OCALA, Fla., April 28, 2014 — It’s no secret that the American conservative movement is bereft of ideas.
One need only watch a weekday evening cable “news” program or listen to any number of talk radio shows to discover how bad the situation is. How often do we hear about reproductive rights, school vouchers, global warming, free markets, and something to do with one Obama Administration mishap or another?
How often does America’s trade deficit, illegal immigration, interventionist foreign policy, or the impact of multiculturalism get mentioned? These issues, needless to tell, are just for starters.
The fact that modern-day movement conservatives have little to offer other than “We’re not leftists!” speaks to the banality of this situation. While the organized left constantly attaches itself to new issues and creates constituencies out of all but thin air, Conservatism, Inc. stands by without a clue.
Revered by some as Ronald Reagan might be, attempting to recreate his political age in a long-since fundamentally transformed America isn’t the wisest of ideas. Still, as mainstream conservative pundits advocate exactly this, the rug on which they stand is pulled out from under their feet.
One man’s critically obscure life story explains how and why American conservatism arrived at its present low. Chances are that you have not heard about Dr. Paul Gottfried. Until recently, he was the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, a Church of the Brethren-founded liberal arts institution in Lancasater, Pennsylvania. Long before he began teaching there, though, Dr. Gottfried was a guiding light in the rightish intelligentsia.
Then something happened.
Exactly what this is, and far more, goes explained in his 2009 book “Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers”. It is not only an informative, but engaging read. Few academics can reminisce about being taught by one of the left’s most legendary voices, conversing with a former president about Benjamin Disraeli, and fighting to preserve the status quo of a major political movement.
None of this takes into account Dr. Gottfried’s family story; one which begins on the cobbled streets of Central Europe and finds its way to the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania. It is an American tale to its very core, one in which a band of immigrants rise to political and academic power in less than two generations.
Perhaps it is this, in accordance with the socially traditionalist stances of his upper-middle-class Old Continental background, which drive Dr. Gottfried’s paleoconservative outlook. Whatever the case might be, the lessons of his life can be appreciated by even the most leftist of readers.
Speaking of leftists, how often does one hear about Herbert Marcuse beyond his rabble-rousing with black nationalists at Berkeley? In Encounters, a far more human side of the arch-controversial intellectual is shared; memories of a time before external circumstances possibly prompted Marcuse to toe a dangerously radical line.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Pat Buchanan is portrayed not as an attention-seeking television pundit, but earnest devotee of hardline Roman Catholicism and concerned advocate for increasingly unpopular societal values. Above all else, he is presented as what William F. Buckley might have been had neoconservatism not flooded the pages of National Review.
The subject of neoconservatism has played an ever-dominant role in Dr. Gottfried’s professional life; much like the storm cloud which follows a jogger around on an otherwise sunny afternoon.
There is no holding back his opinions about the flavor of today’s American right. Insofar as Dr. Gottfried is concerned, neocon ideology is a repackaged form of lefty dogma. Considering this school of thought’s emphasis on open borders, foreign interventionism, an expansionist — let alone expanded — social welfare state, and at times open support of multiculturalism, one can understand why this is.
What most probably would not know, however, is how vicious political thinkers can be toward one another. The Doctor learned this all too well, and the outcome of his hard-knock schooling explains why the conservative establishment treats him as a perennial persona non grata.
Beyond personal disputes, Encounters is a fascinating read about American history. President Nixon’s letters to Dr. Gottfried not only evidence their mutual admiration, but how a never-ceasing war of ideas has shaped the mainstream center-right. The story of how Gottfried, Sr. came to the United States shortly before Nazism invaded his homeland illustrates the necessity of our nation’s fabled dream — and what it means to productive immigrants.
Dr. Gottfried’s professional woes serve as a grim reminder that factuality and intelligence do not win out by default. His exchanges with the movers and shakers of modern American history more than make up for being less than a star among academics, though. He has said that his popularity in Europe far exceeds what is granted him in the United States. While this is good for the Doctor, it indicates something far less than beneficial for American conservatism.
So, the next time you are wondering why Democrats consistently snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, how Republican branding can be so out of tune with what GOP voters want, and whether the infighting among “conservative” leaders will ever yield to something more productive, pick up a copy of Encounters.
You might not like what you find, but as the saying goes, “knowledge is power”.