Paul Edward Gottfried should be a familiar name among the Sunday morning talking heads and most certainly in every college political science class. But he’s not — for a reason: there is no better authority — or critic — of neo-conservatism in America. The powerful neo-con lobby really doesn’t like him. National Review’s David Frum once went out of his way to denounce him as “solipsistic” and “disgruntled.” In real life, Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for “exceptional” scholarly ability. He is the author of numerous books on intellectual history, conservatism, and political theory. Of particular interest to those the late Sam Francis called Middle American radicals, are Gottfried’s books, “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt” and “The Strange Death of Marxism.” His latest, “Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right,” is available from Palgrave Macmillan for $39.95. I talked with Dr. Gottfried about his new book and the state of the American Right.
Gottfried explained “Conservatism in America” this way: “A driving theme in my book is that the postwar conservative movement was the contrivance of big city journalists, who brought their work into prominence by replacing and to some extent discrediting an older ‘American Liberalism,’ identified with national leaders like [Senator] Robert Taft. From the outset the new movement, grouped around National Review, engaged in play-acting [at being conservatives in the Burkean tradition], something that my friend Sam Francis pointed out to me twenty years ago. It featured European émigrés warning against the ‘totalitarian temptation’ of Communism and offered dubious comparisons between the U.S. in the 1950s and Edmund Burke’s England resisting the French Revolution.”
Gottfried says the rise of the neo-conservative movement diverted America’s genuine conservative forces away from meaningful political action against America’s liberal-Left establishment: “Above all, [the postwar conservative movement] substituted for the war against the centralized managerial state the more whimsical notion of ‘standing for values,’ a fateful move that provided the window-dressing for the values-peddling neo-cons to take over the conservative movement, as the champion of ‘democratic values.’ Of course after the Goldwater debacle of 1964, the Republican Party and its conservative movement adjunct never stood again for any kind of effort to dismantle or decentralize the central state. It was easier to yak about ‘conservative values,’ whatever that meant on a given day of an electoral campaign, and to make empty promises about ‘getting government off our backs.'”
When asked for his frank appraisal of the battle between the “old right” (such as Middle American News readers) and the neo-cons, he noted: “Despite my desire to believe the opposite, it seems to me that the neo-conservatives have a better grasp on the levers of power than the old right would like to believe.” He went on to say that “among their assets, I argue in my book, are their tight control of an extensive media network, including a television channel [FOX News], numerous think-tanks grinding out their party lines, access to the national press and the relative good will of the liberal establishment. One of the circumstances contributing to the rise of the neo-cons as power brokers of the respectable Right was their friendly relations with liberal elites that would have nothing to do with the more authentic Right.”
One of the sharpest differences within the Right is between the neocons and traditional conservtive leaders who David Frum smeared as “Unpatriotic Conservatives” — meaning those who oppose the Iraq invasion and other foreign adventures of the Bush Administration (such as Pat Buchanan, Joe Sobran, Paul Craig Roberts, etc.). In “Conservatism in America,” he writes: “The question, then, is how far the current conservative movement can accept deviations among its members … For example, those who reject a hard line against the Palestinians or who come out explicitly against the war in Iraq may be unacceptable as ‘conservatives …”
When I asked about the argument between liberals and the neo-cons regarding the Iraq invasion — i.e., anti-war Democrats criticizing the neo-cons’ foreign policy —- Gottfried had this take:”Unlike some journalists, I am totally unimpressed by the apparent quarrel between the liberals and neo-cons over the war in Iraq. Both sides represent the same liberal internationalism, and the rhetoric about nation-building and global democracy heard during the Clinton administration prefigured the language of the present administration. The same language and vision are also those of the neo-conservative masters of the current ‘conservative movement.'”
Gottfried notes that the Left is comfortable with neocon opponents:
“Everything considered, the liberal Left is much happier with the neo cons as their talking partners than they would be if the neo-cons were supplanted by a real Right. The Leftist critics of the war have not rushed to embrace the anti-war Right; nor have they asked members of that Right to contribute to the national dialogue. The anti-war Left at the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post publishes Jeff Jacoby, David Brooks and Bill Kristol but never the backers of Ron Paul or Pat Buchanan.”
Gottfried writes in his new book: “During the Reagan presidency, movement conservatives gravitated toward the nation’s capital, and most went to work for good salaries in movement conservative foundations and publications and government posts. …These activists were afraid of being out of step with their movement, specifically of believing and saying things that were no longer socially acceptable.” Gottfried told Middle American News, “Everyone to the right of the neo-cons is presumably a nativist and/or someone who fills his attic with copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. That is the way the liberal-neo-con axis deals with its opposition, by turning them into non-persons or else calling them ‘Nazis.’ There is no shortcut to changing the balance of power.” He said that if any movement representing Middle America wants “to make headway it will have to create its own media resources” which explains the vital role of Middle American News.
He writes in “Conservatism in America” that the neo-cons would have won the entire war of ideas on the Right “save for the inconvenient fact that [Pat] Buchanan had tried to capture the Republican presidential nomination from a faltering George H.W. Bush in 1992.” Gottfried said in his interview that Rep. Ron Paul is fulfilling the same function today:
“One can’t stress sufficiently the importance of the Ron Paul candidacy for giving a second life to that part of the Right that the neo-cons and liberals have until now marginalized. What Congressman Paul and his backers have done is use to optimal advantage the internet, for raising funds and disseminating campaign positions. Since the national media, controlled by a liberal/neo-con coalition and their corporate supporters, have treated Paul with utter contempt, when they do bother to notice him at all, his campaign has had to exploit alternative forms of communication. It has done so, judging by the fund raising, with brilliant success.”
He believes Paul’s campaign has an important role in the larger context of the fight for the definition of conservatism. “For me, another advantage of Ron Paul’s campaign is that he has stepped outside the ‘conservative movement,’ a movement that I present critically in my book. That movement has never been an independent force but rather a tool of Republican Party operatives, particularly since the 1960s, and more recently, a hollow shell into which the neo-conservatives have moved their staffs and propaganda organization.”
Gottfried was asked about the role readers of Middle American News have in this battle.
“There is an American grassroots Right, as I point out in my book, but that force has operated outside of the New York-Washington foundation and media empire that the neo-conservatives have put together as the face of the ‘conservative movement.’ The real Right despises ‘democratic public administration,’ and it recognizes that phenomenon as a force for radical social engineering and multicultural indoctrination. That particular Right has no desire to spread ‘democracy’ around the world but seeks to replace ‘democratic values’ with federalist, constitutional ones.” He emphasised what Middle American activists should be doing: “I’d like to focus on what can be done to rein in the present political-media elite. Such a task, which, by the way, Ron Paul seems interested in advancing, is one that our own Right should be concentrating on.”
This article first appeared in the January, 2008 issue of Middle American News.