The Right Wing in America

The closer one looks into American political history between 1783 and 1932, the less one sees anything resembling a European-style division of parties and ideologies. During the Revolution, the Patriots were the "Left" and the Tories were the "Right" (though the terms wouldn't be coined until the French Revolution). After their victory, the Patriots divided among themselves over questions of how best to preserve and advance the new republic.

This division first emerged between the Federalists and Antifederalists, and continued under various forms and labels until finally hardening, after 1861, into the Republican and Democratic parties. Neither side can be considered either "conservative" or "progressive" in 20th-century terms. Rather, each was conservative in some aspects and progressive in others.

The Republicans evolved into the pro-business and protectionist party, but they were founded as the antislavery party, and their reforming impetus continued and turned to various minor causes after the Civil War. The Democrats were the free-trade, pro-immigrant party, and championed some quasi-Left causes (co-opting the Populists, for example), but were ruthlessly reactionary on racial issues.

The Republicans' post-war near-monopoly on national power was lost twice, when the "Mugwumps" (reformers aiming to clean up political corruption) and later "progressives" temporarily defected from the GOP, allowing Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson to take the Presidency. 1932 marked a new epoch in American politics, and the opening of a consistent and permanent Left/Right divide. The Depression broke the GOP's lock on the North and West, as the country lurched blindly to the Left in reaction to the crisis. Socialism and Communism flourished as never before or since. The "progressives" finally and permanently left the GOP to the business interests. The Democrats became the new majority party, enacting radical new social reforms with a popular mandate, while the GOP (sometimes in alliance with conservative Southern Democrats) provided feeble opposition to the ongoing revolution.

The term "New Right" seems to have been originally coined by alarmed liberals in the 1950s. Opposition to the New Deal regime had been crushed at the polls and ostracized from "respectable" intellectual circles; yet here it was again, in the guise of "McCarthyism," a popular revolt against the Eastern-establishment liberals who had coddled Communists for so long.

At some point the term was taken up retrospectively, to distinguish post-war American conservatism, characterized by militant, global anti-Communism, from the pre-war isolationist Right. This supposed "Old Right" had opposed the New Deal at its inception, and also opposed Roosevelt's interventionist foreign policy, which got the U.S. into a war that was arguably none of our concern. But who was this "Old Right"? Nothing much, really: a handful of journalists (such as H. L. Mencken) and one senator from Ohio (Robert Taft). The only mass movement associated with the "Old Right" was America First, which encompassed the entire political spectrum from Nazi sympathizers to socialist radicals.

So short is the American memory that the term "New Right" was subsequently transferred to the movement associated with the election of Ronald Reagan. Among non-conservatives, this movement is often confused with "neoconservatism" (presumably because the two terms, taken literally, are nearly synonymous). The difference between the new "New Right" and the original are primarily generational, not substantive. Fortunately, conservatism has by now established itself strongly enough, for a long enough span of time, that it has largely dispensed with such modifiers.

The original "New Right" rallied round the standard raised by William F. Buckley, Jr., when he founded National Review in 1955; and this continues to be the center of gravity of American conservatism. It was formed out of a coalition of three groups of intellectuals: libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-Communists. Although the association between libertarians and conservatives has been remarkably contentious, the three themes of liberty, tradition, and anti-Communism continued to define American conservatism until the end of the Cold War.

One odd but interesting chapter (or maybe footnote) in the history of the American Right was the appearance of the John Birch Society. Its founder, Robert Welch, had one good idea: the need to counter the Communist Party with an equally determined and disciplined anti-Communist organization. Its great weakness was the lack of an equally coherent ideology. Joe McCarthy had started out exposing a few Communist agents and sympathizers in the State Department (and yes, there really were Communist agents and sympathizers there); Robert Welch started out asserting that the Communists had nearly taken over the whole country. From there, his conspiracy theories only got wilder.

The first phase of the New Right's development culminated in 1964, when it took control of the Republican party away from the liberal Rockefeller wing and nominated Barry Goldwater for President. Although the Goldwater campaign went down in flames, it marked the New Right's emergence as a political force.

In the tumultuous period between the Goldwater fiasco and the equal and opposite defeat of George McGovern in 1972, the size and strength of conservatism significantly increased. The radicalism of the 1960s alienated crucial constituencies of the Democratic party, to the GOP's benefit: white Southerners, blue-collar workers in the Northern cities, and even some liberal intellectuals.

In 1968, much of the Democrats' "socially conservative" mass base supported the insurgency of Alabama governor George Wallace: a feisty, vulgar little man who crudely but effectively articulated the nation's exasperation at the rising tide of crime and chaos. The New Deal Democratic majority was gone; with the combined Nixon/Wallace vote in 1968, and Nixon's landslide victory over McGovern in 1972, a new, conservative majority emerged. However, the Wallace Democrats (and Nixon Democrats and Reagan Democrats) were not much interested in free-market economics, so the Goldwater Right's ambition to roll back the New Deal had to be shelved.

The handful of New Deal/Cold War liberals who moved from the "progressive" camp to the conservative have been given the label "neoconservative" -- often to their annoyance. Many of them were Jews alienated as much as anything by the fact that the trendy Left had turned against Israel. Their spines were stiffened by rising to the challenge of the New Left; they were finally and completely disabused of the notion that "there are no enemies to the Left"; they even began to absorb doses of conservatism by osmosis. In this group, too, one may include an increasing number of social scientists who found that their researches (to their surprise) led to conservative conclusions, and had the intellectual integrity to follow the truth where it led them.

"Neocons" complained that the term "liberal" was stolen from them by disreputable radicals and socialists -- much the same complaint made by self-styled "classical liberals" against the New Deal/Cold War liberals. As time went on, the neocons were pushed further Right, and conservatives were drawn towards the center, by the exigencies of the crisis and by the political opportunities it offered.

At the same time, the libertarians (who still like to think of themselves as the "true" liberals) sprang up on the opposite side of the barricades. The relations between conservatives and libertarians recall Schopenhauer's parable of the porcupines: driven by the winter of liberalism to huddle together for warmth, their ideological spines prick each other and they part again. It was the libertarians' anti-draft, anti-war, pro-drug positions that finally drove them apart from conservatives, who coined the epithet "lazy fairy" from the libertarian catchphrase laissez-faire. The lunatic fringe split off and formed the Libertarian party in 1971. Still, there remain plenty of "economic conservatives" who are basically libertarians, though relatively moderate and sensible ones; and both libertarians and conservatives respect and cite many of the same figures -- Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray.

In the 1970s, the popular demand for law and order was followed by a revolt against rising taxes, an issue notably championed by Howard Jarvis. In 1976, Ronald Reagan emerged as the conservative movement's standard-bearer and came within a hair's-breadth of taking the Republican nomination from Gerald Ford. The discrediting of Keynesian economics by the "stagflation" crisis reinvigorated free-market economics, particularly by the emergence of the "supply-side" school. Evangelical Protestantism was politically mobilized with some success, most famously (or notoriously) by Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. Finally, the humiliations America suffered in foreign affairs, and the increase in Soviet power and aggressiveness, provoked an eleventh-hour revival of courage and patriotism like that which had brought Churchill to power in Britain, forty years earlier.

All of these factors contributed to the "New Right" that was swept into power with Ronald Reagan, in 1980, by a country fed up with the mess that liberals had made. The only significant difference between the two waves of the "New Right" was that airy, theoretical "traditionalism" was supplanted by populism. Conservative "populism" signifies, not a movement nor even a faction, but a manner of thought and expression, and a political strategy. Lacking any royal-noble-clerical order to embody "tradition," American conservatives search for it in the common people, the "Silent Majority" of middle-class taxpayers and churchgoers, whose "values" and interests are threatened by the liberal elite that controls the government and mass media.

For decades, the Democrats had preached a Left-wing, quasi-Marxist, economic populism, claiming to defend "the common man" against the wicked, wealthy Republicans. The increasing arrogance and alienation of the liberal intellectual classes, however, gave Republicans a chance to preach a Right-wing, social/cultural populism. The defiantly elitist, anti-democratic attitudes of the old "New Right" melted away like snow in July.

At the same time, a vague defense of abstract "tradition" increasingly gave way to more specific focuses of identity and loyalty, which gave rise to new movements on the Right that are wholly or partially distinct from the general conservative movement: racism (i.e. white racism and Judaeophobia), or religion (i.e. Christianity), or both.

Until recently, the American Nazis were nothing but a joke, even among white-supremacists, because they were Germanophile, non-Christian, totalitarian (even the Klan believed in liberty and democracy, even if only for white Protestants), and, in a word, un-American. Unlike their counterparts on the Left, the Communists, they did not have the moral and material support of a foreign government. To the Klan, they were just a bunch of queers who liked to dress up in uniforms. However, once the Klan itself had been defeated, split, and marginalized as thoroughly as the Nazis, the two began to merge.

A peculiar new element in the racist Right is Christian Identity -- the American offshoot of the bizarre British Israelite sect, founded in the nineteenth century, which believes that the present inhabitants of the British Isles are the descendents of the ten lost tribes of Israel. "Identity" naturalized Naziism by marriage to Christianity, with a grotesque theology proclaiming that white Americans are really God's Chosen People, while the Jews are imposters and the literal children of Satan.

Fortunately, the racist Right is composed of small and isolated factions, parallel to the various communist splinter-parties on the far Left, and just as ineffectual. It serves mainly to provide random acts of senseless violence for the propaganda (and fundraising) benefit of groups like the Southern Pinko Law Center. The Christian Right, to the contrary, has become a major power-center within both the conservative movement and the Republican party.

This development is unique to America, especially since this Christian Right is predominately Protestant. In Europe, such clerical parties as exist are Catholic in inspiration, and are withering away. It emerged as a defensive response to the liberals' aggressive attacks on both religion and morality -- it is the most active and self-conscious group of "social conservatives."

By 1988, the Reagan Administration had accomplished less than the Right had hoped for and the Left had feared. Conservatism and the Republican party (they are still by no means coterminous) succumbed to the limits of political possibility. Nevertheless, conservative Republicans did come into power, and did succeed in repairing America's military and diplomatic strength, while slowing, though not halting or reversing, the growth of government. Above all else, the Reagan Administration won the Cold War (though, ironically, this only became evident under Reagan's feckless successor), defeating the greatest enemy of Western civilization and irreversibly transforming the world stage.

The end of the Cold War has had remarkably little domestic impact within the United States. The Left continues to pursue its project of destroying the country and everything it stands for, and the Right continues to resist this, more or less feebly and timidly.

Wishful-thinking liberals immediately crowed that conservatism would fall apart without anti-Communism to hold it together. There was some truth in this: the process of working out a new foreign policy has been very contentious. At the same time, new issues were emerging from the delayed consequences of the Immigration Act of 1965, which are compounding all the damage inflicted on American society by the Left's cultural war. Most conservatives, unfortunately, remained ignorant, or complacent, or both, about the problem.

The 1992-1996 elections saw the resurgence of the libertarian/traditionalist division, in new forms. Those looking for an alternative to George Bush's jellyfish-Republicanism -- no brains, no spine, and no guts -- were faced with the populist protest-candidacy of Pat Buchanan, on the one hand, and the perpetual Libertarian option, on the other. In 1996, Buchanan returned for a rematch, this time with Bob Dole starring as jellyfish-Republican, and Steve Forbes plunging in on behalf of the Mammon-worshipers. The failure of the GOP to produce a new national-level leader of Reagan's caliber was compensated for by its emergence as the new majority party at the state level and in Congess.

Buchanan was foremost among those conservatives who realized that the change in the world situation required a reappraisal of America's role in the world, and he sensibly decided that there was no longer any point in America playing world policeman. The one great aggressor was replaced by many small aggressors, most of them not menaces to America itself. America can and should scale back its commitments, while maintaining the strongest possible defense. He was also prominent among those who sounded the alarm at the alienization of America by mass immigration from the Third World. Finally, having advocated social-conservative populism for so long, he now complemented it with economic populism: demanding the protection of American jobs by high tariffs, and railing against Wall Street.

Buchanan's main cheerleaders are the  "paleoconservatives" -- a small group of conservatives whose sole purpose in life, it seems, is to seethe in resentment at the "neoconservatives," whom they blame for the failure of conservatism to sweep all before it. (Exactly who the "neocons" are nowadays is unclear: often the "paleocons" encompass the whole Republican party in the label.) Notorious paleocons include the late libertarian Murray Rothbard, who had jumped on every political bandwagon in the second half of the 20th century, including the New Left; sycophantic Serbophile Thomas Fleming, editor of Chronicles; and columnist Sam Francis, a prime example of the ineffectual scribblers and sectarians he despises, who writes about a great movement of  "Middle American Radicals" like Hitler in his bunker, issuing orders to armies existing only in his imagination.

To blame neocons for the emasculation of conservatism is to evade the question: why did conservatives let themselves be "hijacked" by this handful of Johnny-come-latelies? The conservative movement succumbed to opportunism, an inevitable concomitant of political action and one to which the Republican party and, arguably, conservatism itself, have always been particularly susceptible. The neocons helped this process along, but could never have done it alone. In any case, neoconservatism will cease to exist as the neocons die off, so the whole question is moot. Almost certainly, defectors from the Left will continue to trickle into the Right, though never again in such numbers or with as much coherence.

To this bemused spectator, the quarrel between paleocons and neocons resembles nothing so much as the fight between the People's Front of Judea and the Campaign for Free Galilee.

BRIAN: We mustn't fight each other! Surely we should be united against the common enemy!
EVERYONE: The Judean People's Front?!
BRIAN: No, no! The Romans!
Monty Python's Life of Brian

To the extent that any substantial differences in principle divide the two, my own sympathies are more often with the paleocons; but, though both sides have told some amazing lies about each other, the paleocons are the most guilty of spiteful mendacity -- which would be bad enough if they were really the last guardians of pure conservatism, as they like to think of themselves.

It is impossible to discern any coherent principles in paleoconservatism. They hate neocons because of differences over foreign policy, trade, and immigration, but climb into bed with libertarians, who are as fanatically anti-protectionist and pro-immigration as any neocon, and are radicals on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality. They worship Jefferson Davis and onanize Confederate flags, but rush to lick the boots of Slobodan Milosevic instead of cheering on the secessionist Kosovars. One begins to suspect the real animus behind paleoconservatism when one reads their constant griping about backstage shenanigans within the conservative movement -- unseemly quarrels over money and power, in which the paleocons came out the losers.

Neither faction played a significant role in the 2000 election. The highlight of that year was the smashing defeat of John "Manchurian Candidate" McCain, the Democrats' favorite Republican. Pat Buchanan finally launched himself into political irrelevancy, and polled in the same league as the Libertarians. At the time of writing, it is too early to pass judgment on George W. Bush: the only thing that can be said with confidence is that he can't possibly be as bad as Al Gore would have been.

Where will conservatism go from here? For all his faults (especially his indulgence in futile and quixotic political campaigns), Pat Buchanan has shown the only way for conservatism to survive and prosper. If he sometimes overdoes the economic populism, this would at least have the advantage of splitting the union vote -- winning private-sector workers away from the apparatchiks of AFSCME and the NEA. A foreign policy that holds America's national interest as its only guide, skeptical towards foreign interventions and entanglements, is the only sound and sensible policy for the post-Communist world. And since the immigration problem literally exploded before our eyes on 9/11, far more restrictive policies are imperative: it is no longer a remote danger to national cohesion, but an imminent danger to American lives.

2001 by Karl Jahn