Date of Birth: 2002
The American Conservative is a politics magazine with something to love or to hate for both conservatives and liberals. Founded in 2002 by right-wing iconoclast Pat Buchanan, journalist Scott McConnell and Greek-shipping-heir-turned-writer Taki Theodoracopulos, the magazine took aim at George W. Bush’s peculiar brand of conservatism — his rampant foreign adventurism and massive spending. Its attack on what mainstream conservatism had become established TAC immediately as an outlier on the right, tending toward Buchanan’s “paleoconservatism” (more traditionalist than today’s conservative movement) and the libertarian right.
That’s not all there is to TAC, though. In fact, there’s even something for your average paleocon to hate: A trickle of progressive journalists have been publishing articles in TAC, including Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald; former New York Observer writer Philip Weiss, now blogging on his Mondoweiss website; and Robert Dreyfuss, who writes for The Nation. Most of their coverage does, however, revolve around themes of the founding ideology of the magazine, such as criticisms of U.S. policy in the Middle East — particularly of Israel and its U.S. supporters — and government infringements on First Amendment and privacy rights.
TAC is onto something with its principled but eclectic stable of writers. McConnell, who remains the editor (though executive editor Kara Hopkins runs the magazine day-to-day), explains its unique positioning: “We take a beating from all sides, but I’ve always thought — it’s almost a cliché to say so — the left-right dichotomy doesn’t necessarily explain the way actual readers are or the way America is.”
That is something I, too, have found in my days in Washington writing about foreign policy. The neoconservative architects of the Iraq War have more in common with the Democratic liberal interventionists who were their enablers — Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and John Kerry, to name just a few major liberals who voted to authorize the war — than they do with either midcentury Republican isolationists (some now paleocons) or militaristic Republican realists. Likewise, progressives can find common cause with libertarians on privacy issues and with noninterventionists on issues of war and peace.
The magazine’s focus on the U.S.’s involvement in the world is not an accident. “I’m kind of a believer that there is one issue that defines an era,” McConnell says. Right now, he thinks it’s terrorism and U.S. dealings in the Middle East — Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and, at the center of it all, U.S. policy toward Israel. TAC doesn’t shy away from issues involving Israel, a subject that often, despite robust discussion in Europe and even in Israel itself, gets short shrift in the U.S.
“When you write on Israel-Palestine, it’s always loaded,” says Phillip Weiss, who lost his job at The New York Observer because he wanted to focus on that one issue — especially how it’s tied up in Jewish American identity and politics. In March of last year, Weiss wrote a cover story for TAC on the torpedoing of Charles Freeman’s nomination to head Obama’s National Intelligence Council, expounding on the so-called Israel lobby’s role in the affair. “There’s stuff I don’t like in TAC, but big deal,” Weiss told me, noting his trouble getting pieces on his subject of choice published elsewhere. “TAC wanted my stuff and I said ‘great’ and worked for them. And I didn’t care about the labels.”
The labels are legion, and they come from the right as well as the left. David Frum, an arch-neocon and former Bush speechwriter, attacked paleocons in general, and specifically TAC’s editors and adherents, as “unpatriotic conservatives” in a 2003 National Review article, accusing them of “apologetics for the enemy and wishful defeatism” in the so-called War on Terror. Buchanan, who writes editorials for TAC, is a particular lightning rod. He has been called a racist for decades. During Buchanan’s presidential run in 1991, William Buckley wrote a 40,000-word article, again in National Review, declaring him an anti-Semite. Famously a drinking buddy of Hunter S. Thompson in the 1960s and now a frequent guest on the liberal-leaning cable channel MSNBC, Buchanan is unapologetic for his controversial views. To him, the labels are nothing but overwrought distortions intended to silence him.
After some financial trouble last year, much like everyone else, TAC is back on solid footing (a relative term in the magazine world — especially in the small-circulation, low-revenue sphere of political magazines) after reducing its staff through attrition, moving to a cheaper office and cutting the publication frequency in half. Although progressives like Weiss (and me) might not agree with everything The American Conservative says, there is no doubt that it is a unique voice in American political life.