Up From Conservatism by Michael Lind
Up From Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America
by Michael Lind
Free Press. 295 pp. $23.00
In sports, Michael Lind might be called a phenom. After a relatively obscure stint as a rookie in the ranks of American conservatism—as a protégé of William F. Buckley, Jr., a staffer at the Heritage Foundation, and executive editor of the National Interest—Lind, a Texan now in his mid-thirties, was inducted into the major leagues after he published an essay in Dissent savaging all those with and for whom he had worked until that point.
Washing conservatism’s dirty linen in the pages of a socialist magazine was a clever move. Despite Dissent‘s modest circulation, Lind’s public apostasy attracted word-of-mouth attention and won him a wide readership in photocopy. It also appeared to unleash a torrent within the apostate himself. Last year, Lind published The Next American Nation1 a political manifesto in which he laid out his own fresh-baked credo as a neonationalist, neopopulist, neoliberal. Now we have Up From Conservatism, which is essentially an expansion of his Dissent essay. There is also a Lind novel, Power Town, purporting to expose the real workings of Washington, and due out next year is a book-length epic poem. In the same brief span Lind has held senior editorial posts first at Harper‘s, then at the New Republic, and now at the New Yorker, to each of which he has contributed lengthy pontifications on a multitude of topics.
Amid all this busy-ness, Lind understandably seems sometimes to forget today what he said yesterday. Thus, in April 1995 he proposed, on the op-ed page of the New York Times, a whole new foreign policy for the United States: “Asia First.” The time had come to “replace NATO,” he instructed us; “for the next century, we must concentrate on Asia.” Nine months later, back on the same page (this time with coauthor Jacob Heilbrunn), and without so much as a how-do-you-do, Lind put forth a different global plan; now that we were on the verge of “The Third American Empire,” he summoned his countrymen to rise to “the challenge of consolidating a new European-Middle Eastern sphere of influence while drawing back from Asia.” Consistency, apparently, be damned: if the Times has the space, Lind will have the strategy.
Up From Conservatism boasts its own quotient of inconsistency, not to mention blowhard foolishness, but its main defining note is one of burning anger. Many interesting books have been written about political Odysseys, but in Lind’s case, as he tells it, there was no journey: he merely stood still at his lonely outpost of principle while the American conservative movement collapsed around him, or rather became transmogrified into a monster. As a consequence of that collapse, he warns, “the United States, on the verge of the 21st century, [is] in the control of a Washington cabal of reactionary white politicians from the South and West and their corporate sponsors.”
In his recounting of the story, Lind’s own moment of epiphany came in the early 1990’s, when he discovered and then undertook to expose the kooky conspiracy theories in Pat Robertson’s book, The New World Order, which recycles various archaic anti-Semitic fantasies (but with the explicit references to Jews removed). Other conservatives, however, even after having been apprised of the facts about Robertson, failed to react with the requisite degree of horror and revulsion. Lind names, among others, Norman Podhoretz, who, while acknowledging that pages in Robertson’s book bore an unmistakable anti-Semitic pedigree, nevertheless declined, on the grounds of Robertson’s longstanding support of Israel and other Jewish causes, to condemn him utterly,2
In the face of this trahison des clercs, Lind says he had no choice but to conclude that the conservatism he valued and once espoused had been swallowed up by the dark forces of the ultra-Right. He formulates what he learned from this whole episode in a characteristically sweeping pronunciamento:
The only movement on the Right in the United States today that has any significant political influence is the far Right [which] has both public, political wings . . . and its covert, paramilitary, terrorist factions.
But wait: if that is really true, if “the paramilitary Right [has] changed from a fringe group into one of the major constituencies of the Republican party,” how are we to explain the fact that nobody but Lind seems to have noticed, and that the American public has not risen up as one to repudiate the Republican party? The answer, Lind divulges in Up From Conservatism, is that the “cabal” operates by stealth, and specifically by procuring intellectual cover from neoconservatives, who “undertake to provide scholarly sounding rationalizations” for its emerging political “line.” And what motivates these intellectuals to betray their calling? Greed and fear alike: any “who publicly dissent from the party line on important issues will have their foundation funds cut off.”
“Party Line,” a term out of rather a different political tradition from the American one, is not used by Lind loosely. In what appears to be Kremlin fashion, that line actually gets laid down, he writes,
at periodic “conservative summits,” private meetings once a year or so between conservative editors like [Irving] Kristol, Podhoretz, and Buckley, occasional journalists like Charles Krauthammer, Republican politicians, and foundation executives.
Lind himself realizes this may seem a little hard to swallow. “It is,” he elucidates helpfully,
as though George McGovern, Dan Rather, and Jesse Jackson met periodically to decide what the party line of “liberalism” would be, and then issued marching orders to their subalterns in the Democratic party and the media.
But Lind hastens to assure us that it is so—and that there is even worse. For within the central committee of the plenum of the cabal there is an innermost command post, “possibly more influential,” here revealed for the very first time: “the annual meeting of the Council on National Policy (CNP),” which draws together Republican congressional leaders with “far-Right radicals like Larry Pratt, the leader of Gun Owners of America.” So “secretive” is this organization that Lind himself cannot be sure where it ranks in the hierarchy of the cabal.
As for the ultimate beneficiaries of all these machinations, they are—surprise—“the corporate elite and the hereditary rich,” two familiar bogeymen of old-fashioned populists to whose ranks Lind has added a third category, the “overclass.” This last is made up of people holding advanced degrees from good universities (and their dependents), whose economic interests overlap with those of the corporate elite. Driven entirely by their narrow economic agenda, members of the over-class have so far forgotten the larger national interest that they are prepared to wage “class war . . . against the American middle-class majority.” All this might be called the conspiracy within the conspiracy within the conspiracy.
I remarked earlier that Up From Conservatism is not without its gaping inconsistencies—and that is both an intellectual pity and a fatal flaw in a work pretending to explain, once and for all, how everything fits together in American political life. How, to take one bothersome detail, are we to reconcile the statement that “the conservatism of Buckley, Kristol, and Podhoretz [is] an ephemeral offshoot” with the revelation that this same trio of editors takes the lead in laying down today’s conservative party line? Or again, if American conservatism decayed only recently, as Lind asserts, how can he also assert that “the main line of descent on the American Right” runs all the way back to “Father Coughlin through Joe McCarthy and George Wallace”? And if there is indeed such an unbroken line going back so many generations, how could he have spent a decade laboring in those tawdry vineyards without knowing it? One hopes that in the inevitable sequels to Up From Conservatism, such troublesome mysteries will be explained.
In the same spirit of impartial curiosity, I wish that Lind would enlighten us about his own secret affinity with none other than Pat Robertson. In The New World Order, Robertson, Lind observes in his tone of high dudgeon, is obsessed with “the nefarious schemes of international high finance.” But whose obsession, pray, is this one?
The [neoconservative] foundations, the little magazines, the little institutes and think tanks—all represent the application, in U.S. domestic politics, on behalf of big business and international finance, of techniques earlier used by the CIA to influence opinion abroad.
Over the years, the New Yorker, where Lind now makes his camp, has indulged in its share of chuckles at the expense of Texans and other yahoos, and lately it has also taken to warning us against the crackpot conspiracy theorists who lurk in the nation’s fever swamps. In Lind, both Texas and the swamps are exacting their highbrow revenge.
1 Reviewed by George Weigel in the July 1995 COMMENTARY.
2 See Podhoretz’s “In the Matter of Pat Robertson” in the August 1995 COMMENTARY, and his exchange with Lind and others in the January 1996 issue