The sense among more compromised conservatives that when confronted with the question, “well, what would you have done instead?,” the paleocon answer tends to be “I would have voted for Alf Landon in ‘36, you idiot.” ~Ross Douthat
Ross has a point here, though it is perhaps not as good of a point as he might think. (Note: In what follows, I can really only speak for myself, but I will risk making certain generalisations about paleos that others are free to contradict, mock or ignore.) Those who have been in the opposition, even when what is supposedly their “side” has been in power, can fall into a purism that verges on a kind of fatalism. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this is what most, much less all, paleos actually fall into in reality, but the danger is certainly there. Sure, there’s a tendency among some of us, myself included, to look askance on even those traditional conservatives who continue to treat Lincoln as something other than a tyrant and even less patience for those who may now think that the New Deal was worth the trade-off of killing what little remained of the Constitution (not that these folks would acknowledge that this was the trade-off), but considering what we’re talking about paleos are quite restrained and mild in their annoyance with these folks. If we engage in a certain amount of Jacobitic refighting of old battles, this is because we are pretty confident that the wrong people won in the past and that the principles upheld by the losers were not rendered irrelevant or untrue by the accidents of contingent history. For those who have bought into the official history and those who don’t know any, it is important to be reminded that things did not have to be the way they are and that “there is no such thing as a lost cause because there is no such thing as a gained cause.” If, as Gary Rosen wrote in today’s OpinionJournal, “no one on the right is agitating to abolish the income tax or the Department of Health & Human Services, to repeal the civil-rights laws, or to withdraw the U.S. from NATO and the U.N. (well, maybe the U.N.),” this is something generally to be decried from the rooftops and the cause of lamentation–especially the bit about NATO. As it happens, there are plenty of people on the right who are agitating for one or more of these things–they just happen to exist outside the world of “the right” as imagined by the editor of Commentary. Part of the reason why paleos have not been able to “do” anything is that they are usually not in the position to “do” very much, which came about in no small part because paleos were pushed down and out by those who have had the record of making a hash of things and being frequently wrong in their predictions. The question I would turn around to our mainstream friends is what, after all their compromising and deal-making, exactly have they managed to accomplish that puts them (or their blogger sympathisers) in a position to belittle anyone else’s lack of accomplishment? Particularly during the decade of ascendancy (1996-2006), what does pragmatic conservatism have to show for all its worldliness and savoir-faire? The answer would seem to be No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D and Iraq. I do believe I see the flaw in the pragmatic approach.
That brings us next to the question of practicality. Of course, abolishing the income tax, for example, would be highly impractical…if you think that the federal government should be doing all of the things that it currently does. It would be very hard to fund things without such a tax or some equivalent revenue-extractor, but then the whole point of wanting to eliminate the tax is to stop that extraction and destroy the basis of the government’s power over myriad things in our lives. But eliminating all of those functions and “services” is deemed to also be impractical because there are strong vested interests defending them. Of course, this actually only means that eliminating these functions is very difficult and impractical in the short term, not necessarily undesirable nor impracticable. Those who will point out the impracticality of a thing are usually those who already oppose it absolutely, but who want to frame their strong opposition in terms of pragmatism. To speak of practicality begs the question, “What is to be done?” Before praxis, there has to be some goal. What most people call impractical is really just something that they don’t want to try to do in the first place.
Of course, it may be that certain things are impossible. Trying to test the states’ right of secession today would bring disaster upon your people, for instance, because the central state would annihilate you, no questions asked. In the back of every reactionary’s mind is the knowledge that the attempts to openly resist the central state (i.e., “doing” something) have resulted in the obliteration or ruin of whole peoples and regions. That doesn’t mean that we think the Jacobites or the Confederacy were wrong, but it means that the value of “doing” something has been qualified significantly. Further, since it is not possible to save the whole, it becomes imperative to preserve what you can of your way of life in your own backyard. Thus comes the annoying criticism that we do not “do” anything, since many of us came to the conclusion (it seems difficult to say that it is the wrong one) that our ailments are spiritual and cultural and cannot be solved through the sort of political “doing” and “action” that would satisfy our critics anyway.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t engage in the political realm to some extent, inasmuch as we still believe it is part of our responsibility to remain informed and aware of what goes on in the centers of power, but there is an awareness that the sources of our ills are elsewhere and cannot in any case be addressed by becoming a retainer to princes. Like Kekaumenos, we keep a close eye on the intrigues of the capital, insofar as it might affect us and ours, but we do everything we can to avoid it as much as possible. For those who have spent (or wasted, depending on your perspective) their lives in the capital fighting political turf wars, while the culture rots all around them and few political victories are won, this is certainly an infuriating attitude, but what can I say?
Nonetheless, paleos seem to have a weird way of being pretty well-attuned to the political realities of the day better than, say, most Republicans who think that something called “Islamofascism” exists apart from Islam (that old “religion of peace”), the “surge” is working, megacorporations are the friend of the small town and the American middle class and all forms of populism are a dead end. Some of our libertarian friends take issue with our proclivity towards what they mistake for “nostalgia” and our sense of what has been lost in the onward rush of so-called progress, going so far as to mock our simultaneous desires to revive agrarianism as the most desirable arrangement and also to protect domestic manufacturing for the present as the lesser of two evils. They meanwhile shout hosannas to the Wal-Mart god and sit idly by, mute, as American labour is devalued and cheap foreign labour is imported–be silent, ye people, for The Market is at work! Pardon me if I say that the charge of paleo lack of realism doesn’t seem as well-placed as some might think.
Then there is the problem that the cranks–then and now–are usually right and are often more prescient than their more accommodating neighbours. The combined realities of being vindicated as right with surprising frequency and watching others take the country over a cliff will make anybody a little cranky. Of course, the real Old Right answer to what we might call the FDR Problem would have been to impeach and remove FDR for gross and repeated violations of the Constitution and his oath of office, followed by giving support to the new President, John Nance Garner. It also happens that this would have been the right thing to do.
I would sooner live and approach the world with my eye on doing the right thing rather than, say, settling for the thing that was “doable.”