Setting Priorities

There’s been a fun back-and-forth between Ross Douthat and Daniel Larison about whether and how paleoconservatives could become politically relevant (Larison’s latest is here and from there one can work backward to Ross’s original column).

It seems to me that what Ross is really saying isn’t that paleos are too ideological but that they do not intelligently set priorities. That is to say: while in some quarters (certainly Larison’s would be one) there’s an understanding that compromise is necessary, there’s no general agreement about what should be compromised: about what is the relative order of priorities.

Thus, Larison is right that The American Conservative is characterized by an encouraging intellectual eclecticism – and Ross is also right that paleos are quixotically both devoted to a “no enemies on the right” philosophy and to arcane squabbles over ideological purity. Both are characteristics of an intellectual tendency that does not lend itself to being a political movement – which was Ross’s point in the first place.

I think it would be interesting, if presented with a poll of choices, how paleoconservatives would actually rank their policy preferences? Assuming that there’s a significant bloc of paleos who oppose a confrontational policy with Iran; who oppose abortion; who oppose race-conscious legislation such as affirmative action; who oppose legislation that restricts gun rights; who oppose Executive branch encroachments on civil liberties such as the right to detain designated enemy combatants without trial; and so forth – assuming one could construct such a list, how would paleos prioritize these items as political matters? What is central and what is peripheral? What is pressing and what can be deferred? Is there even a consensus about what the list should consist of?

What I suspect is that, for a significant number of self-identified paleos, the priority list would be wildly at variance with Larison’s priority list, and that this variance would go some way towards explaining both the “no enemies on the right” perspective and the tendency towards purity tests and such. But we’d have to see the data to know for sure.

I suspect that, for Larison, the most important issues relate to foreign policy, with civil liberties a distant second and both social and economic questions further back in the back. That is to say: his top priorities line up better with the priority list of a left-wing critic of the Obama Administration like Glenn Greenwald than with his fellows on the right, even if the larger intellectual framework and much of the stuff further down on the list would be stuff where he and Greenwald would strongly disagree.

If I’m right, and if most paleos agree, then there’s a basis for cooperation with the Greenwalds of the world, and a clear way that a paleo tendency could make itself relevant. But what if a significant bloc of paleos is concerned primarily with questions of race and identity? Or with some other issue – abortion, opposition to Federal regulation, gun rights – that sits comfortably within the existing Republican coalition? Then the basis for making that tendency politically effective is much less obvious.