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Conservatism, Old and New

September 24, 2002

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.

[Breaker quote: The old comes back.]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 forebears.

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. [Website editor’s note: The first issue appeared very shortly after this column was written.] 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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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