Note: The Taki post is up. This week it is a discourse on the proposed replacement for originalism in conservative jurisprudence. The Sunday Thoughts podcast is up behind the green door for subscribers.
Over the last few years, it has become increasingly popular to examine what went wrong with the conservative movement. This was mostly the result of Trump winning the Republican nomination, despite universal opposition from conservatives. At that point it was no longer possible to ignore the collapse of conservatism. Prior to 2016, the movement was the gatekeeper for the party. Trump and the Dirt People kicked open the gates and found nothing worth keeping inside.
One result of this is the sprouting of proposed alternatives like Yoram Hazony’s national conservatism, common good conservativism and integralism. Libertarians, of course, maintain the fantasy that this is their time. There are certainly others working to produce something to fill the void on the Right. All of these proposed alternative start with a basic claim that conservatism failed. None of these new conservatisms bother to think too hard about why Buckley conservatism failed.
This is what makes this post from Paul Gottfried important. He was around when many of the critical turns of the conservative movement were made, so he has a perspective on it that few have today. Most of the main players from the growth phase of Buckley conservatism are gone now. With them went the personal disputes that ended up shaping what became mainstream conservatism in the 1980’s. The one thing the Left has right is that politics is always personal.
Gottfried tries to do three things in the post. One is to bring attention to the recent scholarship on Harry Jaffa, who was a central figure in the debates about the shape and direction of conservatism. Then there is the fact that there was a time when debate was possible within conservatism. Others have noted that there was an interregnum in which sensitive topics like race and immigration could be debated. That window closed in the 1990’s, eventually taking the public square with it.
The main point of Gottfried’s post is to place the blame for this and the collapse of conservatism at the feet of the neoconservatives. Before the neoconservatives gained power, it was possible for Harry Jaffa and Mel Bradford to live together. Jaffa was largely responsible for the Lincoln fetish among conservatives. He claimed the Civil War and the Reconstruction amendments were a perfecting of the original Constitution by reincorporating the sentiments of the Declaration.
Bradford was a Southerner and a Southern conservative. This not only placed him at odds with Jaffa’s reimagining of the Founding and Civil War, but it put him on the losing side of the internal struggles within conservatism. He was on the Russel Kirk wing of the Right, which was purged by Buckley in the 1980’s. In fact, Bradford was one of the first to be hurled into the void by conservatives. Paul Gottfried blames this urge to purge squarely on the neoconservatives.
There is truth to it, but the desire to excommunicate rivals exists in all movements, so it is hardly unique to the neocons. The question is how were they able to change the rules in order to disqualify the arguments of their opponents? After all, no one was purged for being factually incorrect. The dispute between the paleos and neos was over moral questions and that is where Jaffa comes back into the room. It is Jaffa’s work that gave the neocons the chance to rig morality to their advantage.
The central claim of Harry Jaffa is that the Constitution was an imperfect effort to encode the sentiments of the Declaration into the political framework of the new nation created out of the break from England. The contradictions within the constitutional order eventually led to the Civil War. This allowed for some necessary corrections to advance the nation down the road toward the sentiments in the Declaration. Lincoln becomes the Moses of this new nation forged in liberty.
Of course, this requires a reading of early American history that steps outside of the actual facts and written accounts of the Founders. It also requires a new version of the events leading up to the Civil War. That was all made easy because it proved a path forward for conservatives to embrace egalitarianism. They could finally claim that their opponents on the Left were the real racist because Lincoln was a Republican, freed the slaves and said stuff about all men being equal.
That is not being fair to Jaffa, who deserves a much more through debunking than time permits, but this was his contribution to conservatism. The cult of Lincoln he created for the Right cut them loose from the old conservativism, rooted in the natural order, and provided them with a new moral foundation. The New Right would be about equality and liberty. The New Left, in contrast, would be about equality and justice, thus tying the two together through egalitarianism.
Here is a post on the same site as the Gottfried post, in which the editors reject the new normal of American politics. Everything is good until this. “In reality, race is not the ultimate fact of human identity or the central problem of American life. Different ethnic populations have different general tendencies, but not different natural rights. Everyone is capable of learning to live well in this country, but only if we confidently endorse both our geographical and cultural boundaries.”
The linked post in that quote is worth reading, as it rips the mask from the “new conservatism” and exposes it as the old conservatism. The great fork in the road, the shadow that hangs over human history, is biology. The story of man is not one tale with many chapters, but many stories of many people, all of whom have their own unique understanding of themselves and how they should live. The genuine man of the Right understands this and accepts it. Equality, in short, is inhuman.
When you pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other. This is the problem that destroyed 20th century conservatism. They were offered a Faustian bargain from the likes of Harry Jaffa. They accepted the egalitarianism of the radicals as their foundation stone and in exchange they were rewarded with riches. Conservatism was once again Northern Conservatism and followed the same path that another Southerner observed about them in the 19th century.
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