Beautiful Losers, by Samuel Francis
Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism.
by Samuel Francis.
University of Missouri Press. 256 pp. $37.50.
Taxonomists of American conservatism typically divide their subject into four categories—Old Right, New Right, neoconservatives, and libertarians—and the tension among these groups has been a recurring theme in discussions of the American Right.
In the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, one could hardly open an issue of National Review without encountering an article or review that dealt in some way with the conflict between libertarianism and the Old Right (the latter usually referred to as “traditionalist” conservatism). The libertarian-traditionalist conflict has not disappeared, of course, but relatively little is written about it today; in the 80’s and 90’s, the neoconservatives have replaced the libertarians as the principal internecine foes of the Old Right. With the new nemesis, moreover, there has come new terminology: if a conservative who is not a libertarian is a “traditionalist,” a conservative who is not a neoconservative must be a “paleoconservative”—which is what an Old Rightist is often called today.
Samuel Francis’s Beautiful Losers is the latest offensive in the neo/paleo war. As it happens (and just to complicate matters), Francis himself apparently prefers the populist New Right to the highbrow Old Right. (His book contains an occasional reference to the Old Right’s “pretentious medievalism” or “philosophical esoterica.”) But if Francis is not a card-carrying paleoconservative, he is certainly a fellow traveler. He is a contributing editor of Chronicles, which is roughly to paleoconservatism what COMMENTARY is to neoconservatism (National Review having long since fallen into disfavor with paleoconservatives because of its neoconservative tendencies), and the essays collected in Beautiful Losers bear the unmistakable imprint of the Old Right.
Thus, one of the themes of this book is an ambivalence (to put it mildly) toward modernity in general and liberal democracy in particular, together with the view that the American Founding was not fundamentally the work of liberal democrats. Acknowledging that “bourgeois society” is characterized by “a capitalist economy, a democratic-republican political order, and a liberal ethos that tolerates and legitimizes a high degree of private differentiation,” Francis believes that “the importance of bourgeois ideology in the revolution, the country’s founding, and the American experience” has been exaggerated by those who ignore “the Old World roots of the American order” and thereby create a “selective and distorted picture of our national identity.” As a general matter, Francis is suspicious of democracy, and is even more suspicious of “global democracy.” Those who seek to “spread” democracy Francis dubs “democratists”—a term that is a venerable paleoconservative epithet.
Francis is also unwilling to defend equality in any of its forms, and he refuses to distinguish good egalitarianism from bad. Thus, in the fashion of virtually every Old Right intellectual, Francis dismisses both the Declaration of Independence and its greatest interpreter, Abraham Lincoln. The Declaration, according to Francis, was merely a “proclamation of national independence”; it says nothing about the “purpose” of any government. As for Lincoln, his “orthodoxy of fundamental moral absolutes” was “dubious,” and his “doctrine of acquisitive egalitarianism” was “not that of the Framers or the early Republic.”
But these remarks seem positively temperate when compared with Francis’s discussion of another famous egalitarian (and defender of the Declaration’s self-evident truths), Martin Luther King, Jr. Because the United States government has made King an “official hero,” writes Francis, the American people no longer have “any legitimate grounds to resist the logic and dynamic” of “anti-American and anti-Western” forces and the “radical reconstruction of American society that is implicit in them.” Indeed, Americans who admire King have “forfeited the right to revere the Constitution, the governmental principles and mechanisms it established, and the men who wrote it.”
Related to the paleoconservative discomfort with liberal democracy is the belief that the difference between Western liberalism and Communist totalitarianism is a difference of degree and not of kind. This idea, as well, can be found in Beautiful Losers. Liberalism, according to Francis, is “a close cousin to Communism,” and the Marxist “premises” of liberalism provide “the justification for the expansion of state and bureaucracy, the regulation of the economy, the redistribution of wealth, and the imposition of . . . egalitarian experiments on traditional institutions and communities.”
Like many paleoconservatives, moreover, Francis defends a certain version of isolationism, which is based, essentially, on the belief that an activist foreign policy is yet another manifestation of 20th-century statism. According to this view, interventionism is to foreign policy what the welfare state is to domestic policy. Francis also devotes two full essays to the characteristically paleoconservative argument that the President wields too much, and Congress not enough, power in foreign affairs. (The prevailing conservative view, of course, is precisely the opposite.)
The most prominent paleoconservative theme in Beautiful Losers, however, is animosity toward neoconservatism. Indeed, the subtitle of the book is “Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism,” and its thesis is that this “failure” is due to the fact that neoconservatism is now “the dominant faction on the American Right.” Six of the nineteen essays in Beautiful Losers are devoted, in part or in whole, to neoconservatism, and though they vary in tone, not a single one of them has anything complimentary to say. In addition, Francis takes what can only be described as gratuitous swipes at neoconservatives in essays that deal with otherwise unrelated subjects.
The substance of the attacks is familiar. To begin with, neoconservatives are modernists, operating, according to Francis, within a “conventionally modernist framework.” More specifically, they are left-wing modernists, with “little interest in dismantling or radically restructuring the welfare state.”
But it is not only in their defense of the welfare state that neoconservatives replicate “liberal-Left premises.” If their domestic policy is Rooseveltian, their foreign policy is Wilsonian. While there may be
formal acceptance of the “national interest” as the proper measuring rod of American foreign policy . . . , in practice the neoconservative interpretation of national interest reduces to the integration of the United States into a global and cosmopolitan world order.
Nor can neoconservatives easily be distinguished from Left-liberals when it comes to manners and morals. Although they may “formally” recognize the importance of “religion, family, morality, community, and patriotism in creating and preserving a free society,” in practice neoconservatives neglect “moral, social, and spiritual concerns,” concentrating instead on “purely material and ‘pragmatic’ issues.”
An obvious response to this portrayal of neoconservatism as a species of Left-liberalism is that on the issues that matter most, neoconservatism differs fundamentally from Left-liberalism—while, ironically, the paleoconservatism defended by Francis does not.
Francis essentially divides the political universe into two camps: those who oppose the very idea of a welfare state—or what Francis, following James Burnham, calls the “managerial regime”—and those who do not. The latter group is in turn divided into those who approve of the concept of a welfare state but disapprove of its size and scope, on the one hand, and those who approve of the welfare state both in theory and in practice, on the other. The opponents of the welfare state are the paleoconservatives; the welfare-state “moderates” are the neoconservatives; and the welfare-state “radicals” are the Left-liberals. According to this view, it is the paleoconservatives on one side and the neoconservative “moderates” and Left-liberal “radicals” on the other.
This view presupposes, however, that “managerialism” is the central political issue of the 20th century; that the New Deal was nearly as revolutionary as the Russian Revolution; and that any country with a “mixed economy”—no matter how liberal-democratic its political order—is in some fundamental sense a “close cousin” of the most totalitarian Communist regime.
If one takes a different view—if one believes that the most urgent political problem of the 20th century is not resisting the growth of bureaucracy but ensuring the survival of a free society—then one must conclude that it is not the neoconservatives but the paleoconservatives who share many of the “premises” of the Left. For while neoconservatives do believe in the necessity (and even the desirability) of some type of welfare state, paleoconservatives share something considerably more important with the Left: an attitude toward liberal democracy (and its underlying principles) that ranges from mild discomfort to outright hostility.
When the most fundamental questions about liberal democracy have been debated, paleoconservatives and leftists have invariably ended up on the same—and the wrong—side. Thus, whereas neoconservatives have perennially been for intervention against foreign enemies, paleoconservatives and leftists have routinely argued for isolation. Whereas neoconservatives have from the very beginning been for colorblindness in education and employment, paleoconservatives and leftists have (from different motives and sympathies) defended race consciousness. And whereas neoconservatives have always been for academic freedom in particular and free speech in general, paleoconservatives and leftists have supported one or another academic orthodoxy and the suppression of dissent. In this sense, the far-Left Nation has more in common with Chronicles than with COMMENTARY, and Jesse Jackson (the admirer of Castro) has more in common with Patrick Buchanan (the admirer of Franco) than with Jeane Kirkpatrick (the admirer of Truman).
So it is only to be expected that the Old Right also shares with the Left an antipathy toward neoconservatives. Indeed, Beautiful Losers repeats many of the charges that have appeared in the two leading left-wing accounts of neoconservatism: Peter Steinfels’s The Neoconservatives (1979) and Sidney Blumenthal’s The Rise of the Counter-Establishment (1986). One finds in Francis’s essays, for example, the suggestion that neoconservatism is influential not so much because its ideas are persuasive as because it is well-funded. (Paleoconservatives have the “brains,” says Francis, but neoconservatives have the “money.”) Also borrowed from the Left is the related (and even more crass) idea that neoconservatives hold the views that they do, not because they consider those views to be correct but because they will enable them to attain political power.
But it is not simply a matter of mimicking the neoconservatives’ left-wing critics; Francis explicitly relies on them in his essays, citing both Steinfels and Blumenthal with approval. In this connection, it is worth noting that Russell Kirk, a revered paleoconservative elder, has provided a blurb for the most recent left-wing attack on neoconservatism, Gary Dorrien’s The Neoconservative Mind (1993). Kirk’s words of praise—he calls the obviously partial book “impartial”—appear directly above a blurb written by one Joseph Schwartz, who is identified as a member of the National Political Committee of Democratic Socialists of America. (Democratic Socialists of America, whose members regularly write for Dissent, should not be confused with Social Democrats USA, whose members occasionally write for COMMENTARY.)
That Russell Kirk should have kind words for The Neoconservative Mind, however, is not especially surprising, given the animus toward neoconservatism that is common to paleoconservatives and leftists. If anything is surprising, it is that Samuel Francis’s publisher was unable to persuade a prominent left-wing critic of neoconservatism—like Sidney Blumenthal—to provide a blurb for the dust jacket of Beautiful Losers.