American Conservatism, 1945–2017

What it’s like to teach the intellectual history of the movement to students who aren’t old enough to remember Ronald Reagan’s time in the spotlight.

I’ve spent the last two weeks teaching a course on the history of the conservative intellectual movement for the Hertog political studies program. This is the second year Hertog has offered the course, and the first time under President Trump. I like to joke that I offered the students, all of whom were intelligent, well spoken, and impressive, a complete story. There was a beginning, middle, and end. If, as Alfred North Whitehead said, the history of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, then the history of intellectual conservatism in America is a series of influences on the mind of William F. Buckley Jr. We spent the first week reading the thinkers behind National Review: classical liberals such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, traditionalists such as Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk, the majoritarian constitutionalist Willmoore Kendall, and anti-Communists Whittaker Chambers and, perhaps most important of all, James Burnham. All of these strains of thought are visible in Buckley’s statement of principles in the first National Review, published in the autumn of 1955.

The second week of the course surveyed the years since that debut. The conservatism of National Review found allies in Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and other neoconservative intellectuals who contributed to The Public Interest and Commentary. Conservatism unearthed a mass base of support among the middle-American radicals who opposed the Great Society and counterculture of the late 1960s and the social liberalism of the 1970s. Religious conservatism developed as liberal theologians Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak transitioned to the right. Conservative thought gave way to conservative politics beginning with Barry Goldwater’s nomination for president in 1964, continuing with Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 and Ronald Reagan’s primary against Gerald Ford in 1976, and culminating in Reagan’s victory in 1980. We ended our time together by discussing current splits in the right. The differences between foreign-policy neoconservatives and paleoconservatives became acute after victory in the Cold War. In 2017 the spectrum of conservative thought in America runs from libertarians to neos to paleos to traditionalists to nation-state populists all the way to the alt-right fringe. You have Senator Jeff Flake and his Conscience of a Conservative on one hand, and Steve Bannon and Breitbart.com on the other. The various claimants to the conservative throne each have problems.

Post-World War II American conservatism began as an elite intellectual movement with no mass presence. It ends in the post-post-Cold War era as a mass political movement with no elite support. A visitor to my class remarked that the fusion of intellectuals, activists, and elected officials during the Reagan presidency may have been something that occurs only once in a lifetime. It was hard to argue with him.

My students quickly grasped the importance of anti-Communism to the conservative intellectual movement. We read a passage from James Burnham’s Struggle for the World (1947) in which he said that there always is a “key to the situation” in political life. For Burnham, and for conservatives in general between the publication of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in 1944 and Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man in 1992, the key to the situation was the menace of the Soviet Union. All of the factions opposed Soviet tyranny and the forms of collectivism and statist economics associated with it. When the Soviet Union disappeared, so too did conservative unity.

Many conservatives, and I am one of them, see radical Islam as another militant ideology dangerous to American national security and to the principles of a free society. But it also seems to me that attempts to build a conservative coalition around opposition to radical Islam have failed. There are too many intellectual critics of this view. Nor does radical Islam enjoy the support of secular intellectuals as Communism did. The key to the situation today may be that there is no key. The United States faces multiple internal and external threats. The effort to formulate a theory that includes them all is bound to fail.

Another takeaway was just how badly damaged the conservative cause was by its opposition to the civil-rights movement and federal desegregation of schools. The defenses of the South that Buckley wrote throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s persuaded neither the public at large nor some of the editors of his own magazine. For students today, this history is a barrier to adopting or even wanting to understand the other arguments of conservative intellectuals. One day we watched a lecture Russell Kirk delivered at the University Club in 1980. The students were struck by how white and male the crowd was. For them, Kirk’s monochromatic audience obscured his message.

Still, they were enraptured when Ronald Reagan took the stage in his 1978 Firing Line debate with William F. Buckley Jr. over the Panama Canal Treaties. It was not only Reagan’s commanding presence and voice that got their attention, but also his mastery of detail, his simple language, and his wry jokes. I found it both heartening and depressing that Reagan was as alive to them as he was to that audience 40 years ago. Heartening, because there is still an audience for champions of freedom. Depressing, because Reagan left office more than half a decade before these students were born.

I was happy to dispel some myths about conservatives. During an afternoon session on theocons, we watched an interview with Robert George. A few of the students were surprised. When they heard the phrase “religious conservative,” they thought of Sarah Palin. But here they were watching a soft spoken, earnest, civil Princeton professor quoting moral philosophers and name-checking Cornel West while arguing forcefully against abortion and same-sex marriage. The other day I asked the class if they’d had any idea that so many disputatious conservative intellectual journals are published on a regular basis. The students said no.

What’s the future of conservatism? I abjure speculation. But it is important to remember that American conservatism has gone through several cycles of diffusion and consolidation. In the beginning when Buckley founded National Review, the conservative world was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. After the landslide defeat of Goldwater, and then Nixon’s resignation, conservatism and the Republican party were both thought to be finished. But then came 1980. Later, after Reagan, figures as different as R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. and John B. Judis heralded the arrival of the “conservative crackup.” A few years later, Newt Gingrich rallied the movement to win Congress. The obituaries of conservatism were written once more after Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. They were followed by the Tea Party.

Social conditions and individual personalities seem to matter just as much, if not more than, the ideas of intellectuals. Infighting, dogmatism, cliché, conspiracy theories, animosity, confusion, and the absence of authority may characterize the present moment, but one of the lessons of studying conservatism is that the present moment will change. This change will arrive suddenly. Rapidly. And from a direction no one expects.

From National Review: American Conservatism

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