The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 18, 2017

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

There is one other explanatory framework that has recently arisen to account for conservatism’s success and, inferentially, for its supposedly imminent demise. It is the thesis—popular among some left-of-center academics—that in political terms American conservatism arose in reaction to the tumult of the 1960s and that as the traumatic Sixties recede into the past, so will the voting patterns associated with it. Put more bluntly, it is the thesis—again, popular among some on the Left—that the key to the conservative ascendancy since 1968 has not been conservative ideas or the failures of liberalism but something uglier: the racial prejudice of white people.

Although most scholars, I believe, would reject this line of historical analysis as crudely simplistic, nevertheless, on both sides of the political divide one detects at times a sense—of hope on the Left and fear on the Right—that conservatism is doomed to political decrepitude as America becomes more multiracial in character. It is one more manifestation of the nervousness with which some conservatives are facing the future.

So, then, are Dionne, Tanenhaus, and other declinists correct? Is the house of conservatism in shambles and about to collapse? When addressing such questions, historians are expected to be judicious, and accordingly, I begin with the judicious words of Mark Twain. When informed in 1897 that a newspaper in New York had reported that he had died, he told a visiting journalist, “Just say the reports of my death have been grossly exaggerated.”

How firm are the foundations of modern America conservatism? Let us look further. Perhaps they are sturdier than many observers now think.

There are several reasons for considering this possibility. First, when examining the epiphenomena of contemporary politics—especially in our era of ever more frenzied and frothy news cycles—it is helpful to remember the adage, “This, too, shall pass away.” The divisive Bush presidency is nearly over, and the Iraq war gives signs of winding down. Slowly, some of the “external” political circumstances that so dismayed conservatives in recent years have begun to dissipate.

As George Orwell reminded us years ago, one of the temptations to which intellectuals are susceptible is to assume that whatever is happening right now will continue to happen—that tomorrow will inevitably look just like today. In some ways it will, but in some ways it won’t. Certainly the future is preconditioned by the past, but it is not predetermined by the past. We are creatures of our mental constructs and our life experiences, yes, but we are not robots. The longer I study history, the more impressed I am by the importance of contingency—the unforeseen and the unforeseeable—in the shaping of human events. American conservatives, I suspect, instinctively look upon our history in this way: not simply as a burden and constraint but as possibility. They should therefore take heart in 2008 from the knowledge that this, too, shall pass away.

Secondly, in their obsession with the sound and fury of the stormy present, it is easy for conservatives to overlook and undervalue one of their most impressive achievements during the past forty years: the creation of a veritable conservative counterculture, a burgeoning infrastructure of alternative media, foundations, research centers, think tanks, publishing houses, law firms, homeschooling networks, and more. From the Beltway to the blogosphere, these clusters of purposeful energy continue to multiply and flourish. From the perspective of a historian, this flowering of applied conservatism, this institutionalization of conservative ideas, is a remarkable intellectual and political development.

Think of it: when Richard Weaver was writing in the 1950s and early 1960s, the number of publicly active, professedly conservative intellectuals in the United States was minuscule: perhaps a few dozen at most. Today how can we even begin to count? Since 1980 prosperity has come to conservatism and, with it, a multitude of niche markets and specialization on a thousand fronts.

Does this mean that all is well in the conservative parallel universe? Not necessarily. A few months ago the neoconservative columnist David Brooks accused the conservative think tanks of being “sclerotic.” Other conservatives have quoted Eric Hoffer’s pungent aphorism that every cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and then a racket. Still, the fruit of a generation of successful conservative institution-building appears to have reached a critical mass that is unlikely to crumble anytime soon. This augurs well for the continued influence of conservatism on our national conversation.

A third source of durability for conservatives is this: on the home front, the cohesion that was once supplied by Cold War anticommunism has increasingly come from another “war,” one that seems integral to the identity of most Americans on the Right. This is the so-called culture war, pitting an alliance of conservative Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Orthodox Jewish believers against a post-Judeo-Christian, even anti-Christian, secular elite whom they perceive to be aggressively hostile to their deepest convictions. Every day fresh tremors break out along this fault line—over abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, gay marriage, and the composition of the federal courts. It is a struggle literally over the meaning of right and wrong, a battle (for conservatives) against what Pope Benedict has called “the tyranny of relativism.”

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