Paul Gottfried is, easily, the most learned, ignored scholar dealing with the history of the European and American Right. In this no-holds-barred interview, professor Gottfried and I discuss Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, professor Gottfried’s latest book. The interview is the first of two; the book is the last in a series of books dissecting the Right, among which are After Liberalism (Princeton, 1999) and Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt (Missouri, 2002).
Q: During the bow-to-Bill segment on “The Factor,” Bill O’Reilly’s sycophantic sidekicks, Bernie Goldberg and Jane Hall, “analyzed” his frequent, welcomed presence on left-liberal shows like “The View,” “The Colbert Report,” and late-night television. O’Reilly also hobnobs with Al Sharpton. Goldberg and Hall’s “analysis” entailed flattering O’Reilly’s gritty conservatism: The Left, the two told him, thinks of him as a curiosity with box-office appeal; it is at once fascinated and outraged by his conservative principles.
That’s not exactly true, is it? According to your outstanding work, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, neoconservatives like O’Reilly are not as unpopular with the left-liberal establishment as they’d like us to believe. You, on the other hand, as well as most representatives of an older, authentic Right (myself included), are persona non grata in left-liberal and neoconservative circles. Tell us what separates neoconservatives from the authentic Right, why the former are, generally, on a friendly footing with the liberal establishment, and why the latter are ignored.
A: The questions that you ask are indeed good ones and go to the heart of my arguments about the most recent transformation of the establishment Right. Since the 1950s and the construction of the postwar conservative movement, the “respectable” American Right has assumed a series of sometimes ludicrous poses. It started out in the 1950s, at the time of the early “National Review” magazine, as an ingathering of would-be European conservatives and traditionalist Catholics, who were profoundly concerned about the Soviet threat. But in order to push for a more vigorous Cold War policy and to cut deals for this purpose, the coalition had to throw overboard old-fashioned libertarians and unconverted Taft Republicans, and by the late 1970s the misnamed conservative movement had begun to fall into the arms of the neoconservatives. The latter group had been members of the anti-Communist Left, with strong Zionist passions.
By the time they got to run the movement in the 1980s, “conservatives” had begun to move leftward on a wide front of issues while becoming closely associated with jobs in the Washington Beltway. By then American “conservatism” had become reconciled to a large welfare state and to the “justness” of what Martin Luther King and other civils rights militants had demanded in the way of government-enforced changes in American society. From there the “conservative movement” would embrace feminism but would also insist that it was only supporting the “moderate” brand; ditto for the gay movement. By the time Bill O’Reilly rolls around, you are dealing with a Kennedy-Johnson Democrat, who is concerned about the “war on terror.”
By the standards of the 1960s or even 1970s, there is nothing “rightwing” about Bill. He simply is not as far to the left as his media colleagues, who naturally lionize him and have him on their shows. To me it is grotesquely self-serving the way O’Reilly showcases every criticism of himself made by “extremists,” that is, viewers who oppose waterboarding or whatever else Bill and the neoconservatives are selling on a particular day. We are led to believe that these attacks testify to Bill’s taking of hard positions. Of course it does nothing of the kind. Bill simply shills for the mainstream Republican Party, which has been drifting leftward since the 1960s, like the “conservative movement,” which also shills for the GOP. It is certainly not surprising that Bill, FOX, and the rest of the “movement conservative” cast of characters want nothing to do with an older American Right. Such a Right is embarrassing for them and their liberal talking partners and business associates. Note their ostentatious contempt for a traditional small-government Republican like Ron Paul.
The best evidence of the Left’s insincere opposition to the neoconservative media, beside the steady, usually civil interaction of the two, is the unwillingness of the antiwar liberal establishment to have anything to do with the conspicuous antiwar Right. What trumps the war issue here on the left is the awareness that leftists and neoconservatives agree on most essential things, e.g., the need for a massive centralized welfare state, anti-discrimination social engineering, and a foreign policy designed to deal with “undemocratic” rightwing forces in Europe, starting with Russian president Putin. On some issues, e.g., bringing women’s rights and gay rights to less modern societies, neoconservatives seem to be extreme versions or almost caricatures of the American Left.
Q: In Europe and the US, the authentic Right (I dislike the “Old” adjectival; it denotes redundancy) is maligned as fascist and racist, when, in fact, it is more libertarian. To clarify the difference: a libertarian rightist would support—if not necessarily approve of—a private property owner’s right not to lease his apartment to a homosexual, for example. The neoconservative and liberal-left coalition believes the state should exert control over private property in the interest of “fairness and equality.” The authentic Right’s main impetus is the preservation and restoration of a federalist, constitutional government. Tell us how that laudable focus has been replaced by “values-peddling.” What does the incessant prattle about “values” really mask?
A: My book centers on the role of values in weakening the possibility of a challenge to mass democracy and the managerial state from the Right. What the stress on “value conservatism” here and in Western Europe has brought about is a “right center” opposition to the socialist and now multicultural Left that always marches leftward. That is because the “values” that the values-peddlers push can be easily made to fit a leftward moving political class and the tastes of the media.
By the way, neoconservative, media-approved “conservative” values no longer exclude gay marriage or a host of anti-discrimination directives enforced at all levels of government. That is because values are not permanent standards but rhetorical choices that politicians and PR operatives make in accordance with electoral interests.
In the 1950s American conservatives scoffed at “human rights” ideology. [They were inclined to think rights were politically gained, rather than naturally imbued.] I raise this point because NR today has not only reversed its former position on the nature of rights but has inflated Lockean rights into the gaseous human rights ideology of Bush. Indeed two editors, Ramesh Ponnuru and Jonah Goldberg, view the belief in human rights and the willingness to wage wars in spreading them as cardinal conservative doctrines. [Dinesh D’Souza has expressed a similar view, as have some Objectivists.]
Today “moderate,” that is “non-extremist” conservatives, revere the memory of Martin Luther King and publish unqualified Trotskyists in National Review [Stephen Schwartz, for example]. Contributors to that fortnightly like Ramesh Ponnuru and Jonah Goldberg beat up on paleoconservatives for not accepting ever-multiplying “human rights’ and “equality” as conservative values. Instead of this values fraud, I would be gratified to see more opponents of the Left sound like Ron Paul and call for dismantling public administration.
Q: I’d like to focus some more on the conservative movement’s convergence with the Center-Left. The tyranny euphemized as political correctness is really something far more sinister: state-supported intimidation, violence, and coercion. Neoconservatives and liberals are partners in this reign of terror. Consider how “conservative” media darlings such as Amy Holmes, Bill O’Reilly, and Michelle Malkin (but not Sean Hannity) gave their imprimatur to Imus’s lynching. Ditto the conservative movement’s brain trust on “The View,” Elisabeth Hasselbeck. Hasselbeck—whose conservative credentials include support for breast cancer prevention and research, the Amber Alert Initiative, the war, Our Leader, and being blond and bubbly—equated the Sharpton-Jackson-led mob with market forces! The only “argument” neoconservatives were prepared to muster in Imus’ defense was that hip-hop types ought to be censored as well. In that, neoconservatives are indistinguishable from Democrat Tipper Gore and her comical attempt in the 1980s to censor rock lyrics.
Explain why the Right once protested the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and “the appalling wickedness of Martin Luther King Jr” (p. 140). Why have establishment conservatives (and some beltway libertarians) joined the Left in celebrating both?
A: First of all, my reference to the “appalling wickedness” of MLK was only an attempt to epitomize the attitude toward King that the reader encountered repeatedly in “National Review” from the 1960s on. Buckley, Will Herberg, and even, surprisingly enough, the later neoconservative star Harry Jaffa inveighed against King as a rabble-rouser with Communist affiliations. The attacks on him were so predictable that although certainly no fan of his, even I became tired of reading them.
In the 1980s, however, King was transformed, posthumously, by the transformed American conservative movement, into a conservative Christian thinker. What drove this transmogrification was obvious opportunism but also the occupation of controlling positions in the movement by the new visitors from the left. By now King has been assigned an honored place in the pseudo-conservative pantheon, as one learns from reading “National Review,” the “Weekly Standard,” and the speeches delivered at the Heritage Foundation—a place that is situated just below the spot reserved for Lincoln, but somewhat above the places of honor given to Wilson, FDR and Truman [such “Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked.” p. 63]. The replacement of the old, post-World War Two hierarchy of rightist heroes by this new list of civil rights and global democratic luminaries testifies to the conservative movement’s utter plasticity. It is one thing to add to a list of saints. It is quite another to demonize old heroes while canonizing those who had been previously considered demonic.
Q: For exhorting that “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” Ann Coulter was banished from “National Review”—a puzzling purge, considering neoconservatives promptly adopted her recommendations, invaded Muslim countries, and killed their leaders. I’ve always suspected that Ms. Coulter’s expression of unbridled Christian supremacy was at the core of the horrified response from the pluralists at NR. “National Review” has also adopted the Center-Left’s—and Hollywood’s—abhorrence of right-wingers like Joe McCarthy. You’ve observed how the one-time editor of the far-left “Nation” has spoken “tenderly” of Richard Lowry, editor of NR (p. 46). Tell us what’s going on here, what does this all mean?
A: It means quite simply that the neoconservative-controlled pseudo-Right has embraced the politics and sentiments of the Left—that is, the Left before it drifted into total multicultural lunacy. If one is trying to place the current “conservative movement” ideologically, it probably stands somewhere to the left of the Democratic left-center of the 1960s—what with its celebration of Martin Luther King and defense of “moderate” feminism and a “democratic welfare state” disbursing entitlements. The “conservative movement” is only “on the right” in a very relative sense, by which I mean that the rest of the Left has moved leftward more dramatically. By this standard, Obama may soon be viewed as a right-winger, providing that his Democratic associates start moving to his left.
“National Review” exemplifies the lunging of the “movement” leftwards since the 1960s, a process that never seems to stop. The revisionism with respect to McCarthy has been going on among “movement publications” since the 1970s. It took NR longer than other neoconservative publications to catch up with this reversal because of the avuncular editorial presence of William F. Buckley, who had written copiously in favor of Tailgunner Joe. Although Buckley had abjectly handed over his magazine and offered his wholehearted support to the neoconservatives, he just couldn’t stand turning on his dead anti-Communist pal.
This is really quite amusing because Buckley showed no scruples about betraying all kinds of people, like Professor Mel Bradford, whom the neoconservatives didn’t want heading the National Endowment for the Humanities, a post they had promised to neoconservative William Bennett. Buckley, as far as I could tell, would do anything to please Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, save denouncing McCarthy and his McCarhtyite friends from the old days. Of course Irving Kristol, before he carried out his imaginary journey to the right between the 1950s and 1980s, had written a passionate attack on the “anti-McCarthyites.” Kristol, as you know, started out as a Trotskyist but after World War Two, he reemerged as an anti-Communist liberal and then became the editor of the CIA-subsidized “Encounter” in England, which was a social democratic, anti-Soviet publication.
As I try to prove in my book, the older generation of neoconservatives, who were LBJ Democrats, was in significant ways far more “conservative” than the phony conservative movement that they later helped to reconstruct. In the early 1950s Kristol went after the anti-McCarthyites, in a famous or infamous polemic that I cite in my book. By the 1980s, however, the neoconservative movement Kristol helped establish had moved to the left on McCarthy. This leftward movement occurred among neoconservatives as well as among movement conservatives in general. In the 1970s there is nothing to suggest that early neoconservatives had any regard for Martin Luther King and generally viewed black activists as anti-Jewish.
To sum, the “conservative movement” is no longer in any sense rightist, save for its alliances with multinational corporate wealth, which is only rightist in the Marxist sense of favoring interventionism to expand its markets and influence.
What the neoconservatives represent is the Left’s preferred opposition—a gift the cowardly, unprincipled “movement conservatives” of the 1980s happily granted to the Left.
©2007 By Ilana Mercer