Conservativism, 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."

Being 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 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 the troops.

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 etc."

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.

Individual 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 at all.


© 2003 American Conservative Union Foundation 1007 Cameron Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 Tel: 703.836.8602