J.P. Zmirak’s criticisms of me personally in his recent article about Pat Buchanan’s new magazine The American Conservative, "A Voice From Outside the Bunker," do not interest me. Some of the ideas he promotes, however, are dangerous and must be challenged. My comments interleave his text below:
A Voice From Outside the Bunker
I felt a little twinge of reluctance when I sat down to read Robert Locke’s column about the premiere issue of The American Conservative, Pat Buchanan’s new contrarian magazine. Conservatives critiquing other conservatives’ critique of the neo-conservative revision of the old movement Conservatism…sigh. What a load of self-referential piffle, I thought. Can anything be more "inside baseball" than that? (The answer is yes—but I’m not talking about NRO’s The Corner. That’s more "inside spitball.") It’s possible to have an intelligent, useful debate about something specific, such as Catholic liturgy or the Iraq conflict, or a particular Martin Scorcese film, but arguments over the "essence" of such a big and shaggy, unruly ex-movement as "American conservatism" usually degenerate into nonsense, name-calling and ostracism. As I wrote in my last column, I think that the Left/Right spectrum doesn’t work in post-Cold War politics, and we ought to leave it behind, along with our "Better Dead Than Red Signs" and Reagan bumper stickers, in the museum of political memorabilia.
This notion, that the Left - Right spectrum is "outdated," "sterile," et cetera, is one of those dumb clichés that won’t go away. The problem is that every mature democratic society in the world, including our own, has politics organized in terms of it. The number of parties may vary, the issues may change, local circumstances may impose quirks, but the spectrum is a basic fact of life. I have been able to confirm this for dozens of nations.
It is true that the Left - Right spectrum is a crude taxonomy, but this is inevitable for a binary description of so complex a phenomenon as politics. It is also true that there is an economic Left – Right spectrum, a social Left – Right spectrum, and possibly others. It is true that there are more precise ways of dividing up the policy options. But it always seems to come out that, broadly speaking, people and ideas coalesce into these two broad groupings. The fact that there is no sound-bite definition of what distinguishes the one from the other always and everywhere, is irrelevant: we can usually determine who’s who, and any arguments are just plain old-fashioned political controversy – par for the course.
It is no secret where Front Page Magazine stands. I think the Left – Right distinction is very fruitful and it is the basis of our politics for the foreseeable future. I think attempts to deactivate this distinction are covert attempts to neuter the Right by depriving us of our ability to know where we stand. The Left wants this because the existing condition of our society is leftist-dominated and it takes consciously Right-wing effort to change the status quo. They can afford to be confused; we can’t. "Conservatives" who collaborate with their efforts are indeed useful idiots.
There’s no "conservative movement" any more, although there are a number of different, self-styled habits of thought among writers, activists, politicians and foundation board members. But it’s far from clear what exactly those people are trying to conserve. Different things, usually, for incompatible reasons. Religious rightists want to preserve America’s Christian (usually Protestant) heritage, and preserve the lives of the unborn. Libertarians want to resist and reverse the growth of America’s Leviathan state. Paleocons seem most concerned about preserving America’s identity as a scion of European culture, populated by a Euro-American majority. Neocons wish to preserve America’s dominance abroad, especially in the Middle East.
It’s true that there’s no perfectly coherent conservative movement, but a political movement doesn’t have to be perfectly coherent in order to win, to govern, or to do good. Let alone to exist! It’s true we have internal contradictions, but so does the opposition. Life isn’t math.
In the absence of Soviet Russia as a military and security threat to the U.S., there’s less reason than ever for these fractious factions to be herded together under the hoary label "the Right." We don’t have Bill Clinton to obsess about any more, and the blue dress has long been dry cleaned. There are few figures of note on the American Left, and none of them inspire much feeling any more. How much do any of us really care about Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson? For the 1000th time, yes, Jane Fonda committed treason and Barbara Streisand is obnoxious. But how many of us will still get up at 3 am to paint signs saying so? The thrill is gone.
Speak for yourself. For me, the eternal struggle in intellectual defense of nation and civilization is the most thrilling game a man can play.
With no one out there worth hating,
Really? Globalism is a systematic ideology, like Marxism, whose consequence would be the destruction of our nation and our way of life. God forbid we should hate such people. In fact, we should never hate anybody, because everybody is really benign, and all conflicts are due to mere misunderstanding. The Bible is wrong, and the Founders were paranoid: evil has been abolished and tyranny is not a threat.
the energies of the former Right have turned inward, with a vengeance. The bitterness and mutual resentment that have attended the crack-up of "movement conservatism" since 1992 or so has spawned a number of magazines, websites, weblogs and nervous breakdowns—perhaps from the strain of trying to hold together this unhappy commune of anti-communists, long after the band broke up, the beer kegs ran dry, and the groupies stopped cleaning the kitchen.
Leftists of many varieties sadly do persist, and their mostly destructive policies must be combated by patriotic Americans—especially now that our country is under domestic attack. Does this mean that the factions must be rallied behind a rightist Popular Front, a renewed "movement conservatism" which suppresses the deep philosophical differences that divide these incompatible world views, and expels those contrarians who refuse to toe the line? That seems to be Robert Locke’s program, and it makes a dreary kind of sense. This instinct might serve Republicans well when they next draft a party platform, or draw up another electoral gimmick such as the Contract With America. (Can any of you remember what it promised? Was any of it important? What did it achieve?)
The Contract With America nationalized the 1994 election and elected the first Republican congress since the 1920’s. (The fact that this congress later petered out was a product of the fact that Newt Gingrich was a pseudo-intellectual neocon fool.) It promised to bring the following to a floor vote; does anyone want to deny that these were worthwhile achievements? Namely:
1. THE FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: A balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and a legislative line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to an out- of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses. (Bill Text) (Description)
2. THE TAKING BACK OUR STREETS ACT: An anti-crime package including stronger truth-in- sentencing, "good faith" exclusionary rule exemptions, effective death penalty provisions, and cuts in social spending from this summer's "crime" bill to fund prison construction and additional law enforcement to keep people secure in their neighborhoods and kids safe in their schools. (Bill Text) (Description)
3. THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: Discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased AFDC for additional children while on welfare, cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility. (Bill Text) (Description)
4. THE FAMILY REINFORCEMENT ACT: Child support enforcement, tax incentives for adoption, strengthening rights of parents in their children's education, stronger child pornography laws, and an elderly dependent care tax credit to reinforce the central role of families in American society. (Bill Text) (Description)
5. THE AMERICAN DREAM RESTORATION ACT: A S500 per child tax credit, begin repeal of the marriage tax penalty, and creation of American Dream Savings Accounts to provide middle class tax relief. (Bill Text) (Description)
6. THE NATIONAL SECURITY RESTORATION ACT: No U.S. troops under U.N. command and restoration of the essential parts of our national security funding to strengthen our national defense and maintain our credibility around the world. (Bill Text) (Description)
7. THE SENIOR CITIZENS FAIRNESS ACT: Raise the Social Security earnings limit which currently forces seniors out of the work force, repeal the 1993 tax hikes on Social Security benefits and provide tax incentives for private long-term care insurance to let Older Americans keep more of what they have earned over the years. (Bill Text) (Description)
8. THE JOB CREATION AND WAGE ENHANCEMENT ACT: Small business incentives, capital gains cut and indexation, neutral cost recovery, risk assessment/cost-benefit analysis, strengthening the Regulatory Flexibility Act and unfunded mandate reform to create jobs and raise worker wages. (Bill Text) (Description)
9. THE COMMON SENSE LEGAL REFORM ACT: "Loser pays" laws, reasonable limits on punitive damages and reform of product liability laws to stem the endless tide of litigation. (Bill Text) (Description)
10. THE CITIZEN LEGISLATURE ACT: A first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators. (Description)
(From the House of Representatives web site.)
Groupthink is a common phenomenon during wartime, when jingoism drowns criticism —and frequently goads nations into serious mistakes.
Does anyone seriously believe there is no debate going on in this country about the contemplated war with Iraq?
(The Versailles Treaty and Yalta come to mind.) But such heavily-policed thinking hardly serves the cause of the truth. And it’s telling that Locke resorts to Leninist jargon, calling the Buchananites "useful idiots"—as if Locke were Party Secretary of the Conservative International.
What in hell is wrong with a broad rightist coalition, big enough to win in a 2-party system? That’s the way the game is played in America.
So I’m happy to see that The American Conservative pissed off Robert Locke. I reacted the same way to some of the articles. It’s supposed to happen, when you read opinion pieces written by distinct individuals, with palpably different worldviews. That said, let me turn to a few of the concrete criticisms he raised of the articles in the premiere issue, and offer some response. Bear in mind that I’m not on the staff of the magazine, and I don’t speak on its behalf.
Locke begins by airily dismissing the serious question raised by a number of antiwar writers—why is Iraq to be distinguished from other despotic nations that are striving to attain weapons of mass destruction, and singled out for conquest and occupation?
We’ll deal with them later. If, of course, they don’t get the message.
To this he offers no answer—and no evidence that Saddam Hussein, however despicable he is, has collaborated with terrorists attacking or planning to attack the United States, or forged a working relationship with Al Qaeda.
I never said he had. This war is pre-emption, not vengeance.
Locke does leave out the real reason for our focus on Iraq, as opposed to North Korea or Iran: We have a legal pretext to attack Iraq, under the peace treaty we signed with it after Gulf War I, which requires it to disarm. This is true of none of those other nations. Of all the dictatorships on earth, and all the nations seeking nukes, we have the legal basis for attacking only one: Iraq. If we tried a pre-emptive invasion of any other country, in the absence of such a pretext, we would incur the outrage not of the Arab "street," the German electorate and the French, but of the entire world. It might spell the end of NATO, and perhaps of American bases abroad—it would, in fact, drive us into an isolation deeper than Charles Lindbergh ever dared to dream.
Let’s worry about that then.
But why do our leaders wish to attack Iraq? There are many reasons, but I suspect that they are genuinely, and rightly, concerned about unreliable regimes obtaining effective means for slaughtering foreign civilian populations—the only use for most nuclear weapons, including our own—and they wish to make an example of Iraq, to frighten other despots into holding off on their own weapons programs. A laudable goal, but a questionable strategy—and a costly one.
Wait a minute. The goal is laudable but the strategy is questionable? This does not follow. If the goal, disarming Iraq, is good, then our strategy of so doing is appropriate.
I hope that the threat of force drives Hussein to allow real disarmament, thwarting both his own schemes to become a nuclear-armed regional power AND the fantasies of those who wish to rebuild and reshape Iraq (and perhaps the whole Arab world) at the expense of the American serviceman and taxpayer.
Front Page Magazine, in an article by Larry Auster and elsewhere, has already denounced attempts to hijack this defensive war into a neo-imperialist boondoggle.
Further down, Locke suggests that the alternative to Pax Americana is bellum, or war. Is that really true? Is it impossible to imagine any alternative to the U.S. serving as the global secret police, patrolling every region, managing its affairs, threatening, bombing and removing its "evildoers," and generally spending blood and treasure in the service of imposing its sovereignty on the world?
It’s not about imposing our sovereignty on the world. It’s about keeping some semblance of peace and order. America is the only nation strong enough to do so.
Is this the role which our Founders envisioned for the United States?
If you actually go and read George Washington’s famous Farewell Address, the Koran of the isolationists, you will discover that his isolationism was explicitly premised upon the fact – true in his day – of distant foreigners not being able to harm us. This is obviously no longer true.
Would it increase our liberty and prosperity at home?
Let’s save our country – not to mention my New York apartment – from being nuked before we worry about increasing liberty and prosperity, shall we?
These are serious questions, and someone other than whining multiculturalists and socialists has to ask them.
For most of Western history, peace has been maintained through alliances, the balance of power, and negotiation between states. We have only one example of lasting peace imposed unilaterally by a single power: Rome. To maintain its empire, Rome imposed crushing tax burdens on its citizens, gradually curtailed and finally eliminated most of their traditional liberties, diluted citizenship to the point of meaninglessness, succumbed to massive political corruption, and finally succumbed to a massive wave of immigrants—who’d been attracted to its borders precisely by its intense involvement in foreign affairs. Sound familiar?
When Rome at last collapsed, it took with it the very structure of Western civilization, giving way to 500 years of chaos. The peoples inhabiting its empire had lost the habits of self-government, after centuries as subjects. The barbarians who came—mostly unarmed, as immigrants, not invaders—brought their own customs and political preferences, and those prevailed. We should think carefully before launching wars whose blowback will include tens of thousands of Moslem refugees to the U.S.—whom our politicians will be too cowardly or guilt-struck to turn away.
Locke next criticizes a piece by a British author who recommends that the United Kingdom pull away from its American alliance, and enfold itself in "the United States of Europe." I agree with Locke that this is a monstrous idea, and that the totalitarian E.U. should be resisted by every possible means short of war. But subservience to American foreign policy is not the price Britons must pay for preserving their sovereignty. With its vast and wealthy Commonwealth, its long political tradition of parliamentary democracy, and its powerful, nuclear-armed military, Britain can fend off the suffocating embrace of Europe without becoming the 52nd State (Iraq will be #51). English and Scots and Welsh can prosper without submitting to Belgian laws, and defend their interests without partaking in American wars. We only stir needless resentment against America by dragooning other nations to do our heavy lifting. If we want to fight a war to assert American hegemony over a region, we ought to do it ourselves.
If he shows good sense on the EU, on the issue of immigration Locke completely loses touch with American political reality. He agrees with the thrust of The American Conservative that immigration must be seriously reduced, to preserve national security, cultural continuity, and the economic well-being of America’s working class. These three goals are things that can be sold to the American public, if not to our elites. Every opinion poll taken, even among most immigrant groups, suggests that a majority of U.S. legal residents want immigration totals reduced, and illegal immigration stopped cold.
The elites who benefit from immigration, or who distrust national cohesion and wish to undermine it, or who simply hate America, have managed so far to blunt and dissipate this massive national consensus. How? By focusing on the (rare) expressions of genuine xenophobia among immigration restrictionists, and the human cost to individuals who are turned back from our borders. Those of us who wish to preserve the common good must find ways to defeat these dishonest rhetorical strategies—in part, by clearly and repeatedly asserting that we are not hostile to individuals because of their nationality or race, and we do not see "foreign" people and things as somehow contaminating or inferior per se. To do or say anything else brands us as "insensitive" clods or dangerous bigots, and hands the victory to the open-borders, cheap labor lobby.
The American Conservative did a fine job of maintaining a balanced position in its pages—to which Mr. Locke responded by confiding his private fantasy of massive deportations of illegal immigrants. Barring several more events such as 9/11 perpetrated by Mexicans, it is completely impossible to imagine a situation in which the public would support such a measure, at least for the length of time it took to carry it out. Imagine the television footage that would be produced, as the Border Patrol collected hundreds of dark-skinned, impoverished people—most of them gainfully, if illegally employed—and herded them onto trucks, before their weeping crowds of relatives….
This is what really annoys me about Buchananites and many other paleocons: they talk a great line about being tough-minded nationalists, defenders of law-and-order, et cetera, but then they wimp out when confronted with the most mundane policy choices. I mean, these people would commit hara-kiri in defense of the Confederate flag, but the simple demand that we enforce existing law against known criminals is too politically incorrect for them. Let’s get a few things straight on this issue:
1. Existing law requires the deportation of illegal aliens.
2. Illegal aliens are by definition criminals.
3. We already deport 200,000 illegal aliens per year.
4. We do it without jackboots, death squads, or knocks on the door at 3 AM.
5. We do it without significant public outrage.
It’s just not that big a deal to deport illegal aliens. We just have to go from 200,000 per year to 2,000,000. Minimal self-respect for the concept of a nation of laws demands it. Those laws were made by a legitimate, democratically-elected government, and to fail to enforce those laws, is a direct assault on American democracy. Even if some people are more worried about offending La Raza.
We live in a country that could not keep public order in one of its largest cities—Los Angeles—because a large minority was outraged by a single beating of a single black detainee by white policemen, and their acquittal. Any plan such as Locke’s would quickly collapse before a massive, media-managed barrage of negative coverage—and spawn a lasting backlash against any attempts to control our borders. The media-savvy Buchanan has crafted a smart and saleable approach to making progress on an intractable national problem—and he ought to be congratulated for it.
I know some of the people behind The American Conservative, so I have some insight into the tactical thinking of their people in taking silly positions like this. They think it makes them seem moderate to the public. It doesn’t. It makes them look like an incoherent mix of the extremisms of Left and Right. Naturally, if one doesn’t believe in the simple fact of the Left – Right structure of contemporary politics, this might make sense. Your call.
Next Locke correctly skewers the sour and Machiavellian Kevin Phillips, whose populist posturing has effectively severed his last connections to movements of the Right. After criticizing "big business" Republicans for their corrupt embrace of big government, he goes on to dismiss the other two possible loci around which a rightist American movement could cohere: He scoffs at libertarians as compromised or irrelevant, and Christian conservatives as snake-handling fanatics. The architect of Nixon’s "Southern Strategy"—which used racial resentment among whites to peel them off the Democratic Party—has now decided that class resentment is more important. Instead of promoting a principled position in favor of real free enterprise—or even an "industrial policy" designed to preserve American jobs—Phillips has morphed himself into another Paul Krugman. And one of those is enough.
But Phillips is right to critique the intimate, adulterous affair between the supposedly free-market Republican Party and multinational corporations that use regulation, subsidy, and American military might to protect their investments—and bail out their companies when they fail.
He’s right, but my own article saying this came out before Phillips’s: see What is American Corporatism? Plus Phillips toys with the dangerous box of political matches that is class warfare, rather than thinking out how we can be conservatives under corporatism.
And Phillips’ political calculus is correct. In the next prolonged economic downturn, the G.O.P. had better have some other banner to rally around than upper-class tax cuts and foreign wars favored by oil companies.
That banner is nationalism, against the globalism of the Clinton years. It means immigration reform, an end to free-trade extremism, and an end to neocon fantasies of empire. I agree that the Republican party is doomed if it won’t hoist this banner, which is not only demanded by the merits of the case but is the natural position of the Right.
I’m happy to say that Pat Buchanan’s new magazine does contribute something to the national debate—a journal devoted to exploring the very differences that divide the members of the dissolved conservative coalition, to finding the truths that were buried under the necessary rhetoric of the Cold War, to rediscovering principles that used to motivate politics on the Right, back when the term meant something. As a frequent contributor to its pages, I’m happy to recommend The American Conservative—a well-written, intelligently edited, and best of all eclectic, interesting read. Each issue will surprise you. Challenge you. Perhaps tick you off. It’s unlike any other magazine on the stands. It’s definitely not a pre-fabricated product, design to promote a compromise agenda amenable to corporate sponsors, touchy donors or party hacks. Its writers are not shilling for the job of presidential speechwriter—unless, of course, Pat Buchanan gets elected someday. But we’ll burn that bridge if we come to it.
Dr. Zmirak is author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist. He writes frequently on economics, politics, popular culture and theology.