Conservatism, Old and New
September 24, 2002

by Joe Sobran

     I used to be what is called a "movement" 
conservative -- a participant in the American 
conservative movement that emerged after World War II. It 
was opposed to both Communism and New Deal liberalism. 
Its first political leader was Senator Barry Goldwater of 
Arizona, and its journalistic voice was William F. 
Buckley Jr., editor of NATIONAL REVIEW.

     Goldwater is long gone -- he turned out to be a lot 
less conservative than his admirers had believed -- and 
Buckley is semi-retired. I wrote for NATIONAL REVIEW from 
1972 to 1993 and, though Bill Buckley is as charming as 
they come, I watched with dismay as his magazine became 
more and more remote from the principles I understood to 
be central to American conservatism. Today, under a new 
generation of conservatives, if you can call them that, I 
can hardly bear to read it.

     Just what are today's conservatives trying to 
conserve? The older conservatives had thoughtful 
conceptions of the nature of politics, constitutional 
order, Western civilization. They included original 
thinkers and deeply cultured men like James Burnham, 
Whitaker Chambers, Willmoore Kendall, Robert Nisbet, 
Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, Thomas Molnar, 
and many others who are now largely forgotten, especially 
by those who have replaced them. It's hard to imagine 
them fitting into today's conservative movement or 
writing for today's NATIONAL REVIEW.

     These older conservatives didn't always agree with 
each other; far from it. They had fiery debates over 
first principles. The trouble with the new conservatives 
is that they always agree with each other. They equate 
conservatism with militarism. They are apologists for 
American military power and the Bush administration. 
They've made their peace with the New Deal and the 
welfare-warfare state, and they've become hard to 
distinguish from neoconservatives, who have pretty much 
become the bellwethers of the movement.

     First principles? Constitutional law? Limited 
government? Christian civilization? Forget it. The causes 
that animated the old conservatives have faded into the 
distant past. At least the Cold War had a purpose; the 
wars favored by the young conservatives are aimed only at 
American empire, no matter what the cost. They've never 
seen a war they didn't like -- not that any of them have 
any experience of war, unlike their distinguished 

     The tone of the new conservatism is facile and 
crass, because it's concerned only with power for its own 
sake. Absent is the note of reflection that led men like 
Burnham, Kendall, and Kirk to write books about the 
political thought of Machiavelli, Locke, and Burke -- 
books that are still worth reading, and which made their 
reputations before there was a conservative movement to 
join. It was Buckley's achievement to gather so many 
fascinating individualists under his banner, some of whom 
disputed each other's right to be there. Sometimes he had 
to be a referee as well as an editor. It took all his 
considerable tact.

     Buckley founded his magazine in 1955 out of 
dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, which, in the 
Eisenhower years, had become fatally compromised. In its 
quest for political victory, the party had chosen the 
popular but vacuous World War II hero over the 
conservative hero, Senator Robert Taft. In 1952 Buckley 
had realized that if Eisenhower defeated Taft for the GOP 
presidential nomination, conservative principles would be 
all but banished from American politics.

     But today the magazine is even less conservative 
than Eisenhower was. It has forgotten its own origins, 
what someone has called the "divine discontent" of its 
early years. And the entire conservative movement has 
followed suit. The few remaining strict conservatives 
have been driven to the margins.

     Yet the older conservatism isn't quite a lost cause. 
It may be about to raise its voice again in Patrick 
Buchanan's new magazine THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE, due to 
appear this month. Buchanan is one of the few 
conservatives who have refused to surrender their 
heritage to the neoconservatives, for which they have 
tried (with generous help from Buckley and NATIONAL 
REVIEW) to purge him from the movement.

     It tells you a lot about America today that Buchanan 
has made enemies in the movement by reviving the slogan 
"America first." He's against war with Iraq not because 
he isn't patriotic, but because he is -- far too 
patriotic, in fact, to be a "movement" conservative. He's 
fighting for the America he still remembers, and loves.


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