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How Neocons Hacked the Conservative Movement
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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, free markets, and something to do with one Obama Administration mishap or another?
Meanwhile, does America’s trade deficit, interventionist foreign policy, or the impact of multiculturalism ever get mentioned?
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.
One man’s tragically 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 a humanities professor at Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College. Long before he began teaching there, though, Gottfried was a guiding light in the rightist intelligentsia.
Then something happened.
Exactly what, and far more, is explained in his 2009 book, “Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers.” Few academics can reminisce about being taught by one of the most legendary leftist voices, conversing with a former president about Benjamin Disraeli, and fighting to preserve the status quo of a national political movement.
None of this takes into account Gottfried’s family story; one which begins on the cobbled streets of Central Europe and finds its way to the rolling fields of Amish country. 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.
One is hardly told 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 as an earnest devotee of hardline Roman Catholicism and concerned advocate for increasingly unpopular societal values. He is 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 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 Gottfried is concerned, neocon ideology is repackaged lefty dogma. Considering this school of thought’s emphasis on open borders, foreign interventionism, an expansionist social welfare state, and at times open support of multiculturalism, one can understand why this is.
Some might be surprised at how vicious political thinkers can be toward one another. Gottfried 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 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’s father 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.
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 Gottfried, 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.
As the saying goes, “knowledge is power”.
Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at