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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

The Neon-Lit Dark Age

(Reprinted from the issue of November 6, 2003)

Capitol BldgOver the years I’ve come to feel that being conservative in politics is both necessary and futile. Necessary, because certain things simply must be conserved; but also futile, because “conservatives” keep capitulating to their enemies and even adopting their principles.

Consider the publisher Conrad Black. Lord Black is known as a Catholic and a conservative, but he has just written an article saluting Franklin D. Roosevelt as “capitalism’s savior.” Nothing really new here; Newt Gingrich and other leading conservatives have hailed Roosevelt as the greatest American president of the 20th century. Ronald Reagan used to cite him admiringly.

Me, I go back. I was for Goldwater in 1965. No, not 1964. I missed out on that campaign. Ever behind the times, I became a conservative only when Goldwater had already lost. And if anything united conservatives in those days, it was their utter loathing of the memory of FDR.

Why? Well, he had gutted the U.S. Constitution, turned the federal government into a welfare state, coddled organized labor, tried to pack the U.S. Supreme Court, lied the country into a war it didn’t want, formed a foul alliance with Joseph Stalin, allowed Soviet agents to infiltrate his administration, founded the United Nations, and, not least, been married to Eleanor Roosevelt. Friend of capitalism? With cynical demagogy, he had baited businessmen as “economic royalists.” The only thing that prevented him from being an outright Communist was his total lack of principle.

In a practical negative sense, FDR defined American conservatism. Reversing his legacy was the dream of every conservative. Other things might divide us, but that united us.

But reversing the New Deal was a tall order, when millions of Americans were on Social Security or looking forward to getting it upon retirement. And the Democrats pretty much owned the electorate, with Republicans cowering and compromising just to stay alive politically.

As the Republicans’ fortunes began to change during the Great Society years, conservatives started adapting too. They supported Richard Nixon in 1968, though Nixon had symbolized the kind of Republicanism they thought Goldwater had vanquished. After glumly sticking it out with Gerald Ford, they became enthusiastic about Reagan in 1980, seeing him as a Goldwater who could actually win the presidency; and they forgave Reagan his many lapses from principle, believing he was still, at heart, “one of us.”

Blaming these lapses on “the men around the president,” they cried: “Let Reagan be Reagan!” (At one point I gave up and suggested, in a fit of disgust, “Let someone else be Reagan.”)

Reagan was too savvy and self-protective to attack Social Security, Medicare, or labor unions — much of his support came from retirees and union workers — so conservatives quietly dropped these subjects. Afraid of being “perceived” as bigots, they also abandoned Goldwater’s principled opposition to most federal civil rights legislation.

Before you knew it, conservatives were quoting, and celebrating, not only Roosevelt, but also Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Forgetting their ancient America First “isolationism,” they revered Democratic presidents for their tough foreign policies. And after all, Truman and Kennedy, unlike Roosevelt, had been anti-Communists. Conservatives even tried to turn the tables on liberals by accusing them of “isolationism” for opposing military intervention abroad!

As if that weren’t enough, conservatives in the Reagan era formed an alliance with certain disgruntled liberals, courteously known as “neoconservatives,” though there was little of the old conservatism in their outlook. The neocons regarded Roosevelt as a hero and favored U.S. military intervention.

Here too a few principles had to be quietly laid to rest. The old conservatism had opposed foreign aid as unconstitutional, and recalled the Founding Fathers’ warnings against “entangling alliances.” All that had to go. Conservatism, if you could still call it that, came into full alignment with neoconservatism. Those few conservatives who stubbornly maintained the old positions — Russell Kirk, Patrick Buchanan, Samuel Francis, and others — came under attack from the neoconservatives, and from the conservatives who courted them.
“Social Issues” or Unmentionable Subjects?

Maintaining the old conservative faith has proved a pretty thankless enterprise. There is little of that faith to be seen; it has even vanished from the pages of National Review, the leading Goldwaterite magazine of 1964. In 1965 I was eagerly reading the back issues. I was also studying the must-reading canon of the conservative movement in those days: Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, John Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason, Goldwater’s own Conscience of a Conservative (actually written by L. Brent Bozell), and the books of Bill Buckley and Ayn Rand. Today these scriptures have been dropped into the memory hole that Buckley himself, alas, has helped dig. It was he, after all, who brokered the alliance with the neocons.

Today conservatives are tactfully beginning to mute their positions on matters like abortion and sodomy. These “social issues” have only emerged since 1964; they were unmentionable subjects, not “issues,” when Goldwater ran for president, and nobody foresaw that they would ever be eligible for political negotiation, let alone within a decade. Yet Goldwater himself, in his last years, was taking a liberal stance on them, waspishly insulting conservatives who still differed with him. The neocons are pretty much indifferent to such questions.

It’s trite but largely true to say that yesterday’s liberalism is today’s conservatism. Conservatism now is basically a posture of resistance, not a coherent philosophy with identifiable central principles. Neoconservative writers now dominate National Review itself, issuing authoritative pronouncements on who is, and who isn’t, truly conservative. David Frum recently read me out of the movement, placing me among the extremists who are guilty of “hating their country.”

Insofar as the “country” is shaped by the Roosevelt legacy Frum treasures, I must admit that my affection for it is sharply limited. I hate what has been done to America, and I hate what has happened to the conservative movement I once hoped would save America from perdition. “To make us love our country,” wrote Edmund Burke, “our country ought to be lovely.”

America today is extremely rich and unimaginably powerful, but one thing even its most passionate enthusiasts don’t think to call it is “lovely.” I remember America as lovely, even after Roosevelt had had his way with it, but that seems like a different country. The things I loved about it still seemed salvageable. Most Americans just needed to be reminded what we had to conserve. Today I have my doubts. It was always an uphill battle, but today the hill seems even steeper than in 1965.

Bill Buckley used to quote Albert Jay Nock — another denizen of the memory hole — wondering how one would recognize the advent of a new Dark Age. Nock thought it had already arrived at the time of World War II, when rival tyrannies were fighting for power and the only certainty was that, no matter who won, civilization would lose.

Maybe the final proof that he was right is the prevalence of a “conservatism” with no memory of the past — not even its own past. Only this Dark Age is flooded with neon light.

Cheer up! All is not lost, as long as we can still recognize the seriousness of our plight. Which is what I strive to measure, cheerfully withal, in SOBRANS, my little monthly. Get your free copy of my pamphlet Anything Called a “Program” Is Unconstitutional: Confessions of a Reactionary Utopian. Just subscribe, or renew your subscription, to SOBRANS for a year or more. Call 800-513-5053, or go to the Subscription page.

We also have a few autographed copies of my book Hustler: The Clinton Legacy. Call the same number, or purchase it on-line.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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