Long time readers will know that I am fascinated by the “taxonomy” of the conservative movement. I am interested in, and have studied, the political and intellectual history of the movement. And not infrequently I have been drawn into the internecine quarrels of conservatism. These fights seem to have intensified and deepened with the end of the Cold War and the Republican Majority. We now have terms like paleo-conservative and neo-conservative being debated in the conservative press and even seeping into the mainstream press in weird ways. Trying to shed some light on this subject I picked up Revolt from the Heartland: The Struggle For An Authentic Conservatism a friendly look at paleo-conservatism by Joseph Scotchie. I wanted to get a closer look on what exactly motivates and underlies this conservative counter-culture (or what they would claim is a return to conservative roots).
If I was still a grad student, I would love to really deconstruct and unpack this rather short book. Since I have a full time job, I will simply try to point out some pluses and note some incongruities.
In my opinion the fundamental problem with the work is that Scotchie seems unsure of his perspective. Is he a journalist, an apologist, or academic? As most writers know your perspective and your environment has a big influence on your style and your content. Writing a laymans introduction to ones on political beliefs and writing an unbiased assessment of those beliefs are two very different things. In other words, preaching to the choir and convincing the un-believer require different styles. Scotchie seems stuck in the awkward middle. At times he writes from the perspective of a historian, simply outlining the facts. At other times he is an advocate for the cause of paleo-conservatism. I don’t think you can do both. For example, in an academic or an even handed journalistic take on the subject you would be sure to use sources beyond those sympathetic to your point; you would back up your history with a wide range of sources. Scotchie instead uses self-defined or at least sympathetic sources throughout the book. This is not a problem if you are engaging in polemics (and I don’t mean that as an insult) but less so when you are trying to give an historical overview or persuade sceptics.
With that as a caveat, Scotchie does provide a quick – if superficial – overview of the issues that drive paleo-conservatives. The boil down to a couple of key issues. Scotchie outlines what he views as the core in his introduction:
The importance of the classics, the benefits of republican living, a recognition of regional cultures, the primacy of the family over the state, a moral case against immigration, a practical case against an interventionist foreign policy, and in general, a Tenth Amendment approach to issues ranging from education to such ones as school prayer and abortion . . .
This list brings out the other major flaw in this work: a lack of underlying philosophical coherence or foundation. Scotchie never attempts to posit a philosophical or political definition of conservatism. He never really even attempts to frame the range of opinions that make up modern political conservatism. Rather he immediately posits paleos as the defenders of American history as the inheritors of the “Old Republic.” To do this he quickly traces politics in this country from colonial times to the present day. He touches on the anti-federalists, Southern statesmen like Calhoun and Randolph, and even William Jennings Bryan. Never during this tour de force of revisionist history does he explain how these vastly different men and eras connect philosophically or politically under the banner of “conservative.” Instead he simply quotes leading paleo authors and writers opinions about these figures and their times often adding snide remarks about current politics. What Scotchie offers is not a nuanced and balanced view of history but rather a glimpse into the mindset and temperament of the paleos of today. It is useful as such but not particularly persuasive from my perspective.
After having quickly brought us through American history until the second half of the twentieth century Scotchie then begins to outline how the conservative movement split. This split, in Scotchie’s view, can be traced to a few key issues: immigration, the size of government, and an internationalist foreign policy. A backdrop to these policy issues is the bitterness the paleos felt from being excluded, and in their view, kicked out of the movement. Again the temperament is one of always being the underdog, the purist who is left out because he won’t play dirty. I have neither the time nor the energy to hash out all of the ways in which Scotchie claims mainstream conservatives have abandoned their true ideals but suffice it to say that George W. Bush is not the hero of this story. Scotchie instead seems the unity of Cold War conservatism as being destroyed by a neo-conservative usurpation resulting in a movement that was globalist instead of regional; open borders instead of a defense of Western Civilization; interventionist instead of avoiding entangling alliances; accommodating instead or resisting. In other words, it all went downhill after Eisenhower. The sixties were a pivotal decade. Scotchie views many conservatives as having made peace with the revolution of the sixties just like country club Republicans made peace with FDR’s New Deal. States’ Rights, local control, limited government, and basic morality went out the door in the name of equality, freedom, and diversity. In this version of history, the Old Right didn’t change everyone else did.
This begs the question, however, how can a political party succeed if it doesn’t change or evolve? Once again, what Scotchie never explains is how the Old Right Republican Guard can be resurrected and be effective in the Twenty-First Century. One can regret the excesses and unintended consequences of the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the immense impact of technology but you can’t simply pretend they don’t exist. To be fair, Scotchie doesn’t pretend they don’t exist but he does bemoan the consequences while failing to explain how the generation that lived through them was supposed to come out unchanged. As I stated at the beginning, the lack of philosophical or political foundation makes the argument sound like nostalgia not a political program. He admits that the resurrection of the Old Right is a Herculean task but then simply posits that it is worth doing.
In the end, Revolt From the Heartland succeeds in capturing the mood and the intellectual and historical inspiration of paleo-conservatism but fails to explain how it is the “authentic conservatism” of the book’s subtitle. Scotchie has laid out some of the arguments, sketched some of the history, and touched on the policy disagreements. Someone else needs to approach the subject with a more discerning eye and a greater grounding in the historical and philosophical issues involved. If the subject interests you, however, this short – if flawed -work is not a bad place to start.