TCS Daily

Standing Pat

By Nick Schulz - September 27, 2002 12:00 AM

A new opinion magazine, called The American Conservative (TAC), was born this week. Politics and political debate, given their nature, can be confusing. And TAC, through its very existence, demonstrates why political discourse can be as mind-bendingly confusing as it is today.

The confusion TAC engenders starts - as its founder, former Republican and Reform Party presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan once said - right from the beginning. Start with the name. The American Conservative is supposed to be a conservative magazine. But in the first issue, the magazine takes several shots at other conservative publications, such as National Review, the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. TAC says those other publications don't truly represent conservatism. They represent a "kind of radicalism." TAC says that it alone represents the true conservative creed. It traces this lineage back to Robert Taft. It's the conservatism that's "rooted in man's taste for the familiar, for family, for faith in God."

The magazine has several articles in the inaugural issue that reference all sorts of conservative themes. It discusses "neoconservatives" as opposed to regular conservatives (or even "paleoconservatives"). TAC also makes mention of what it calls "operational conservatives" who are distinct from still other kinds of conservatives. It discusses "the Old Right" and compares it with, simply, "the Right." It even dabbles in discussions of "Wall Street Socialism" leaving one to wonder what happened to the plain, old-fashioned kind.

Furthering the confusion, this "American Conservative" magazine - written and edited by self-identified conservatives and published ostensibly for the conservative faithful - featured a piece called "Why I Am No Longer a Conservative." That's kind of strange for a conservative magazine. This article is written - without irony - by the author of the book "The Coming Republican Majority," Kevin Philips. Many will scratch their heads wondering when Philips was ever the conservative he claims no longer to be.

But all this confusion is, in a way, illuminating. It's axiomatic - but still worthwhile to point out - that political labels are useful, except when they aren't. And "conservative" has lost a lot of its utility as a label today, in large part because of people like Pat Buchanan.

Conservatism, whether Buchanan wants it to be or not, is an evolving tradition - one that has adapted to changes in fact and circumstance. And through its changes it has continued to have a deep influence on politics and society. Indeed, as one prominent conservative put it to me when I asked him about TAC, "Conservatives have always - always - recognized the need for reform and slow change in their own thinking as well as the society at large."

Conservative godfather Russell Kirk said as much: "Society must alter, for slow change is the means of its conservation, like the human body's perpetual renewal." But Buchanan and his allies are championing a conservatism that simply (and thankfully) doesn't exist anymore, and they yearn for an imagined past in which they themselves would be largely unrecognizable. In this sense they aren't conservative at all. They are reactionaries.

If the folks at TAC believe they can demonstrate that they are truer to some timeless "faith" than anyone else, they have a tough road ahead. Buchanan claims he and his gang speak for genuine conservatives. He's free to make that claim. But let's look at some specific issues. On the question of a potential Iraqi invasion, for example, TAC's positions are indistinguishable from those of Noam Chomsky, Al Gore, former Clinton advisor and Democratic intellectual William Galston, and Lewis Lapham, the editor of the left wing Harper's magazine. Indeed Lapham and Buchanan, in the current issues of their respective magazines, make strong arguments against Iraqi invasions that happen to make the exact same points. Take another issue, such as global trade. It doesn't help matters for TAC that on trade issues, Buchanan's views mirror those of Ralph Nader.

TAC will have to present arguments that stand on their own merits. Once upon a time, after Buchanan sensed he lost his arguments, he left the Republican Party to join the Reform Party. After losing arguments again as a Reform Party candidate, he split party politics altogether and he founded this new magazine. One wonders what he'll do next if TAC's arguments fail to persuade. Given TAC's avowed "taste for the familiar," we can probably expect Buchanan to abandon ship pretty soon as he continues his dance with the politics of hating America. At this point the only good thing to be said about his tired schtick is that it's, well, "familiar."



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