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.
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.
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.
With no one out there worth hating, 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?) Groupthink is a common phenomenon during wartime, when jingoism drowns criticism —and frequently goads nations into serious mistakes. (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.
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? 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.
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.
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. 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.
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? Is this the role which our Founders envisioned for the United States? Would it increase our liberty and prosperity at home? 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….
We live in a country that could not keep public order in one of its largest cities &mdashl 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.
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. 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.
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.