11/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Open Letter to Mark Lilla: Yes, We Should Take the Right Seriously

"The Republican Party and the political right will survive, but the conservative intellectual tradition is already dead." So argued Mark Lilla, author of The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West and several other highly regarded books. A professor at Columbia University and a former editor of The Public Interest, Lilla's ideas demand respect. And in an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal just days after the 2008 presidential election, Lilla lamented the rise of Sarah Palin-style "populism" (as he described it), the complicity of conservative intellectuals in Palin's elevation to the national stage, and he celebrated her return then to Alaska. It should be noted, however, that Palin's anti-elite style embodied a particular form of nationalism that abjured both cosmopolitan elites and the more darkly hued "undeserving" poor. It is precisely this type of nationalism that animates Tea Party activism today.

Now, in an article written for The Chronicle of Higher Education's September 11 edition, Lilla alternately ridicules a newly-created Center for the Comparative Study of Right Wing Movements and gives it his blessing. He wonders if an institution situated at the University of California at Berkeley can do justice to that (now dead?) intellectual tradition mentioned above. He seems to ignore the center's actual purpose, stated in its name: to study right wing movements -- and not necessarily only those ideas of the conservative elites. He imagines the mistakes the newly formed center might make, such as comparing conservatism to violent right-wing movements. Along the way, Lilla makes several significant mistakes of his own.

He writes: "mainstream American conservatism, which pretty much is all there is to the American right, shares nothing meaningful with proto-fascist figures." Leaving aside for the moment the question of sharing with proto-fascists, let us examine Lilla's first point, that mainstream conservatism is all there is to the American right, pretty much.

Well, he has already told us that the conservative intellectual tradition, as he understood it, had been replaced by a rousing anti-elitism. More, he would have us ignore precisely those elements of contemporary conservatism that David Frum examined in his 1994 book, Dead Right: the nationalism of the Buchananites and the Religious Right. Certainly, those nationalists have appropriated the conservative intellectual tradition for their own purposes. Consider in this regard, the 1993 edition of The Conservative Movement written by Paul Gottfried, a Humanities Professor at Elizabethtown College. There is more that can be said about where the right's center of gravity is, but for the moment Lilla might check again his statement about the various elements constituting the American right.

He might also re-examine the issue of whether or not the right shares anything meaningful with proto-fascism. Now I must note here that fascism is not a word of much use in the American context. A highly centralized, totalizing national state is one of the hallmarks of fascism. Most of the conservative right and the far right oppose any centralizing tendencies in the federal government. And among the old-line white supremacists and the 21st Century white nationalists, only the national socialists propose a fascist state as part of their program. By contrast, there is a volkish nationalism that is very alive today. And it is precisely on this point that a remark Gottfried made at a small symposium in the Cooper Union dominated by Rockford Institute intellectuals becomes relevant. "We are all Schmittians now," Gottfried said.

He was referring to Carl Schmitt, a now deceased German political philosopher who joined the NSDAP (the Nazi Party) in 1933, helped formulate the legal foundations of Hitler's führer-state, but was ex-communicated from the Nazi elite before the death camps and the invasion of Poland.

Perhaps we should not make too much of Gottfried's association with Carl Schmitt, after all a host of other intellectuals including Jacques Derrida have dipped in the Schmittian waters. Nevertheless, there is much that mainstream conservatism has shared with white nationalism, including, for example, Pat Buchanan. And if Lilla wants more information on that subject, I will be happy to provide it.

In the spirit of full disclosure I must say that I am not an innocent bystander in this discussion. I come from the left, and lack the formal certificates of higher education. After decades spent studying right-wing social movements, my book, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream was published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May. (That book notes that after William Buckley had declared that Pat Buchanan could not be defended from the charge of anti-Semitism in 1992, the National Review endorsed Buchanan's candidacy for president in the New Hampshire primaries.) And I will be speaking at a Center for the Comparative Study of Right Wing Movements forum in Berkeley on October 8.

Nevertheless, I hope that my writing here will benefit Lilla's thinking about these matters, including his discussion of anti-communism and its significance on the right. Consider that after World War Two and after the hysteria of McCarthyism had subsided, anti-communism settled in as a staple of American life. Both Cold War liberals and National Review conservatives considered anti-communism a first principle. Southern segregationists covered their racism with anti-communism, describing King and all the civil rights workers as Communists. J. Edgar Hoover's Masters of Deceit was a runaway best seller. I would argue that anti-communism became both the pretext for American imperial designs (Guatemala 1954, etc.) and a core element in the social psyche that produces national identity. And it needs to be noted that whether or not mainstream conservatives felt bound to white supremacists, the vast majority of white supremacists felt bound to conservatives by their shared anti-communism.

After the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the re-emergence of ethnic nationalism as a force in both the East and West, the conservative movement split apart. Pat Buchanan became a spokesman in opposition to the first Persian Gulf War. The very type of overseas military intervention he had once supported under the rubric of fighting communism became anathema to him, as he adopted the mantle of the Old Right and America first nationalism.

There is much more to that part of the story, also. I invite Lilla to read Blood and Politics, and then add again to the discussion at hand.

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