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Of Ideas and Politics

Winter 2009 - Vol. 51, No. 1

The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History
by Donald Critchlow. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, ed. Bruce J. Schulman and
Julian E. Zelizer. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism
by Alfred S. Regnery. (New York: Threshold Editions, 2008).

 

TED V. MCALLISTER is the Edward L. Gaylord Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University and the author of Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Post-Liberal Order.

Perhaps contemporary conservativesmisunderstand their own movementbecause conservative philosophy distortsconservative history. Ideas, not materialconditions, drive history, conservativesaver. Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences(an editor's title much disliked byWeaver) established a powerful model fortracing moral and civilizational change—often decline—to rather small alterationsin beliefs, such as medieval nominalism.Importantly, most of the sweeping historicalnarratives produced by conservatives inthe early days of the conservative awakeningemerged from the typewriters of nonhistorians—men of letters whose trainingand intellectual dispositions were moreliterary than empirical. Often works ofgenius (one thinks of Russell Kirk's Rootsof American Order, for instance), the mostpowerful books at the dawn of the movementprovided such a compelling case forunderstanding history as idea-driven thatconservatives have inherited an overlysimplistic historical imagination—one excessivelyphilosophical and insufficientlyempirical.

The tendency to understand historicalcausality in this way, and to understandthe history of the conservative movementin terms of the fight over ideas, is greatestamong those who are more traditionalistand who think of American civilizationas the latest and imperiled bastionof Western civilization (people like me).But thinkers from those other streams ofconservatism that emerged in the 1940sand 1950s also tend to think in terms ofa clash of ideas, a struggle over cherishedbeliefs. This is true of those who point toHayek as their inspiration or to Buckleyor Strauss or even Meyer's later fusionism.All of these schools of thought deemphasizematerial conditions at the expense oflofty ideals. Moreover, these same peopleoften chastise the materialist argumentsof the leading academics as not only inerror but also as expressions of the kindof bad ideas that threaten to undermineour civilization.

The brilliant book by Nash, TheConservative Intellectual Movement,provided a paradigmatic narrative ofthe conservative movement through theSixties. Nash's command of the widerangingmaterials of the diffuse movementand his ability to note connections,to articulate an intellectual movementthat had coherence despite enormousideological tensions, made it possible foralmost all self-conscious conservatives ofthe 1970s and 1980s to think of themselvesas heirs to an intellectual flowering,even as they focused their energies onpolitics and policy. Of course Nash neverintended his first book to define conservatismin America as such, and a carefulsurvey of his body of work reveals thatno scholar has a better grasp of the subtlecomplexities of the history of conservatism.But the success of Nash's book gavehis subject—conservative intellectuals—a primacy in the larger narrative thatNash never intended. And so the excellenttelling of history contributed to ourdistorted view of history.

The rise of a political conservatismin the 1970s and the dominance of selfidentified conservative political figuressince the early Eighties have createdinteresting difficulties in definingconservatism and in understanding therelationship between the intellectualmovement and the political movement,and it has tested greatly the view ofhistory as simply ideas-driven. Conservativescholars have written often on therelationship between ideas and politics,of the connections between the literaryscholar or the political theorist and thepolitics of tax policy, of liberationistforeign policy, of almost all the policiesnow associated with the RepublicanParty. Some find in the story an evolution—ideas have consequences and goodphilosophy leads to good policy. Othersfind the rise to political power of rightwingelements to have so disconnectedthe movement from its philosophicalorigins as to represent a betrayal.

These narratives are all flawed. Theyare not flawed because ideas don't haveconsequences but rather because theintellectual movement was essentially arebellion against disordered times. WhenWeaver and Kirk defended the historical,literary, and moral imagination, they didso because the modern era had nearly lostcontact with this central part of humanreality. The distortion developed whentheir literary acts of rebellion substitutedfor the more empirical work of historians.

Some of us have attempted to redressthis imbalance with ever-more complextaxonomies, trying to discover theconnections among the many differentgroups of political actors who file a claimto the label "conservative." The problemswith trying to connect all the claimantson some taxonomical grid are numerousbecause one finally discovers that nophilosophical principle, no matter howelastic, truly threads its way throughthis political family tree. The problem,perhaps, is that some of us (and no one ismore guilty than I) have tried to approachhistorical narrative with a desire to findphilosophical coherence.

A new day is dawning in the historiographyof conservatism. During the pastdecade a number of fine and narrowerempirical histories have begun to clarifydetails and to complicate larger narratives.Now it appears that we are aboutto break free of the obsession with boththe founding generation and the politicalearthquake of the Eighties and focuson the neglected Seventies. Even moreimportant, historians are now placingthe history of American conservatismwithin the larger structural changes inthe economy, culture, and politics. Wewill not discover in this process an intellectuallycoherent movement, but wewill be rewarded with a most fascinatingstory that reminds those of us who havegrown tired of slogans (which is whatideas sometimes become when they losetheir subtlety) that humans are complex,and that democratic politics is beyondthe reductive tools of political scientiststo comprehend.

Exhibit A of the maturing of historiographyin this field is DonaldCritchlow's The Conservative Ascendancy:How the GOP Right Made Political History.Critchlow is one of the best conservativehistorians of the past few decadesbecause of his combination of excellentresearch and his scrupulous fidelity toevidence. In his newest book Critchlowseeks to tell "the story of how conservativebeliefs were translated into politicalpower, and how, through ideological andpolitical compromise, the GOP Rightmade history in its ascent to power." Hewarns the reader that he did not writea "cautionary tale of how principle isbetrayed by practice" nor did he writea polemic in defense of the conservativevictors. The author tells the story ratherthan leads a cheer.

In both the introduction and inthe concluding pages, The ConservativeAscendancy promises to be a historyof American conservatism that is decenteredfrom ideas, or rather, it promisesa story that contextualizes ideas andbeliefs within a larger narrative of structuralchange from an industrial to a postindustrialsociety. The very breadth of thismodel is its potential strength because itpromises to blend into the narrative theeconomic changes that made the NewDeal coalition less stable, and this modeloffers a chance to explain the complexsocial changes that attended the declineof the industrial order and the rise of apost-industrial order. The rise of a newform of populism—directed againstthe government rather than againstindustry—as well as a new configurationof values, of definitions of freedom, ofstrange clusters of liberation movementsand government protections, all mightbe explained better within the story ofeconomic change. This was the promiseof Critchlow's book, not its product.

In two pages (3–4), the reader espiesthe big themes, the fascinating andunpredictable twists of history thatturned members of the right wing of theGOP into the agents of both revival andrevolution, conservation and transformation.We learn that the right wing rodethe crest of historical change rather thanbeing the rancorous advocates of changeand revolution. We detect the outlinesof a narrative that will shake up theoutdated categories and give us hope thatwe can understand the history that betterexplains our present situation.

Critchlow is explicit when he explainsthat economic changes "fostered" achanged society and he gives the readerreason to believe that the story thatfollows will trace that complex relationship.This promising explanatory modelopens up greater possibilities still—toplace recent conservative history in thecontext of the broader sweep of liberalism.Critchlow notes, here and there,that the New Deal phase of liberalismplaced a special emphasis on security byusing the government to provide protectionsfor the elderly and subsidies forfarmers, and by partnering with big businessand unions to foster a stable industrialorder that offered steady economicprogress along with a government-sponsoredsafety net. However, the largerimpulse of liberalism has always beentoward liberation—freeing people fromall manner of restraints. The first liberationin the American model was fromtyrannical governments, but in everyage since we witness a new struggle toliberate some group from some restraintor limitation. Even as the governmentfocused more on security and protection,the liberationist impulse remainedand strengthened in the Sixties and theSeventies.

By the Seventies the various formsof government interventions (especiallyfederal) and the relentless drive for evergreaterliberation produced very strangeconstellations of fears and resentments.The right wing of the GOP—the groupwho took power in Critchlow's narrative—forged a new model of politics thatincorporated new fears about cultural andmoral decay alongside their own liberationistvision of America that reflectedthe emerging economic conditions.

If this is the story that Critchlowsought to tell and to document, he failed.The basic elements are in place in thebook, but almost immediately followingthe discussion of the rise of a post-industrialsociety, the author delivers a ratherstandard chapter about European intellectualsand home-grown reactionaries.The chapter is very solid, and it evenpushes beyond most such chapters byincluding neglected figures like GeorgeBenson of Harding College. Everychapter is like this, solid narrative withnew details.

As a standard history of conservatismin this period, Critchlow's book is amongthe best because it combines an admirableeconomy of words with the inclusionof some neglected parts of the storyto give the reader a solid grasp of theevents, intellectual developments, influentialpeople, and political maneuveringsof recent American history. Moreover,Critchlow explores the development ofnew institutions in the Seventies as wellas bubbling resentments and fears thatdrove so many people to reconsider theirpolitical allegiance. The book includes aserious and thoughtful examination ofmost of the Bush years and here Critchlowcontributes a great deal to our understandingof the relationship between theBush administration and the RepublicanParty. He attempts, with some success, toaccount for the growing partisanship andideological divisiveness of our own age.In short, Critchlow has written a verygood history of right-wing conservatism,but it is a story that augments rather thanchallenges the older narratives.

Like Critchlow, the editors of RightwardBound: Making America Conservativein the 1970s, Bruce J. Schulman andJulian E. Zelizer, want to understandthe rise of American conservatism inthe context of deeper movements ineconomic, cultural, and political history.The editors explain that this collection ofessays on American conservatism and the1970s helps advance our understandingof this much-neglected decade as wellas explain the more complex interactionbetween various populist/conservative/evangelical reactions with culturaland political trends. At the heart of theeditors' analysis of the new history ofthe Seventies is the notion that a newlyrobust conservatism mobilized not onlyin the midst of cultural upheavals butalso because of them. The relationshipbetween cultural change and conservatismwas not universally reactionary butoften symbiotic. The same cultural shiftsthat helped produce the "oppositionalpolitics" and harsh critiques of Americaninstitutions found in the music of JacksonBrowne, for instance, also provided newopenings for conservatives to push formarket (private) rather than government(public) solutions.

The editors further argue that, despitethe conservative victories that began inthe Seventies, the way to understandthis movement is to place it in the largercontext of the liberal accomplishmentsof the Thirties through the Sixties.According to Schulman and Zelizer thegreat liberal ascendancy of those decadesrestructured American institutions,culture, and values; and the conservativereaction has forced compromises from,rather than overturned, the liberal establishment.The tensions, paradoxes, andcontradictions of the current Republicanestablishment are only expressions ofthe failure of American conservatism toreshape America in its image. Thematically,the "incomplete revolution" of theconservatives ties this book together, butit produces a distortion of analysis as itassumes, to a degree that the authors seemnot fully to recognize, that the "movement"has a coherent and unified agenda.This assumption then gives their conclusiona more political edge than is necessary—the movement largely failed andliberalism remains largely triumphant.But if they had examined conservativeimpulses that emerged in the Seventies asoften conflicting reactions to liberalism,then a more supple theme would haveprevented a triumphalist conclusion.

Both in the editors' introduction andin many of the essays—including manyof the finer essays—the reader confrontsthe knowing liberal assumptions aboutthe conservatives explored in the book.The authors often speak to others ofthe historical establishment out of theirshared political assumptions and commitmentsrather than out of a genuine understandingof the conservative "other." Theproblem begins with the unduly firmdefinition of conservatism, as thoughbeyond all their diversity, we all knowwho "they" are really. The insider-speakleads them to assume things that theybelieve do not require empirical support.If this tendency is sometimes irritating,it is hardly confined to historians or toliberals, and it shouldn't get in the wayof acknowledging the often excellentempirical work found in this book.

Taken as a whole, this is a very helpfulbook, contributing significantly to ourunderstanding of the emergent conservatismof the Seventies. Very good essayslike Paul Boyer's on the evangelicalresurgence, Joseph Crespino's on civilrights and the religious right, and BradfordMartin's on the cultural politics ofsingers and songwriters, easily justify thisbook. But the essay by Suleiman Osman,"The Decade of the Neighborhood,"stands as a model for the kind of closestudy of cultural history that promises tomake sense of the Seventies and Americanconservatism. "Rather than a shift rightward,"writes Osman, "the 1970s markeda shift inward. Neither exclusively Leftnor Right, the politics of the 1970s wasmilitantly local." In this way Osman notonly helps us to understand the differentpolitics of this decade compared to theSixties, but he notes that shared frustrations pushed people with different politicalcommitments to eschew nationalpolitics in favor of concrete effortsto create healthy local communities.Osman scrambles our categories. Theeffort by leftist and conservatives aliketo produce a more intimate, communaland nurturing community against thealienation of an aggressive consumeristand atomistic culture suggests that ourpolitical, cultural, and economic historyhas often beautiful patterns to which ourideological framing has made us blind.

Rightward Bound pushes us to thinkof the 1970s and of conservatism innew ways. Myriad were the reactionsto the ever-larger government of theGreat Society and diverse were the waysAmericans sought to find authenticityand coherence in a decade of cultural andeconomic disorder. New, often populist,forms of "conservatism" bubbled upalongside other movements. This book,for all its flaws, does not allow us to thinkof the time before Reagan in terms ofpolitical organization alone, but stretchesus to understand Reagan's success interms of anxieties and needs that werenot necessarily conservative.

Meanwhile, Alfred S. Regnery'smemoir, Upstream: The Ascendance ofAmerican Conservatism, reaffirms thevery idea-centered understanding ofconservatism that I've advocated gettingbeyond. But it would be a huge mistaketo assume that Regnery's book is unimportant,wrong, or outdated. In manyways I was charmed by this book and Ibelieve it points to some very importantthreads of modern American history ata time when many conservative intellectualslament the disconnect betweenconservative philosophy and "conservative"politics. Regnery reminds us that,beyond the seeming ideological incoherenceof our times, conservatism hasa philosophy, an intellectual disposition,or at least a civilizational taproot thatplaces the rapid changes of the momentin the context of a great and threatenedcivilizational inheritance.

Regnery, who is now editor of theAmerican Spectator and who, like hisfather before him, was president of onethe great institutions of the movement,Regnery Publishing, does an admirablejob of reading the history of the movementand retelling the familiar story ofpost-1945 conservatism. His historicallabor provides him with a way of sharinghis personal journey of these years,connecting his experiences with a wellknownhistory and giving the reader asense of journey, of discovery that giveslife to the larger story.

"Movements founded on ideas generallylast for a long time," Regnery notesin the preface. He outlines briefly theideas that gave form to the movementin the 1950s—individual liberty, freemarkets, limited government, strongnational defense. These ideas, and theinstitutions formed to promulgate them,brought intellectuals together with audienceswho were looking for ways offormulating their own philosophy, theirown reaction to the world they wereexperiencing. Nash gave us this essentialstory in the 1970s, but Regnery givesus some sense of why these ideas foundreceptive soil and how these core beliefsfound new adherents in changing environments.

Regnery's book tells the story of ideasas embodied and helps us to understandhow those who championedthese ideas—through such institutionsas Regnery Press—created, against allodds, an alternative intellectual cultureto the university and media culture.Ideas do not promulgate themselves, andno matter how beautiful, powerful, ortruthful the ideas themselves, they onlychange things when people fight forthem, and when institutions disseminatethem.

So, what of the relationship betweenideas and the material conditions thatalter, support, or undermine beliefs? As Iread Upstream I was struck by how mucha movement that began with a smallband of cantankerous and heterogeneousthinkers, and that still claims that ideashave consequences, has lost contact withthe great books of a bygone era that,collectively, reminded a people in an ageof rapid transition that they belonged toan ancient but living civilization. Regnery'sbook should tell young conservativesespecially that policy and politics donot form the primary horizon for understandingconservatism. But we shouldalso become aware that, after more thanan half-century, American conservatismis part of a very complex Americanhistory and that ideas do not find life inabstract purity but rather find particularexpression relative to economic andcultural resources. A brilliant story ofconservatism as idea-driven tells onlypart of the story. What we do not yetunderstand properly is the way conservatismas a cultural form, as an organicpart of the American story, developed orchanged as America changed.

The more abstractly conservativesconstruct ideas, the more ideologicalthey will become. A grounding in themessy history through which conservativebeliefs, habits, and dispositionsdevelop will help conservatives understandthemselves as belonging to a livingtradition rather than being devotees ofan abstract doctrine.