Left and Right

Revanchist Revolutionaries

By Michael Lucchese, Law and Liberty

Since the upheaval of 2016, the American Right has been casting about for a new basis for conservative politics. While some look to national conservatism or integralism, others have attempted to revive the legacy of failed presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan. Many detect the origins of the new wave of populism in his vehement opposition to free trade, higher immigration levels, and an interventionist foreign policy.

Paul Gottfried—who coined the term “paleoconservatism” to describe Buchanan’s ideology—has edited a new volume of essays, titled A Paleoconservative Anthology, addressing this new populist energy on the Right. The authors attempt to chart a new course for American conservatism, turning the movement away from constitutionalism and towards a less-restrained politics.

Unfortunately, though, there is nothing conservative about today’s paleoconservatism. With its emphasis on class warfare, racial grievance, and power politics, it is an ideology better understood as a right-wing form of Marxism. As Gottfried’s Anthology shows, this toxic mix is a recipe for electoral disaster and moral bankruptcy.

The Paleoconservative Dissatisfaction

Twentieth-century conservatives such as Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley built their movement on the idea of the American Founding. For them, conservative politics needed to be rooted in a reverential devotion to the Constitution, a healthy appreciation of the free market, and a vigorous anti-communism. And as Ronald Reagan’s stunning electoral successes proved, these ideas were immensely popular.

Paleoconservatives sneered at this approach, however, and desired something more radical. “The main thrust of Kirk’s conservatism was to assure Americans that everything was really OK,” paleoconservative ideologue Samuel Francis wrote in one essay, “that the society in which they lived and the government and dominant social and political forces that prevailed in the United States were healthy.” Protecting the Constitution and defeating the Soviet Union were not enough for Francis—he wanted to upend the entire basis for American politics and adopt new foundational principles.

The latter-day paleoconservatives who contributed to the Anthology agree with Francis. “The ideas of Kirk and Hayek, appealing as they were to Bill Buckley, were always too disconnected from the concerns of the base,” David Azerrad writes in the second essay of the collection. “Conservatism was, and largely remains, an ideology in search of a mass constituency.” He believes that mass appeal can be found in the Buchananite three-legged stool of economic protectionism, immigration restrictionism, and isolationism.

This new three-legged stool is of course wildly opposed to the original Reaganite three-legged stool of free markets, social conservatism, and a strong foreign policy. But the paleoconservatives are open about their rejection of conservative orthodoxy. Carl Horowitz, for instance, asserts that “the claim that the Reagan years were revolutionary is out of whack with reality.” In his view, Reagan’s conservatism did nothing to prevent a far-left takeover of American institutions; indeed, he says that “America is now a nation where radical ideology is the coin of the realm of higher education, mass media, and philanthropy.”


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