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Fall 2012

A Road Not Taken

A conversation with Michael Brendan Dougherty

Interviewed by Gerald J. Russello

In a pair of recent articles for the American Conservative, Michael Brendan Dougherty—who may also be the only conservative to grace the Apollo Theater stage—has been exploring a path not taken by the Republican Party, but which could have been taken in 1992 with Patrick J. Buchanan's electrifying speech at the Republican National Convention. In that speech, Buchanan asked his fellow Republicans to connect with “conservatives of the heart,” those Americans who wanted to preserve the lives they had built in their own communities and who had little taste for the extended military entanglements without clear objectives, capitalist destruction, and big-company welfare that has seemed to define the party since then. In a sense Buchanan was simply defending what he had been defending since his years with Nixon: the New Majority, a subject described with great skill by Dougherty.

Thanks for sitting down with us today. What was the genesis for your article on Buchanan and the New Majority?

Well, the American Conservative celebrated its tenth anniversary this November and because Mr. Buchanan was so important to the founding and to the continuing mission of the magazine, Dan McCarthy and I thought it might be profitable to reconnect our readers (and ourselves) with his thought in a more thorough way.

Also, I suppose I had been re-reading his books and I came to see that to define him as a “paleo-conservative” was a kind of injustice. It just seems like too small a label. If you look at his books going back to his days with Nixon, I think you can see that he is less interested in some kind of finely tuned ideology and more interested in the will of a new electoral majority that was supplanting the New Deal Coalition as the dominant one in our politics.

Lastly, it was our guess that Romney would go down to defeat, and that it would be time for conservatives to reflect on how they lost their majority.

You make an interesting point that Buchanan, while a leading conservative, was not really in the “movement,” and suggest that a conservative electoral majority may not have much connection with the congeries of think-tanks, institutes, and publications many think of as conservatism. What in your view is the connection between this intellectual and policy apparatus and a Buchanan-like electorate?

Yes. I thought that was interesting. Although there are no typical paleo-conservatives, the feeling among that type is that somehow the conservative movement was “stolen” from them. But Buchanan told me in our interview that he just thought so much of what amounted to the movement was a waste of time: “babbling” was the word he used.

I think the influence of conservative movement institutions in America is wildly overstated—by conservatives in the movement, by liberals on the outside of it, by everyone, really. There is a certain subset of Republican voters who like the ideological instruction and entertainment provided by these outlets.

But the type of person involved in the conservative movement is unrepresentative of the conservative electorate as a whole. The average ideological worker went to and graduated from a good college. He is a Bobo in taste and style, and he is unlikely to have ever worked with his hands. He is more likely to be a convinced Catholic or a convinced atheist; sometimes this last bit depends on his romantic prospects.

The New Majority that excited Buchanan as a thinker and operative was something much bigger than the conservative movement.

The New Majority was a combination of white ethnics, Protestants—especially evangelicals, and Catholics like Buchanan’s own family. Does that coalition even exist anymore? If not, why not?

I think it still exists, but it would be unable to grant the kind of forty-nine-state majorities that Nixon and Reagan won. Catholics cohere less and less as a bloc of voters unless you separate out those that attend Mass once a week. But once you’ve done that you’re describing the real divide in American politics: White married couples who attend church and have children are much more likely to be Republicans. Single women, immigrants, blacks, and the unchurched are disproportionately Democrats. That “McGovern” coalition that the New Majority used to trounce is growing larger and larger every day.

Your colleague Dan McCarthy recently wrote about “outsider conservatism,” arguing that the history of conservatism is more inclusive and flexible than its detractors (and some proponents) suggest. Is there a way to bring back a New Majority message with such groups as Hispanics or African-American voters?

I tend to give strange answers to this question. On one level, McCarthy is absolutely right that the conservative intellectual tradition really did stand against the conformist forces of modernity. But in my view that kind of modernism seems to be going away. The Organization Man is probably dead for good. As someone who has recently fallen in love with the Yankee conservatism of the Adams family, I tend to think that if conservatism has a mission now it may be in impressing a certain character on America’s elite. But that’s another conversation.

Could the GOP find a more diverse electorate? And could this diverse electorate empower conservative reforms? I think in the long term the answer is yes, but I’m pessimistic about the short term. Parties tend to long outlive their electorates, so I don’t think that if the GOP loses its grip on Texas (to take an example) it will be rapidly heading toward extinction. I see prospects for the GOP in the Northeast for instance. But until the GOP can learn to win votes in cities, it is still a remote possibility.

My guess is that the Republican party will continue to get whiter and older. Ethnically and racially diverse democracies tend to have tribal politics, and the Republican party has become a kind of desiccated husk for the New Majority. It reflects their fears of cultural and economic dispossession while doing little or nothing to halt that process, or to reconcile their constituents to a more diverse United States. As the GOP becomes whiter, I fear that its political antagonism to a wildly diverse Democratic party will increase racial antagonism generally.

There are probably several ways of interrupting that process. Most everyone thinks the GOP should reach out to the growing Hispanic population as the “best bang for the buck.” I think it is more natural for a conservative party to reach out to African-Americans as a first step of reaching urban voters generally. They are more churched, and as America becomes more diverse they are the minority that stands to “lose” the most. Conservatism as an intellectual tradition is the right vehicle for preserving the voice and the concerns of America’s oldest minority.

Your point about African-Americans is an interesting one. During the recent election, Republicans were often accused of making subtle (or not so subtle) racial innuendo, yet since at least Reagan conservatives have in fact opposed a lot of ways liberalism seeks to divide and organize along racial lines. Are the accusations fair, and how can Republicans revivify their color-blind conservative message?

This is a complicated question. At the abstract level, I think intellectual conservatives should understand that in a mass democracy, the conservative appeal may always have a tinge of fear and hatred for those “below” or “outside.” At the same time, liberals have to accept that their policies, however justly conceived, may be sold with resentment and envy. That’s a problem of mass democracy, not conservatism or liberalism. It is a problem that has to be carefully managed.

Granting the above, I don’t think liberals are wrong to point out the jagged racial edge to some conservative politicking. Look at some of the commentary by conservatives about black voters during the era of Obama: “Oh, they just want handouts.” This is a disgusting sentiment and one that makes anything that might appeal to black voters about conservatism toxic by association.

Most conservatives like to think that they have principles that are color-blind: the eternal verities and such. I think this is a kind of self-flattery that excuses historical ignorance on our part. Enslavement stripped Africans of their ethnicities, their languages, and their religion. That means more than any one other group in this country African-Americans are a people created by the history of our nation and its politics: commerce, slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, the civil rights movement. It is a naïveté bordering on psychosis to suggest that black politics should conform to some imagined color-blind set of principles. Just junk that and start reaching out into the black community. I sense a real hunger on their part for political competition for their vote and support.

There is an absolutely electrifying intellectual tradition of black self-sufficiency and independence that is a good fit within a big-tent conservatism. And it is larger than Booker T. Washington. Zora Neal Hurston endorsed Robert Taft in the 1950s. Malcolm X was in many ways both more radical than King and more conservative too. This tradition is not at all color-blind, but it is localist, communitarian, religious (Muslim and Christian), and entrepreneurial. I also think conservatives should start political discussions on our drug war, on prison reform, and on policing that can and should help us re-connect with African Americans.

The Republican Party since 1992 has seemed to erase its differences with liberalism on a number of issues, from military interventions to immigration to free trade. Is this a case of the party being co-opted by liberals or simply cowed into not arguing for the principles Buchanan represents?

Here is where things get complicated. The modern American conservative movement has always been in favor of free trade as part of its hostility to taxes and the federal government generally. Neo-liberalism has moved much of the machinery of the left in favor of free trade as part of their cheerleading for globalization, third-world development, and prosperity generally. Buchanan’s opposition to free-trade and immigration is due to his stalwart loyalty to the political coalition of the New Majority. He saw that working-class whites and their living standards were threatened from above by changes to trade policy, and from below by competition from low-skilled and semi-skilled immigrants.

On these two issues of immigration and free trade, if the Republican party was co-opted at all, it was by ideological conservatives who favor both.

What do you think Buchanan’s legacy will be, and do you see any successors?

It is hard to know what he will be to the future. Some will just pour obloquy on him, of course, and for the usual reasons. He may be seen simply as a failed populist presidential candidate, a kind of historical echo of Bryan. He should certainly be remembered as the man who named the “culture war” that still is at the heart of our political differences today; he really did define the battle. I also think he does represent a “road not taken” by the Republican party.

He has no successors, at least not complete ones. There is something of his populist antagonism that suffuses the whole conservative movement, but very little of his more reflective side. For a time Ann Coulter wrote as sharply (if not as well-educated or as wisely) as he did. As I wrote in my article, he stands somewhere between the tub-thumpers and the Big-Name Intellectual Cassandras on the right. Intellectually he is far, far beyond the old columnists like Pegler, but not quite in the league of a writer like Oswald Spengler.  

Posted: November 25, 2012 in Interviews.

Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanence and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.

Russell Kirk

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