolding the left harshly, instead directing their bile against an enemy called “liberalism.”  By “liberalism” they mean an ideology that took root at the end of the Middle Ages and is held responsible for a multitude of social ills, including capitalism, secularism, individual rights, and our media-created fake culture.  Mixed in with these generalities are at least some grains of truth.  For example, it is possible to ascribe radical consequences to the constructivist character of the American constitutional republic and to the practice of stressing individual rights at the expense of long established communal ones.  Individual rights continue to morph, and some of them, as Deneen notes, are forced down the throats of the unwilling by public administration and legislating courts.

But there are two problems with the more general stance that Deneen’s widely reviewed book, Why Liberalism Failed, exemplifies.  The anti-liberal critics set up a straw man, which they pretend their side has always been battling.  This has supposedly been the case since Catholic Aristotelians or religious communitarians lost their political and moral battle to natural rights theorists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  Since then, “liberals” have caused, among other ills, “the degradation of citizenship” and the erosion of education.  Much of this complaint is, of course, open to dispute.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when real liberal ideas gained influence in the West, universities, libraries, symphony orchestras, and manifold cultural activities flourished – indeed, to a degree that humanity had not experienced before.  The dissolution of families properly criticized by Deneen had barely started in the post-World War II era, which came centuries after liberal solvents had supposedly begun their destructive work.

It is also questionable whether the ills that Deneen attributes to contemporary “liberal democracy” and our commercialized mass culture is typical of anything outside the present age.  Deneen and his friends may see deeper than I, but I discern no signs of these late modern developments in early modern Europe and among those varied groups, including both Catholics and Protestants, that helped produce liberal political theory.  I make this observation, by the way, not as a devotee of Locke, but as someone who in his social thinking may be closer to Deneen’s position.  Although I too value the social bond more than individual self-expressiveness, I find no reason to father our late modern problems on thinkers addressing different concerns who lived centuries ago.  Nor do I think their influence was an unmixed curse.  

The other problem with the anti-liberal traditionalist position in question is that it never really engages the left.  Whether the issue is being a NeverTrump, supporting the liberal Democrat Doug Jones against the flawed Fundamentalist Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama senatorial race, or loudly deploring white racism and homophobia, our traditionalists can yell with the best of their leftist pals.

Although Deneen ostentatiously laments the effects of corporate capitalism on women in the workforce, he never dares advocate anything that might raise eyebrows – e.g., restoring traditional gender roles and the single family wage.  He knows that his goose would be cooked if he recommended a return to the prevalent social situation of the 1950s.  But no one at the New York Times or Washington Post could possibly object to his hymn to a distant past that exists only as a vague memory.

Dreher proposes a Benedict Option that would be open to people like himself.  It would allow the faithful to withdraw from a morally corrupt society into a community of the pure.  Significantly, Dreher has reserved his harshest invective for Trump and his supporters while criticizing the left only in very general terms.

Douthat, a Catholic convert and New York Times “conservative” or “co-conservative” with David Brooks, is equally skilled at striking righteous poses. But some of us on the right wish he’d combine his righteous tone with hard-hitting attacks on the left.

Needless to say, that might spell the end of a promising career as a “traditionalist” in the national press.

Several decades ago, Samuel T. Francis coined the phrase “harmless persuasion” to describe would-be conservatives who desist from saying anything that might evoke anger on the left.  Francis was referring to neoconservatives, who climbed to power in the 1980s at the expense of the Old Right.  But since then, there have been other contenders for the honor of representing the “harmless persuasion.”  My own favorites are Catholic and Orthodox traditionalists, who wear their piety on the sleeves but who rarely offend the left.  At least three of these soi-disant traditionalists, Ross Douthat, Ron Dreher, and Patrick J. Deneen, have been lavishly praised in the New York Times.  One might believe from seeing a review there of Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed that the Times had been converted to neo-medieval traditionalism.  Incidentally, all three of the aforementioned traditionalists extol one another’s traditionalism in what looks like a mutual admiration society.  

This problematic but self-congratulating traditionalism is certainly nothing new.  An entire movement in England, led by the Nottingham sociologist John Millbank, has been at the same game for decades.  It consists of occupying the extreme right of Anglo-Catholicism on certain liturgical questions while denouncing European counterrevolutionaries for being tainted by “liberalism.”  But the radical traditionalist then veers sharply left on contemporary political and economic questions.  Millbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward have constructed a “theological social theory” that is hostile to the “liberalism” that has supposedly poisoned Western society for centuries.  But propounding this theory also conveniently allows its bearers to join the anti-capitalist left – and the last time I encountered Professor Pickstock, she was attacking the callousness of Margaret Thatcher while calling for the acceptance of more non-Western refugees into Europe.

In the U.S., harmless traditionalists of a religious bent follow a path similar to that of the Radical Orthodox in England.  They generally avoid scolding the left harshly, instead directing their bile against an enemy called “liberalism.”  By “liberalism” they mean an ideology that took root at the end of the Middle Ages and is held responsible for a multitude of social ills, including capitalism, secularism, individual rights, and our media-created fake culture.  Mixed in with these generalities are at least some grains of truth.  For example, it is possible to ascribe radical consequences to the constructivist character of the American constitutional republic and to the practice of stressing individual rights at the expense of long established communal ones.  Individual rights continue to morph, and some of them, as Deneen notes, are forced down the throats of the unwilling by public administration and legislating courts.

But there are two problems with the more general stance that Deneen’s widely reviewed book, Why Liberalism Failed, exemplifies.  The anti-liberal critics set up a straw man, which they pretend their side has always been battling.  This has supposedly been the case since Catholic Aristotelians or religious communitarians lost their political and moral battle to natural rights theorists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  Since then, “liberals” have caused, among other ills, “the degradation of citizenship” and the erosion of education.  Much of this complaint is, of course, open to dispute.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when real liberal ideas gained influence in the West, universities, libraries, symphony orchestras, and manifold cultural activities flourished – indeed, to a degree that humanity had not experienced before.  The dissolution of families properly criticized by Deneen had barely started in the post-World War II era, which came centuries after liberal solvents had supposedly begun their destructive work.

It is also questionable whether the ills that Deneen attributes to contemporary “liberal democracy” and our commercialized mass culture is typical of anything outside the present age.  Deneen and his friends may see deeper than I, but I discern no signs of these late modern developments in early modern Europe and among those varied groups, including both Catholics and Protestants, that helped produce liberal political theory.  I make this observation, by the way, not as a devotee of Locke, but as someone who in his social thinking may be closer to Deneen’s position.  Although I too value the social bond more than individual self-expressiveness, I find no reason to father our late modern problems on thinkers addressing different concerns who lived centuries ago.  Nor do I think their influence was an unmixed curse.  

The other problem with the anti-liberal traditionalist position in question is that it never really engages the left.  Whether the issue is being a NeverTrump, supporting the liberal Democrat Doug Jones against the flawed Fundamentalist Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama senatorial race, or loudly deploring white racism and homophobia, our traditionalists can yell with the best of their leftist pals.

Although Deneen ostentatiously laments the effects of corporate capitalism on women in the workforce, he never dares advocate anything that might raise eyebrows – e.g., restoring traditional gender roles and the single family wage.  He knows that his goose would be cooked if he recommended a return to the prevalent social situation of the 1950s.  But no one at the New York Times or Washington Post could possibly object to his hymn to a distant past that exists only as a vague memory.

Dreher proposes a Benedict Option that would be open to people like himself.  It would allow the faithful to withdraw from a morally corrupt society into a community of the pure.  Significantly, Dreher has reserved his harshest invective for Trump and his supporters while criticizing the left only in very general terms.

Douthat, a Catholic convert and New York Times “conservative” or “co-conservative” with David Brooks, is equally skilled at striking righteous poses. But some of us on the right wish he’d combine his righteous tone with hard-hitting attacks on the left.

Needless to say, that might spell the end of a promising career as a “traditionalist” in the national press.



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Trump and Old-Time Democrats


Last Saturday afternoon, I listened to a gathering of Wall Street Journal editors and writers on Fox News discussing the congressional deadlock on immigration.  Paul Gigot, Jason Riley, and Karl Rove were all disturbed that the president and congressional Republicans who followed his lead were stalling a compromise over DACA and other related immigration issues.  These intransigents should have accepted something like the Graham-Durbin proposal that would have amnestied DACA recipients and their families while continuing chain migration but also making some provision for increased border security.

As I listened to these judgments, I thought, “Spoken like true Republicans.”  These remarks explain why Trump rallied the working-class base that had long eluded Republican politicians.  Trump and his advisers noticed what had been clear for some time: for many decades, the Democrats generally took the harder line on immigration, even if neither national party offered steady resistance. Although both parties voted for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for that legislation in Congress.

The most vocal opposition to this reform came from Southern Democrats, who feared that the immigration act would change the ethnic profile of the country by removing national quotas.  Republicans had no interest in the concern raised in 1965 by North Carolina Democratic senator Sam Ervin: 

The people of Ethiopia have the same right to come to the United States under this bill as the people from England, the people of France, the people of Germany, [and] the people of Holland.  With all due respect to Ethiopia, I don’t know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.

The most comprehensive amnesty act ever passed by any administration (it granted amnesty to over three million illegals) was under President Reagan in 1986, and it enjoyed near unanimous Republican congressional support.  A major opponent of immigration in the 1990s was a black Democratic congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordan, who believed that immigration drives down the wages of poor whites and blacks.  It is important to recognize that Jordan and her Democratic supporters were not making the cultural conservative argument advanced by Senator Ervin and his Southern Democratic colleagues in the 1960s.  They were making traditional working-class arguments against immigration, arguments that had been heard from the American Federation of Labor in the first half of the twentieth century and from the French Communist Party after World War II.  But this opposition to increased immigration stood in stark contrast to the multicultural perspective of the current Democratic Party and the corporate capitalist donor base of the GOP.  Significantly, Jordan’s position continued to resonate in Ralph Nader’s presidential races in 2000 and 2004.  It was also reflected in Bernie Sanders’s vote against the immigration reform act of 2007, which he thought would hurt low-paid American workers.

There are good reasons why the Republicans before Trump were arguably the more leftist party on immigration and why their flagship paper, the Wall Street Journal, has toyed with the idea of open borders.  Providing a steady supply of cheap labor in accordance with the wishes of corporate executives and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was one reason; trying to signal that the GOP, despite its continued WASP appeal, is open to minorities was another one.  Another possible source of Republican enthusiasm for immigration has been the influence of neoconservative ideology on Republican operatives.  According to neoconservative doctrine, the United States is a universal democracy and propositional nation, and therefore suitability for citizenship should be based on the acceptance of neoconservative ideas about democratic equality.  In any case, up until the time the Democrats began to champion ethnic and lifestyle grievances, they were generally the more conservative of our two parties on immigration.

In the 1950s, they were also the more conservative party on cultural issues, as any informed denizen of the Northeast might have recognized.  George W. Bush’s grandfather, Prescott, was our senator in Connecticut, and he and his son George H.W. Bush and their wives were generous backers of Planned Parenthood.  Most Democrats when I was growing up in Connecticut were ethnic Catholics, and they attended Mass regularly and supported the Catholic Legion of Decency.  They were also okay with the ban on the public sale of contraceptives.  This ban in Connecticut was kept in place by the Catholic Democratic state government, even if the governor happened to be a left-leaning Jew.  Needless to say, the Southern Democrats were probably to the right of our Democrats on race and immigration issues, although one of the most conservative Democrats of my acquaintance was my father’s friend, our Connecticut senator Tom Dodd.  Tom would breathe fire and brimstone whenever the commies were mentioned or the term “hippie” came up in conversation.  His son, Chris, who succeeded him, was of course another story.  Almost all my school teachers from K through 8th grade were Irish-Catholic ladies who went to Mass several times a week.  They were Democrats but, like the Kennedy family, ardent admirers of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

These attitudes were indicative of where many Democrats of an earlier generation stood, before the great transformation that carried the party to the left of the Republicans on social and cultural issues took place.  Thereafter, the GOP was pushed willy-nilly into the role of a culturally conservative party, something it did not have to be when it was still the party of big business and sociological Protestants.  During the Cold War, Republican politicians became ardent advocates of military buildup and have remained so ever since.  But being for military spending is different from trying to fill the cultural and moral void that was created when the Democrats became the party of LGBT, feminist, and Black nationalist activists.

Trump has rattled establishment Republicans, and part of the reason may be his bad manners and frenzied tweeting.  But the president may also have driven the NeverTrumps out of their comfort zone because of his alliance with the old Democratic Party, including Southern Baptists, the white ethnic working class, and critics of largely unrestricted immigration.  When Trump came down the golden escalator on June 16, 2015 to announce his presidential candidacy, he became overnight the hero to those abandoned Democrats.

Last Saturday afternoon, I listened to a gathering of Wall Street Journal editors and writers on Fox News discussing the congressional deadlock on immigration.  Paul Gigot, Jason Riley, and Karl Rove were all disturbed that the president and congressional Republicans who followed his lead were stalling a compromise over DACA and other related immigration issues.  These intransigents should have accepted something like the Graham-Durbin proposal that would have amnestied DACA recipients and their families while continuing chain migration but also making some provision for increased border security.

As I listened to these judgments, I thought, “Spoken like true Republicans.”  These remarks explain why Trump rallied the working-class base that had long eluded Republican politicians.  Trump and his advisers noticed what had been clear for some time: for many decades, the Democrats generally took the harder line on immigration, even if neither national party offered steady resistance. Although both parties voted for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for that legislation in Congress.

The most vocal opposition to this reform came from Southern Democrats, who feared that the immigration act would change the ethnic profile of the country by removing national quotas.  Republicans had no interest in the concern raised in 1965 by North Carolina Democratic senator Sam Ervin: 

The people of Ethiopia have the same right to come to the United States under this bill as the people from England, the people of France, the people of Germany, [and] the people of Holland.  With all due respect to Ethiopia, I don’t know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.

The most comprehensive amnesty act ever passed by any administration (it granted amnesty to over three million illegals) was under President Reagan in 1986, and it enjoyed near unanimous Republican congressional support.  A major opponent of immigration in the 1990s was a black Democratic congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordan, who believed that immigration drives down the wages of poor whites and blacks.  It is important to recognize that Jordan and her Democratic supporters were not making the cultural conservative argument advanced by Senator Ervin and his Southern Democratic colleagues in the 1960s.  They were making traditional working-class arguments against immigration, arguments that had been heard from the American Federation of Labor in the first half of the twentieth century and from the French Communist Party after World War II.  But this opposition to increased immigration stood in stark contrast to the multicultural perspective of the current Democratic Party and the corporate capitalist donor base of the GOP.  Significantly, Jordan’s position continued to resonate in Ralph Nader’s presidential races in 2000 and 2004.  It was also reflected in Bernie Sanders’s vote against the immigration reform act of 2007, which he thought would hurt low-paid American workers.

There are good reasons why the Republicans before Trump were arguably the more leftist party on immigration and why their flagship paper, the Wall Street Journal, has toyed with the idea of open borders.  Providing a steady supply of cheap labor in accordance with the wishes of corporate executives and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was one reason; trying to signal that the GOP, despite its continued WASP appeal, is open to minorities was another one.  Another possible source of Republican enthusiasm for immigration has been the influence of neoconservative ideology on Republican operatives.  According to neoconservative doctrine, the United States is a universal democracy and propositional nation, and therefore suitability for citizenship should be based on the acceptance of neoconservative ideas about democratic equality.  In any case, up until the time the Democrats began to champion ethnic and lifestyle grievances, they were generally the more conservative of our two parties on immigration.

In the 1950s, they were also the more conservative party on cultural issues, as any informed denizen of the Northeast might have recognized.  George W. Bush’s grandfather, Prescott, was our senator in Connecticut, and he and his son George H.W. Bush and their wives were generous backers of Planned Parenthood.  Most Democrats when I was growing up in Connecticut were ethnic Catholics, and they attended Mass regularly and supported the Catholic Legion of Decency.  They were also okay with the ban on the public sale of contraceptives.  This ban in Connecticut was kept in place by the Catholic Democratic state government, even if the governor happened to be a left-leaning Jew.  Needless to say, the Southern Democrats were probably to the right of our Democrats on race and immigration issues, although one of the most conservative Democrats of my acquaintance was my father’s friend, our Connecticut senator Tom Dodd.  Tom would breathe fire and brimstone whenever the commies were mentioned or the term “hippie” came up in conversation.  His son, Chris, who succeeded him, was of course another story.  Almost all my school teachers from K through 8th grade were Irish-Catholic ladies who went to Mass several times a week.  They were Democrats but, like the Kennedy family, ardent admirers of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

These attitudes were indicative of where many Democrats of an earlier generation stood, before the great transformation that carried the party to the left of the Republicans on social and cultural issues took place.  Thereafter, the GOP was pushed willy-nilly into the role of a culturally conservative party, something it did not have to be when it was still the party of big business and sociological Protestants.  During the Cold War, Republican politicians became ardent advocates of military buildup and have remained so ever since.  But being for military spending is different from trying to fill the cultural and moral void that was created when the Democrats became the party of LGBT, feminist, and Black nationalist activists.

Trump has rattled establishment Republicans, and part of the reason may be his bad manners and frenzied tweeting.  But the president may also have driven the NeverTrumps out of their comfort zone because of his alliance with the old Democratic Party, including Southern Baptists, the white ethnic working class, and critics of largely unrestricted immigration.  When Trump came down the golden escalator on June 16, 2015 to announce his presidential candidacy, he became overnight the hero to those abandoned Democrats.



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Bill Kristol Is Not Yet Out


I’ve just been reading on Breitbart a tirade against Bill Kristol, which features a comparison between this supposedly falling neocon star and the author’s friend Tony, who landed in jail after stabbing his ex-wife’s lover.  Just like Tony, who unsuccessfully tried to attract his divorced wife’s attention, Bill, we are told, is going nuts in expressing his contempt for Donald Trump.  But like Tony, who in a fit of frustration destroyed his own life, Bill may be self-destructing as he disses a transformed conservative establishment.

I’m not sure that this labored comparison works since I’ve no idea what the equivalent is in Bill’s case to Tony “being sent to jail.”  Anyhow I’ve seen other more forceful recent attacks on Kristol from Trump-supporters and even vanilla conservatives, and while I fully share their distaste for their target, I doubt that any of them is entirely correct.  If my own understanding of the conservative movement is accurate, then Kristol’s critics assume a degree of flexibility in their movement that’s not really there.  The current conservative movement came to be what it is because of those interests that shaped it.  Its donor base is made up noticeably of supporters of weapon procurement and foreign policy hawks.  These benefactors are very much in line with Kristol’s Weekly Standard and the Washington Free Beacon, run by Bill’s son-in-law, Matthew Continetti.  Paul Singer, Rupert Murdoch, Sheldon Adelson, and other backers of neoconservative enterprises and Washington “conservative” think-tanks are unlikely to abandon Bill Kristol simply because he’s taken whacks at The Donald, whom most of these donors also hate – or barely tolerate.  Nor has Kristol broken all ties to his old associates.  He never followed George Will’s lead in dissociating himself from the Republican Party.  Indeed, he remains a registered Republican and is still something of a “#NeverTrump conservative.”

Moreover, the conservative movement, at least since the end of the Cold War, has excommunicated right-wing dissenters but never to my knowledge those who have leaned too far toward the left.  During the Cold War, expulsions took place because of insufficient belligerence toward the Soviet Union, as in the case of my deceased friend Murray Rothbard, but only rarely because conservative publicists were deemed too far to the right.  But since the 1980s, expulsions have occurred because the excommunicated were considered right-wing nuisances.  As Jonah Goldberg points out, it was necessary for the movement to “throw friends and allies off the bus from time to time.”  Those who stressed racial disparities, criticized civil rights legislation, or were viewed as “isolationists” in foreign policy, and therefore accused of fascist sympathies, have been the recent targets of conservative movement purges.  Equally suspect have been those deemed insufficiently pro-Israel, which is not surprising, given the movement’s donor base and its desire to attract Christian Zionist support.

Kristol has been guilty of left-wing deviationism, but with extenuating circumstances.  He shares the foreign policy interests of conservative donors, and even while he opposes Trump’s plan for a military parade (because he loathes Trump), he has underlined his continued devotion to the military.  He remains on excellent terms with the mainstream media, which should enhance his desirability as a “moderate” conservative, as opposed to someone who might be mistaken for an Alt-Right sympathizer.  Most importantly, like his friends David Frum and Bret Stephens, Bill has distanced himself from the conservative movement because he rejects Donald Trump and his attempted restrictions on immigration.  Unlike Jason Richwine, John Derbyshire, and others who were cast into outer darkness for being too far on the right, Kristol turned his back by his own volition on his erstwhile colleagues.

Further, since the conservative movement engages with the liberal media and since this interaction depends to some extent on enjoying tolerable and even amicable relations with one’s debating partners, mainstream conservatives wish to remain clubbable.  They’ve no desire to look too reactionary in dealing with an influential opposition, just as they wouldn’t care to give that unflattering impression in trying to attract socially liberal but militarily aggressive potential donors.  Mainstream conservatives also have an interest in being published in the Washington Post or, even better, being invited to become “house conservatives” at the New York Times.  I couldn’t imagine how it would advance their careers (and yes, we are talking about making it professionally) if they contributed to a race realist website or ascribed the Civil War to causes other than slavery.  

Except for his recent move toward the left, it is hard to find anyone who meets the requirements of being a normative conservative better than Bill Kristol.  This is the case even without factoring in another one of his many assets: his longtime family ties to the New York journalistic and publishing community.  One may reasonably predict that if Kristol decides to return to the fold, he’ll be welcomed back by pro-Trump and anti-Trump Republicans alike.  Fox News features both schools of opinion.  It also showcases an avowed Hillary voter, Ralph Peterson, who is perpetually calling on the president he voted against to bomb some faraway country.  But this is not surprising.  Loads of self-described conservatives, including Peggy Noonan and Francis Fukayama, wrote puff pieces about Obama in 2008 and may well have voted for him.  But none of these Obama enthusiasts lost his standing within the conservative movement because of an excusable lurch to the left.  It is entirely possible that if Bill condescends to return, all recent diatribes against him will disappear from conservative movement archives, just as Hillary’s classified emails vanished from her computer.

I’ve just been reading on Breitbart a tirade against Bill Kristol, which features a comparison between this supposedly falling neocon star and the author’s friend Tony, who landed in jail after stabbing his ex-wife’s lover.  Just like Tony, who unsuccessfully tried to attract his divorced wife’s attention, Bill, we are told, is going nuts in expressing his contempt for Donald Trump.  But like Tony, who in a fit of frustration destroyed his own life, Bill may be self-destructing as he disses a transformed conservative establishment.

I’m not sure that this labored comparison works since I’ve no idea what the equivalent is in Bill’s case to Tony “being sent to jail.”  Anyhow I’ve seen other more forceful recent attacks on Kristol from Trump-supporters and even vanilla conservatives, and while I fully share their distaste for their target, I doubt that any of them is entirely correct.  If my own understanding of the conservative movement is accurate, then Kristol’s critics assume a degree of flexibility in their movement that’s not really there.  The current conservative movement came to be what it is because of those interests that shaped it.  Its donor base is made up noticeably of supporters of weapon procurement and foreign policy hawks.  These benefactors are very much in line with Kristol’s Weekly Standard and the Washington Free Beacon, run by Bill’s son-in-law, Matthew Continetti.  Paul Singer, Rupert Murdoch, Sheldon Adelson, and other backers of neoconservative enterprises and Washington “conservative” think-tanks are unlikely to abandon Bill Kristol simply because he’s taken whacks at The Donald, whom most of these donors also hate – or barely tolerate.  Nor has Kristol broken all ties to his old associates.  He never followed George Will’s lead in dissociating himself from the Republican Party.  Indeed, he remains a registered Republican and is still something of a “#NeverTrump conservative.”

Moreover, the conservative movement, at least since the end of the Cold War, has excommunicated right-wing dissenters but never to my knowledge those who have leaned too far toward the left.  During the Cold War, expulsions took place because of insufficient belligerence toward the Soviet Union, as in the case of my deceased friend Murray Rothbard, but only rarely because conservative publicists were deemed too far to the right.  But since the 1980s, expulsions have occurred because the excommunicated were considered right-wing nuisances.  As Jonah Goldberg points out, it was necessary for the movement to “throw friends and allies off the bus from time to time.”  Those who stressed racial disparities, criticized civil rights legislation, or were viewed as “isolationists” in foreign policy, and therefore accused of fascist sympathies, have been the recent targets of conservative movement purges.  Equally suspect have been those deemed insufficiently pro-Israel, which is not surprising, given the movement’s donor base and its desire to attract Christian Zionist support.

Kristol has been guilty of left-wing deviationism, but with extenuating circumstances.  He shares the foreign policy interests of conservative donors, and even while he opposes Trump’s plan for a military parade (because he loathes Trump), he has underlined his continued devotion to the military.  He remains on excellent terms with the mainstream media, which should enhance his desirability as a “moderate” conservative, as opposed to someone who might be mistaken for an Alt-Right sympathizer.  Most importantly, like his friends David Frum and Bret Stephens, Bill has distanced himself from the conservative movement because he rejects Donald Trump and his attempted restrictions on immigration.  Unlike Jason Richwine, John Derbyshire, and others who were cast into outer darkness for being too far on the right, Kristol turned his back by his own volition on his erstwhile colleagues.

Further, since the conservative movement engages with the liberal media and since this interaction depends to some extent on enjoying tolerable and even amicable relations with one’s debating partners, mainstream conservatives wish to remain clubbable.  They’ve no desire to look too reactionary in dealing with an influential opposition, just as they wouldn’t care to give that unflattering impression in trying to attract socially liberal but militarily aggressive potential donors.  Mainstream conservatives also have an interest in being published in the Washington Post or, even better, being invited to become “house conservatives” at the New York Times.  I couldn’t imagine how it would advance their careers (and yes, we are talking about making it professionally) if they contributed to a race realist website or ascribed the Civil War to causes other than slavery.  

Except for his recent move toward the left, it is hard to find anyone who meets the requirements of being a normative conservative better than Bill Kristol.  This is the case even without factoring in another one of his many assets: his longtime family ties to the New York journalistic and publishing community.  One may reasonably predict that if Kristol decides to return to the fold, he’ll be welcomed back by pro-Trump and anti-Trump Republicans alike.  Fox News features both schools of opinion.  It also showcases an avowed Hillary voter, Ralph Peterson, who is perpetually calling on the president he voted against to bomb some faraway country.  But this is not surprising.  Loads of self-described conservatives, including Peggy Noonan and Francis Fukayama, wrote puff pieces about Obama in 2008 and may well have voted for him.  But none of these Obama enthusiasts lost his standing within the conservative movement because of an excusable lurch to the left.  It is entirely possible that if Bill condescends to return, all recent diatribes against him will disappear from conservative movement archives, just as Hillary’s classified emails vanished from her computer.



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Inventing the Political Center


I’ve just been reading in the New York Post about the need for “centrist” politics in our polarized society. Post columnists, John Podhoretz and Seth Lipsky have both deplored an eroding center in American political life. Podhoretz compares the rampaging anti-Trump Left to the Tea Party, since both have made immoderate demands on our political leaders. Supposedly the Left “is becoming everything it hated,” by coming to resemble Republican extremists. Lipsky,  in his defense of the center, points to Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who in a recent biography by Hendrik Meijer is shown to be the quintessential Republican moderate. Lipsky pairs Vandenberg with “a member of my favorite endangered species, the centrist Democrat,” a type that he finds embodied in Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is upset by “the collapse of bipartisanship in Washington.” 

Joe Manchin has indeed voted more often than any other Democratic senator for Trump’s cabinet nominees, and even approved Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. But with regard to Trump’s landmark legislation, like the recently passed tax bill and the attempted repeal of ObamaCare, Manchin has predictably voted with the Democrats. This legislator, according to Lipsky, may be thinking about hanging it all up but not necessarily for the idealistic reason that Lipsky gives. Manchin comes from a state in which Trump is quite popular, and in all likelihood the electorate in West Virginia will vote in the majority for a Republican to succeed their current Democratic Senator. 

Arthur Vandenberg did in fact practice bipartisanship in foreign policy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which meant cooperating with the Democratic administrations of FDR and Truman. Moreover, Vandenberg followed this course until his death in 1951. For years he was the Democrats’ favorite Republican senator; and he was instrumental in winning congressional support for the Marshall Plan and for aid to Greece against Communist efforts to take over that country after the Second World War. Domestically, however, the Michigan senator was a fairly traditional Republican and as Lipsky admits, highly critical of the New Deal. He famously stood in opposition to the National Labor Relations Act in 1936 and objected to other New Deal measures undertaken by Roosevelt during his second term.

Although I agree that Vandenberg was a fine fellow, I’m at a loss for what relevance he has for today’s politics. Would he have taken a “moderate” view on sanctuary cities? What about anti-fascist demonstrators or people asking for visas from countries infested with Islamicists? I for one doubt that Vandenberg, Truman, or anyone else in American national politics in the late 1940s would have yielded on these issues. On social questions there was no significant difference between the two national parties in the 1940s and 1950s. By current standards both were reactionary and insensitive. I’ve also no idea how one can be a “centrist” on much of what today divides us. What is the centrist position for requiring transgender restrooms in all public facilities? What about requiring Christian bakers to make wedding cakes for gay nuptials?

The call for centrist politics seems endemic to “Never-Trump conservatives,” like John Kasich, Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, and the editorial staffs of some of our authorized conservative publications. Still, it is worth asking whether these advocates of centrism are serious in their application of this term to themselves. Some self-described American political centrists remind me of how the Catholic Zentrumspartei (Center Party) approached parliamentary politics in late 19th-century Imperial Germany. Factions in the Center Party spanned the socioeconomic spectrum in the Reichstag from being pro-capitalist to being open to the economic programs advanced by the socialists. What held them together, however, were loyalty to the Catholic Church and determination to maintain the Church’s structure of authority in the German Empire. The Center Party could embrace its own brand of diversity, providing that the deputies and party leadership were agreed in their dedication to upholding the interests of the Church.

Similarly our would-be centrists and Never-Trump conservatives (by now the two terms may be mostly interchangeable) present different views on some things but also predictable loyalties. In their hatred for Trump, exuberant support for Doug Jones in the Alabama senatorial race, and drumbeat support for amnestying and granting citizenship to the DACA recipients and their families, these folks stand with the establishment. And this shouldn’t surprise us. We are talking about people who live and breathe the same air as their liberal friends and colleagues. If they’re looking for social acceptance, it’s not the folks in flyover country whose acceptance they crave. They are centrist in the sense that they are centered on an unchanging source of authority, namely, on how their liberal friends and the WaPo assess them as people. They also believe in the essential goodness of the political establishment, even if not all of them go quite so far as Bill Kristol in affirming fidelity to the “deep state.”

Centrism is not about occupying a vital center between two extremes, although our centrists sometimes claim they’re doing this. But they are characterizing themselves correctly in one critical respect. They wish to occupy the juste milieu as defined by the socially respectable Left and by fans of an expanding administrative state.  Although their efforts to fit in may not benefit our country, those who call themselves “centrists” are making defensible career decisions. At the very least they won’t be attacked by their peers at cocktail parties as riffraff.

 

I’ve just been reading in the New York Post about the need for “centrist” politics in our polarized society. Post columnists, John Podhoretz and Seth Lipsky have both deplored an eroding center in American political life. Podhoretz compares the rampaging anti-Trump Left to the Tea Party, since both have made immoderate demands on our political leaders. Supposedly the Left “is becoming everything it hated,” by coming to resemble Republican extremists. Lipsky,  in his defense of the center, points to Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who in a recent biography by Hendrik Meijer is shown to be the quintessential Republican moderate. Lipsky pairs Vandenberg with “a member of my favorite endangered species, the centrist Democrat,” a type that he finds embodied in Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is upset by “the collapse of bipartisanship in Washington.” 

Joe Manchin has indeed voted more often than any other Democratic senator for Trump’s cabinet nominees, and even approved Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. But with regard to Trump’s landmark legislation, like the recently passed tax bill and the attempted repeal of ObamaCare, Manchin has predictably voted with the Democrats. This legislator, according to Lipsky, may be thinking about hanging it all up but not necessarily for the idealistic reason that Lipsky gives. Manchin comes from a state in which Trump is quite popular, and in all likelihood the electorate in West Virginia will vote in the majority for a Republican to succeed their current Democratic Senator. 

Arthur Vandenberg did in fact practice bipartisanship in foreign policy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which meant cooperating with the Democratic administrations of FDR and Truman. Moreover, Vandenberg followed this course until his death in 1951. For years he was the Democrats’ favorite Republican senator; and he was instrumental in winning congressional support for the Marshall Plan and for aid to Greece against Communist efforts to take over that country after the Second World War. Domestically, however, the Michigan senator was a fairly traditional Republican and as Lipsky admits, highly critical of the New Deal. He famously stood in opposition to the National Labor Relations Act in 1936 and objected to other New Deal measures undertaken by Roosevelt during his second term.

Although I agree that Vandenberg was a fine fellow, I’m at a loss for what relevance he has for today’s politics. Would he have taken a “moderate” view on sanctuary cities? What about anti-fascist demonstrators or people asking for visas from countries infested with Islamicists? I for one doubt that Vandenberg, Truman, or anyone else in American national politics in the late 1940s would have yielded on these issues. On social questions there was no significant difference between the two national parties in the 1940s and 1950s. By current standards both were reactionary and insensitive. I’ve also no idea how one can be a “centrist” on much of what today divides us. What is the centrist position for requiring transgender restrooms in all public facilities? What about requiring Christian bakers to make wedding cakes for gay nuptials?

The call for centrist politics seems endemic to “Never-Trump conservatives,” like John Kasich, Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, and the editorial staffs of some of our authorized conservative publications. Still, it is worth asking whether these advocates of centrism are serious in their application of this term to themselves. Some self-described American political centrists remind me of how the Catholic Zentrumspartei (Center Party) approached parliamentary politics in late 19th-century Imperial Germany. Factions in the Center Party spanned the socioeconomic spectrum in the Reichstag from being pro-capitalist to being open to the economic programs advanced by the socialists. What held them together, however, were loyalty to the Catholic Church and determination to maintain the Church’s structure of authority in the German Empire. The Center Party could embrace its own brand of diversity, providing that the deputies and party leadership were agreed in their dedication to upholding the interests of the Church.

Similarly our would-be centrists and Never-Trump conservatives (by now the two terms may be mostly interchangeable) present different views on some things but also predictable loyalties. In their hatred for Trump, exuberant support for Doug Jones in the Alabama senatorial race, and drumbeat support for amnestying and granting citizenship to the DACA recipients and their families, these folks stand with the establishment. And this shouldn’t surprise us. We are talking about people who live and breathe the same air as their liberal friends and colleagues. If they’re looking for social acceptance, it’s not the folks in flyover country whose acceptance they crave. They are centrist in the sense that they are centered on an unchanging source of authority, namely, on how their liberal friends and the WaPo assess them as people. They also believe in the essential goodness of the political establishment, even if not all of them go quite so far as Bill Kristol in affirming fidelity to the “deep state.”

Centrism is not about occupying a vital center between two extremes, although our centrists sometimes claim they’re doing this. But they are characterizing themselves correctly in one critical respect. They wish to occupy the juste milieu as defined by the socially respectable Left and by fans of an expanding administrative state.  Although their efforts to fit in may not benefit our country, those who call themselves “centrists” are making defensible career decisions. At the very least they won’t be attacked by their peers at cocktail parties as riffraff.

 



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Does Conservative Populism Exist?


Having just read Matt Purple’s comments on The American Conservative website why “Bannonism will live on,” I thought I’d weigh in as a critical observer of what now passes for the “conservative movement.” Like Bannon, I have generally chastised that movement from the Right. But like Mr. Purple, I find President Trump’s erstwhile adviser to be downright inept in selling his conservative populist message. Bannon has behaved like an egomaniac, who viciously turned on the president he was supposed to be assisting. He couldn’t even serve the populist cause he purports to believe in without making it entirely about himself. Some of Bannon’s more widely-publicized political choices, such as favoring Judge Roy Moore for the vacant senatorial seat in Alabama, is a case in point. His involvement in that race gave him ample opportunity to exhibit himself on camera, in his bag man attire and four o’clock shadow. But we know how disastrously that race turned out. Despite his supposedly persuasive rhetoric, moreover, I don’t think that I’ve ever heard Bannon say anything memorable or notably coherent.

But my criticism goes beyond Bannon’s demeanor and extends to the populist brand that he’s selling. Although I’m not categorically against the Right embracing populist tactics, I just don’t think these tools can work well in the U.S. Populism assumes a high degree of homogeneity, cultural, historic, and ethnic, among the “majority” to whom a populist leader appeals. The white working class base that Bannon and Trump have targeted includes no more than about 35% of the voting population; and at least that number of voters and probably more are allied to the cultural and social Left.

Bannon, Stephen Miller, and the American Greatness crowd are always claiming they’ll bring American blacks into their populist alliance. But in Alabama and Virginia black turnout for Democratic senatorial candidates, in what was at least partly an expression of anti-Trump sentiment, was over 95%. It doesn’t matter that Trump’s policies have helped blacks and Hispanics economically. There’s no indication that help is even minimally appreciated, and even less that racial minorities are running to join an expanding populist alliance. Ditto for college-educated, upwardly mobile women, who are running toward the social-cultural left in droves. Despite the continuing protests of pro-Trump populist websites against the legalization of DACA Dreamers, 69% of American adults polled in favor this measure. Although there may be good reasons to oppose the legalization, “the people” and the democratic will are not among them.

Much of what Bannon has advocated as populist nationalism seems to be a grab bag of his own preferences, combining tough trade deals with the Pacific Rim, increased solidarity with the Israeli government, and a general relaxation of relations with Russia. Although Bannon may be able to defend his individual positions, I’m not sure they amount to a populist posture. And while I fully share Bannon’s traditionalist views on social moral questions, I doubt they represent what a majority of the American population believe about any of them. When the Trump administration ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat air base in Syria in April, 2017, Bannon opposed that move as not being in America’s interest. Are we supposed to think that Bannon was taking a “populist” position because it was he who took it? If so, would his stance have been equally “populist” if it had been the opposite of the position he took, by virtue of the fact that he took it?  In contrast to our situation, leaders of the populist Right in Hungary, Poland and Serbia usually speak for the views of most of their citizenry. They don’t have to fabricate their “people.”

Allow me to offer a much less exuberant description than Bannon’s of what the American Right might be reduced to if present demographic and cultural trends in the U.S. continue. And please note that I’m referring to the “real Right” as opposed to GOP deal-makers and centrists who are eager to compromise in order to stay in the political game.  A moment of disenchantment for this Right is bound to come sooner or later.  At that point it will have to stop deluding itself that “the people are behind us,” when most of them are not. The wisest strategy may be for cultural and social traditionalists (and those are the ones I’m addressing) to try to protect themselves against the “popular will,” as more and more of that will is likely to be found on the enemy side.

The right must try to limit immigration if for no other reason than because it increases the electoral power of a well-organized left; and it must work to decentralize administration in order to allow non-leftist minorities to continue to have influence over their political fate. Least of all should the right (as opposed to neoconservatives) be interested in having the U.S. play the role of global policewoman or try to impose what it considers “human rights” on societies that have no interest in them. One might of course wish that “conservative” foundations devoted the same energy and resources to these stands as they do to promoting the purchase of new weaponry by the Pentagon. But that may be more than one has a right to expect. 

Having just read Matt Purple’s comments on The American Conservative website why “Bannonism will live on,” I thought I’d weigh in as a critical observer of what now passes for the “conservative movement.” Like Bannon, I have generally chastised that movement from the Right. But like Mr. Purple, I find President Trump’s erstwhile adviser to be downright inept in selling his conservative populist message. Bannon has behaved like an egomaniac, who viciously turned on the president he was supposed to be assisting. He couldn’t even serve the populist cause he purports to believe in without making it entirely about himself. Some of Bannon’s more widely-publicized political choices, such as favoring Judge Roy Moore for the vacant senatorial seat in Alabama, is a case in point. His involvement in that race gave him ample opportunity to exhibit himself on camera, in his bag man attire and four o’clock shadow. But we know how disastrously that race turned out. Despite his supposedly persuasive rhetoric, moreover, I don’t think that I’ve ever heard Bannon say anything memorable or notably coherent.

But my criticism goes beyond Bannon’s demeanor and extends to the populist brand that he’s selling. Although I’m not categorically against the Right embracing populist tactics, I just don’t think these tools can work well in the U.S. Populism assumes a high degree of homogeneity, cultural, historic, and ethnic, among the “majority” to whom a populist leader appeals. The white working class base that Bannon and Trump have targeted includes no more than about 35% of the voting population; and at least that number of voters and probably more are allied to the cultural and social Left.

Bannon, Stephen Miller, and the American Greatness crowd are always claiming they’ll bring American blacks into their populist alliance. But in Alabama and Virginia black turnout for Democratic senatorial candidates, in what was at least partly an expression of anti-Trump sentiment, was over 95%. It doesn’t matter that Trump’s policies have helped blacks and Hispanics economically. There’s no indication that help is even minimally appreciated, and even less that racial minorities are running to join an expanding populist alliance. Ditto for college-educated, upwardly mobile women, who are running toward the social-cultural left in droves. Despite the continuing protests of pro-Trump populist websites against the legalization of DACA Dreamers, 69% of American adults polled in favor this measure. Although there may be good reasons to oppose the legalization, “the people” and the democratic will are not among them.

Much of what Bannon has advocated as populist nationalism seems to be a grab bag of his own preferences, combining tough trade deals with the Pacific Rim, increased solidarity with the Israeli government, and a general relaxation of relations with Russia. Although Bannon may be able to defend his individual positions, I’m not sure they amount to a populist posture. And while I fully share Bannon’s traditionalist views on social moral questions, I doubt they represent what a majority of the American population believe about any of them. When the Trump administration ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat air base in Syria in April, 2017, Bannon opposed that move as not being in America’s interest. Are we supposed to think that Bannon was taking a “populist” position because it was he who took it? If so, would his stance have been equally “populist” if it had been the opposite of the position he took, by virtue of the fact that he took it?  In contrast to our situation, leaders of the populist Right in Hungary, Poland and Serbia usually speak for the views of most of their citizenry. They don’t have to fabricate their “people.”

Allow me to offer a much less exuberant description than Bannon’s of what the American Right might be reduced to if present demographic and cultural trends in the U.S. continue. And please note that I’m referring to the “real Right” as opposed to GOP deal-makers and centrists who are eager to compromise in order to stay in the political game.  A moment of disenchantment for this Right is bound to come sooner or later.  At that point it will have to stop deluding itself that “the people are behind us,” when most of them are not. The wisest strategy may be for cultural and social traditionalists (and those are the ones I’m addressing) to try to protect themselves against the “popular will,” as more and more of that will is likely to be found on the enemy side.

The right must try to limit immigration if for no other reason than because it increases the electoral power of a well-organized left; and it must work to decentralize administration in order to allow non-leftist minorities to continue to have influence over their political fate. Least of all should the right (as opposed to neoconservatives) be interested in having the U.S. play the role of global policewoman or try to impose what it considers “human rights” on societies that have no interest in them. One might of course wish that “conservative” foundations devoted the same energy and resources to these stands as they do to promoting the purchase of new weaponry by the Pentagon. But that may be more than one has a right to expect. 



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Conservatives Ignore the Obvious


For a long time, it’s been obvious that GOP politicians and media personalities bend backwards to avoid raising what are supposed to be settled social issues, lest they turn off certain voting blocs.  Whether it’s the Supreme Court redefining marriage for all fifty states, the dismantling of Confederate monuments, or wishing to find a “path to citizenship” for various groups that are here illegally, Republican public relations experts try not to notice these issues, except to criticize those who won’t accept “necessary” or “positive” change.  This attitude is partly attributable to the fact that Republicans are trying to capture at least some of the culturally leftist Millennial vote.  What’s more, they’re hoping not to get hammered too badly among racial and ethnic minorities that typically vote for the left (here, in Canada, and in Western Europe).

The Republican establishment and their conspicuously neoconservative advisers, moreover, have their own interests and donor base.  Evangelicals in Texas may contribute votes to Republican victories, but contrary to the prevalent opinion of the Huffington Post and the British Guardian, these pious souls don’t run the party.  GOP operatives in all probability don’t give a rap about overturning the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage to please moral and social traditionalists, but they do favor what their respectable donor base want: a pro-activist foreign policy, tax breaks for corporations, and widening their electoral base among left-leaning blocs.

If any doubt in this matter ever crept into my mind, it was immediately dispelled by a conversation I heard on Fox News on January 3 between Chris Stirewalt and Karl Rove.

The topic these GOP worthies were supposed to be addressing is whether Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has a serious shot at wresting the presidency from Donald Trump.  Both thought this senator is most definitely a serious competitor, who combines Trump’s populist appeal with a flamboyant speaking style.  The question that Rove and Stirewalt couldn’t agree on is whether Warren believes in “markets,” as she said she did at some point in her career.  Stirewalt viewed her as some kind of defender of capitalism despite her attacks on Wall Street, while Rove questioned whether she really meant whatever she once said about “markets.”

Let me make clear that from what I’ve heard her say, for example, at the Woman’s March (against Donald Trump) last year.  It seems that Senator Warren is an agitated feminist, a fervent advocate of Black Lives Matter, and a champion of every demand put forth by LGBQT activists.  Missing in this side of her political persona is a monumental omission, and presumably, Stirewalt and Rove were committing this omission as “professional” Republicans, who are conceding troublesome social issues to the left while focusing on something called “markets.”

Let me say that even if I were an outright Marxist, I would still not vote for Warren, who is not really a socialist, but a crazed warrior against the list of human prejudices she ascribes to everyone who disagrees with her.  Her rant at the Women’s March suggested a cultural Marxist on steroids.  In any case, her attitudes about “markets” would be the last thing I’d worry about if Warren became president.  That would be like judging Castro by whether he was providing enough Band-Aids for health clinics in downtown Havana or Cesar Chávez by how many soccer balls he gave out to needy kids.

This careful sidestepping of the problem of Warren’s true radicalism may tell us something about how Stirewalt and Rove would have a GOP candidate run against her in a presidential race – say, Trump if they condescend to back him in 2020.  This hypothetical candidate would never be allowed to contest any of her social positions or the continuing recriminations leveled by Warren against her opponent as a sexist, misogynist, homophobe, or whatever other slur she raises against the target of her attacks.  They would have to focus on the effect of tax cuts, their greater ability relative to Democrats to intercept domestic terrorists, and saying more often than their competitors that the U.S. is the best country that ever existed.  If forced to choose between the model candidate of Stirewalt and Rove and the perpetually outraged feminist from Massachusetts, I doubt that I could even bring myself to vote.

Having said that, I also believe that the U.S. and most other Western countries have swung so sharply to the left on social issues over the last thirty years that the conflict-avoiding, pro-Wall Street GOP establishment may be right in its strategy even if it gives no evidence of being socially conservative.  For example, although it was unusual to find anyone, outside certain social circles, thirty years ago who thought marriage should be extended to two members of the same sex, by January 2015, 60% of those polled nationwide by CBS considered the redefinition of marriage to be not only admirable, but also a “fundamental human right.”  If someone asked me whether in light of this mass conversion I could conceive of Americans, Canadians, and Germans thirty years hence extending the legal definition of marriage to a father and daughter or to a group “marriage” among three generations of the same family, I would immediately answer, “Why not?”  Providing that the public is made to believe it’s fighting rank bigots who oppose the further discovery of “fundamental rights,” most Americans, Canadians, and (if their country still exists) Germans will be happy to view themselves as standing once again on what for former President Obama is “the right side of history.”

Despite the fact that the left has won the culture wars hands down, with a big assist from public administration and the judiciary, Stirewalt and Rove may well believe that their party can survive by making the right moves.  Republican P.R. experts will have to convince a largely leftward-leaning electorate that it can profit by voting for candidates with the red label rather than the blue one.  Appeals to the pocketbook and physical security may still work for those designated as “conservatives” even if other appeals do not.  That assumes that Republican candidates on the model of Mitt Romney make it appear that they support at least in principle the valiant struggles waged by Senator Warren against “prejudice.”  By then, however, even sane people will have to insist that this self-described warrior for equality really cares about whatever college-educated upwardly mobile voters, particularly women, are supposed to care about.

For a long time, it’s been obvious that GOP politicians and media personalities bend backwards to avoid raising what are supposed to be settled social issues, lest they turn off certain voting blocs.  Whether it’s the Supreme Court redefining marriage for all fifty states, the dismantling of Confederate monuments, or wishing to find a “path to citizenship” for various groups that are here illegally, Republican public relations experts try not to notice these issues, except to criticize those who won’t accept “necessary” or “positive” change.  This attitude is partly attributable to the fact that Republicans are trying to capture at least some of the culturally leftist Millennial vote.  What’s more, they’re hoping not to get hammered too badly among racial and ethnic minorities that typically vote for the left (here, in Canada, and in Western Europe).

The Republican establishment and their conspicuously neoconservative advisers, moreover, have their own interests and donor base.  Evangelicals in Texas may contribute votes to Republican victories, but contrary to the prevalent opinion of the Huffington Post and the British Guardian, these pious souls don’t run the party.  GOP operatives in all probability don’t give a rap about overturning the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage to please moral and social traditionalists, but they do favor what their respectable donor base want: a pro-activist foreign policy, tax breaks for corporations, and widening their electoral base among left-leaning blocs.

If any doubt in this matter ever crept into my mind, it was immediately dispelled by a conversation I heard on Fox News on January 3 between Chris Stirewalt and Karl Rove.

The topic these GOP worthies were supposed to be addressing is whether Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has a serious shot at wresting the presidency from Donald Trump.  Both thought this senator is most definitely a serious competitor, who combines Trump’s populist appeal with a flamboyant speaking style.  The question that Rove and Stirewalt couldn’t agree on is whether Warren believes in “markets,” as she said she did at some point in her career.  Stirewalt viewed her as some kind of defender of capitalism despite her attacks on Wall Street, while Rove questioned whether she really meant whatever she once said about “markets.”

Let me make clear that from what I’ve heard her say, for example, at the Woman’s March (against Donald Trump) last year.  It seems that Senator Warren is an agitated feminist, a fervent advocate of Black Lives Matter, and a champion of every demand put forth by LGBQT activists.  Missing in this side of her political persona is a monumental omission, and presumably, Stirewalt and Rove were committing this omission as “professional” Republicans, who are conceding troublesome social issues to the left while focusing on something called “markets.”

Let me say that even if I were an outright Marxist, I would still not vote for Warren, who is not really a socialist, but a crazed warrior against the list of human prejudices she ascribes to everyone who disagrees with her.  Her rant at the Women’s March suggested a cultural Marxist on steroids.  In any case, her attitudes about “markets” would be the last thing I’d worry about if Warren became president.  That would be like judging Castro by whether he was providing enough Band-Aids for health clinics in downtown Havana or Cesar Chávez by how many soccer balls he gave out to needy kids.

This careful sidestepping of the problem of Warren’s true radicalism may tell us something about how Stirewalt and Rove would have a GOP candidate run against her in a presidential race – say, Trump if they condescend to back him in 2020.  This hypothetical candidate would never be allowed to contest any of her social positions or the continuing recriminations leveled by Warren against her opponent as a sexist, misogynist, homophobe, or whatever other slur she raises against the target of her attacks.  They would have to focus on the effect of tax cuts, their greater ability relative to Democrats to intercept domestic terrorists, and saying more often than their competitors that the U.S. is the best country that ever existed.  If forced to choose between the model candidate of Stirewalt and Rove and the perpetually outraged feminist from Massachusetts, I doubt that I could even bring myself to vote.

Having said that, I also believe that the U.S. and most other Western countries have swung so sharply to the left on social issues over the last thirty years that the conflict-avoiding, pro-Wall Street GOP establishment may be right in its strategy even if it gives no evidence of being socially conservative.  For example, although it was unusual to find anyone, outside certain social circles, thirty years ago who thought marriage should be extended to two members of the same sex, by January 2015, 60% of those polled nationwide by CBS considered the redefinition of marriage to be not only admirable, but also a “fundamental human right.”  If someone asked me whether in light of this mass conversion I could conceive of Americans, Canadians, and Germans thirty years hence extending the legal definition of marriage to a father and daughter or to a group “marriage” among three generations of the same family, I would immediately answer, “Why not?”  Providing that the public is made to believe it’s fighting rank bigots who oppose the further discovery of “fundamental rights,” most Americans, Canadians, and (if their country still exists) Germans will be happy to view themselves as standing once again on what for former President Obama is “the right side of history.”

Despite the fact that the left has won the culture wars hands down, with a big assist from public administration and the judiciary, Stirewalt and Rove may well believe that their party can survive by making the right moves.  Republican P.R. experts will have to convince a largely leftward-leaning electorate that it can profit by voting for candidates with the red label rather than the blue one.  Appeals to the pocketbook and physical security may still work for those designated as “conservatives” even if other appeals do not.  That assumes that Republican candidates on the model of Mitt Romney make it appear that they support at least in principle the valiant struggles waged by Senator Warren against “prejudice.”  By then, however, even sane people will have to insist that this self-described warrior for equality really cares about whatever college-educated upwardly mobile voters, particularly women, are supposed to care about.



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Misreading Putin


Last Saturday, President Trump stated that he thought Russian president Putin “meant what he said” when he denied interfering in the American presidential election. Whereupon Senator John McCain shot back that he was shocked that our chief executive “would take the word of a KGB official over that of the American intelligence community.” Leaving aside certain obvious questions, such as whether Trump may be justified in suspecting the trustworthiness of some past leaders of the intelligence community and whether Trump was actually agreeing with Putin’s disclaimer, let’s focus on McCain’s designation of Putin as a “KGB official.” This is the same characterization that one hears repeatedly on Fox-news; indeed Fox-news celebrity Charles Krauthammer usually begins his remarks about Putin by referring to him as the “KGB agent.”

 What is being criticized is not the recognition that Putin learned political tricks while working for the KGB earlier in life. It is rather the attempt to view him and his regime as an extension of the Soviet Communist one. This is a glaring misreading of the cultural and political changes in Russia since the 1990s. There isn’t much evidence that Putin was ever anything but a Russian nationalist, who worked for the Soviet rulers of the Russian empire before they fell from power. Identifying Putin as a left-over Soviet Communist is misleading, and perhaps like characterizing Mussolini in 1930 as a Marxist, because he was a socialist before the Great War. This linkage between Putin and Soviet Communism seems especially popular among geriatric Cold Warriors who may already be nostalgic for the Cold War. It also plays well among a GOP base that like to imagine that they’re still confronting the “evil empire” that President Reagan famously denounced.

But much has changed since the early 1980s. Most of the Western fan base of the present Russian government is situated on the very conservative Right. It is certainly not found among leftists, if we make an exception for the Nation’s Steven Cohen, a leftist Russia expert whom those sympathetic to Putin like to quote. But Cohen’s efforts to show Putin in a favorable light is hardly typical of the Left or of Putin’s neoconservative critics in the U.S.  More typically we find an international gay activist like Jamie Kirchik denouncing Putin as a reactionary homophobe. This Russian despot, complains Kirchik, has banned the presentation of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle in Russian schools and has openly associated gay marriage with Western decadence. Putin has also gone out of his way to advance the moral and social teachings of the Russian Orthodox faith and attacks current Western notions of secularism. At the same time he is refurbishing Orthodox monasteries and churches throughout Russia and boasts that in the last three years atheism has declined in his country by 50%. In June, 2015 Putin announced his intention of “reinstating” what is left of the Russian royal family in their ancestral residence. This is widely regarded as the first step toward restoring the Russian monarchy.

While Western societies rush into a multicultural, PC society, Putin is presenting himself as the defender of Western Christian civilization. He is also, not incidentally, a traditional Russian nationalist pursuing the Russian policy of expansion on his country’s Western border. Although former Soviet satellites are justified in fearing Russian expansionist politics, some Eastern European heads of government now view the Cultural Marxist ideology coming out of the West as even more pernicious for their way of life than Putin’s efforts to reclaim the Soviet empire. Despite Hungary’s unhappy history with Russia, its premier Viktor Orban has expressed sympathy for “elements of Putin’s worldview.” This has also been heard from other traditionalist leaders in Eastern Europe, who, like Hungary, are interested in Russian gas deliveries as well as having a protector against a socially disruptive “Western liberalism.” A complaint made against former National Front head Marine Le Pen during her presidential campaign earlier this year was her praise of Putin’s conservatism.  

Please note that I have not come to praise the Russian president. A Russian nationalist, he seems hell-bent on geopolitical expansion, and his stirring of the pot in the Middle East should be of some concern to our country. Further, because one feels traditionalist repugnance for the cultural transformation undergone by the West in recent decades does not mean that one has to lavish praise on Putin. But it is plainly stupid or dishonest to claim that we are still fighting the Commies or the Soviet “evil empire” when Putin and his government challenge us.  Pat Buchanan has a point when he describes Putin as a “paleoconservative” who stands for a new international Right: “He is seeking to redefine the “Us vs. Them” world conflict of the future as one in which conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent West.” This dialectic, according to Buchanan, changes radically the locations of the two opposing sides at the outset of the Cold War: when Soviet Russia was viewed as the champion of the international Left and the U.S. as the defender of Judeo-Christian-classical civilization locked in combat with “godless Communism.” Whether this change is good or not, I shall leave to others to decide. More relevant here is that the platitudes of the Cold War era no longer apply to the current American-Russian confrontation.         

Last Saturday, President Trump stated that he thought Russian president Putin “meant what he said” when he denied interfering in the American presidential election. Whereupon Senator John McCain shot back that he was shocked that our chief executive “would take the word of a KGB official over that of the American intelligence community.” Leaving aside certain obvious questions, such as whether Trump may be justified in suspecting the trustworthiness of some past leaders of the intelligence community and whether Trump was actually agreeing with Putin’s disclaimer, let’s focus on McCain’s designation of Putin as a “KGB official.” This is the same characterization that one hears repeatedly on Fox-news; indeed Fox-news celebrity Charles Krauthammer usually begins his remarks about Putin by referring to him as the “KGB agent.”

 What is being criticized is not the recognition that Putin learned political tricks while working for the KGB earlier in life. It is rather the attempt to view him and his regime as an extension of the Soviet Communist one. This is a glaring misreading of the cultural and political changes in Russia since the 1990s. There isn’t much evidence that Putin was ever anything but a Russian nationalist, who worked for the Soviet rulers of the Russian empire before they fell from power. Identifying Putin as a left-over Soviet Communist is misleading, and perhaps like characterizing Mussolini in 1930 as a Marxist, because he was a socialist before the Great War. This linkage between Putin and Soviet Communism seems especially popular among geriatric Cold Warriors who may already be nostalgic for the Cold War. It also plays well among a GOP base that like to imagine that they’re still confronting the “evil empire” that President Reagan famously denounced.

But much has changed since the early 1980s. Most of the Western fan base of the present Russian government is situated on the very conservative Right. It is certainly not found among leftists, if we make an exception for the Nation’s Steven Cohen, a leftist Russia expert whom those sympathetic to Putin like to quote. But Cohen’s efforts to show Putin in a favorable light is hardly typical of the Left or of Putin’s neoconservative critics in the U.S.  More typically we find an international gay activist like Jamie Kirchik denouncing Putin as a reactionary homophobe. This Russian despot, complains Kirchik, has banned the presentation of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle in Russian schools and has openly associated gay marriage with Western decadence. Putin has also gone out of his way to advance the moral and social teachings of the Russian Orthodox faith and attacks current Western notions of secularism. At the same time he is refurbishing Orthodox monasteries and churches throughout Russia and boasts that in the last three years atheism has declined in his country by 50%. In June, 2015 Putin announced his intention of “reinstating” what is left of the Russian royal family in their ancestral residence. This is widely regarded as the first step toward restoring the Russian monarchy.

While Western societies rush into a multicultural, PC society, Putin is presenting himself as the defender of Western Christian civilization. He is also, not incidentally, a traditional Russian nationalist pursuing the Russian policy of expansion on his country’s Western border. Although former Soviet satellites are justified in fearing Russian expansionist politics, some Eastern European heads of government now view the Cultural Marxist ideology coming out of the West as even more pernicious for their way of life than Putin’s efforts to reclaim the Soviet empire. Despite Hungary’s unhappy history with Russia, its premier Viktor Orban has expressed sympathy for “elements of Putin’s worldview.” This has also been heard from other traditionalist leaders in Eastern Europe, who, like Hungary, are interested in Russian gas deliveries as well as having a protector against a socially disruptive “Western liberalism.” A complaint made against former National Front head Marine Le Pen during her presidential campaign earlier this year was her praise of Putin’s conservatism.  

Please note that I have not come to praise the Russian president. A Russian nationalist, he seems hell-bent on geopolitical expansion, and his stirring of the pot in the Middle East should be of some concern to our country. Further, because one feels traditionalist repugnance for the cultural transformation undergone by the West in recent decades does not mean that one has to lavish praise on Putin. But it is plainly stupid or dishonest to claim that we are still fighting the Commies or the Soviet “evil empire” when Putin and his government challenge us.  Pat Buchanan has a point when he describes Putin as a “paleoconservative” who stands for a new international Right: “He is seeking to redefine the “Us vs. Them” world conflict of the future as one in which conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent West.” This dialectic, according to Buchanan, changes radically the locations of the two opposing sides at the outset of the Cold War: when Soviet Russia was viewed as the champion of the international Left and the U.S. as the defender of Judeo-Christian-classical civilization locked in combat with “godless Communism.” Whether this change is good or not, I shall leave to others to decide. More relevant here is that the platitudes of the Cold War era no longer apply to the current American-Russian confrontation.         



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Ryszard Legutko and the Failings of Democracy


I consider Ryszard Legutko, former professor at the Jagellonian Institute in Krakow and an adviser to the very conservative president of Poland, to be the greatest living critic of liberal democracy. Please note that I myself produced a trilogy on the same subject, in which one can find many of the same criticisms as those offered by Legutko. But this Polish Catholic scholar does my work more succinctly. What’s more, the translator of his book The Demon in Democracy, Theresa Adelson, has performed a literary and linguistic feat by producing the translation that Encounter Books has made available.

Let me begin by noting for heuristic purposes that John O’Sullivan, who provides a preface for the English edition, understates Legutko’s censures of liberal democracy. Legutko is not complaining about a temporary glitch in liberal democracies in which “the range of acceptable political expression and the ability of voters to choose between policies have both been greatly narrowed.” O’Sullivan is aware of Legutko’s savage attacks on the EU as the prison house of nationalities; and being a (perhaps reluctant) supporter of Brexit, he tries to fit Legutko’s critique of an entire system into a criticism of certain manifestations of contemporary liberal democracy. But Legutko is quite emphatic when he tells us that the omnipresence of administration and imposing “rigorous conformity of thought and conduct” through state education are inherent features of liberal democracy.

Moreover, like socialists, liberal democrats “condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination, intolerance and all other sins listed in the liberal-democratic catechism while also participating in an unimaginable stretching of the meaning of these concepts and depriving them of any explanatory power. All thoughts and modes of linguistic expression are moving within the circle of the same clichés, slogans, spells, and arguments.” There can be no serious conservative opposition within this system, because the respectable opposition on the Right feels driven to argue that they too “are open, pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive, dedicated to the entitlement of individuals and groups, non-discriminatory and even supportive of the claims of feminists and homosexual activists.” I would caution the reader not to confuse Legutko’s brief with the usual rhetoric produced by “conservative” activists complaining about those who are located a few millimeters to their left on the political spectrum. Legutko (properly in my opinion) sees stifling conformity together with trampling on what remains of traditional Western civilization as the necessary outcome of the “democratization of liberalism.” Embedded in this political model, which is the glory of our neoconservatives and neoliberals and which is viewed as a blessing for export, are the dark sides of both liberalism and democracy.

Legutko does concede that these two ideologies do have their brighter sides. Liberalism, as I try to show in my work After Liberalism, promoted the material and educational advances made by nineteenth-century bourgeois society and favored such good things as religious and academic freedom and the abolition of slavery. Democracy in the twentieth century ensured a peaceful transition of party governments and has at least selectively preserved some of the gains of an older liberal constitutionalism. But the combination, according to Legutko, has been ultimately toxic. From liberalism, liberal democracy has taken its militant doctrine of pluralism, which has been turned against the very diversity it claims to be protecting.  Like later liberal democrats, liberals in the nineteenth century viewed their society as the endpoint of human history. In the twentieth century liberal democracy presented itself as the model of “tolerance” toward which the entire human race had to be brought or dragged. There can be no legitimate alternative political or social model.

Legutko quotes the modern defender of Western liberalism, Isaiah Berlin, who contrast his own pluralistic view of human experience with “monism.” Legutko finds two problems with Berlin’s claim to be philosophically and politically tolerant. First, there is the fact that Berlin throws fire and brimstone (and by the way accusations of “fascism”) at those thinkers who haven’t share his supposed openness to all views. Two, Berlin is too smart not to know that just about important Western philosopher, starting with Plato, was a “monist.” Almost all great speculative minds assumed that their view of reality was the correct one and therefore treated rival thinkers and systems as defective. Moreover, liberals already in the nineteenth century regarded their pre-democratic, parliamentary governments as vehicles for serving discrete group interests. These interests were all based on furnishing material favors, which is what governing was reduced to even before the advent of liberal democracy.   

The addition of the “democratic” element to liberal democracy has introduced a tiresome conformity among the populace and the phlegmatic acceptance of social engineering as a way of leveling social differences. Legutko looks at the paradox that “politicians are reluctant to use the word ’republic’ because people tend to associate it with some form of oppressive statism. They definitely prefer the word “democracy” which they have been taught to associate with freedom, openness, and diversity. These associations are wrong, of course, because a republic has a higher internal diversity than a liberal democracy, also incorporating undemocratic institutions (for example, aristocratic and monarchical) and satisfying nondemocratic sensibilities. Liberal democracy is more restrictive, being strongly correlated with egalitarian principles that are quite wrongly believed to generate diversity.” Moreover, democracy since ancient times has been identified with total politicization, and this has hardly changed in the contemporary West. The latest crusade by Western governments and Western elites to impose Political Correctness is fully consonant with the past crusades, led by the U.S., to fight for expanding laundry lists of human rights and whatever goes by the name “pluralism.”

As a former opponent of Communism in his native Poland, Legutko stresses the overlaps between liberal democracy and the Communist vision of society and history. Both are utopian and have looked forward to converting the entire human race to their creeds. Both speak equally about freedom but have imposed their ideologies wherever they can. They have also claimed to be under assault and therefore required to fight foreign enemies incessantly in order to survive. Communism and liberal democracy offer the freest and most tolerant regimes in history, because everyone in their societies have been taught to recite this platitude. The only ones in liberal democracies who are allowed to dissent from the official teaching are designated victims on the Left. Such welcome dissenters are encouraged to complain because what they bewail is music to the ears of elites. As Legutko points out, such dissent is hardly a threat to those in power, since it invites the powerful to seize more of what they’re already addicted to. Legutko also grasps the historical irony that the liberal democratic victor in the Cold War was carrying the same DNA as the side it defeated.

My one small quibble about Legutko’s magnificent critique concerns the downside of what is the strength of his analysis. As a student of ancient political theory, he views certain defects as coming out of the nature of particular regimes. Liberal democracy, in the vocabulary of Aristotle, is a “derailed polity” that combines the worst of two other regimes, in this case oligarchy and democracy. The fusion of the bad sides of both has bequeathed to us an unpleasant, hypocritical government that is constantly weakening once rooted social relations and enslaving us in the name of freedom and diversity. But let’s ask: Would we be facing this problem in the U.S. if certain turning points in our history had not occurred? Was there an irresistible imperative in the constitutional republic that the Founding Fathers set up in 1787 that pushed us in our present direction? If not, at what point did we become the crusader kingdom we eventually became, and one that pulled the old world into its cultural and political orbit?  The dynamics of a form of government can certainly influence the way it develops. But changing circumstances must also be taken into account in understanding its subsequent evolution.         

I consider Ryszard Legutko, former professor at the Jagellonian Institute in Krakow and an adviser to the very conservative president of Poland, to be the greatest living critic of liberal democracy. Please note that I myself produced a trilogy on the same subject, in which one can find many of the same criticisms as those offered by Legutko. But this Polish Catholic scholar does my work more succinctly. What’s more, the translator of his book The Demon in Democracy, Theresa Adelson, has performed a literary and linguistic feat by producing the translation that Encounter Books has made available.

Let me begin by noting for heuristic purposes that John O’Sullivan, who provides a preface for the English edition, understates Legutko’s censures of liberal democracy. Legutko is not complaining about a temporary glitch in liberal democracies in which “the range of acceptable political expression and the ability of voters to choose between policies have both been greatly narrowed.” O’Sullivan is aware of Legutko’s savage attacks on the EU as the prison house of nationalities; and being a (perhaps reluctant) supporter of Brexit, he tries to fit Legutko’s critique of an entire system into a criticism of certain manifestations of contemporary liberal democracy. But Legutko is quite emphatic when he tells us that the omnipresence of administration and imposing “rigorous conformity of thought and conduct” through state education are inherent features of liberal democracy.

Moreover, like socialists, liberal democrats “condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination, intolerance and all other sins listed in the liberal-democratic catechism while also participating in an unimaginable stretching of the meaning of these concepts and depriving them of any explanatory power. All thoughts and modes of linguistic expression are moving within the circle of the same clichés, slogans, spells, and arguments.” There can be no serious conservative opposition within this system, because the respectable opposition on the Right feels driven to argue that they too “are open, pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive, dedicated to the entitlement of individuals and groups, non-discriminatory and even supportive of the claims of feminists and homosexual activists.” I would caution the reader not to confuse Legutko’s brief with the usual rhetoric produced by “conservative” activists complaining about those who are located a few millimeters to their left on the political spectrum. Legutko (properly in my opinion) sees stifling conformity together with trampling on what remains of traditional Western civilization as the necessary outcome of the “democratization of liberalism.” Embedded in this political model, which is the glory of our neoconservatives and neoliberals and which is viewed as a blessing for export, are the dark sides of both liberalism and democracy.

Legutko does concede that these two ideologies do have their brighter sides. Liberalism, as I try to show in my work After Liberalism, promoted the material and educational advances made by nineteenth-century bourgeois society and favored such good things as religious and academic freedom and the abolition of slavery. Democracy in the twentieth century ensured a peaceful transition of party governments and has at least selectively preserved some of the gains of an older liberal constitutionalism. But the combination, according to Legutko, has been ultimately toxic. From liberalism, liberal democracy has taken its militant doctrine of pluralism, which has been turned against the very diversity it claims to be protecting.  Like later liberal democrats, liberals in the nineteenth century viewed their society as the endpoint of human history. In the twentieth century liberal democracy presented itself as the model of “tolerance” toward which the entire human race had to be brought or dragged. There can be no legitimate alternative political or social model.

Legutko quotes the modern defender of Western liberalism, Isaiah Berlin, who contrast his own pluralistic view of human experience with “monism.” Legutko finds two problems with Berlin’s claim to be philosophically and politically tolerant. First, there is the fact that Berlin throws fire and brimstone (and by the way accusations of “fascism”) at those thinkers who haven’t share his supposed openness to all views. Two, Berlin is too smart not to know that just about important Western philosopher, starting with Plato, was a “monist.” Almost all great speculative minds assumed that their view of reality was the correct one and therefore treated rival thinkers and systems as defective. Moreover, liberals already in the nineteenth century regarded their pre-democratic, parliamentary governments as vehicles for serving discrete group interests. These interests were all based on furnishing material favors, which is what governing was reduced to even before the advent of liberal democracy.   

The addition of the “democratic” element to liberal democracy has introduced a tiresome conformity among the populace and the phlegmatic acceptance of social engineering as a way of leveling social differences. Legutko looks at the paradox that “politicians are reluctant to use the word ’republic’ because people tend to associate it with some form of oppressive statism. They definitely prefer the word “democracy” which they have been taught to associate with freedom, openness, and diversity. These associations are wrong, of course, because a republic has a higher internal diversity than a liberal democracy, also incorporating undemocratic institutions (for example, aristocratic and monarchical) and satisfying nondemocratic sensibilities. Liberal democracy is more restrictive, being strongly correlated with egalitarian principles that are quite wrongly believed to generate diversity.” Moreover, democracy since ancient times has been identified with total politicization, and this has hardly changed in the contemporary West. The latest crusade by Western governments and Western elites to impose Political Correctness is fully consonant with the past crusades, led by the U.S., to fight for expanding laundry lists of human rights and whatever goes by the name “pluralism.”

As a former opponent of Communism in his native Poland, Legutko stresses the overlaps between liberal democracy and the Communist vision of society and history. Both are utopian and have looked forward to converting the entire human race to their creeds. Both speak equally about freedom but have imposed their ideologies wherever they can. They have also claimed to be under assault and therefore required to fight foreign enemies incessantly in order to survive. Communism and liberal democracy offer the freest and most tolerant regimes in history, because everyone in their societies have been taught to recite this platitude. The only ones in liberal democracies who are allowed to dissent from the official teaching are designated victims on the Left. Such welcome dissenters are encouraged to complain because what they bewail is music to the ears of elites. As Legutko points out, such dissent is hardly a threat to those in power, since it invites the powerful to seize more of what they’re already addicted to. Legutko also grasps the historical irony that the liberal democratic victor in the Cold War was carrying the same DNA as the side it defeated.

My one small quibble about Legutko’s magnificent critique concerns the downside of what is the strength of his analysis. As a student of ancient political theory, he views certain defects as coming out of the nature of particular regimes. Liberal democracy, in the vocabulary of Aristotle, is a “derailed polity” that combines the worst of two other regimes, in this case oligarchy and democracy. The fusion of the bad sides of both has bequeathed to us an unpleasant, hypocritical government that is constantly weakening once rooted social relations and enslaving us in the name of freedom and diversity. But let’s ask: Would we be facing this problem in the U.S. if certain turning points in our history had not occurred? Was there an irresistible imperative in the constitutional republic that the Founding Fathers set up in 1787 that pushed us in our present direction? If not, at what point did we become the crusader kingdom we eventually became, and one that pulled the old world into its cultural and political orbit?  The dynamics of a form of government can certainly influence the way it develops. But changing circumstances must also be taken into account in understanding its subsequent evolution.         



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