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Old Right

In today's Boston Globe, Jeet Heer profiles John Lukacs, an old-school anti-populist conservative of the European sort. He shares my view is more about hating on liberals than anything else:

''Already [in the '50s] the trouble with most conservatives was that it was a negative conservatism,'' says Lukacs, who penned several anti-McCarthy articles for Commonweal magazine when the Senator was riding high. ''They were anti-liberal. And that's not enough.''
Concurrently, he's not very happy with George W. Bush's liberal-bashing right-populism:
''Nationalism is a very low and cheap common denominator that unites people,'' he says. ''It is hatred that unites people. People take satisfaction from the idea that we are good because our enemies are evil. This is a very American syndrome but it is also universally true of mankind.''

''In this country the Republicans are the nationalist party,'' he continues. ''That's why they won the election-on the basis of symbols. I think the importance of economics in people's political choice of vote is vastly exaggerated. We live in such an age of intellectual stupidity that people use the wrong terms. People think this is a 'cultural issue' or a 'moral issue.' These are half-truths.''

Now it's very well-known that the American political tradition has never had a real conservative movement in the sense Lukacs admires. A smattering of European-style conservative intellectuals, sure, just as the USA has had its share of socialist intellectuals without that leading to a viable socialist politics. I'm not sure whether to think it's a good thing or a bad thing that the American tradition has turned out this way, as a vicious family squabble between what are really two strains of Whiggery rather than a grand ideological debate between Tories and socialists, but that's the way it goes. Anyone who insists on trying to change that dynamic is bound, like Lukacs or many an alienated leftwing intellectual, to wind up frustrated by the American people.

March 6, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

"Anyone who insists on trying to change that dynamic is bound, like Lukacs or many an alienated leftwing intellectual, to wind up frustrated by the American people."

I'd say they end up frustrated by the framers, instead of by the American people.

The framers were monumentally crafty in designing a Constitution that has managed to perpetuate their values throughout the centuries.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 6, 2005 2:36:21 PM

Also the successive waves of immigration/assimilation and the deep-felt myth of the frontier,even if only what remains is an ease of movement and restarting, has frustrated a communitarianism on either the left or right.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 6, 2005 2:51:50 PM

I think this guy has a good take on it: When God is Pro War & Other Delicacies; Pseudoconservatism Revisited (Werther report).


The pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition. . . . [He] sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world . . . cannot possibly be due to its limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed."

--Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, 1965.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 6, 2005 3:16:05 PM

"''In this country the Republicans are the nationalist party,'' he continues. ''That's why they won the election-on the basis of symbols. I think the importance of economics in people's political choice of vote is vastly exaggerated.''"

True, but the dominant party at any given time in America has always worn populist/nationalist drag, and a range of platforms (albeit not as broad a range of platforms as I'd like) - from FDR's social democracy to Reagan's right-libertarianism to Bush's big government conservativism can be successfully dressed up in nationalist garb.

That I think is the appeal of Dean. He redresses moderate liberalism in American drag. I have no idea if he'll succeed at bringing the Democratic Party significant (or any) gains in the near term, but Democrats will not become the dominant party until they become in some sense Americanist again.

"Anyone who insists on trying to change that dynamic is bound, like Lukacs or many an alienated leftwing intellectual, to wind up frustrated by the American people."

All too true Matthew, although you have to kind of question whether or not this sort of toxic populist nationalism hasn't succeeded just about everywhere in preventing genuinely enlightened policies from being enacted. I remember reading a piece about the liberal criminal justice system in Norway several years back (some of the jails don't even have fences around them, or even bars I believe on the cells), and the official interviewed for the piece remarked that Norway is able to maintain such progressive policies because the populists are kept on a leash. That sounds all fine and nice, but to what extent is it really the combination of a wealthy society and racial and ethnic homogeneity?

The Netherlands may be the most left-libertarian, least nationalistic nation on earth, but how sustainable are its generous social welfare policies and liberal criminal justice system in the face of ever-increasing immigration (read: of non whites) to the country.

The thing that's most maddening to me is that there really aren't any *good* alternative political, economic, and social orders in evidence at the moment (something pointed out eloquently in one of the Russian monologues in Angels in America). Add to that the fact there isn't a lot of free space left in the world to go start your own country. But somehow - somehow -there will have to be alternatives for people who want to opt out, whether out of political or religious conviction, or simply because they want out of the rat race and are tired of being neck deep in utter stupidity.

To some extent, we've already seen the political and ideological self-segregation of Americans over the last generation, with a huge number of counties firmly Republican or Democrat. But what about the rest of us - leftists, libertarians, anti-capitalist religious conservatives - who are not red or blue or purple? Technology makes possible the organization of mass migrations of people with shared values, and ideals to a particular place. While not inevitable, it seems to me that we could begin to see such movements in the coming decades.

Posted by: Robin the Hoodlum | Mar 6, 2005 4:20:33 PM

Is this the guy who wrote that very good book about Churchill in May 1940?

Posted by: Marshall | Mar 6, 2005 4:25:40 PM

People take satisfaction from the idea that we are good because our enemies are evil. This is a very American syndrome but it is also universally true of mankind.''

It is true of all mankind, but it's more true in some places than in others. There are places where the veneer of civilization and culture is a bit thicker - on average, of course.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 6, 2005 4:37:43 PM

i thought when you said Jeet Heer wrote the article that the guy was a blogger who was a big Yankee fan. I was wrong.

Posted by: jared bailey | Mar 6, 2005 5:16:16 PM

Perhaps a more apt label would be that much of American politics is a family spat between two strands of liberalism: classical (small gov't) liberalism of the 1800s and modern welfare state liberalism.

Americans are hugely Liberal, in the broader sense of the word. They aren't very good communitarians, in either the left (socialist) or right (Euro-conservative) sense of the word.

Posted by: DeadHorseBeater | Mar 6, 2005 6:29:38 PM

"Perhaps a more apt label would be that much of American politics is a family spat between two strands of liberalism: classical (small gov't) liberalism of the 1800s and modern welfare state liberalism."

There's some truth to that, but the GOP is no longer the party of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and is certainly (and sadly) no longer the party of Robert Taft. The Bush-led Republicans are now the party of Wilsonian militarism abroad, with an absolutist, messianic belief in the liberating potential of American power, and a big government conservative party at home, that is militantly corporatist, anti-federalist, with a strong belief in the virtue of the police state, and the use of federal government power and resources to promote if not impose "traditional values."

Posted by: Robin the Hoodlum | Mar 6, 2005 6:44:26 PM

I think that Anatol Lieven had this right, as on much else - that the amount of Toryism in US has changed over time.

The rich/Republicans used to be much more wealthy local business owners with sense of noblesse oblige. Now they are largely replaced by, or if still in office then dependent for votes on, local right-populist movements, whether nationalist or religious, caused by middle-class insecurity. So the local power-brokers have to rely much more on Stahlhelm style local interest groups whom they would have sneered at (in the Tory manner) back in the 1950s.

Posted by: Otto | Mar 6, 2005 6:51:11 PM

"the GOP is ... certainly (and sadly) no longer the party of Robert Taft."

There is an odd strain of Taft-o-phila in the comments section at MY. First Green Dem, and now Robin the Hoodlum.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 6, 2005 7:05:12 PM

"There is an odd strain of Taft-o-phila in the comments section at MY."

Dead Republicans are far less menacing, though you find a certain sentimentality among leftists for Taft old enough to actually remember him. Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer have both expressed a meaure of public affection for the man, and particularly his defense of civil liberties during WWII, although one shouldn't forget his tolerance of McCarthy, and hostility towards labor.

Posted by: Robin the Hoodlum | Mar 6, 2005 7:12:15 PM

"He shares my view is more about hating on liberals than anything else."

Good to know.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Mar 6, 2005 9:09:49 PM

Marshall: yes, he is.

I have a fondness for old-school conservatives like Lukacs, or the late historian Edward Crankshaw. They provide a different perspective that is not only stimulating but is sometimes even a needed corrective to liberalism. And as Matt suggests, you pretty much have to look across the Atlantic to find smart old-school conservatives.

Posted by: Anderson | Mar 6, 2005 10:12:48 PM

Yes, that's the same guy who has written several books on Churchill, Five Days in London, May 1940 among them. He also said in an interview on BBC Radio that comparing George W. Bush to Churchill was "obscene."

Posted by: Michael | Mar 6, 2005 10:24:43 PM

Anyone who insists on trying to change that dynamic is bound, like Lukacs or many an alienated leftwing intellectual, to wind up frustrated by the American people.

Ain't that the truth!

Posted by: Curt Matlock | Mar 6, 2005 10:49:36 PM

My guess is that the fondness for old-school Conservatives would evaporate if we thought they had a reasonable chance at acquiring political power.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Mar 6, 2005 11:46:27 PM

Sorta off track, but I can't believe Lukacs is still above ground; I knew him in the 50's when he was a colleague of my father, and he must be near 90. Centanni!

Posted by: Brian Boru | Mar 7, 2005 12:18:19 AM

Alas, old school conservatives are on the decline in Europe too. The officer class, the landed and the elite lawyers predominance in European politics has been replaced by teacher's union representatives and right-wing journalists.

Posted by: Otto | Mar 7, 2005 7:39:35 AM

To grossly simplify, a lot of the difference between European conservatives and American conservatives comes from the lack of a feudal past. In Europe, there was an already existing hierarchical power structure for conservatives to defend/recreate, while liberals and socialists (very different things in Europe) had to break it down. In America, born as an independent nation as a constitutional democracy - this was less true. Conservatives by and large had to create hegemony, at least on the financial/land ownership side of things. Obviously, liberals had to fight to remove other unfair power structures like the oppression of women, black people and so on, but conservatives had to fight equally hard to put hierarchical financial and land structures in place. Both sides have a vested interest in change, in other words. That's why (again, this is all grossly simplified) American political discourse is based around Whiggism.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Mar 7, 2005 7:46:21 AM

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