22 June 2010

The "New Old Right"

"C onservatism is a diverse movement with many philosophical trends and tensions," writes E. J. Dionne, "In opposition [to a liberal regime] conservatives often manage to bury their differences. But conservatism has flown apart when its components have come into conflict or when extreme rhetoric has come to the fore." While conservatism seems to be gaining strength at the moment, Dionne suspects that a "revolution on the American right" may undermine its momentum. What he describes sounds more like a counter-revolution, since it amounts to the revival of "a venerable if disturbing style of conservative thinking" that seems to be supplanting the Religious Right as the dominant element of reaction.

The rise of the Tea Party movement is a throwback to an old form of libertarianism that sees most of the domestic policies that government has undertaken since the New Deal is unconstitutional. It typically perceives the most dangerous threats to freedom as the design of well-educated elitists out of touch with 'American values.'

I didn't realize that this had gone away, since Dionne describes the "New Old Right" in the same terms liberals use for any conservative movement that confronts them. I'd expect to see a similar paragraph in an op-ed from 1994 or 1980 or even 1964, or any time that conservatism has gotten vocal and angry. Like many liberals, Dionne's understanding of what conservatism is all about is shaped by the sociological and historical writings of the early 1960s, which sought to account for the popular support for McCarthyism, the rise of Barry Goldwater, the emergence of the John Birch Society, etc. Dionne himself invokes the Birchers as exemplars of anti-intellectualism, and cites one of the classic interpretative works of the era, Lipset and Raab's Politics of Unreason, as an authority on anti-government conservatism.

The big difference Dionne notices now seems to boil down to a greater emphasis on liberty than on traditional morality; hence his description of the New Old Right as libertarian. The Tea Parties seem less interested in repealing Roe v. Wade, I might grant, than in shrinking government, and the Sovereign papers I've been reading lately seem completely secular in orientation. I wonder, though, whether the Tea parties or the New Old Right are only segments of a larger national mood that might not be so easily defined along ideological or partisan lines. This larger opposition resists government as part of a larger aversion to power that also distrusts Wall Street, the Pentagon, globalization and anything that makes individuals feel powerless or unacceptably constrained. Dionne focuses on that segment most loyal to the Republican party, but he suspects that its reactionary extremism may discredit the GOP down the line. The danger for Republicans may not be disrepute by association, however, as the prospect that they will also be seen as part of the elite establishment and left behind by a movement that might grow stronger once it finds its authentic voice. Dionne concludes that conservative extremism may prove President Obama's "salvation," but he's thinking purely in Bipolarchy terms. If this movement outgrows the two-party system and keeps growing, Republican failure could prove neither Obama's salvation nor anyone else's.


Anonymous said...

I find it interesting the he uses the term "regime" to describe the liberal movement, but if you were to look closely at the personalities of the leaders of countries we consider "regimes", they have more in common with the American right than with the American left.

Samuel Wilson said...

Actually, "regime" was my term in the brackets. Dionne doesn't use the word. My apologies for any confusion.