Daniel McCarthy discusses shifts in conservative thinking

Daniel McCarthy discusses a shift in civil liberty and foreign policy thinking from conservatives and Republicans. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, June 3, 2013 — Over the past several months, it appears that some Republicans and conservatives have started to change direction on some policies, particularly on foreign policy and civil liberties. Daniel McCarthy, an editor of The American Conservative, has some clear ideas on what these shifts represent, and how figures like Ron Paul and Rand Paul are fundamentally changing the GOP.


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Kevin Kelly: For those who are unfamiliar with The American Conservative, please briefly describe your magazine/website.

Daniel McCarthy: Both the magazine and website? The website has been maturing and developing over time, but they both started in 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq War. They were an attempt to present a traditionalist conservative view of foreign policy and domestic policy, particularly issues of immigration, off-shoring, and questions of industrial policy. Pat Buchanan was one of the founders, as were Taki Theodoracopulos and Scott McConnell, who had been editorial page editor of the New York Daily Post in the late 1990’s.


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We started off in 2002, and we made the case for a realist foreign policy instead of a neocon interventionist one. Since then we have continued to both make these traditional conservative arguments and to try to address what the position of conservatism is in the America of 2013, which in many ways seems aligned against the many things that conservatives hold dear. If that’s the case, then what role do we have in this world, and what can we do to salvage something of what we care about?

Kelly: The conservative movement appears to be in an attempt to find a new direction. What do you believe its future will be?


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McCarthy: Well I think you can take some solace — we all can — from looking at the success that Ron Paul has had in promoting a very traditional kind of conservatism or libertarianism that was quite successful in exciting young people. That actually broke into the sorts of minds that would be closed to the typical conservative message.

Ron Paul did that not by being a hipster, not by trying to present himself as some sort of compassionate conservative, or some sort of up-to-date right-winger … instead he went back to the old right, people from between the period of the two World Wars. Whether it was to H.L. Mencken or Albert Jay Nock or economists like Ludwig Von Mises, Ron Paul went back to these sources of conservatism and libertarianism and was able to make a principled argument. He did it in such a way that he was able to cut across the usual left/right barriers people have built in their own mind. As a result, Ron Paul was able to galvanize a lot of people, interest and energize people who would have otherwise rejected conservatism.

Now, Ron Paul obviously espouses a very particular kind of highly libertarian conservatism. I think he’s a conservative in the sense that he’s very personally conservative, and he’s clearly not hipster in his approach to spreading his message. He is someone he seems very avuncular, very grandfatherly. Even so, his libertarianism is something that reaches a lot of young people.

I think there are kinds of older conservatism — whether it is Burkean conservatism, whether it’s looking back to the Founding Fathers, whatever it might be — which actually do have the potential to start reaching younger and younger generations. This is a far more promising avenue for conservatism than to continue to double down on the sort of Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity demographic, which tends to be older people listening to talk radio and watching Fox News.

Kelly: After Ron Paul’s campaigns for president and Rand Paul’s filibuster, many neoconservatives in the Republican Party appear nervous that the Party could embrace a more restrained foreign policy. Do you believe this is a possibility?

McCarthy: I think things are trending in that direction, yes. Rand Paul himself is leading things in that direction. I think also you see a number of people in the House, people like Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, and people tired of the amount of spending and the sheer deficits that must be incurred in order to have a massive military-industrial complex. There is a gradual awakening in the Republican Party and on the right to a more realist, nationalistic and interest based foreign policy instead of the more utopian ideological objectives of the neocons. Yes, I do see some signs of hope there.

Kelly: What about on civil liberties?

McCarthy: I think so. It’s been revealing to see how weak the left became on civil liberties as soon as Obama came into office. It’s revealing because even though you’ll find that most leftists profess to be just as concerned about civil liberties as they were under Bush, it’s a lot like the attitude that conservatives had towards big government when Bush was president. Mainstream movement conservatives said they still cared about big government, but it just wasn’t urgent to them at the time, while it’s urgent right now.

Similarly with civil liberties, the left thought we were on the verge of a police state under Bush, even though Obama is doing very much the same sort of things. Suddenly civil liberties can be put off to the indefinite future in terms of opposing government encroachment or trying to fix them, but I have been encouraged to see that there have been a number of principled conservatives, and especially conservatives of a libertarian bent. People like Amash and Massie in the House, for example. Obviously Ron Paul is a motivating figure for some of these folks. There does seem to be a developing civil liberties caucus in the Republican Party. Very small — it has maybe one or two senators, maybe five to 10 House members — but it’s a start. It seems to be much more principled than anything we have seen on the right or left in a generation.

Kelly: With so much uncertainty in the world, what advice would you give to the young people of this nation/generation?

McCarthy: Don’t get lost in the details. A lot of young people seem to have the idea that they will major in something that is easily marketable in college, and then they will have a particular career track that they can follow. It turns out not to work that way. It’s very hard to be guaranteed to have a set of skills applicable to anything. It’s more important to be a well rounded human being, to have a deep knowledge of the liberal arts and humanities.

If you’re in college I would say study what is important to you, and try to get a deep grounding in the classics of western civilization. If you’re able to express yourself well and think on your feet, that’s going to turn out to be as marketable a skill as anything can be. Beyond that it’s very hard to say in this economy what sort of future any industry has, or any professon that anyone may want to go into. There is no silver bullet that I can recommend to people, young people facing the world today, that is guaranteed to help them along, but just preparing and being spiritually fortified to whatever life is going to throw at you is the best advice I can give. There are no easy technical solutions or easy paths to any kind of happiness. 


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Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly is currently a college student majoring in History and Political Science. His writings have appeared in The Daily Local, Lew Rockwell.com’s blog, The Washington Times, Antiwar.com, and Freedom’s Phoenix Online Digital Magazine. He has been a popular guest political contributor to numerous national radio shows across the country, offering his perspective on a wide array of issues. 

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