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Geezer Conservatism: The Albatross

Gary North - January 30, 2013
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Reality Check

Most movements are heavily influenced by the geezer mentality. This is because most movements are funded mainly by geezers.

If you were to look at the demography of donors to televangelism ministries, you would find that the people who donate 80% of the money are women above the age of 55. Televangelists never mention this on screen, but they know it is true, so they dare not alienate older women. Whatever older women believe is what televangelists preach.

The Establishment of any religious or political organization is run by people over age 55. They have the experience. They have at least some leisure. They have the discretionary income to support the organization. So, there is a tendency in every movement older than 20 years old to be backward looking. The organization does not want to alienate people who are looking over their shoulders at the good old days.


Nostalgia for the past is one of the greatest weaknesses of all ideological movements. This is especially true in the United States. If we are talking about limited civil government, the good old days ended with the opening shots of the Seven Years' War War (1756-63). From that time on, taxes continually rose in the British colonies in North America, and they continued to rise under the Constitution of the United States, 1788 edition. The central government has continued to expand at the expense of individual liberty. Anyone who talks about the good old days that came after 1756 is talking about the days that led, step-by-step, to the centralization of the national government and the reduction of individual liberties.

Geezers in America were educated in the public schools, and the public schools have always taught the message of nationalism and political centralization. Ever since 1945, they have taught the importance of big government in saving capitalism from itself.

The public school textbooks have long taught that the Supreme Court has final jurisdiction on legal matters, which is explicitly denied by the United States Constitution, 1788 edition. (Congress can remove the court's jurisdiction over virtually anything at any time: Article III:1:2). The President need not go along.)

Conservative geezers look back at their youth, which means from the 1950s through 1963, and they long for the good old days, when men were men, and politicians respected the United States Constitution.

They are living in a fantasy world of the textbooks' creation, and they are unwilling to re-think what they were taught in the public schools as teenagers. They do not understand the fundamental fact of history, namely, that history never moves backward. Liberals and radicals accept this fact of history, which is undeniable in terms of the record, and they have parlayed that into a form of political legitimacy which says that the state must push society forward. The conservatives rejected this view of the state, which is appropriate, but then they defend it by means of an appeal to an imaginary past.


I recently received an e-mail in response to an article that I wrote on gun control and the Second Amendment. I wrote that America is exceptional with respect to the widespread ownership of guns, which are in the hands of individuals, not the state. Here is the e-mail:

The 2nd Amendment, contrary to popular beliefs, is to have the ultimate veto power over an oppressive regime................................................. No pundit, including yourself, has the courage to state this to the shepple. Personally, I believe if one could afford it, he should be legal to own a Howitzer............ Regarding oppressive, I am 70 and old enough to remember when our leaders respected and defended our Constitution, but in this century our leaders, who are sworn to uphold and defend our Constitution, treat it as if it didn't exist. If the trend seeks its course our federal government will approach that oppressive regime.

I assume that "shepple" is a misspelling for "sheeple."

Now, if this guy knew anything at all, he would know that my position on gun ownership is exactly his position, namely, that it represents the ultimate veto power. Gun ownership is a mark of the ultimate veto power of sovereign individuals. In fact, I have said that this is the fundamental reason why gun control advocates want to suppress the ownership of guns. It is not that they fear revolutionary resistance. They fear rather the inescapable constitutional implications of such ownership, namely, that citizens possess legitimate sovereignty, and they can use this sovereignty to overturn the existing political order. On December 22, 2012, I wrote this:

Gun control advocates insist that the centralization of gun ownership into the hands of the monopolistic government is a moral obligation. Why is it a moral obligation? It is a moral obligation because these people really do believe that the central government possesses legitimate original political sovereignty, an exclusive sovereignty, over the weapons that could be used against the central government.

This led to a conclusion.

Symbols are important. A citizen who has the right to keep and bear arms, even though he is not planning to join the state militia, which is in fact an arm of the federal government, understands that he possesses a degree of sovereignty that is not possessed by citizens in nations that prohibit widespread firearm ownership. He understands that he is in a unique situation. He still has the fundamental marks of political sovereignty, namely, firearms. His firearms testify to the fact that the central government does not yet feel sufficiently confident to confiscate his firearms in the name of the central government's exclusive monopoly of violence. His firearms testify to the fact that he is still a citizen, and that he still possesses rights that politicians and bureaucrats cannot legally overturn.

I ended with this:

Firearms are marks of political sovereignty. They should be defended on this basis, not on the basis of some hypothetical revolution, which is not going to take place. I am saying that such a revolution is not necessary, precisely because the people do possess the right to keep and bear arms. They need not take up arms against the government, precisely because they already possess the arms.

As a geezer conservative, he was too busy defending the good old days to do the research required to understand the detailed published opinions of his target: me. He shot from the hip.

Warning: when you shoot from the hip, you risk blowing off important appendages.


He assailed me with this: "I am 70 and old enough to remember when our leaders respected and defended our Constitution."

I will turn 71 in two weeks, and I do not recall this. I do recall the Warren Court, which re-wrote the Constitution. More to the point, as a specialist in American history, I know of the Marshall Court, which re-wrote it far more than the Warren Court did.

John Marshall was the most crucial figure in the U.S. from 1801 until his death in 1835. The summary on Wikipedia is accurate.

The longest-serving Chief Justice and the fourth longest-serving justice in US Supreme Court history, Marshall dominated the Court for over three decades and played a significant role in the development of the American legal system. Most notably, he reinforced the principle that federal courts are obligated to exercise judicial review, by disregarding purported laws if they violate the Constitution. Thus, Marshall cemented the position of the American judiciary as an independent and influential branch of government. Furthermore, Marshall's court made several important decisions relating to federalism, affecting the balance of power between the federal government and the states during the early years of the republic. In particular, he repeatedly confirmed the supremacy of federal law over state law, and supported an expansive reading of the enumerated powers.

Some of his decisions were unpopular. Nevertheless, Marshall built up the third branch of the federal government, and augmented federal power in the name of the Constitution, and the rule of law. Marshall, along with Daniel Webster (who argued some of the cases), was the leading Federalist of the day, pursuing Federalist Party approaches to build a stronger federal government over the opposition of the Jeffersonian Republicans, who wanted stronger state governments.

It was John Marshall far more than Abraham Lincoln who undermined the Tenth Amendment's judicial principle of state's rights. Without Marshall, there would never have been President Abe Lincoln. As a lawyer, Lincoln built his successful legal practice and his political career on the legacy of John Marshall. He fought a war in order to uphold Marshall's Constitution. And the war he fought had almost been fought by Andrew Jackson in 1833 over the same issue: nullification.

Geezer conservatism ever since World War II ended has always stood firm on the Constitution, meaning the Marshall-Lincoln-Teddy Roosevelt Constitution. Today, they look back at the 1950s and bewail the loss of the Marshall-Lincoln-Teddy Roosevelt-Wilson-FDR-Truman Constitution. If we could only go back to the good old days!

If we could go back to the good old days politically, we should go back to 1755, when there was no central government other than the British Parliament, which did not tax the colonies directly.

History does not move backward. We cannot go home again.

Geezer conservatism looks back at the Eisenhower administration fondly, imagining that the welfare-warfare state that Eisenhower presided over was not the precursor of the welfare-warfare state that we live under today.

Eisenhower delivered one of the great political speeches of American history in the last hours of his presidency. He warned against the military-industrial complex. But more than any man in American history, he was the beneficiary of that development. The other five-star generals-- Marshal, Bradley, and MacArthur -- let alone the five-star Admiral (Nimitz), did not lead the nation as the Commander-in-Chief for eight years, beginning eight years after World War II ended. He did not seek to reverse the national security state that Truman had created, which was vulnerable for the last time under Eisenhower. Captain Truman and General Eisenhower left us a legacy that undermined what little remained of the United States Constitution after Wilson and FDR were through with it.

It does no good to look back nostalgically at an era in which the process of centralization, both politically and economically, ratcheted up relentlessly. John F. Kennedy baptized this development rhetorically three days after Eisenhower gave his farewell address. The rhetorical gifts of Ted Sorenson, as articulated by Kennedy, announced the vision of what was also called the New Frontier. There was nothing new about it. It was simply an extension of Woodrow Wilson's imperialism. If anything, it was a reversal of the worst of Wilson's imperialism, because it reduced the income tax rates that Wilson's war had imposed on the public, and which Eisenhower never reversed. The top income tax rate was 91%. Kennedy lowered this to 70%.


Geezer conservatism is now tied around the neck of any form of principled conservatism. It points back to a world that never was. It calls men to look backward 50 years, as if looking backward one generation could in any way give a moral foundation or a political strategy to the present generation. The political and economic universe of the 1950s was not in principle different from the universe of the late 1930s, nor did it attempt to reverse that legacy from Franklin Roosevelt. It did not in any way reverse the imperial legacy of Wilson. In fact, it extended it. There was nothing that Harry Truman did or said in foreign-policy that was fundamentally at odds with what any of his successors did or said with respect to the American Empire. This includes Ronald Reagan.

Eisenhower appointed John Foster Dulles as his Secretary of State. He appointed Dulles' brother Allen as head of the CIA. John Foster Dulles was a disciple of Wilson in his undergraduate years at Princeton University. Wilson appointed him to be on the special committee that advised him at the Versailles Treaty conference of 1919. He was the grandson of John Foster, who was the Secretary of State under Benjamin Harrison. He was the nephew of Robert Lansing, who was Secretary of State under Wilson during World War I and the postwar years. The Dulles family held the position of Secretary of State as a kind of dynasty. Eisenhower extended that dynasty and strengthened it. As a side note, his sister Eleanor ran the economics branch of the State Department in Germany throughout the Eisenhower era. The entry on Wikipedia regarding her career begins with a very good summary of the Dulles dynasty from the 1890s through the early 1960s. But geezer conservatives are aware of none of this.

John Foster Dulles was one of the major internationalists of the 20th century. He was an internationalist in theological affairs (World Council of Churches), and a dominant liberal Presbyterian layman. His father was one of the leading liberal Protestant theologians of the era. Dulles helped arrange Western trade with Nazi Germany until his legal staff at Sullivan and Cromwell revolted against him. He was one of the richest lawyers in the United States during the Great Depression, earning millions of dollars a year. He appointed Alger Hiss in 1946 to run the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dulles was the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the time. He had been warned that Hiss was a Communist agent, but he ignored the warning. Then, as soon as he got his appointment as Secretary of State from Eisenhower, he became a vocal defender of American nationalism, and the most prominent developer of what is sometimes called brinksmanship. Yet geezer conservatives look back at Dulles' verbally belligerent nationalism as if this were some kind of legacy to extend in our era rather than a supreme performance of a consummate actor. (The best book on him is by Alan Stang: The Actor.)


If the conservative movement in the United States is ever to make a fundamental impact on the political life of this nation, it has got to abandon geezer conservatism. It has got to abandon any attempt to resurrect the good old days. The good old days were not so good, which is why they led, step-by-step, to the bad new days today. There were fundamental flaws in the American experiment from the day that American revolutionaries decided to revolt against Great Britain, not understanding that nothing centralizes power more than a revolution. Friedrich Engels understood this, but geezer conservatives do not.

History does not move backward. Looking over our shoulders at the good old days of the past requires us to look over our shoulders at the enormous failures of the past. The conservative movement can be accurately described as a series of failures and surrenders which were made in the name of practical politics. Defenders of liberty were sold out, issue by issue, crisis by crisis, centralization by centralization, from the day that Patrick Henry is supposed to have delivered his speech describing the British government as a tyranny, when in fact, with the exception of Switzerland, British North America was the freest society on the face of the earth. It was great rhetoric. Anyway, 40 years later, the historian who attempted to reconstruct it from oral histories turned it into great rhetoric. In fact, the only contemporary written account of the speech never mentioned the famous "give me liberty or give me death" challenge. But whatever he said, it led to a vote in favor of revolution. From that day forward, the central government expanded. It is a ratchet which keeps centralizing.

We need a new account of the process of centralization which has dominated public school textbooks, as well as the baptized versions of public school textbooks that the Christian Day school movement has published. War strengthens the state, and all revolutions are wars.

Geezer conservatism is an albatross. It's time to bury it at sea.

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