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Political Theory

Paul Gottfried, the Straussians, and Authentic Rightism

CJay Engel
January 6, 2020
Few non-academics have read Leo Strauss, but the erudite scholar and thinker remains profoundly influential even so.
Political Theory

Paul Gottfried, the Straussians, and Authentic Rightism


CJay Engel

January 6, 2020

Few non-academics have read Leo Strauss, but the erudite scholar and thinker remains profoundly influential even so.

When one speaks about the need for a sense of true conservatism in our time, the immediate question that comes to mind is: “whose conservatism?” There is a very real danger in expressing appreciation for a tradition such as conservatism, that this would be interpreted as an appreciation for a number of different political movements and theories that have little to do with where I am and how I see the world.

Just as I completely wore myself out rushing the “not THAT kind of libertarian” addendum to my use of the libertarian label, so I am aware—more than aware— of the litany of revulsions that characterize many forms of what passes for conservatism in America. This post is intended to offer a chance for me to discuss these themes.

I will use as my foil a book by Paul Gottfried. There are a number of Gottfried books that could service this purpose, but here, I will lean on his Leo Strass and the Conservative Movement in America.

It is difficult to overstate the impact that Gottfried has had on my intellectual development. I have long been fascinated with his nuanced understanding of the conservative movement in America and his role in the creation of the paleo-conservative coalition in the 1980s and 90s. But Gottfried, while certainly not in the least for the casual reader, is one of the most informed and careful intellectual historians I have ever come across.

The core of Gottfried’s contributions regarding the nature of the conservative movement in America, both here and in his other volumes, is that most of what operates under the conservative banner is a completely different breed than what must been seen as an older, authentic rightism. The conservative movement in America is a complete myth in that it is actually not meaningfully on the right. While this can be seen obviously in the celebrity-cons such as Charlie Kirk and Dinesh D’Souza, Gottfried’s work is dedicated to the philosophical foundation that stretches much deeper and farther into the rhetoric and impulse of most in America who consider themselves conservative.  

Thus, Gottfried does not merely make this argument as an accusation that there is an unfortunate gap between what the conservatives (GOP) argue rhetorically and how they act once in office. Gottfried’s analysis is not chiefly about the failures of politicians: he argues that the entire conservative approach to socio-political analysis, to political theory itself, in our time is a grand divergence from authentic rightism as it could be identified from the moment of its inception as a conscious reaction against the French Revolution. Thus, we have in America an “invented right” that, as Gottfried’s work has dedicated to show, actively downplays pre-World War II conservatism and, more paradigmatically, conservativism as it originally came into the Western world with the thought and politics of Edmund Burke.

While all this can be gathered in various Gottfried works, especially his The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right, he considers as especially important to his observations the influence of Leo Strauss and the band of academic Straussians who follow in his footsteps. It is well-known that there was a neo-conservative political brand that worked its way into the conservative movement in the 1970s and then especially with the rise of Reagan.  Gottfried argues that while this group supplied the journalists and columnists and political advisors (and thus were more publicly visible), it was the Straussians that worked in the academic setting and succeeded in influencing their new conservatism at that level.

There are many elements to Gottfried’s presentation, including the biographical backdrop to the way Strauss saw the world and the various contributions Strauss made methodologically to the interpretation of historical writings. But for this current reflection, I am interested in how Gottfried finds in Leo Strauss the seeds of the rhetoric we most often hear in the American Conservative Movement and especially, how this should be contrasted with a more meaningful (historical) conservatism.

To start, we might point to Strauss’ frustration with the Burkean tradition of distrust regarding universal, propositional politics. For Edmund Burke, political problems were particular problems: they were in reference to specific people, specific laws, specific traditions, and a specific context of time and place. This meant that it was vital, or perhaps indispensable, to refrain from universalizing such political problems away from the particular context. The art of politics is about dealing with a real “people” (the “American people,” or the “British people,” etc., rather than “the people” as a conceptual and Platonic ideal) and the actual problems of a real nation with the actual provided tools relevant to the particular legal and political context.

Contrary to the constant accusation by those who have taken up a Straussian state of mind (and this becomes a recurring theme in the interaction that Straussians have had with representatives of the older right), those who conceive of political problems in the above Burkean approach do not deny universal truth and transcendent principles of right, wrong, good, and evil. Rather, they emphasize “the significance of particularity in filtering and humanizing” and applying whatever are to be conceived as transcendent. The art of social-political activity is interacting at the particular level and in light of the specific characteristics of a specific social order.

An important example comes to the surface, which will springboard further discussion.

In the American setting, there was a shift from the way the Old Right spoke about the founding of the United States to the way the founding was interpreted by Strauss and his followers (who became the intellectual foundation for the postwar New Right). For the Old Right, which in chapter four Gottfried refers to as the anti-Straussians, the American founding was based on a particular dynamic between a specific people and the social, political, and legal context of their setting; that is, the founders were chiefly motivated by the particular grievances they had with the British monarchy. These grievances could be articulated with reference to perceived artificial power-grabs by the King over against the actual English tradition of liberties to which the Americans were, as Englishmen themselves, rightfully entitled. The American founding generation therefore worked not to construct a political body dedicated to certain universalistic ideals, but rather to mimic what they perceived to be their actual tradition of law, custom, liberty, and in light of the fact that the various regions in the colonial setting had different interests, habits, norms, and social structures.

For this “particularist” interpretation, Gottfried points to the following “anti-Straussians: [Barry] Shain, the Southern cultural historian M.E. Bradford, the Burke-scholar Peter Stanlis, the critic of liberalism James Kalb, the Swedish-American philosopher Claes Ryn, and the traditionalist man of letters Russell Kirk.” There is a particular reference in this section to Kirk’s The Roots of American Order.

This is to be contrasted with the Straussian view, a view which dominates the rhetoric of the American conservative movement in our time (which most of us grew up with). This view focuses instead on the idea of a “propositional nation;” the idea that America was founded on a body of universal ideals related to the equality of all men and the importance of democracy and natural rights in the construction of a consciously-constructed nation. In contrast to the older conservatism, “liberal democracy” becomes the particular genius of the American project and the dedication to the “nation built upon ideals” becomes one of the most important achievements of “Western progress.”

One can begin to see why Abraham Lincoln is the model President for the post-Straussian Conservative Movement, and why he was seen as a betrayer of the original associative Union by the Old Right. Gottfried references the Lincoln issue on multiple occasions as an example of the “second founding” that plays much more favorably into the hands of the Straussians over against the Old Right’s frustrations with the repudiation of American decentralism.

Now, this is not just a mere topic of technical reference to the motivations of the founders; for here we have the foundation for the way each group tends to think of the role of the United States government in the world. And this of course is the foundation for the actual political goals and rhetoric in America. If politics is about particular people in particular settings, and if the nature of America’s founding supports that, we have no overriding justification for the twentieth-century Federal Government practice of the promotion and spread of American-style democracy and “rights” on the world scene. Moreover, domestically, it would be groundless to treat the eternal survival of the United States as a form of some perpetual nation: Lincoln had no Constitutional right to make the South remain politically bonded, and today, regionalism, nullification, and secession are completely legitimate, not just theoretically on libertarian grounds, but realistically on Constitutional and historical grounds.

All this would strike the modern conservative, influenced without knowing it by the framework of the Straussians, as out of the question. The American nation is, in fact, an American nation, united around a series of universal ideals, and therefore with an actual purpose to fulfill on the socio-political scene, both foreign and domestic. Among these purposes would be its commitment to the advancement of the contributions of the liberal era, the democratic nature of the modern nation state, and the universal importance of Western-style natural rights.

While there is much more to be said about the actual nature of the United States and the path that it has taken in the twentieth century as an active advocate of certain ideals on the global scene (over against its Constitutional restrictions), it is just as important to consider what, exactly, these ideals are supposed to be. It is here that we find a particularly modernist (anti-conservative) nature in the political theory of the Straussians.

Gottfried points to a number of things.

First, there is much more of an emphasis on equality of participation in the “liberal democracy” that is allegedly at the core of a universally good political system. Whereas an authentic rightism would stress the quality of the law over the democratic participation of the citizenry (even observing that increased democratic participation can be the means by which law is distorted and abused), the new American conservatism that arose on the back of the Straussians would stress the essentially democratic nature of “popular sovereignty.” Old Conservatism did not, for instance, oppose an American monarchical structure because it was somehow a violation of eternal democratic rights but rather because it did not make sense in the context of America’s development (there was no organic royalty in the colonial setting).

Or, as perhaps the most important Straussian, Harry Jaffa, once argued in National Review, “equality is a conservative principle.” Traditional conservative M.E. Bradford, on the other hand responded:

“Let us have no foolishness indeed. Equality as a moral or political imperative, pursued as an end in itself—Equality, with the capital "E"—is the antonym of every legitimate conservative principle. Contrary to most Liberals, new and old, it is nothing less than sophistry to distinguish between equality of opportunity (equal starts in the "race of life") and equality of condition (equal results).”

Thus, there is in modern “conservatism” particular weight given to the duty of individual participation, extension of voting rights, and other forms of popular involvement, including the fourteenth amendment and the new role of the Federal Government in interacting directly, instead of via the state governments, with the universal and natural rights of the individuals.

This latter point gives a new meaning to the “universalist” character of the new conservatism in that they are not just proponents of American style democratic liberty for the entire world, but also within the context of the repudiation of Old Federalism. The Federal Government, then, extends the rights of the people not just outward to the international scene, but inward within the jurisdiction of what was once considered to be the domain of state governments. This, truly, is a path toward centralization in our time. Thus writes Gottfried:

From the standpoint of [the] older republicanism, Lincoln, FDR, and other Straussian heroes were dangerous centralizers and levelers, certainly not paradigms of great statesmanship.

And moreover, most of the Straussians, in contrast to the older conservative supporters of Senator Robert Taft, spent no time seeking to rollback the centralizing power grabs of the Progressive era (including the sixteenth amendment’s income tax, centralization of money and banking in the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, and international agreements that committed us to Europe’s problems during the World Wars), nor the continued efforts during the New Deal era with its various permanent national welfare programs.

Further, the universalist and propositional nature of our “liberal democracy” often reveals itself in the Straussian opinion that we ought to extol the virtues of cultural diversity in America, liberal immigration policies, and legal experiments in the promotion of racial, sexual, and religious egalitarianism. Thus, in a way that is completely at odds with the Old Right, the post-Straussian conservative movement has embraced, and refuses to entertain dissent from, “the progressive measures of the 1960’s, whether the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, or the Immigration Reform of 1965, as necessary steps to mobilize our liberal democracy against the Soviet threat.”

Here, we also find reference to the striking difference between the Straussian-influenced conservative movement and the older rightist-conservative tendency on the topic of war. Gottfried observes that you could hardly find in a meaningful historical rightism a quest to militarily fight for “universal ideals” and propositions. Rather, you find in the Old Right a refusal to take part in Progressivist military adventures and a strict position that war is intended to be taken up in defense of actual threats to the nation over which the state governs. Writes Gottfried,

“Fighting wars for universal, egalitarian propositions was never a priority for authoritarian conservatives like Antonio Salazar or Francisco Franco. Nor is this type of crusade an activity that one might associate with American conservative isolationists like Robert Taft. It is an expression of progressive militarism, a form of principled belligerence that French Jacobinism, Wilsonianism, and wars of communist liberation have all exemplified at different times.”

The Era of Trump and Nationalism

In their emphasis on the triumph of the ideal of liberal democracy, propositional nationhood, and the preference for universality of politics over its particularity, the Straussians have contributed to the ideological underpinnings of the American empire’s global narratives. It is for this reason that those who take up this way of thinking (most of the conservative movement in our time, as well as establishment GOPers) have had difficulty adjusting to the reactionary-flavor of the present revolt against the postwar international political consensus. In the United States, Trump has been a figure of this reaction. In Western Europe we have secessionist and nationalist movements, such as Brexit, but also in Spain, Italy, and Scotland. In Eastern Europe this reaction is perhaps most developed (though completely ignored by Western media) and nationalist anti-EU/NATO/UN sentiments are higher than they have been in over half a century. In Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, there are strong reactions against what Hans-Hoppe has termed the American ideology of universalism and liberal democracy.

All these are, essentially, particularist movements. They are the representation of a stirring realization that people are more committed to their own history, their own way of life, their own people, their own traditions than to some universal set of ideals that is supposed to be the uniting foundation for political unification. One finds this especially in Eastern European politicians such as Viktor Orban who has essentially declared war on the Western influence of multiculturalism, moral relativism, and the anti-family narratives that pervade the Western elite. Instead, these nationalist movements are centered around protection from the “godless liberalism” of the west and reject the notion of liberal neutrality as not good for their own ethnically-united people.

Of relevance to this article is how Paul Gottfried might react to the way the conservative movement in America has tried to deal with these developments. Whereas in Europe nationalism makes a good deal of historic sense given the centuries-long development of Europe as a collection of particular nationalities, the nature of the United States’ own history leads Gottfried to be immensely skeptical of American nationalism, preferring instead the Old American tradition of regionalism. That is to say, in Europe, nationalism is a decentralizing force whereas in the United States nationalism is inherently a centralizing force.

Now, this is not to say that in the age of Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama and its misguided democratic internationalism that an “America First!” shift is not refreshing and welcome, but Gottfried’s observations allow one to be especially aware of the way the Straussian mentality will corrupt this reaction in America if not understood historically. Thus we find the sudden endorsement of “nationalism” all over the Conservative Movement as it tries desperately to keep up with the sudden world revolt against the artificial construct of universal ideals-based political bodies.

Gottfried finds humorous (as stated in forthcoming Bastion Magazine interview with Gottfried) the recent embrace of “nationalism” by National Review editor Rich Lowry, who long considered nationalism to be in the same racist spirit of fascism and Nazism. Suddenly, in a quest to stay politically relevant, nationalism is useful. But those aware of the Straussian view of political problems will recognize that much of this new nationalism as pushed by a variety of key outlets in the nominally “conservative” world contains the very rhetoric of propositional nationhood and bedrock of “our ideals.” It is characterized by an acceptance of the global repudiation of Wilsonian internationalism, but it is not essentially “rightist.”  Lowry, promoting his book in The Atlantic, points to the same Straussian heroes of universal ideals and centralization in American history:

By the way, anyone who thinks that America is immune from nationalism, or that it represents only what’s worst in our history, hasn’t truly grappled with a tradition that runs through Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, and is inseparable from such high points of our story as the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution. Our nationalism is infused with our ideals, but nationalism often has an ideological content.

The essence of true conservatism is that it emphasizes the particularity in the application and interpretation of ideas; it mixes them with the actual needs, traditions, customs, priorities and sentiments of a given people with a shared cultural history and identity. Themes like liberalism, democracy, equality, religious neutrality, and tolerance are not essentially conservative, even if particular societies find versions of their use consistent with their way of life. Any meaningful conservatism is going to recognize this fact and therefore to the extent that the American conservative movement has abandoned the old Burkean tradition of particular politics in favor of universalism, to that extent they have deviated from authentic, traditional, or old conservatism.

In our time, this traditionalist conservatism is not at all what is seen in the “conservative movement” at large. Rather, Old Rightism is, as suggested in the title of Paul Gottfried’s forthcoming anthology of essays (reviewed by the Mises Institute’s David Gordon— one of Gottfried’s closest friends) sadly a “vanishing tradition.”

About the author

C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.

from the editor's blog