Religion & Liberty Online

Is the New Right Just the Old Left?

Conservative essayist Michael Anton delivers his speech during the first day session of Conservative Political Action Conference Hungary in Budapest, Hungary (Image credit: Associated Press)

A collection of essays by New Right thinkers has a lot to say about what is wrong with the “establishment Right” and America itself. But their solutions ironically reflect a neglect of constitutional order that got us in our current state to begin with.

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In his introduction essay to Up from Conservatism, a collection of essays by “New Right” authors, editor Arthur Milikh remarks that “the goal of this volume is to correct the trajectory of the Right after several generations of political losses, moral delusions, and intellectual errors. Should the New Right overtake the establishment Right and succeed over the Left, a recognizable America could reemerge.” Then we are told: “But this volume is not a dogmatic statement.” And that seems an understatement. The contributions to the volume are uneven: some contain well-developed arguments that deepen our thinking about the project of reclaiming America’s constitutional order, while others are on the level of podcast interventions or political rally speeches.

The book aims to forge a policy and politics path that greatly departs from the entire postwar conservative movement—the alleged source of the losses, delusions, and errors. The New Right enterprise, from its early embrace of Donald Trump to its insistence that the conservative intellectual movement’s thinkers and politicians gave us only defeat, asserts that it alone possesses the merit, moxie, and muscle to reclaim America. But this volume is unlikely to increase the political strength of the Right in America to the point where it might win national elections. You would need to bring along the entire conservative movement and then some to do that. It does, though, clarify where the New Right stands and the direction it is moving.

Losing, though, depending on one’s time horizon and understanding of strategy and tactics, can encompass many things. The 2014 and 2016 federal elections were the last real successes for the Republican Party. Since then, we’ve had a party increasingly defining itself as a populist/workers’/nationalist party. The GOP traded support in prosperous suburbs in much of the country for lopsided margins in rural areas, whose voter turnout is lower and less certain. It hasn’t been an even electoral trade thus far. Gains with Latino voters in Florida, Texas, and other states have also occurred. The authors of this volume, as is the measure of the New Right generally, refuse to consider what it means that Republicans on a national level have lost or underperformed in every election post 2016, the election that turned the party in favor of the New Right.

Before this the Republicans won and kept control of the House and Senate with regularity since 1994. Charles Cooke observes that “since the Republican takeover of 1994, the party has controlled the House for 20 years out of a possible 28 (that’s 71 percent of the time), and the Senate for 16 years (that’s 57 percent of the time). This was not a party that had trouble winning elections.” So losing elections, at least, is something the New Right does better than what this volume terms the “establishment Right.”

But those former victories, we are told, were the days of moral weakness, cowardice, and establishment sellouts. Milikh informs us that “much of the decay we are experiencing originated in the Right’s own ideas, its failure to grasp the nature of the Left, and to arrest the latter’s growth.” The Republican Party won elections but refused to govern well. It declined to engage progressivism in hand-to-hand combat. The problem wasn’t just “intellectual error” but also “fear of the Left, combined with underlying belief in the Left’s moral superiority.” In short, as New Right initiates and their leaders inform us, they didn’t know what time it is. But as Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot recently retorted, the point is not to know what time it is but rather to determine what time you want it to be.

There is something characteristic of the progressive notion that history constitutes truth in much of the New Right’s thinking. But what really matters is how you’re going to rule now. Or, as Milikh invokes, in tones evocative of a totalized, spiritualized politics, “The New Right must become the party of beauty, vitality, strength, truth, high purpose, and fierceness. It must view itself as the guardian and ruthless defender of a sacred thing: our civilization.” These words, especially the word “ruthless,” suggest something close to the noble New Pagan, situated as it is between denunciations of the Left as the enemy and the establishment Right as its gelded servant. Ruthlessness and fierceness invoke acts that are volatile, violent, without limit in pursuit of their objects. What are we to be “ruthless” about and to what measure? What limits our ruthless actions? What about “fierceness”? Do we really believe that the ends justifies the means? Is this the politics of a constitutional republic, premised on natural right, limited by law, governed through deliberation and the belief that both man and law are under God?

Most conservatives don’t disagree with the observation that much of the Left, in its devotion to transgenderism, critical race theory, rejection of the American founding, and wholesale denunciation of Western civilization, has become an enemy to that civilization. But what the non-new Right conservatives reject is the notion that, in confronting them politically, we should be willing to become progressives in action—that is, employ the federal government in civil society and markets to direct an economy, for example, something that makes sense according to New Right–aligned technocrats. In short, should conservatives rule under and through the law or in an “extra-constitutional” manner?

In saying this, I do not deny that a strong imperial presidency now exercises greater authority than Congress and that it commands power through an administrative state that often refuses to follow even its own procedures for formulating administrative rules that govern entire sectors of the economy. But where does the Constitution and its norms and order fit in this New Right analysis? Surely we should still aim to be constitutional in our politics.

Michael Anton’s essay purports to demonstrate many untoward elements of contemporary America. I’ll list a few of his many observations: the double standards of justice enforced by the FBI and Department of Justice against conservatives and Republicans; the DEI war, and how this negatively impacts numerous institutions, including the military; nothing works anymore in this country; bosses can no longer tell their employees to do their jobs. Our religious faith has declined, along with marriage rates and birth rates, making our society unstable. The disembodiment of sex has led now to transgenderism. We also have income inequality, a fake economy, foreigners who own our economy—oh, and the ruling class hates us and education at all levels is evil.

What should be done if this is true is probably just give up on America. Anton says in no uncertain terms that these threatening situations are caused by the fact that we are a corrupt people. As he states, “I don’t know what the future holds. But to call ‘optimistic’ the assertion that the present regime has a long time to run presupposes that one favors it.” Giving up is easy to do. Anton dismisses the harder part here, and refuses to consider that within these Progressive trends is a dramatic contest for our country and its Constitution. Moreover, even within the problems he identifies, it doesn’t really seem that the hard Left has convinced a majority of Americans to view the world as it does. Despite the many advantages the Left has in our country, they struggle to bring a substantial number of Americans along with them on their core claims.

Some contributors to the volume do have as their aim the restoration of the separation of powers, equality under law, along with the rule of law itself. Theodore Wold’s essay, “A Century of Impotency: Conservative Failure and the Administrative State,” rightly notes that legal and political conservatism have not been able to curtail sufficiently the size and reach of the administrative state. His solutions involve Congress passing universal sunset rules for all agency regulations, repealing large segments of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 and Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, and banning private-public partnerships. These are substantial measures, useful for orienting action. But, as Wold notes, restricting the power and reducing the size of the administrative state will require Congress to exercise authority over the executive branch.

Congress obviously holds the constitutional weapons to bring the other branches to their knees should it choose to do so; its ineptness, however, in the face of the administrative state—its zombie creation—isn’t likely to change. Wold does not mention that originalism, textualism in statutory interpretation, and increasing aversion to regulatory power by a skeptical public are also apt tools for reining in the power of the regulatory state. Might Congress act in a more deliberate manner in statutory construction under a revived Non-Delegation Doctrine, thus making future growth in the administrative state harder to enact? You must start with a principle in law, a limited measure—one favored by the sellout establishment conservatives—and then build from there.

Richard Hanania outlines an approach of strongly curtailing the powers of government and public entities that have been expressly constructed to make war on basic norms like equality under law or that insist upon vast DEI weapons to slowly construct a new morality in educational institutions, corporations, and the country at large. The public school systems, where possible, he argues, should be redirected toward universal school-choice plans. We should also dismantle the public teacher accreditation system of progressive teacher colleges, which certify who can teach. State legislatures, where possible, should vastly limit the size of administrative bureaucracies at state universities and prevent any element of their governments from aiding or participating in ESG laws or initiatives. At the federal level, the civil rights bureaucracy should be tamed, and disparate impact should be eliminated. Much of the madness in this country, Hanania and other contributors argue, stems from the arbitrary powers given to government to implement race and gender categories into law, particularly in the private sector.

The essays in this volume were, apparently, written before the verdict in Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard (2023), which also joined claims made against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill regarding affirmative action programs. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the use of race in admissions violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, while Justice Gorsuch in a concurring opinion stressed that it also violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Courtesy of the conservative movement’s longstanding if often fainthearted opposition to racial preferences as well as its belief in the colorblind Constitution, and its originalist interpretive method, it is now the case that the use of race in admissions is unconstitutional. As Progressives understand, this principle imperils the use of race for preferential purposes in any number of contexts. Perhaps New Right thinking can build on this incredible achievement of establishment conservatism, one that took decades to reach.

Carson Holloway’s essay argues that conservatives invested in a bad idea—“the Propositional Nation”—and ignored the deeper and more particular lessons from the founding for what it means to be a proper country. “Much of modern American conservatism has been based on foolish and self-defeating appeals to the Founders,” Holloway warns. More than this, “No error has had quite the effect of claiming, on the authority of the Founders, that we are a propositional nation.” One can’t help but think of Harry Jaffa, who built his career and that of the Claremont Graduate School and the Claremont Review of Books on Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship. Jaffa is not even mentioned in the present volume, although Patrick Buchanan is cited favorably. Jaffa’s masterful Crisis of the House Divided (1959) emphasized that Lincoln had reinvigorated the American founding by recovering its essential teaching: the equality and hence liberty of persons under law. But this essential teaching, Jaffa and his students have repeatedly argued, did not amount to egalitarianism, nor was it the occasion for libertinism, the charges urged against it by Holloway.

Holloway argues that propositional nation teaching has meant precisely this, making it impossible for conservatives to think coherently about what it means to be a nation, which, he insists, requires a much more guarded use of military force, restrictive immigration policies, social conservatism, and economic nationalism (protectionism). Overemphasis on propositional nation teaching has led to the opposite of these policies, making us a universal nation with no core national identity. But this seems too much. To the extent we are led by libertinism, open borders ideology, and an overly expansive notion of military deployment, the genesis for these policies stems more from a progressive insistence on egalitarian ideology than establishment Right thinking, let alone the American founding. Second-wave neoconservatism did contribute to our willingness to employ the military to engage in democracy promotion abroad, but that was an error and does not inexorably follow from believing in the dignity of the human person and his equality under law because of man’s creation in the image of God or merely because of our capacity for reason and self-government. Holloway is on better grounds when he notes that constitutionalism, practical wisdom, and equality under law should be held together by the love of country.

It should be noted, finally, that this volume omits the word conservatism except when it is being insulted, and rarely ties its aims explicitly to the recovery of our constitutional order. I don’t want to sound like an American exceptionalist, but our country is inherently defined and articulated by a written Constitution built on an essential idea for limiting and channeling power through self-government. What is the constitution of the New Right? They have pledged fierceness and ruthless action in the political realm. Well might we know exactly what it is all for, and if these acts are bound by a promise to securing liberty under God and the law.

Richard M. Reinsch II

Richard M. Reinsch II is editor in chief and director of publications for the American Institute for Economic Research, and a senior writer at Law & Liberty. He is coauthor, with Peter Augustine Lawler, of A Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty.