The time has come, to paraphrase Caspar Gutman in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, for plain speaking and clear understanding. Last November, David Duke failed to win the governorship of Louisiana, but he did gain some 39 percent of the popular vote and carried a majority — about 55 percent — of the white vote. What defeated Mr. Duke was not the “baggage” of his background as a Nazi and a Klansman but rather the unprecedented campaign in the press against him and the concerted efforts of businessmen, union officials, church leaders, politicians of both parties, and ideological malcontents of every description to vilify him and to threaten the state and people of Louisiana with retaliation if they dared to break from the political molds crafted for them.
For at least two solid weeks before the election, newspapers far from Louisiana as well as within it delved sedulously into Duke’s background and statements since high school. On election day, organizers literally combed the streets of New Orleans looking for blacks to go to the polls to vote against him. The president and vice president of the United States denounced him, as did several leading conservative spokesmen. If virtually any other politician in this country had excited the fear and hatred Mr. Duke inspired, not only would he have lost the election with far less than 39 percent of the vote but his career would have been ruined. What the actual election results teach is that Mr. Duke’s support, while not a majority of voters, is deep, broad, and intense.
Despite Mr. Duke’s defeat, it is possible that future historians will look back on the Louisiana gubernatorial election of 1991 as a turning point in American history. Democrats and liberals have spent the last year whining that Duke represents the logical culmination of the conservative resurgence of Ronald Reagan, and conservatives, for the most part, have spent an equal amount of time denying it. The Democrats and liberals are, for once, dead right, though as usual they miss the point. Reagan conservatism, in its innermost meaning, had little to do with supply-side economics and spreading democracy. It had to do with the awakening of a people who face political, cultural, and economic dispossession, who are slowly beginning to glimpse the fact of dispossession and what dispossession will mean for them and their descendants, and who also are starting to think about reversing the processes and powers responsible for their dispossession. Ever since Mr. Reagan marched off to Washington in 1980 with the votes, money, and confidence of the Americans who supported him, that meaning has been systematically thwarted, manipulated, and suppressed, not least by the very professional conservatives who have gained from it and purport to represent it. Mr. Duke and his voters are simply telling them that that meaning endures and that they intend to make certain it survives, even if it takes an ex-Nazi to do it.
The mainstream of American conservatism in the 1990s has a lot of problems with that message, and the first fact such conservatives have to recognize is that Mr. Duke’s performance means that mainstream conservatism is politically defunct. In the gubernatorial primary in October, Mr. Duke defeated incumbent Gov. Buddy Roemer, a Democrat who had switched to the Republicans last year. Mr. Roemer was supposed to be the early swallow that brings a GOP spring, but nobody ever thought he was a paradigmatic conservative. The other loser in the primary, however, was Rep. Clyde Holloway, who was such a paradigm, and he was booted so badly by all the other candidates that many newspapers didn’t even bother to report the few votes he received. Mr. Holloway, the favorite of mainstream conservative organs such as Human Events and National Review, actually was the official Republican nominee, and conservatives who began to deplore Mr. Duke have only their own candidate to thank for Mr. Duke’s success. Had it not been for Mr. Holloway’s candidacy, most of his votes in the primary would probably have gone to Mr. Roemer, and Mr. Duke would not have been eligible for the run-off.
Louisiana is not exactly Massachusetts, and a “principled conservative,” as movement conservatives like to call candidates like Mr. Holloway, should have been expected to do better. He didn’t, even though there was nothing at all wrong with him, and his dismal showing is an obituary for the kind of issues mainstream conservatives have long espoused. Nor is there anything wrong with those issues — small government, low taxes, strong national defense, economic growth — except that they belong to a different era and can no longer be expected to win votes as they often did in the 1970s. Moreover, the handling of such issues by the Reagan administration and by President Bush has been such as not to inspire confidence among voters supportive of them that other Republicans will handle them any better.
Mr. Duke, of course, bends his knees to such issues in his effort to present himself as a conservative Republican, but everyone knows they are not the reason for his appeal. The conservative issues not only belong to a different era of American politics but also reflect a different kind of society. They are essentially bourgeois issues and mirror the social and moral codes of the small, independent businessman, his family, and his community. Once upon a time, such entrepreneurs were the dominant core of American culture and politics, but they are so no longer, and with their demise, the appeal of their ideology has withered.
The second fact that American conservatives have to recognize about Mr. Duke is that, through the issues by which he did appeal to voters, he has successfully redefined the ideological pivots around which American politics revolves. Those issues, of course, are racial, though not in the sense that Mr. Duke’s most vocal enemies claim. Mr. Duke did not win his state legislature seat or come close to winning a Senate seat in 1990 or approach winning the governorship last year by catering to racial hatred, promising to restore segregation, or mounting esoteric arguments about I.Q. scores and how many Jews died at Auschwitz. For some years prior to his national emergence, he had campaigned precisely on such issues, and he lost disastrously. For the last couple of years, however, Mr. Duke has abandoned his racialist and Nazi noises and espoused a platform that, while rather narrow, is formally and explicitly unobjectionable from a mainstream conservative point of view and is arguable even from a moderate liberal perspective — he opposed quotas and affirmative action, urged the need for welfare reform, and objected to the excesses of “multiculturalism” and the kind of minority racism that upsets even such progressives as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
But there was a subtext to what Mr. Duke explicitly and formally said in his speeches and his campaign literature, and the subtext, communicated by the continuous depiction of Mr. Duke in Nazi uniform and Klan hood by his enemies, is that the historic racial and cultural core of American civilization is under attack. Quotas, affirmative action, race norming, civil rights legislation, multiculturalism in schools and universities, welfare, busing, and unrestricted immigration from Third World countries are all symbols of that attack and of the racial, cultural, and political dispossession they promise to inflict upon the white post-bourgeois middle classes. Conventional conservative ideology has little to say about this kind of onslaught and little to offer as a counter-attack, and no matter how much Mr. Duke swore his allegiance to that ideology, no one — including his own supporters — really believed him.
It is precisely because the image of Mr. Duke that his enemies so assiduously cultivated was one that suggested seriousness — even fanaticism — about stopping the process of dispossession that he was able to gain votes from the entire range of Louisiana’s white middle class — not just the lower middle class that feels threatened by economic as well as cultural trends but also from members of the upper middle class that are beginning to get the unsettling feeling of peering into an abyss. Given that perception — and it underlies the fear that middle-class Americans experience throughout the country — beating the political drums in support of global democracy, the virtues of immigration and free trade, and free market purism no more excites and attracts voters than the aforesaid controversies over Holocaust revisionism.
Yet, while Mr. Duke has proved that American politics no longer swings around conventional ideological pivots, the problem he has is that he lacks an accessible and acceptable philosophical framework with which to elevate and broaden his appeal. Obviously, the neo-Nazi effusions of Mr. Duke’s misspent youth are neither acceptable nor accessible. But in the 1990s, neither conventional liberal nor conventional conservative ideologies offer such a framework either. The first is locked into appeals to egalitarian and redistributionist themes that reflect the interest of the underclass Mr. Duke is resisting and are bound up with the cultural crumbling that verbalist and intellectual elites welcome, promote, and benefit from.
The social and moral codes with which conventional conservative ideology is bound up are obsolete, and the bourgeois business class to which conservative ideology appealed is either defunct or so frightened of jeopardizing its dwindling interests that its members couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Mr. Duke even when they wanted to. In the week before the election, The Washington Post interviewed a Louisiana businessman who confessed his attraction to the Duke campaign but who concluded that “business cannot thrive with the radicalism that David Duke portrays.” This is the class from which Americans can expect leadership? Certainly it’s the class Mr. Duke’s enemies succeeded in terrifying with their threats of boycotts against the Louisiana economy.
What Mr. Duke and others, conservative or not, who understand the meaning of their approaching demotion to a servile condition need to do is begin a process of re-education that will lift their minds out of both the tract literature of racism as well as the slogans of bourgeois individualism and open a vision of a new popular nationalism that can address the threats to the American nation, its people, and their way of life. Such a vision would seek to do more than merely rehearse horror stories of the welfare state and the black crime rate. It would have to make plain that the threat to American national identity is only in part racial but also cultural, economic, and political, that the threat comes from the dominance of elites that have vested interests in the dispossession of Americans and in the dispersion of their culture.
Unlike conventional conservatism, a new nationalism would not dwell on limiting the size of government but rather on the issue of who and what controls the government. The conflict is between a state (and the elite lodged in it) that is currently committed to cultural destruction and dispossession — in education, fiscal policy, law enforcement, social policy — and one that reflects the interests of the white middle class that has long since become directly or indirectly dependent on the state and similar bureaucratic organizations in the economy and culture.
Hence, Mr. Duke or whoever inherits his political mantle should articulate a nationalist program designed to protect and benefit his constituency — through an economic nationalism that protects the country’s jobs, technological base, and productive capacities; a social nationalism that offers a nationalist ethic of health, education, employment, and retirement security as well as restraints on the hedonistic ethic of immediate gratification that serves as a formula for current deracination; and a cultural nationalism that places the historic core of American civilization — the Euro-American middle class and its interests and values — at the center of public concern and public policy.
Obviously, it is doubtful that most American conservatives — paleo, neo, or pseudo — would find acceptable such an explicit appeal to ethno-cultural identity or such a frank endorsement of the use of the state for social and cultural ends. Yet, for the last decade, mainstream conservatives have forfeited any claim to ideological orthodoxy precisely because they have enthusiastically supported any variety of heresies that accepted as legitimate the leviathan state constructed by American liberalism for the benefit of the underclass and the bureaucratic elites in alliance with it. If William Bennett and Jack Kemp can sing the praises of Martin Luther King, expand the budgets and staffs of the Education Department and HUD, and welcome Third World immigration as the salvation of the country, all in the name of conservatism, there’s no reason why white Middle Americans can’t support government policies that would benefit them instead of the forces committed to the burial of their culture.
Yet there may be a few on the conventional Right who will sign up. They may recognize that whatever the virtues of the bourgeois ideology of small government and free markets, those institutions were mainly procedural or instrumental ones, intended as the most effective means to an end. The end, of course, was the security of the underlying cultural core of the civilization, not merely the preservation of the legal and formal mechanisms by which it was to be guarded. It is the survival of that core through reversal of the process of dispossession, not the preservation of obsolete procedural mechanisms, that is the elemental problem for those who seriously want to conserve their heritage. Or, to paraphrase Caspar Gutman again, we can always get other procedures, but there’s only one American nation.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in February 1992.