Chronicles and Paleoconservativism
Thomas Fleming, the brilliant editor of the self-styled
paleoconservative magazine, Chronicles, deserves much of the blame
for the founding of ConservativeBattleline. Months ago, he published
an editorial proclaiming the "fusionist" conservatism
of old National Review was dead and that no one under 60 years old
adhered to its principles any longer. In the most recent issue,
leading columnist Samuel Francis makes the same damning indictment,
adding, fusionism "died childless."
over sixty myself, it was hardly apt to respond to the editor--this
would merely confirm his charge. Besides, the truth hurts. I was
afraid he was correct but decided to search to find out if he was
right. I certainly could not think of many "children"
myself, other than my own brood. Investigating various conservative
sources, I became more alarmed than ever that the younger movement
truly did consist solely of what Francis bitingly calls "happy
talk," bumper sticker, teenage Republican conservatism. Being
a cantankerous sort-after all I did read Chronicles-I went further
and sent a memo challenging fusionists to show themselves if, in
fact, they still existed.
They poured out in hundreds of e-mail responses
and a record number of "hits" to the American Conservative
Union web site, demanding we publish a center-line fusionist conservative
journal of opinion. Of course, most were unfamiliar with the term
fusionist-and that is fine, it is not essential-but, as good conservatives,
they knew it when they saw it. So we launched ConservativeBattleline.com.
Several of the responses to the first edition appear as letters
to the editor in this one-including a good number of "children."
Thank you, Chronicles, for raising the challenge and stirring up
Chronicles proclaims itself paleoconservative but
I must confess that, after all of these years of regular readership,
I do not know precisely what it is. Its writers say it differs from
Frank Meyer, fusionist conservatism so it would be insulting on
my part to claim we are the same. So, by its own reckoning, paleoconservatism
and conservatism differ but it is not clear to me exactly how. In
many years of conversation with Tom Fleming, the only philosophical
difference I remember with the classical scholar is how we interpret
John Locke and Aristotle. He seems to reject the rationalistic element
in fusionism's synthesis of reason and tradition, demanding not
dual roots but less abstract idealism and more actual history and
real institutions. He makes the same charge against Meyer, Locke
and Aristotle as bet noir Leo Strauss but comes to the opposite
conclusion. While I differ from some specific applications of his
philosophy, I am uncertain of where the transition occurs.
With Samuel Francis, the very clever and thoughtful
theorist of paleoconservatism, the distinctions are clearer. Indeed,
he seems to differ from Fleming too--so different, one wonders if
there really is any common basis for paleoconservatism. Both Fleming
and Francis do call for a more material, natural, institutional
foundation for politics and social life and both distrust rational
formulations such as conservative or American creeds but their agreement
seems to end there. Contrary to the case with Mr. Fleming, I rarely
agree with Mr. Francis. Indeed, he dismisses the central Reagan
conservative political concern with "the growth of 'big government'
and preserving the personal liberty the leviathan state" threatens.
Other than recognizing that the Reagan-conservative support for
the cold war contributed to the growth of the state, he claims we
do not "have a clue" why fusionist conservatism failed.
The problem with our conservatism, Mr. Francis says,
is that it has no social base. For he is a disciple of the early
James Burnham, the then semi-Marxist who believed that deeply-rooted
collective social forces determine all important societal outcomes.
Fusionism was originally rooted in the old, pre New Deal republican
ruling classes, based on "private property, free enterprise,
small government constrained by law, the nation state, the nuclear
family and the values that bound it together in what in general
is known as 'bourgeois morality.'" But today that class and
its values and, especially, its power institutions are obviously
overwhelmed by the progressive experts of the modern welfare state.
All that remains of fusionist conservatism is a bunch of (old) intellectuals
and (young and old) political opportunists who also identify with
other spent ideological forces such as the "Middle Ages, the
Old South, the glorious free market of the 19th Century, the 1950s
Of all of the successful politicians of the right-"Nixon,
McCarthy, George Wallace, Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan-not one came
out of the conservative movement," he claims. To be successful
politically, politicians must deal with the real issues of mass
immigration, the erosion of the national industrial base and the
destruction of the middle class. Instead, fusionist conservatism
is preoccupied with their "pet abstractions" of liberty,
national security, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. They may be
"fine" but they are politically irrelevant. Paleoconservatism
presumably requires a politics not built on the ephemeral abstractions
of the later but on the deep social resentments of the shunned European
natives, the off-shore displaced industrial workers, and technology-dislocated
lower middle class white collar workforce. Truly, whether he represents
his Chronicles colleagues or not, Mr. Francis makes a logical and
comprehensive distinction between conservatism and paleoconservatism.
To his charge, fusionist conservatism must plead
guilty. It does speak for abstractions like liberty, security and
Judeo-Christian values. Yet, because we, like Aristotle, have a
dual base in idealism and materialism, that is not all there is
to our worldview. We might not even be as politically dead as Mr.
Francis believes. He is flat wrong that none of the leaders he mentioned
came out of the fusionist conservative movement. Ronald Reagan did
as can be readily proven simply by reading him on the subject in
the first article in the current edition of this journal. On the
other hand, we actually opposed Nixon and Wallace. Moreover, we
do have a mass base, even a class one-based upon the bourgeois middle,
middle class values he deems so outdated. It is true it is a more
ephemeral class than the fiercer ones of race, blood, ownership,
culture, and political power he believes determine history. It is
less well defined by institutions other than through the vote and
it is more capricious--but it is a base that has proved remarkably
persistent. Marx, so correct on so much, predicted its demise long
ago but it, somehow, hangs on, old fashioned morality and all.
This middle, middle class has been weakened by
the managerial classes of the welfare state, just as Alexis de Tocqueville
predicted, but to us this is a tragedy that requires a remedy. It
is true that fusionist conservatism has not been able to reverse
the decline; but to claim that this is not our major concern is
entirely wrongheaded. As Mr. Reagan put it, we want to cut budgets
not so much to save money as to free our "citizens and communities,"
that is, to free middle class citizens and communities, "main
street" citizens as he constantly insisted. Our middle class,
if wounded, survives and can still be motivated to political victory
as Mr. Reagan proved. It is Mr. Francis' industrial-smokestack middle
class that is truly becoming passé, although we urge them
to reach up and join the bourgeoisie. Our clumsy middle class tax
cuts have this as their deeper motivation.
Yet, Mr. Francis is fundamentally correct. Reagan
conservatism is a movement without deep roots in historical patterns
of social grievance. If the creation of a new victim class to replace
the Democratic one is the paleoconservative platform, we must reject
it. We are committed to positive "abstractions" like liberty,
security and the Judeo-Christian tradition. If these are incompatible
with paleoconservatism, we must oppose it. If paleoconservatism
is something else, as I suspect it might be for others who proclaim
it, let us isolate the differences and let the debate begin. In
fact, Western values are not abstractions but values deep within
the bourgeois human heart, ones that flowered into the institutions
of Western culture. Indeed, our faith tells us, they are deeper
still, in every human heart, deeper even than race and class.
hearts appear brittle compared to foundational social forces but,
when they are grounded in sound values and institutions, they, not
classes, determine history. These are not guaranteed success but,
in fact, they have survived Greece and Rome, European cultural nationalism,
the French, German and Soviet secular revolutions, and all the rest.
They will survive globalism too. The job of fusionist conservatism
is to lead that threatened middle, middle class in a manner that
assures America remains one of the places on the planet where these
bourgeois values persist in spite of the constant temptations to
abandon them. If we are left childless as a result of that struggle,
that would be a tragedy; but a lesser one than not making the struggle