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What the heck is a paleoconservative and why you should care

By Dan E. Phillips
web posted December 18, 2006

Have you ever noticed how enthusiasts of all sorts frequently speak a language that is completely unintelligible to the rest of us? For example, computer geeks . . . err . . . enthusiasts have their own language as do gear heads . . . err . . . hot rod enthusiasts. Wonkish political obsessives like me are guilty of the same thing, I am afraid. I don't know a gigabyte from RAM or a header from a flathead, but I can rattle off the various shades of conservatism in Rainman-like fashion.

I was reminded of this tendency recently when I published an article on paleoconservatism and abortion. The article was originally published at Intellectual Conservative, and later published at several mainstream, GOP-oriented conservative websites. It made some very controversial assertions so I expected to get feedback. Well I did. Most of it was positive. Some of it was not. But what surprised me was that most people weren't taking issue with my controversial assertions. Instead, many seemed to be unfamiliar with the term paleoconservative. I was surprised because my article appeared on conservative oriented political websites. I assumed paleoconservative would be a term familiar to those who frequent such websites. Well you know what they say about assuming. I was also disappointed. That many conservative internet surfers didn't know what a paleoconservative is is an indication that my side seriously needs a marketing campaign.

As a result, I have decided that a little Conservatism 101 is in order. I will attempt to explain the origin and history of the movement now called paleoconservatism, and how it differs from "regular conservatism," for lack of a better term. But perhaps more importantly, what does this movement have to offer us that regular conservatism does not?

First of all, this is a topic about which a book could easily be written, and some have. It is not my intention to be exhaustive or to reinvent the wheel. For a more exhaustive treatment, see the Wikipedia entry on paleoconservatism. I know Wikipedia can be a bit hit and miss, but the paleoconservative entry is fantastic. (No I did not write it.) It was updated recently, and the first half is particularly well done. Several other books and magazines have been written that address this subject, and I will provide internal links to helpful resources.

Since most readers will be familiar with the tenants of "regular conservatism," it may be easiest to describe paleoconservatism by how it differs from the more mainstream variety. First a little history.

Prior to World War II, there existed a coalition often referred to now as the Old Right. The Old Right was a collection of traditionalist and libertarian politicians, writers, businessmen, scholars, etc. who composed the loyal opposition to the Left which was ascendant at the time. The ascendant Left was represented most obviously by Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. Perhaps nothing resembling a "movement" as we know it today existed back then, but the Old Right did what it could given the tenor of the times.  The Old Right differed from the modern conservative movement in that it opposed foreign military intervention and favored a policy often derisively referred to as isolationism. The Old Right opposed American entry into World War I and World War II. On that note, the most prominent organization of the Old Right was the America First Committee (AFC) which was organized to prevent US entry into WW II. (The AFC was populated by a lot of anti-war leftists as well.) The conservative argument for opposing foreign intervention and entanglements is that it is not America's responsibility to be a global policeman. Foreign adventuring necessitates big government, big spending, the sacrificing of liberties at home, and of course places American troops in harm's way.
The Old Right also opposed, generally with limited political success, FDR's New Deal. They believed his New Deal programs were wasteful, not authorized by the Constitution, and ineffective and counterproductive to reviving the depressed economy.

Some elements of the Old Right also opposed what they saw as a series of insults to freedom and the Constitution that took place in 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment which authorized the Income Tax, the Seventeenth Amendment which mandated the direct election of Senators, and the creation of the Federal Reserve. (Tax protestors don't scold me. I am aware that many believe the Sixteenth Amendment was not passed appropriately by the States and/or doesn't authorize an individual income tax. That debate is beyond the scope of this article.)  

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and American entry into the War, non-intervention fell out of favor. When the hot war ended, America was faced with a Cold War attempting to halt the global expansion of Communism and Soviet influence. The "modern conservative movement" (MCM) as it is often called arose after WWII and after the start of the Cold War. Unlike the Old Right, the MCM supported a strong internationalist foreign policy as a means of combating the Soviet menace. Some recognized foreign intervention as inconsistent with the traditional conservative support of small government, but felt the Soviet threat warranted a temporary alteration in principles. A small contingent on the Right, led by Murray Rothbard among others, continued to resist the call for an aggressive foreign policy to contain Communism, but they were in the minority. (The merits of their argument deserve an additional column as well.)

Russell Kirk
Kirk

You might wonder, "If the Old Right is characterized as pre-WWII, then would it not be accurate to designate the post-war alternative as the New Right instead of the more cumbersome modern conservative movement?" There is a related movement called the New Right but it is not an entirely analogous term. The MCM is generally conceived as originating and coalescing in the 50's especially around the issue of the Cold War. Seminal events in its genesis would be the publication of Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind in 1953 and the founding of National Review in 1955. The New Right refers to that coalition that flourished after the Barry Goldwater campaign. Perhaps I am splitting hairs, but the term MCM seems to better encompass the decade or so before what is usually conceived of as the official beginning of the New Right. For the purposes of this article the MCM will indicate the post-war conservative movement that is to be distinguished from the Old Right. 

Another element of the post-war anti-Communist, anti-Soviet forces were ex-leftists who had grown disillusioned with the excesses of Soviet Communism. Beginning in the 70's they started to leave the Democratic Party in frustration over the emergence of radical liberalism, especially the counterculture, the perceived direction of the party with the McGovern nomination, and the perceived weakness of the Democrats on foreign policy. This group included Irving Kristol and others frequently associated with the advent of neoconservatism, a term I suspect the average reader is more familiar with.

Since they were ex-liberals, the neoconservative element of the MCM was generally supportive of a broad social safety net. They were comfortable with New Deal programs such as Social Security and FDR's economic interventions. Most were supportive of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and the Civil Rights movement, although most opposed quotas.
The Old Right was, as I already pointed out, hostile to Roosevelt and the New Deal. Some of the conservative elements that made up the original MCM did not support the New Deal or economic intervention either. This was true of both the traditionalist elements and the libertarian elements of the fledgling MCM. But by the mid-50's it was generally assumed by most conservatives that the New Deal was a fait accompli, so serious opposition to it was dropped. This was partially based on pragmatic political concerns, but it was also felt that opposing the Soviets was the paramount issue, and they should not waste political capital or alienate potential allies with less urgent issues. A pragmatic consensus quickly arose that opposing settled leftist gains such as Social Security was a political loser, so they were essentially taken off the table. 

The transformation from isolationist Old Right to interventionist modern right has been much observed and commented on. The de facto adoption of political pragmatism over rigorous adherence to principles as a defining component of modern conservatism has been less commented on, and I will devote a future article to discussing the far reaching implications of that decision.

So the neoconservatives were pro-intervention, supported a social safety net, were comfortable with some government intervention in the economy but supported free-trade and liberal immigration policies and were generally socially conservative. While the depth of their commitment to social conservatism has been questioned by some, they were clearly anti-counterculture which they saw as a radical and anti-American threat.

A question: does what the neoconservatives supported initially sound familiar to anyone? It actually sounds very much like the agenda of the MCM and the GOP of today. More on that later.

Milton Friedman
Friedman

The MCM has always been a coalition of rather diverse elements who were united in their opposition to the radical Left as much or more than they were united in their common goals and philosophy. One element was the traditionalists personified by Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver. Another element was the economic libertarians personified by Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. Traditionalists placed less faith in free-markets and rejected economic reductionism. They denounced the libertarians as hidebound ideologues. The libertarians denounced the traditionalists as too friendly to the state and rejecters of reason. But both factions opposed federal government expansion although perhaps for somewhat different reasons, and both opposed the economic and cultural collectivists on the Left. The fusionists, whose main spokesman at the time was Frank Meyer of National Review, tried to chart a middle course. Fusionism is described by Donald Devine of the American Conservative Union as advocating "libertarian means to traditional ends." Whether fusionism was a coherent intellectual philosophy or just an attempt to reconcile a diverse coalition is a matter of much debate among partisans on all sides.

But whatever fusionism might have lacked as a coherent philosophy, you could argue that the MCM that emerged was generally fusionist in its orientation, socially and culturally conservative but libertarian on economics. All sides supported limited government, tax cuts, minimal government intervention in the economy, and a strong national defense. (Actually it could be argued that a strong national defense is neither traditionalist nor libertarian nor fusionist, but its support by most was a product of the Cold War times.)

Also holding the movement coalition together was near unanimous agreement on the strategy of political pragmatism mentioned above with the GOP as the chosen vehicle, and a fear of the Democratic Left. The near unanimous consensus that the GOP should be the vehicle of choice was facilitated by the slow but sure shift of once conservative Democrats in the South to the GOP starting with the Goldwater campaign in '64.

So what the heck is a paleoconservative and where do they belong in this grand scheme? Many paleos, whose beliefs coincide largely with the Kirk-style traditionalists, would gripe that they were really a barely tolerated part of the coalition from the beginning, but there was at least a general civility. The late paleocon, Sam Francis, claimed that the neocons were at first welcomed into the movement as useful allies, but tensions between the traditionalists and the newly grafted neocons soon rose. The traditionalists charged that the neocons were still unrepentant leftists. The neocons charged that the traditionalists were backwards looking reactionaries.

Things really came to a head at the start of the Reagan administration, as the spoils were being divvied up. Traditionalists, who had been a part of the MCM from its inception, expected a piece of the pie. The Johnny-come-lately neos were accused of trying to get all the spoils for themselves. Things really got ugly concerning the appointment of Mel Bradford to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mel Bradford was a traditionalist extraordinaire. He was also a proud Southerner. One aspect of the traditionalist element has been respect for the inherent conservatism of the Southern tradition. Russell Kirk recognized it, Richard Weaver recognized it, and Mel Bradford recognized it.

The Southern Agrarians, who had been an element of the Old Right, had eloquently articulated it in their book I'll Take My Stand. These men recognized that the South had always served as a traditionalist brake on the grand designs of Northern progressives. The neos did not want Dr. Bradford to get the job. To them he was hopelessly behind the times. Their choice was William Bennett, so they set out in a rather nasty way to tarnish Bradford's reputation. They especially focused on his veneration of the South and his traditional Southern view of the merits or lack thereof of Lincoln. Of course accusations of racism were hurled, and this was an early harbinger of things to come. (Note the hysterical and hyperbolic reaction of the neocons to Trent Lott's Strom Thurmond remark.) This incident among others confirmed to the traditionalists that their suspicions had been right from the beginning; the neocons really were a type of leftist instead of a type of conservative, since free and easy accusations of racism are too often the first recourse of the left. 

The term paleoconservative was coined around this time by either Thomas Fleming and/or Paul Gottfried originally as a joke. Paleo, as a prefix meaning old or ancient, was to designate the opposite of neo meaning new. Even though it was initially coined as a joke, the term caught on. Some paleos have objected to the term, suggesting it invokes images of dinosaurs. It may well be true that the term was embraced and used by the paleos' enemies because they saw it as unflattering. At this point we are probably stuck with the term. It is now routinely used by both its proponents and its detractors. Personally, I kind of like the term. As a proud traditionalist, I am perfectly comfortable with a word that invokes ancient or old as opposed to a word that invokes the new. Such an attitude I'm sure appalls the progressives.

In the 80s, the term paleoconservative was still mostly used in-house by conservatives "in the know." It began to be used by a broader audience during the lead up to the first Gulf War. The MCM had been characterized by support of foreign intervention in the struggle against the Soviets. With the Soviet threat diminished or eliminated, the paleos sought to revert back to the traditional conservative position of avoiding foreign intervention. The neos, however, saw America, as the lone remaining superpower, as having an international opportunity/responsibility to shape the world in America's interests and ostensively in a way that would benefit all.

The paleoconservative movement as we know it today synthesized and galvanized around opposition to the first Gulf War. For the paleos, that war was not our fight. American foreign policy should focus on safeguarding America and protecting American's vital national interests, not punishing acts of aggression around the world.

Pat Buchanan
Buchanan

The most prominent paleoconservative public face was Pat Buchanan. He articulated for the masses the three areas where paleos are most commonly recognized as differing from "regular conservatives." They were early strong opponents of immigration, a position which is now becoming in vogue. They were skeptical of the benefits of free-trade, and favored a policy of "economic nationalism." They were particularly weary of free-trade deals that they believed sacrificed our national sovereignty such as NAFTA and GATT. And of course, they opposed most foreign intervention.

You can see how paleoconservatism came to be largely defined by its positions on issues where it was at variance with the neocons and the rest of the conservative movement and the GOP, especially on the triad of issues mentioned above. The paleocons believe the conservative movement has been nearly entirely co-opted by neocon ideology or "neoconized," if you will. The less flattering characterization that is often used is that the movement had been "hi-jacked" by the recent interlopers. As far as the "official position" of the conservative movement, they are correct, although many grass-roots conservatives support the paleoconservative positions. They just lack an organized or effective voice. This is especially true on immigration, where the Establishment's support of "comprehensive" (read "guest workers") immigration reform and reluctance to support an enforcement only policy, is very much at odds with the conservative base.

In my paleoconservative article that inspired this follow-up, I wrote:

While paleos are often distinguished by their opposition to foreign intervention, immigration, and free trade, what really sets them apart from other conservatives is much deeper than just policy. They differ on significant underlying philosophical presumptions. One helpful way of looking at this difference is to ask where paleoconservatives draw the "it has all been down hill since then" or alternatively the "those were the good ol' days" line in the historical sand. Paleos generally reject the Enlightenment in whole or in part. They reject Lockean "contract theory" and the concept of "natural rights" out right.

This essay has been an attempt to place paleoconservatives in a historical context, and to focus on how they differ from other conservative on important policy issues. In this light you can see that paleoconservatives are a continuation or recovery of the traditionalist element of the Right that has been there from the beginning. In many ways it has more in common with the Old Right, especially the Southern Agrarian element, than it does with the modern right. Many commentators have noticed this commonality.

However, as I stated in the passage above, the underlying differences are much deeper than mere differences on certain issues. Paleoconservatism is informed by certain philosophical presumptions that differ markedly from the presumptions of neocons and most modern conservatives. It is a hard concept to initially get your arms around for the uninitiated, but once you understand the presumptions the positions on issues naturally follow. It is not just a hodge-podge of policy differences. Likewise, the neocons have their own different set of underlying philosophical presumptions. While the modern Right generally takes positions on the issues similar to the neocons, it is not at all clear that all conservatives entirely understand what philosophy they are buying into.

It will be through trying to illustrate these core philosophical differences, not just debating the merits of free-trade vs. fair trade, that a broader understanding will be fostered of how the sides differ and what each has to offer with regard to addressing the problems we face as a nation today, and where we went wrong in the past.

I will leave the complicated and perhaps cumbersome discussion of each side's underlying philosophy for later essays. I hope this essay has adequately laid the historical framework. ESR

Dan E. Phillips, MD is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Georgia. He specializes in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction and obsesses about politics on the side. He can be reached at Phillips_de@mercer.edu.

Other related essays:

  • Neoconservatives and Trotskyism by Bill King (March 22, 2004)
    For decades the opponents of neoconservatives, particularly paleoconservatives, have painted them as descendants of American Trotskyism but Bill King argues that if you look at the history of the neocon movement, it's a charge that doesn't stand up to scrutiny
  • The new conservative divide: Paleocons versus neocons by Rachel Alexander (April 28, 2003)
    The conservative family isn't very happy these days. Rachel Alexander says that a schism has opened up between two prominent wings

 

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