Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
Nowadays, it can be hard to figure out just what it means to be a 'conservative.'
Does it mean the promotion of limited government ideals such as free markets, minimal immigration restrictions, and wide-ranging privatization? This is what untold millions have believed since the early 1980s, when the modern conservative movement crystallized under the influence of Ronald Reagan and his key backers.
The roots of their philosophy -- though some might say 'ideology' is a better term -- stretch back to what California was in the post-World War II age; a land of industry, a magnet for new residents, and fertile ground for diverse ideas. Amid this constant cultural change, pro-commerce voices competed with labor activists for the loudest bullhorn. Anything seemed possible, though a uniquely Californian brand of optimism, palpable as San Diego sunshine, ruled the day.
Nobody ever imagined the good times would come to an end. Who had the gall to think that Reaganism might give way to the New Left superstructure now entrenched in Sacramento?
That Reagan conservatism proved a flash in the pan, rather than a long-term trajectory, is a bitter pill to swallow for most center-right Americans. None too few movers and shakers still speak the late president's name in an almost deistic context. Nonetheless, his beliefs' lack of societal staying power and the hugely unpopular neoconservative ideology that succeeded them have placed a damper on the Gipper's legacy; especially for the under-40 crowd.
Presently, one must ask if conservatism means something different from what Reagan championed. Does it pertain to the preservation of America's Anglocentric culture, the defense of its borders, and the protection of its economic power from emerging foreign markets?
The new conservatism is actually quite old -- a throwback to what the Taft family, Calvin Coolidge, and Teddy Roosevelt stood for. Its resurgence comes against the odds; internationalism was trumpeted as the Washington Consensus until less than a year ago and there seemed little chance of changing this.
Now, a fierce battle of ideas unfolds over not just which variant of conservatism should triumph, but something far deeper: What matters more -- the transcendent ideals of Reagan or the kith-and-soil campaign of the Tafts, Coolidge, Roosevelt, and Donald Trump?
Allan C. Brownfeld is a veteran journalist who, though specializing in Middle Eastern affairs, has covered world history, religious happenings, race relations, and American conservatism for decades on end. The American Council for Judaism’s publications editor, he played a tremendous role in supporting black conservatism and dedicated much of his youth to active participation in civil rights reforms.
Shortly after the 1980 presidential election, Brownfeld served under Ronald Reagan and, to this day, remains devoted to the Gipper's memory. Few people have witnessed the changes in American conservatism at such close range as Brownfeld has, making him a sort of living history exhibit.
Brownfeld recently spoke with me about several matters pertaining to our nation's center-right. Some of our conversation is included below.
Joseph Ford Cotto: Richard Spencer's now infamous speech in which he hailed Trump and some audience members responded with a Nazi-like salute is said to have been the driving force behind the alt-right's disintegration. While this is undeniably true to some extent, could it be said that the alt-right was destined to fracture as it was a loosely-bound coalition to begin with?
Allan C. Brownfeld: The politics embraced by Richard Spencer and others in the white nationalist movement is something we have seen before. We have, after all, experienced the Ku Klux Klan, the Know-Nothings and others who sought a homogeneous white American society, in some cases a White Protestant society, excluding Catholics and Jews. Such groups have never understood what makes America unique and can hardly be called conservative in any sense, because they do not want to conserve America's real identity.
America is more than simply another country. Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that 18 languages were spoken in this town of 8,000 people. In his "Letters From An American Farmer," J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote. In 1782: "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world."
Several years ago, I visited the U.S. military cemetery at Nettuno, Italy, down the road from Anzio, with my son and grandson. Reading the names of the dead and their home towns tells us much about the nature of our society. Virtually all nationalities and ethnic groups are represented. In the 1840s, Herman Melville wrote that, "We are the heirs of all time and with all nations we divide our inheritance." If you kill an American, he said, "you shed the blood of the whole world." Sadly, those on today's left and right wings of our society, with their different versions of "identity politics," seem to understand little of America's story.
The U.S. has been an ethnically diverse society from the very beginning. By the time of the first census in 1790, people of English origin were already a slight minority. Enslaved Africans and their American-born descendants made up 20 per cent of the population, and there were large clusters of Scotch-Irish, Scottish, German and Dutch settlers, and smaller numbers of Swedes, Finns, Hugeunots and Sephardic Jews.
The "alt right" rejects the very things which make our society a beacon to men and women throughout the world. The American political tradition, which this small group rejects, is embodied in George Washington's letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. He wrote: "Happily, the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
As if speaking to our diverse society of today, Washington concluded: "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants---while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make them afraid."
Those who, like the "alt right," who would divide our society into warring groups are rejecting the American political tradition. I always like the statement, attributed to a number of individuals including Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American to run for president, that,"We came over on different ships, but we're in the same boat now." In the end, the "alt right" will meet the same fate as the Know-Nothings whose view of America was narrow and small.