Saturday, January 3, 2009

McGovern and The Right

Over at TakiMag, Paul Gottfried has a column criticizing Dan McCarthy's latest American Conservative essay, where McCarthy discusses the GOP's obsession with George McGovern, while painting a moderately sympathetic portrait of the former South Dakota Senator. Both pieces are well worth reading, not only because of the quality of the writing, but also because they illustrate the widening generational gap on the Alternative Right.

It was Prof. Gottfried himself who first alluded to this gap on the modern right in his essay on the "death of Paleoconservatism" entitled "A Paleo Epitaph." In that essay, Gottfried argued that the paleoconservatives were an outgrowth of sorts from a "movement conservatism" which is largely irrelevant to younger conservatives who have never had a home at National Review or seen a serious threat in the Soviet Union. Gottfried also correctly notes that these "post-paleo" youths are more libertarian than traditionalist and more "Old Right" of Nock and Mencken, than "New Right" of Weyrich and Viguerie.

While one can quibble with certain aspects of Gottfried's argument, the basic points are solid. As a matter of priority the new generation of "Alternative" righties are decentralists and anti-imperialists first, and culture warriors second, if at all. To them the warfare state and erosion of civil liberties are vastly more important and relevant than the overturning of Roe v. Wade or the supposed "threat" of gay marriage. Furthermore, the primary cultural issue of interest to them is probably the decriminalization of marijuana, an issue where the paleo-friendly New Right of the 80's would have been unsympathetic at best.

In their respective takes on the former Senator from South Dakota, Gottfried and McCarthy are showcasing these differences in priorities, goals and influences that are currently playing out in the various disputes littering the conservative underground.

To McCarthy and the younger generation, the imperfect McGovern was at minimum a committed opponent to a horrific, unjust war. Though Gottfried seems unimpressed by his small town patriotism and dutiful military service, this sort of "real" background is a stark contrast to that of his 1972 Presidential opponent Richard Nixon. I do not agree with Dan, that McGovern was a "committed decentralist," but he surely wasn't a paranoid military statist and "federal government firster" like President Nixon. In a comparison of their records at the time, McGovern appears to have more admirable traits for paleos and libertarians than least if one is viewing things from a post-Cold War perspective.

Gottfried of course does not share that perspective. He views McGovern primarily through the prism of anti-communism and cultural liberalism. By casting McGovern as a symp for Soviet tyranny and an identity politics vanguardist, Gottfried is placing McGovern squarely within the tradition of Henry Wallace and other left-liberal useful idiots.

To Gottfried's generation the left will always be identified by these associations (assumed or otherwise) and the assumption is that their representatives are all agents of these causes. The Soviet Union may be dead by socialist ideology is not, and the usefulness of the label is good fodder to attack political figures like Barack Obama, who of course is significantly less "socialist" than much of the allegedly "conservative" party. Likewise Obama must be a "black nationalist" merely because he is black and nominally on the left. Considerations of how his policy proposals compare to figures like Marcus Garvey are never made. Furthermore there is never any discussion of why "black nationalism" is to remain a hated enemy, while "white nationalism" is at worst an exaggerated response to authentic grievances.

By breaking out of the Cold War prison, the youthful adherents to the cause of limited government and personal liberty are indeed more "libertarian" as Gottfried notes. What's odd is that they also appear to be more Kirkian.

To Russell Kirk conservatism was about protecting particulars, respecting localities, and most of all rejecting ideology. Though it is true that Prof. Gottfried and others of his generation are not wedded to the materialist philosophies of either the socialist left or the libertarian right, they are in fact wedded to a myopic political worldview that defines the left as an "enemy" regardless of the practical considerations of the moment. To decentralist conservatives my age, Obama isn't an enemy because he's a Marxist (he isn't). He's an enemy because he's a corporate liberal, and corporate liberalism is the sworn enemy of all things particular and all things local. That there is a growing segment of the American Left coming to similar conclusions should not be considered threatening, but rather a cause for excitement.

Though they share much in common, there are noticeable differences between the Ron Paul Revolutionaries and Buchanan Brigadiers. One can only hope those differences do not become senselessly magnified over time.

In the meantime conservatives all stripes would be better served to reconsider whether or not the "Silent Majority" of Nixon got it wrong and if so, how to avoid such errors in judgment from repeating themselves.


Bill Ballantine said...

The McGovern campaign represented a split in the ruling elite over the war. Why is there no such split this time? The financial difficulties created by the Iraq war dwarf those of the 70s. I think the reason is connected with a centralization of power within the elite, attendant to the 'financialization' of the economy.

Bay Area National Anarchist said...

Ron Paulists and Buchanan Brigadiers are equally irrelevant which is what makes them interesting. The kind of government they advocate is tried and true American ultra conservatism that has been receding in cultural importance since the 1990s (even with the recent resurgence of Ron Paulism, with no chance of getting their views into the executive branch they will have a legacy similar to the Greenback Party of the 19th century, that is, a footnote).