A vision of a new conservatism, 1996
I wrote the below article in a burst of hope following Patrick Buchanan’s victory in the 1996 New Hampshire primary. It was rejected by the four or five mainstream publications to which I sent it, including the New York Times and the Weekly Standard. My idea in submitting the piece to such unlikely venues was that in light of Buchanan’s surprise emergence, mainstream liberal and neocon editors might be open to an unconventional conservative perspective. Apart from the quixotic nature of that expectation, I was projecting onto Buchanan things that were not there. The article was not really about Buchanan, but about my own vision of a renewed, coherent, and serious conservatism. Nine years later, such a conservatism, needless to say, is yet to come into being. In fact, as detailed at VFR over the last three years, conservatism today is in far worse shape than it was when I wrote this article.
BUCHANAN’S NEW CONSERVATISM
The economic conservatives want smaller government and greater economic freedom—core conservative beliefs. However, these conservatives tend to be economic reductionists, who believe that prosperity by itself solves all social problems. They have little comprehension of the crisis of moral authority in America that so alarms other conservatives. They also have a remarkable lack of concern about the creeping loss of national and civilizational identity, as shown in their support for mass immigration and economic globalism, and in their contemptuous dismissal of people who question these policies.
The religious conservatives, exemplified by Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition, uphold the historic spiritual core of Western civilization, which is Christian faith. But religious faith, however fervent, and opposition to abortion and homosexuality, however principled, do not comprise a complete or balanced cultural vision. Defining American civilization solely in terms of Christianity and its ethical absolutes, the Christian conservatives are religious reductionists, who are ill-equipped to defend America against the larger challenges of multiculturalism and globalism.
The moralist neo-conservatives believe in a “Judeo-Christian,” or at least a bourgeois, moral order, in marriage and family, and in high intellectual and cultural standards. [Note: those are now questionable assertions in light of the neocons’ more recent embrace of bourgeois bohemianism and the Sixties cultural revolution.] But, like the economic conservatives, they view America more as an ideological project than as a historical nation and people. Their ideal seems to be a democratic-capitalist world order in which distinct nations will have disappeared as a result of economic and demographic integration, and which will be held together by an abstract notion of “family values” divorced from any particular culture or religion. In short, the moralist conservatives are “family-values” reductionists, who somehow believe that a society can maintain and enforce common moral norms in the absence of shared civilizational traditions and loyalties.
These three conservatisms, especially the economic and the moralist, have all failed to address—indeed they are exacerbating—the real anxieties of ordinary Americans who fear they are losing control over their communities, their culture and their country to the transnational forces of globalism and mass immigration. A conservatism that dismisses these legitimate concerns as “extremist” or “xenophobic” reveals itself as an elitist ideology that is doomed to electoral defeat. Thus Patrick Buchanan’s candidacy is not causing the current weakness and disarray on the right, it is a response to it. It is an historic wake-up call to a conservatism that has lost its way amid economic and social-science abstractions.
While countering the ideological excesses of the mainstream conservatives, Buchanan nevertheless affirms their fundamental principles. He is a true economic conservative because he believes in smaller government and lower taxes. The recent charge that he is some kind of a socialist is absurd. Buchanan wants to cut back the state’s unconstitutional interventions in local communities and the domestic economy, and to revive the state’s proper, but forgotten, role in preserving the nation’s basic political and social stability, particularly through selective tariffs and control of immigration.
Buchanan also shares the commitment of the moralist and religious conservatives to the traditional family, but unlike them he does not reduce the meaning of our culture to abstract universalist ethics or Christian faith per se. In line with traditional (as distinct from post-Vatican II) Catholic teaching, Buchanan values the uniqueness of historic cultures, and believes that nations have a greater responsibility to their own citizens than to everyone else in the world. At the same time, his Christian view of man distinguishes him from the racial reductionists of the farther right. While Buchanan is committed to defending our borders, our culture and our national identity, his religious beliefs have led him to reject the arguments of The Bell Curve. A man who insists, as Buchanan has done, that moral character is more important than inherited IQ is no racialist.
By fusing the core beliefs of mainstream conservatism with concrete, popular interests that the mainstream conservatives have foolishly rejected, Patrick Buchanan is creating, perhaps for the first time in American history, a comprehensive and moral conservatism that can gain an enduring electoral majority and sustain American and Western civilization through the coming age of world disorder.
As a further note, I also discussed this article in a blog entry two years ago about John Fonte’s call for a fusionist conservatism. Like me, Fonte hoped to conjoin the various, currently conflicting factions of conservatism, namely economic conservatism and social conservatism, around a common core of what he called patriotic conservatism. But, as Mr. Fonte wrote to me yesterday, he doesn’t see many signs of such a conservatism appearing. The debate still revolves around economic conservatives versus social conservatives, with “national defense” conservatives (not quite the same thing as patriotic conservatives) also being thrown into the mix. The upshot is that if a genuine patriotic or national conservatism is going to come into being, we ourselves will have to create it, not simply invoke it and hope for it.