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One of the first essays I ever published was in the left-leaning Canadian Forum, to which I contributed a dissenting article, from the right, in 1968. Those were the days when the Left was far more tolerant than it is at the present time, and also far more tolerant than are the Stalinists and Trotskyites who run Conservatism, Inc. Unfortunately I can’t say much for the essay that I wrote as a young assistant professor at Case Western Reserve, which was full of sound and fury but signifying about as much as the latest NR editorial In fact there wasn’t much difference between what I said in 1968 and what a minicon today, looking back at the 1960s, would likely be saying. I berated the hippies and the “Counter-culture” for being unwilling to recognize the mortal struggle we were engaged in against the bad guys. Combatting the communist beast, I thought, was all-important, and the malodorous hippies who were high on a psychedelic life style, were AWOL in our war for civilization. What I didn’t mention was that I was then a fervent Republican and had just made a donation to the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon. My views in 1968 were reducible to the facile formula: “Hippies are bad; Republicans are good.”
Boy, was I deluded as well as insufferably pompous back then! The hippies were epiphenomenal in terms of what the Left has since become, while the Republican Party seems an insurmountable barrier to any attempt to stop the further progress of the Cultural Marxist epidemic that has grabbed hold of the Western world. The most critical political development of the 1960s, as I argue in After Liberalism, was the explosion of the managerial state in the Western “liberal democracies,” together with the state’s increasing involvement in “social policy.” The flower children had nothing to do with this tendency, although those who later promoted the new politics, like Hillary Clinton, are delighted to pull out old pics of themselves looking like flower-power kids. There were intelligent thinkers in 1968 who did point out the big picture. But since, like my later friends Christopher Lasch and Murray Rothbard, these critics were deemed as weak in fighting the Soviet challenge, they were not regarded in official movement circles as “conservative.” Back then I imagined that arch-conservative political thinker George F. Kennan, who was blistering in his attacks on Western decadence, was a raving leftist. After all, William F. Buckley said so and to prove the case, Kennan was in favor of making agreements with communist countries.
Mind you, I’m not saying the Soviets were not an international danger or that the Right was not justified in calling for resistance against aggressive communist dictatorships. Not everything the Right argued for or against during the 1960s, particularly on the domestic front, was wrong, and in retrospect, I would prefer the Right we had in 1960 to the grotesque caricature of the one we’re stuck with now.
But the onetime preoccupation of the American Right with what its critics described as “apocalyptic anti-Communism” has had unhappy consequences. Among them are saber-rattling and a fixation on foreign enemies that have to be invaded before they overrun the “homeland.” These obsessions have found lasting form in what is now imagined to be conservatism. In most meaningful respects the conservative movement has moved far, far from where it used to be. Today it shamelessly fronts for the GOP and the Israeli Right (sometimes so abjectly that it may embarrass Israeli politicians); at the national level it goes along with increased immigration from the Third World and various plans to “normalize” (read amnesty) illegal residents, and most conservative publicists whom I encounter either acquiesce in or jubilantly affirm the sanctity of gay marriage. But for our self-described patriots and vicarious front-line warriors, these developments are not worth our mental energy. We should be standing up for “American exceptionalism” and against all those who would resist our expanding conception of “human rights.”
Although on every social issue the current conservative establishment is light years to the left of the founders of National Review, on at least crucial two points, past and present merge. Today’s conservatives no less than the militant Cold Warriors of an earlier epoch seek to “roll back” the foreign enemy. What James Burnham once said about America’s fate in the Cold War, has now been extended to all foes of “American democracy.” We are “in a struggle for the world,” with changing Axes of Evil and see it dramatized every day and night on Fox News. Although admittedly a world power like ours faces real enemies, one has to wonder why enemies requiring military preparedness and possibly military intervention keep popping up every night on “conservative” TV and in the Republican press. This issue overshadows all other concerns, exactly as the Communist menace did for the older conservative movement, even after the Commies had ceased to be an international threat.
The other point on which conservatism then and now would agree is that the main, perhaps overshadowing domestic threat is creeping “socialism.” The worst insult that the “conservative” press hurls against Obama, when he is not attacked as an adversary of American military strength, is that he is really a “socialist” and a “Marxist” at heart. Fortunately, we are told, there is an alternative. Apparently, whenever the GOP captures the presidency, the socialist threat recedes, although the same massive welfare state that the Democrats preserve and expand remains in place. Still, we are assured, there is a difference: When the Republicans manage public administration and collect taxes, they claim (counterfactually) to be “getting government off our backs.” Again I am willing to concede that Republican administrations tweak the taxes a bit better to favor certain business interests and don’t unleash the EPA as often on landowners in rural areas. But they certainly don’t change the structure of the administrative state and whatever distinguishes them from the other side, is a difference of degree rather than a large difference of kind.
Even more upsetting is the persistent use of the word “socialist” to divert us from the real threats of overreaching government. Why doesn’t the relentless advance of anti-discrimination laws and government-enforced sensitivity training matter to so-called conservatives as much as does the specter of full-blown socialism? Significantly, Western countries, led by the Labour government of Tony Blair in England in the 1990s, have generally been moving in the direction of denationalizing industries. Economic socialism as it existed in the past has become less, not more, visible, if by this term we mean direct government ownership of productive forces. But at the same time public administration is taking away our economic and other freedoms, without being technically “socialist.” For example, government is steadily tightening control over our behavior, in the name of fighting prejudice. When the Left went after the Confederate Battle Flag and began attacking other symbols and place names associated with Confederate heroes, the protest from Conservatism, Inc. was deafening silence. After all, the Left, we were made to believe, is fighting bigots, even if that means stripping entire regions of the country of the outward signs of their heritage. The Left, for Conservatism, Inc., only becomes a threat when it skimps on military weapons and avoids military confrontations. The Left becomes an even larger threat when it doesn’t favor GOP donors. Then we’re truly playing with “socialism.”
I most definitely am not a friend of a state-controlled economy and, in fact, would like to see our increasingly centralized managerial government and meddlesome courts get out of our lives as much as humanly possible. But this is not likely to happen, given our leftward-trending electorate and disastrous immigration policies, and given our even more radicalized media and educational establishment. But what makes the desired outcome even less possible are the obvious priorities of Conservatism, Inc. Some of its emphases are of relatively recent origin, but others reveal a dangerous continuity with the obsessions of a less leftist conservative movement that arose after the Second World War. Today the conservative movement offers the worst of both past and present. It is unwilling to confront the Left’s social agenda, and usually submissively accepts it, but to make matters worse, it outdoes an older, more conservative Right by screaming incessantly for military intervention and larger military budgets. Finally, it diverts attention from efforts to limit the scope of runaway government by making it appear that the solution to the problem is voting for the Republican Party. I am still waiting to see how such an action could reverse the march now underway into a grimly leftist future.
The eighth annual meeting of the H.L.Mencken Club will take place Nov. 6th and 7th. To find out more about the conference and to register, click on this link: http://hlmenckenclub.org/2015-conference/