| The End of Paleoconservatism
By James Lubinskas
FrontPageMagazine.com | November 30, 2000
(Foreword by Chris Temple: In 1980, traditional conservatives--including yours
truly--rejoiced over the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Frankly,
however, America has continued her decline as a great nation almost unabated, in spite of
all the promise of the Reagan years.
THE EARLY 1990s saw the rise of a movement within American conservatism that challenged the direction of right-wing thought and politics. Known as paleoconservatism, this vibrant and combative movement shattered conservative unity for most of the decade and forced some right wingers to reconsider what it meant to be a conservative. Politically, the group centered around the presidential candidacies of Patrick Buchanan, in his attempt to take over the Republican Party. Intellectually. it gathered around the magazine Chronicles and included an impressive list of writers, academics and activists whose aim was nothing less than the transformation of American conservatism.
Paleoconservatives were actually a diverse bunch (which eventually led to their downfall) but generally agreed that we should have an isolationist, "America First" foreign policy, regional culture and politics versus big government and pop culture, protection for American workers (economic nationalism), a stoppage or large curtailment of immigration, and a defense of Americas European and Christian identity. Throughout the 1990s, they pitched fierce battles against their two main enemies: neoconservatives and liberals. Such battles included debates over the Gulf War, foreign aid, NAFTA and the WTO, immigration, the bombing of Serbia, the conservative attachment to the GOP, Confederate symbols and various racially charged issues.
Chronicles, edited by classicist Thomas Fleming, is a highbrow journal which, at one time, brought together a group of conservative writers as deep as any right-wing magazine. The list included names such as Russell Kirk, Thomas Molnar, John Lukacs, Samuel Francis and Mel Bradford. Southern traditionalists Michael Hill and Clyde Wilson appeared in the magazine, as did columnistJoe Sobran and writer Chilton Williamson. Academics such as Paul Gottfried and Christian Kopff appeared alongside European "New Right" figures like Alain de Benoist and Tomislav Sunic. The group was soon joined by a circle of paleolibertarians centered around the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Most notable among them was Murray Rothbard and his disciples Llewellyn Rockwell, Justin Raimondo and Hans Hoppe. In 1990 they formed the John Randolph Club which served as an annual forum for debate between the conservative and libertarian factions.
While never as well funded or connected as their neoconservative rivals, the paleoconservatives exhibited a tenacity on hot button issues that drew the attention of several observers. Paul Gottfried (still a paleoconservative) centered on their battles with neoconservatives in his 1993 edition of "The Conservative Movement." In 1994, David Frum critiqued the movement from a neoconservative perspective and warned of their presence in his influential book "Dead Right." Frum was disturbed by their deviationism on issues such as free trade and foreign policy, but his main concern was their worldview. He summarized paleoconservatism as a bid to "attract Americas nationalist hard core, people who felt aggrieved and abused not so much by foreigners as by alien elements within their own country - to unite conservatism and populism together in an ideology that could impose itself on the country more effectively than Reagans business-oriented conservatism had ever succeeded in doing."
The Battle is Joined
Indeed, Buchanan and the Chronicles crowd did not spare the rod in taking aim at neoconservatives and trying to "take back" their movement and their country. Writing in May 1991 Buchanan noted, "before true conservatives can ever take back their country, they are first going to have to take back their movement." He went on to complain of the "neoconservatives, . . . the ex-liberals, socialists and Trotskyists who signed on in the name of anti-communism and now control our foundations and set the limits of permissible dissent."
Almost all paleoconservatives had bitter feelings towards the conservative establishment. Mel Bradford was one of the earliest participants in the conservative wars when he was bypassed in favor of William Bennett for the position of Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Ronald Reagan. The southern traditionalist never overcame his bitterness at the neoconservatives for slighting him. "I always feared the domestic Left more than Moscow," he said at a 1992 meeting of the John Randolph Club. "I fear it even more now, since sometimes it calls itself conservatism."
Thomas Fleming and Samuel Francis (both earned Ph.Ds from the University of North Carolina) continually pushed against "the limits of permissible dissent." One of the main topics pushed was Americas racial battlefield. Chronicles essentially became a voice for white Americans facing an uncertain future. Fleming predicted a future where "Europeans and Orientals will compete, as groups, for the top positions, while the other groups will nurse their resentments on the weekly welfare checks they receive from the other half."
Francis left little doubt as to what a sound immigration policy might be:
"Immigration from countries and cultures that are incompatible with and indigestible to the Euro-American cultural core of the United States should be generally prohibited, current border controls should be rigorously enforced, illegal aliens already here should be rounded up and deported, and employers who hire them should be prosecuted and punished."
Chronicles celebrated all things Confederate. Southern academics Clyde Wilson and Michael Hill joined with Fleming to form The League of the South, an activist group that advocates secession from the union for the former states of the Confederacy. It now has a political offshoot called the Southern Party, which hopes to achieve this goal via politics. Not surprisingly, Chronicles attacked the man Paul Gottfried mockingly calls "the patron saint of neoconservatives" - Martin Luther King.
According to Lew Rockwell:
"King, one, stole virtually every word he ever wrote, from high school to his last sermon; two, rejected the central claims of Christianity in graduate school and never returned to them; three, had a sex life worthy of Magic Johnson; four, advocated racial redistributionism; five, called himself a Marxist in private; and six, coordinated his schedule, finances, speeches, publications, and strategy with members of the American Communist Party."
Paleoconservatives did not just push the limits on racial and cultural issues however. They soon began attacking some of the most sacred cows of modern conservatism: support for small government and free trade. According to Francis:
"The quality of the American population, its education, its economy and technology, and its social discipline are all, in one sense "assets" by which the national well-being and security of the country may be measured. They are therefore proper objects of public concern, and while that does not mean that the federal government should manage the population, it does mean that the concept of America First implies a nationalist ethic that transcends the preferences and interests of the individual or the interest group and may often require government action."
While most Americans - including many conservatives - may never have heard of Chronicles, these views were on national display in the 1992 and 1996 candidacies of Pat Buchanan. From his famous "culture war" speech at the 1992 Republican convention to his statement that Englishmen assimilate better than Zulus, Buchanan hammered away at the conservative establishment with ideas gleaned from the pages of Chronicles. A prominent critic of the Gulf War he soon started adding economic nationalism to his arguments; inveighing against NAFTA, GATT, free trade, "vulture capitalists" and the idea of "economic man."
Buchanan routinely won a third of the vote in his primary challenge to then-President George Bush in 1992. He did even better in 1996, winning New Hampshire and scoring close seconds and thirds in states such as Iowa and Arizona. For a few weeks in 1996, it looked as if paleoconservatism, in the form of Pat Buchanan, would overtake the Republican Party. Even after it became clear that Robert Dole would win the nomination Buchanan continued to get a third of the vote in some Midwestern states like Michigan and Wisconsin and wound up with over three million votes.
The mid-nineties were heady times for paleoconservatives. Two strong performances by Pat Buchanan were not the only ways in which the Old Right looked as if it would overtake conservatism. Propositions 187 (1994) and 209 (1996) in California galvanized (mostly) white Americans to fight against illegal immigration and affirmative action. Moreover, the ideas espoused by Chronicles started being championed by other, more influential, conservative publications. Under the guidance of Peter Brimelow and John OSullivan, National Review, the longtime standard bearer of American conservatism, started sounding themes similar to Chronicles. This was most noticeable in the magazines stance on immigration. A big supporter of Prop 187, National Review published a cover story by Brimelow in June of 1997 predicting that by 2008, the GOP would no longer be able to compete in presidential elections because of changing racial demographics due to immigration. Suddenly, paleoconservative views were becoming almost mainstream in conservative circles. As Newt Gingrich and the "Republican revolution" of 1994 floundered, it seemed as if the right would have to strike out on a new course. Would it be paleoconservatism?
The Beginning of the End
Even as paleoconservatives made headway in political and intellectual battles, there were signs of the coming collapse. Samuel Francis was fired from his job as staff columnist at the Washington Times in late 1995 for comments made at an American Renaissance conference on race, which advocated Euro-American solidarity. Francis lost his main outlet and soon began to lose other papers for his syndicated column. Moreover, death took its toll as Bradford, Kirk and Rothbard all died in the mid-nineties. The libertarians left the movement in 1996 after a fractious meeting of the John Randolph Club. They could no longer square support for a movement or a candidate (Buchanan) that attacked free trade and supported economic nationalism.
The tone of Chronicles began to change in 1997-98, as Fleming started attacking the white consciousness he once espoused, even as his colleague Francis pressed ahead with appeals for white solidarity in a darkening America. Another fractious meeting of the John Randolph Club in 1997 led to more dropouts from the movement including classicist Christian Kopff who saw a degree of hypocrisy in Flemings support for Southern secession and his criticism of white identity politics. The magazine started shifting its focus to the war in the Balkans (they back the Serbs), religious issues and support for extreme localism. Some of the more prominent writers started complaining about the direction Fleming was taking Chronicles. Circulation dropped and now stands at around 5,000, which is down from a high of almost 20,000 in the early nineties.
The decline of Chronicles and the John Randolph Club as serious outlets left paleoconservatism without an intellectual center. When Buchanan announced a third try at the Republican nomination in 1999 some were hoping he would still carry some political weight. When Buchanan jumped ship and ran for the mantle of the Reform party it looked as if the paleoconservatives would be able to severely hurt mainstream conservatives by taking votes away from George W. Bush.
But the Pat Buchanan of 2000 was a changed man. His calls for a closing of the Mexican border were replaced with calls for a reduction in immigration (down to 250,000 a year) so newcomers could assimilate. His anti-trade appeals gained little support in a booming economy with four- percent unemployment and a strong stock market. With no major wars and no foreign policy crisis he could hardly launch attacks against American interventionism abroad. As if to underscore this change he picked a conservative black woman, Ezola Foster, as his running mate and put racially tinged issues like the Confederate flag and affirmative action on the back burner.
The man who won the Republican nomination seemed to be everything the paleoconservatives despised. George W. Bush is a supporter of immigration, bilingual education, multicultural education, some forms of affirmative action, free trade, and a strong foreign policy. His spending proposals rivaled those of Al Gore and he even ordered a Confederate plaque taken down in Texas on the grounds that it was offensive to minorities. Indeed, "compassionate conservatism" was everything that paleoconservatives had been fighting against. But, this time, the battle was not even close.
The results of the 2000 campaign signaled the death of paleoconservatism as a serious force within conservatism. Conservatives enthusiastically rallied around Bush and Buchanan could only earn around 400,000 votes - less than one percent of the total vote. This performance will almost certainly mark the end of Buchanans political career and there is no heir apparent on the scene.
The mood at the Buchanan campaign gathering on election night was somber. Indeed, the loudest cheers of the evening occurred when it was announced that Florida had been called too early for Gore and was still undecided. When I told a senior Buchanan advisor that I thought this marked the end of both Buchanan and paleoconservatism he did not disagree with me. Politically at least, it seems that conservatives will take their chances with compassionate conservatism - if only to keep the Democrats out of office.
One of the most important paleoconservatives, Samuel Francis, also agrees that the movement is dead. He blames lack of leadership, a good economy and petty squabbling within the movement for the demise. Still, he notes the elements that comprised the movement are still around and that at least two of the issues that fueled it - racial and cultural conflict and immigration - are likely to become more acute. He cites things such as reparations for blacks, the battle over Confederate statues and symbols, the targeting of Columbus Day, the minority status of whites in California, bilingual and multicultural education, hate crime legislation, the resistance to ending affirmative action and a multitude of other issues as a sign that racial conflict will get worse as demographic changes take their toll. Francis predicts a racial nationalism that will develop in response to these problems. Indeed, he thinks such a movement will be even more radical than paleoconservatism.
Still, mainstream conservatives are no doubt relieved to be rid of this threat from the right. For much of the last decade paleoconservatism was a thorn in the side of conservatism and caused a great deal of infighting. But as Francis points out, racially charged issues are on the horizon and could be the catalyst for another hard right movement. How compassionate conservatives deal with these issues could determine whether there will be a revival of this type of movement and a repeat of the wars that have been so damaging to the conservative movement.
Paleoconservative James P. Lubinskas has written for Chronicles, The AIM Report, American Renaissance, The Social Contract, VDARE, The Nationalist Times, American Patrol and other journals.
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