The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 11, 2018

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How Firm a Foundation? The Prospects for American Conservatism
George H. Nash - 01/30/09
George Nash

An advance excerpt from Intercollegiate Review (Winter 2009).

The following is an address delivered at Belmont Abbey College, October 24, 2008 at which Dr. Nash received the Weaver Prize for Scholarly Letters from the Ingersoll Foundation.

The occasion of this award has prompted me to reflect about the influence of Richard Weaver on my own life. The other day, while rummaging through an old desk drawer, I came upon a list of the books that I had read in high school. It was a list that I had compiled at the time, recording the date that I completed my reading of each volume. There I found that on August 14, 1963, just a month before entering college, I finished Ideas Have Consequences for the first time.

Weaver’s book fortified me for the experience of attending a very liberal, liberal arts college in the 1960s—and particularly for my freshman-year, English Composition course, which was steeped in the theories of the semantics movement that Weaver abhorred. Like Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, which I read a year later, Ideas Have Consequences provided an intellectual foundation for dissent from the collegiate Zeitgeist. Ideas Have Consequences was one of the first serious books that I ever read a second time. And if memory serves, it was the first book that I ever gave to someone other than a family member to read.

Looking back, I now realize that it was not just Weaver’s writings that impressed me. His sense of vocation, his example of being in liberal academia but not of it, were, I believe, among the influences that encouraged me to pursue a scholarly career. So I feel especially moved tonight to receive this high honor to which his name is attached.

We have gathered this evening—and at this conference—to consider the future of American conservatism. Until a few weeks ago, it did not appear to have much of a future at all. Writing in the September issue of the American Prospect, the liberal columnist E. J. Dionne declared flatly that “the conservative era” in American politics is “in its final days.” The “conservative project,” he said, is “exhausted.” Meanwhile in the September 10 issue of the New Republic, Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, asserted that the conservative movement “has never been in poorer shape than it is today.” Indeed, he claimed, it has entered “its last and genuinely decadent phase.”

Such sentiments are by no means confined to the American Left. In the past three years an increasing number of conservative commentators have wondered aloud whether the long foretold “conservative crackup” was finally at hand. Jeffrey Hart, for example, in his history of National Review published in 2006, perceived a movement succumbing to a tide of doctrinaire, unconservative ideology and a reckless politics of imprudence. William F. Buckley Jr. reportedly believed in his last years that the conservative movement he had so tirelessly championed was (in Hart’s words) “probably finished”—a case of “intellectual suicide.” A leading conservative journalist of my acquaintance remarked a couple of years ago that the movement is suffering a nervous breakdown—a consequence, he said, of the end of the Cold War. A few on the Right have even suggested that if the movement is not already dead, then it ought to be. “Is the Conservative Movement Worth Conserving?” was the title of a posting at a prominent conservative website just a couple of months ago.

Earlier this year the New York Times’ technology columnist David Pogue listed the five stages of grieving when you lose your computer files: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Moving to Amish Country. It sounds like a fair description of the mood gripping many American conservatives in 2008. Certainly, evidence abounds of a political and intellectual movement in crisis. One sign of this is the growing tendency on the Right to classify conservatives into ever smaller sectarian groupings: neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, big government conservatives, leave-us-alone conservatives, “national greatness” conservatives, compassionate conservatives, crunchy conservatives—and the list goes on. Another sign is the volume of intramural polemic in which some of these elements have indulged in recent years. Thus the paleoconservatives relentlessly pound the neoconservatives, Straussians exchange fire with anti-Straussians, devotees of Abraham Lincoln debate his detractors, libertarians take issue with religious conservatives, and neo-agrarians critique capitalism and free-marketeers. A once relatively disciplined band of brothers (or so it used to appear in the Age of Reagan) has seemingly devolved into a rancorous jumble of factions. It calls to mind Napoleon’s answer when asked against whom he preferred to fight. He replied: against his allies. They were the ones who caused him the most trouble.

Several adventitious factors have strengthened the impression among many observers that American conservatism has come to a cul-de-sac. The deaths of Milton Friedman in 2006, Jerry Falwell in 2007, and William F. Buckley Jr. in 2008 precipitated an outpouring of anxious retrospection and an intensified awareness that nearly all of modern conservatism’s founding fathers have now gone to the grave. Coupled with this generational changing of the guard has been the phenomenal upsurge of popular interest in the life and achievements of Ronald Reagan. More than any of our forty-three presidents, Reagan has been on the minds and tongues of a nation hungering for renewal in 2008. From conservatives in particular has come the cry, “What would Reagan do?” Critics scoff at this as mere nostalgia, the rightwing equivalent of the liberal cult of John F. Kennedy. It is much more than that, but memories of the Gipper remind embattled conservatives of better days and reflect the feeling of disorientation that many on the Right now feel.

A more subtle ingredient in this mix has been the efflorescence in the past decade of historical scholarship about American conservatism since World War II—much of it written by young liberal historians. This is not necessarily a sign of declension, but it certainly testifies to the growing passage of time: the conservative movement has now been around long enough to be the object of academic inquiry. To put it another way, modern American conservatism—a marginalized orphan in academia when I began research on it a generation ago—has become middle-aged. Which, of course, raises the uncomfortable question: are old age and remarginalization just around the corner?

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