The lingering death of American conservatism

In defining American conservatism against overblown enemies, William F Buckley Jr, who died last week, gave birth to a weak and disparate grouping.

Guy Rundle

Topics USA

Last Thursday wasn’t a great day for American conservatives. For a time it looked like the New York Times’ somewhat gossipy investigation into John McCain’s possible romance with a pretty blonde lobbyist had managed to swing radio shock jocks and other right figureheads behind a man they previously saw as an undercover liberal. Alas the reconciliation was brief, as McCain felt obliged to denounce Bill Cunningham, a Cincinnati shock-jock who had leant heavily on the middle name of ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ while introducing McCain at a stump in Ohio. Cunningham returned the favour in spades, and the fiasco seems to have permanently sundered any possible closeness between McCain and the right.

Ironic, then, that it was quickly overshadowed by announcements of the death of the man who had practically built the base of modern American conservatism with his bare hands – William F Buckley Jr, the improbable upper-class New York patrician Catholic, who had spent a half-century, in his words, ‘standing athwart history, yelling stop!’. Though there was a degree of hype in the notion that he was the single fountainhead from which the American right poured, it was not entirely inaccurate either. American political history would have been different had a young Bill Buckley fallen under a trolleycar. Yet the very fact that an American conservatism had to be forged by one single-minded individual demonstrates the paradox at the heart of the project, and its ultimate role as political myth – illustrated pretty effectively by the way in which it was flying apart so spectacularly in Ohio as its magus breathed his last.

A precocious political entrepreneur, Buckley came on to the scene in the early 1950s, when many, such as the critic Lionel Trilling, were claiming that liberalism encompassed the totality of the American political tradition. Contestation, so it seemed, was limited to an internal debate within liberalism – between statist ‘New Deal’ liberals, and classical small-government free traders. At the time, the various forces of the American non-liberal right were quarantined in a variety of largely negative and reactionary political traditions – the Ku Klux Klan in the South, together with the anti-desegregation ‘Dixiecrats’ who seceded from the Democratic Party in 1948; small anti-immigration, overwhelmingly anti-Semitic groups in the North; a minority tradition of Burkean conservatives associated with Senator Robert Taft, and former Communists such as James Burnham who had quickly tracked from Stalinism through Trotskyism to make anti-communism their abiding passion. Much of the latter tradition was rarefied, intellectual and abstract, focused around New York. Russell Kirk’s great volume The Conservative Mind had come out in 1953, a volume dedicated retroactively to constructing key American figures as conservatives, a process that was in some cases – such as the Southern slavery defender John C Calhoun – plausible, but in others – the revolutionary John Adams – ludicrous. But Kirk and the people around him were no organisers, preferring instead the comfort of seeing themselves as political Cassandras, doomed to minority dissent.

Buckley had been ‘right from the start’. Raised in a European conservative Catholic tradition in a trilingual household, he was well-known even before he finished college, as the author of God And Man At Yale, a critique of what sounds like a somewhat smug liberal atheism current among the faculty of his alma mater. The book made him famous, and connected him to the powerbrokers of the right, especially Senator Joseph McCarthy. Indeed, McCarthy became the hero of his second book, part of which was a defence of the Senator’s witchhunts (a third book would repudiate McCarthy). Buckley wrote a lot of other books, too, but none approached the influence or fame of these two, and a failed attempt to write a major founding work on Conservatism convinced him that he was no academic.

At about the same time, however, he founded a magazine called the National Review. Where his book writing might have faltered, the magazine would serve as a focus for the conservative revival. Its success was grounded as much on the people that Buckley excluded – the old anti-Catholics and anti-Semites, conspiratorial cranks, the burgeoning Ayn Rand-cult, vicious racism – as those he connected to, in particular libertarians. The conclusion of Buckley and others was that an American conservatism could not base itself overwhelmingly on European Burkean notions of an embedded tradition, or collective notions of organic life. Instead, as a one-time revolutionary society based on the primacy of the individual, it had to find a place for vigorous commerce, restrict the reach of law, codify the founders’ intent through a judicial interpretation of the constitution, and identify global Communism as an enemy to justify a foreign and military policy well beyond the bounds of conservative notions of prudence.

The last of these – Communism as threat – was of course the mould within which Buckley could shape the conservative movement. Without such an epochal enemy, the movement would have flown apart almost instantly. Taking much of its energy from Communism’s projection of historical inevitability, its implacable identification of itself as the expression of the future, Buckley’s challenge to the movement went beyond an assessment of its crimes or incidental failings. Instead, it grounded itself on the notion that Communism was deeply wrong about human nature. But Buckley’s counter to Communism’s egalitarian ethos, playing upon European notions of a Christian civilisation protected by an elite, pulled him into territory that his current defendants are loathe to remember, from his support for racial segregation and Jim Crow laws to defending apartheid in South Africa.

Taking many of these European ideas from his father – an enthusiast for elitist thinkers such as Ortega Y Gasset, whose Revolt of the Masses had been hugely influential in the 1920s and 30s – Buckley ranged an elite against the masses, and brought a most unconservative style to organisation. Founding numerous front or subsidiary organisations, putting National Review at the centre of highbrow life, taking to the airwaves with his Firing Line political chat show, and keeping up a gruelling speaking schedule, many saw his method as drawing on the processes of his nemesis, the Communist movement. In fact it was drawing on deeper Catholic, even Jesuitical, traditions of agitation and propaganda – especially as regards the cultivation of youth support via college groups, internships, and so on. This sense of a political project gave him the forbearance he needed through the 1960s and 70s, when the anti-communist crusade had become a liberal, rather than conservative obsession and Western society was undergoing a social revolution that politicised areas of life, such as family and gender roles – areas conservatives had seen as the pre-political base of political difference.

But it was at the very depths of conservatism’s fortunes that it would find its moment, that is, when Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California and Buckley’s movement began to recruit the first members of the group who would come to be known as the ‘neoconservatives’. Reagan, backed by a powerful group of Republican fixers who would ride his coat-tails to the White House, was a perfect figurehead for a movement that was increasingly drawing not on notions of prudence and tradition, but on nostalgia for a disappearing America. The first-generation neocons such as Norman Podhoretz and Gertrude Himmelfarb brought to the movement a notion of ‘social enemies’. This extended not merely to the tiny Communist movement in the US, but to social liberalism and even the counterculture itself. During the 1970s this group would come increasingly to dominate the full conservative movement – especially with the departure of many libertarians to form the Libertarian Party in 1972. The reconstituted movement had its greatest triumph with the election of Reagan in 1980, in the wake of an exhausted and discredited liberalism. Millions of ‘Reagan Democrats’ were persuaded to vote against their own economic interests by an appeal to cultural notions of an alien liberal elite. Yet it was also the moment at which the conservative movement took off into full fantasy.

Although Reagan today is treated with almost God-ancestor fervour by the right, his administrations were far removed from the conservative template. Instead he presided over a massive build-up of financial deficit, the decay of the industrial base in the northeast, and the remorseless expansion of a sluggish and inefficient welfare state. In the world, of course, Reagan talked a tough game, reintroducing a moral language (‘the evil empire’). But at the same time his administrations practised cautious and accommodating realpolitik; withdrawing US forces from Lebanon after a single high-impact suicide bomb, and continuing relations with Saddam Hussein and other people whom Franklin Roosevelt famously called ‘our sons of bitches’.

By the end of the Reagan era, and coming into full flower in the George HW Bush administration, the different strands of conservatism were starting to pull away from one another, as actual success put pressure on their substantial contradictions. For an older conservatism – now known as paleoconservatism – the continuing decline of American industry, the rise in poverty and the squeeze on working- and middle-class wages, was a product of the highly unconservative practice of putting the economics of neoliberalism ahead of the conservative notion of piecemeal measures, and a trust in reality rather than abstract systems. For the neocons, buoyed with a sense of mission expressed by Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ article at the end of the Cold War, the global extension of free trade, together with a foreign policy to promote it, had become new articles of faith. The paleocons saw the Cold War as an aberrant period demanding special measures, and its conclusion as an opportunity to return to a more prudent and even isolationist foreign policy, especially with regards to support for Israel. The neocons, meanwhile, saw the Cold War as a template for a continuing struggle to complete a ‘new world order’. The division expressed itself in the rise of the Reform Party, which ran first Ross Perot and then former Reagan speechwriter Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, gaining 20 per cent and 15 per cent of the vote respectively, and leaving the Republican Party clear for a neocon takeover.

By the mid-1990s, Buckley had largely withdrawn from day-to-day activity, save for books and a column in the National Review. His successors found reuniting the conservative movement beyond their abilities, but that would have been the case for practically anyone, since, as Buchanan noted, there had never been anything remotely conservative about neoconservatism. It was a movement which effectively tapped into one radical strand of the American revolutionary tradition – extending the abstract principles of the founding declarations to the world, as expressions of a universal human truth – and combined them with a hefty dose of vanguardism derived equally from Trotsky, Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt’s ‘state of exception’ (the suspension of all legal restrictions on the state’s executive power).

Elsewhere, paleoconservatism was increasingly returning to the notion of an organic society, using it as bulwark both against globalisation and especially against a liberal immigration regime. For paleoconservatives, the porous borders of the US are the flipside of a desire to project American power across the world.

The other force that Buckley never really saw coming, and which was beyond any power to assimilate to a unified conservative movement, was the theoconservatism currently represented by Mike Huckabee. Though conservatives had managed to corral the Christian fundamentalist movement into the Republican party in the 1970s and 80s, they had never contemplated that they would be anything other than a pious and faithful part of the footsoldiery. That all began to change as the movement began to develop an increasingly literalist tone, exemplified by the rise of the creationist/intelligent design movement and the push for a rewriting of the Constitution on explicitly Judeo-Christian lines. Theoconservatism was a modern irrationalism, rejoicing in the ridiculousness of its own principles – the more you were able to swallow, the stronger your faith – and was in that sense not conservative at all, but radical in intent, desiring effectively to refound America by amending the Constitution to such an extent that its original authors would have found it impossible to sign.

Many of the commentators mourned what conservatism had become with Buckley’s passing, and it is difficult to disagree that much of the movement has become self-indulgent, withdrawn into fantasy, and mortally stung by the revelation that its values were not the simple translation of the population’s general will. Nowhere was this more clear than at February’s ‘CPAC’, the Conservative Political Action Committee grand conference. Dominated by a crowd of young ambitious student conservative activists – in their dark blue suits, red ties, pearls and Russian-cosmonaut’s-wife makeup as tribal a subculture as any bank holiday gathering of Mods – CPAC was dominated by one strand of the neocons, effectively those who twinned military action abroad with a firm anti-abortion line. The paleocons were largely absent, and the theocons only appeared when Huckabee came to speak, a chunkier crowd clad in denim and miller shirts, whom many of the attendees greeted with barely disguised alarm.

Yet though the crowd was full of bonhomie, and the kids were working the lobbies, desperate to get a summer internship, the conference was dominated by a sense of defensiveness and slight hysteria. Session after session was given over to a sense of threat; tales of campuses about to be taken over by fundamentalist Islam, Christianity in a life-or-death struggle, Hollywood as a liberal propaganda machine, and above all, the threat of Hillary Clinton, rendered as a demonic she-goddess. These alternated with spacy ra-ra speeches that sought to reassure the crowd that, actually, nothing was wrong. The best – that is, the most intoxicating – of these was a closing speech by Tony Snow, former Bush press spokesman and Fox News commentator. ‘Man, things are changing so fast there’s more computing power in my kid’s phone than in the computers that took us to the moon. We’re the party of ceaseless change’, he told his fellow, er, Tories, a moment only surpassed by Newt Gingrich, standing beneath a six-foot banner reading ‘Conservative’ and intoning ‘we are the true revolutionaries’.

Say what? Effectively what has happened is that one strand of what Buckley put together as ‘conservatism’ had returned to its radical roots. If these people resembled any prior political movement, it was revolutionary English Puritanism. This new Cromwellism features a hi-tech consumer society the place where good works by material accumulation would take place, Iraq substituting for the plantations of Ireland, and the closing of the theatres echoed in an attack on Hollywood’s corrupting secular-humanist influence. At the same conference, Mitt Romney had wowed the crowd, telling them not only that there must be freedom of religion, but that there is no freedom without religion, and that Europe’s low birth rate was due to them ‘turning away from the Creator’ (which will be news to the Italians). Yet such sentiments, triumphal eight years ago, are now aired with the unavoidable awareness that much of the nation no longer believes this stuff. Instead the overwhelming mood of the country is one of bewilderment: at a war without meaning, an economy that delivered little before tipping into recession, and a health system which offers adequate care only to the rich. Paranoia stands in for lack of comprehension and thus, unbelievably, one well-attended session was entitled ‘The Clinton Era: Is It Coming To a Close?’.

Many of Buckley’s numerous obituarists took the opportunity to bemoan the state into which conservatism had fallen from his heyday. Clownish and cartoonish, it is now represented by figures like Ann Coulter, or Jonah Goldberg with his notion of ’liberal fascism’, a suggestion that a preference for organic food or natural fabrics is a direct descendant of Mussolini. Yet what they could not acknowledge was that Buckley’s conservatism was less an indigenous American phenomenon than a European import. In other words, it borrowed from thinkers – Strauss, Voegelin and others – whose thinking had been informed by the convulsions of twentieth-century Europe.

Conservatism is always a retroactive construction to some degree – the moment one can talk about an abstraction such as ‘tradition’, it has already begun to depart. In the US context, however, it is wholly that – a retroactive construction. Select enemies – first communism, then liberals – served to give the movement a unified form, but they also proved the movement’s undoing, putting a populism at the centre of the right-wing project that would undermine any attempt to hold a more complex relationship to the consideration of tradition. Thus, though Buckley never joined the paleocons, he passed quickly through support for the Iraq war to an active opposition to continued occupation, concluding that the conflict had been an enormous error, and that Abu Ghraib had done perhaps terminal damage to a virtuous American self-conception. This essentially made him the sole dissenting voice in his own magazine, writing a column that would not have survived had it not been penned by its founder.

Above all, neither Buckley nor any recent conservative ever truly understood that twinning libertarian economics with social conservatism would effectively pit the economy against the desire for an archaic form of their society. As with Thatcher’s desire to return to ‘Victorian values’, the American conservatives had such an animus towards Marxism that they could not import into their arguments its essential insight – that capitalism accumulates and, in doing so, changes the social form. For the libertarians Buckley drew into the fold, the market is essentially an endless zero-sum game in which the counter is endlessly set back to zero, without changing either the character of buyer and seller or the market-form itself. Consequently they are blindsided when it produces not a virtuous republic of homesteaders, but a hypermodern mass society assembling their subjectivities from a vast media flux, increasingly drawing in material from the margins – porn, violence, drugs, the emotional S&M of reality TV – to provide new stimuli. This, in the words of the late 1990s Channel 4 satire, Brasseye, ‘is the one thing they didn’t want to happen’.

While European conservatism revives itself, a la David Cameron, by connecting current anti-capitalist rhetoric back to the movement’s anti-capitalist origins among a landed aristocracy, American conservatism essentially intensifies the search for social enemies to the point of self-destructive frenzy. The 100 People Who Are Destroying America was one of the hot books at CPAC, a predictable roll-call from Michael Moore and Chomsky ad Janefondaeum. The continued projection of weakness and victimhood, combined with the occasional manic triumphalism, is the death rattle of the American conservative movement. A handful of writers – David Frum, originator of ‘the axis of evil’, is one – are looking self-critically at the conservative tradition, and concluding that it can only survive by adopting what is essentially Blairism in America: that is, save your politics by killing it. Still, at least that represents a response to real problems. For the rest, Buckley’s passing was an occasion for what conservatives do best: nostalgia.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and is covering the US election campaign for the independent online media service Crikey. He will also be writing on-the-ground coverage for spiked. Read all of his Crikey election reports here.

Previously on spiked

Guy Rundle joined the search for a Feelgood President. Thomas Jefferson, my hero, declared John Fitzpatrick. Elsewhere Sean Collins asked if hyperpartisanship was damaging American politics. Mick Hume declared that Super Tuesday revealed what US votersdon’t want. And John Browne explored the myth of the Latino voting bloc. Or read more at spiked issues USA and 2008 Race for the White House.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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