In this week’s Acton Commentary, I reviewed a new book by George H. Nash on the history of the American conservative movement:
By Bruce Edward Walker
In his 1950 work, “The Liberal Imagination,” Lionel Trilling famously stated that American liberalism was the one true political philosophy, claiming it as the nation’s “sole intellectual tradition.”
Unknown to him, two young men — one toiling as a professor at Michigan State Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) and the other finishing his degree at Yale University – would publish two articulate, galvanizing works. The first, Russell Kirk, unleashed “The Conservative Mind,” in which he defined conservatives as being wary of change, revolutions and ideologies in the manner of Irish statesman Edmund Burke. The second, William F. Buckley, first published “God and Man at Yale” and later inaugurated The National Review, the first issue bearing Buckley’s definition of a conservative as one who stands “athwart history, yelling stop!”
Slight differences, to be sure, but, as George H. Nash notes in his excellent “ Reappraising the Right ,” these variations are indicative of the inherent schisms in the modern American conservative tradition from its beginning.
Both Kirk and Buckley agreed that the conservative tradition had its roots in spirituality –specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition. Morality and right-thinking come not from man, but from a higher power. Furthermore, humankind will continue to succumb to the temptations and appetites of the flesh it has been heir to since the Fall. The two men took as articles of faith that humanity is not perfectible and that the striving for earthbound utopias is foolhardy.
Kirk, writing from the “stump country” of Mecosta, Michigan, and Buckley, writing and speaking in his Brahmin-drenched New England patois, differed in their views of where conservatism derived, what precisely it was and where it should go. Despite their differences, Kirk wrote a column for nearly every issue of National Review from its inception and for almost 30 years.
The early 1950s were watershed years, to be sure, because as soon as a new conservative front was established, the fortress was besieged from within and without. The 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign against Democrat incumbent President Lyndon Johnson notwithstanding, the high water mark of conservatism in the lifetime of most readers would more than likely be defined as the victory of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, supporter of Goldwater in the 1964 election, and former California governor, became an icon for all that modern conservatism came to represent: low taxes, personal responsibility and small government.
But, and as Nash repeatedly notes, the threads braided together to form the rope of modern conservatism are diverse and tenuous. No longer can a single thread be traced from Burke to Santayana to T.S. Eliot as Kirk was able to do so expertly in “The Conservative Mind.” Instead of threads, tendrils of paleoconservatism, neoconservatism, compassionate conservatism, crunchy conservatism, libertarianism, Randianism, classical liberalism, small government advocates, tea partiers and even Blue Dog Democrats tangle and creep in all directions while still managing to squeeze into the conservative rubric.
Perhaps at no time in the past 57 years has the term conservative been so difficult to define. If in doubt, go to any university and identify yourself as a conservative. Immediately, you will be lumped together with some media firebrand most closely regarded as a negative stereotype of conservatives by the liberal intelligentsia, be it Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter. If they really want to twist the blade, they’ll associate you with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Karl Rove.
While intellectually dishonest, these attacks do point out the drift of the right since the end of the Cold War – perhaps true conservatism’s finest hour. Since the Reagan years, capitalism has given its enemies too many examples of scandal and excess – a warning Kirk made in the 1950s when he wrote that capitalism too easily leads to materialism – and small government ideals have been all but abandoned by both parties. Free markets unfairly are disparaged as culprits for the economic fiascos of the past several years, even though the markets were never totally free to begin with and government meddling and personal irresponsibility escaped their respective share of the blame.
Nash wisely doesn’t attempt to reconcile all the brands of conservatism in “Reappraising the Right,” which is a compilation of essays, articles and speeches he has written and delivered since 1987. Instead, he focuses on the roots of the modern conservative era, and examines the various branches and offshoots of the movement since the 1950s to illuminate where it’s been and where it’s going.
A highlight of the anthology for this reader is the reappearance of Nash’s 1997 essay, “Modern Tomes.” The article, which originally appeared in “Policy Review,” presents an annotated bibliography for those books and essays Nash finds most useful for conveying conservative thought from the 1970s to the 1990s. All conservatives should at least possess familiarity with the list if not having read all of the works therein. Certainly, Milton and Rose Friedman’s “Free to Choose” warrants inclusion, but so does Michael Novak’s brilliant “ The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism ” and Richard John Neuhaus’ equally astute “ The Naked Public Square ” for reminding conservatives that spiritual faith is essential to preventing the hell of tyranny from materializing on this earthly plain.
Written and published well before the policies of the current administration helped spark the growing Tea Party movement, “Reappraising the Right” puts the lie to any suggestion that the modern conservative movement is dead. True, the political landscape since Ronald Reagan has left many fearing for the future of free-market capitalism, representative government and personal and religious freedoms, which they feel will be abandoned in favor of over-regulation, high taxation, statism and the denigration of American exceptionalism.
What is needed, according to Nash, isn’t a new breed of conservatism, but, rather, a fresh dialogue between various conservative camps employing the same tools as the left – namely, the power of the Internet, where he perceives a tremendous intellectual energy. All is not lost, he asserts. Let’s hope his optimism is warranted.