The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

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Of Ideas and Politics: The Rich Promise of History De-Centered
Ted McAllister - 06/26/09

Like Critchlow, the editors of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, want to understand the rise of American conservatism in the context of deeper movements in economic, cultural, and political history. The editors explain that this collection of essays on American conservatism and the 1970s helps advance our understanding of this much-neglected decade as well as explain the more complex interaction between various populist/conservative/evangelical reactions with cultural and political trends. At the heart of the editors’ analysis of the new history of the 1970s is the notion that a newly robust conservatism mobilized not only in the midst of cultural upheavals but also because of them. The relationship between cultural change and conservatism was not universally reactionary but often symbiotic. The same cultural shifts that helped produce the “oppositional politics” and harsh critiques of American institutions found in the music of Jackson Browne, for instance, also provided new openings for conservatives to push for market (private) rather than government (public) solutions.

The editors further argue that, despite the conservative victories that began in the 1970s, the way to understand this movement is to place it in the larger context of the liberal accomplishments of the 1930s through the 1960s. According to Schulman and Zelizer the great liberal ascendancy of those decades restructured American institutions, culture, and values, and the conservative reaction has forced compromises from, rather than overturned, the liberal establishment. The tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions of the current Republican establishment are only expressions of the failure of American conservatism to reshape America in its image. Thematically, the “incomplete revolution” of the conservatives ties this book together, but it produces a distortion of analysis as it assumes, to a degree that the authors seem not fully to recognize, that the “movement” has a coherent and unified agenda. This assumption then gives their conclusion a more political edge than is necessary—the movement largely failed and liberalism remains largely triumphant. But if they had examined conservative impulses that emerged in the 1970s as often conflicting reactions to liberalism, then a more supple theme would have prevented a triumphalist conclusion.

Both in the editors’ introduction and in many of the essays—including many of the finer essays—the reader confronts the knowing liberal assumptions about the conservatives explored in the book. The authors often speak to others of the historical establishment out of their shared political assumptions and commitments rather than out of a genuine understanding of the conservative “other.” The problem begins with the unduly firm definition of conservatism, as though beyond all their diversity, we all know who “they” are really. The insider-speak leads them to assume things that they believe do not require empirical support. If this tendency is sometimes irritating, it is hardly confined to historians or to liberals, and it shouldn’t get in the way of acknowledging the often excellent empirical work found in this book.

Taken as a whole, this is a very helpful book, contributing significantly to our understanding of the emergent conservatism of the 1970s. Very good essays like Paul Boyer’s on the evangelical resurgence, Joseph Crespino’s on civil rights and the Religious Right, and Bradford Martin’s on the cultural politics of singers and songwriters easily justify this book. But the essay by Suleiman Osman, “The Decade of the Neighborhood,” stands as a model for the kind of close study of cultural history that promises to make sense of the Seventies and American conservatism. “Rather than a shift rightward,” writes Osman, “the 1970s marked a shift inward. Neither exclusively Left nor Right, the politics of the 1970s was militantly local.” In this way Osman not only helps us to understand the different politics of this decade compared to the 1960s, but he also notes that shared frustrations pushed people with different political commitments to eschew national politics in favor of concrete efforts to create healthy local communities. Osman scrambles our categories. The effort by leftist and conservatives alike to produce a more intimate and nurturing community against the alienation of an aggressive consumerist and atomistic culture suggests that our political, cultural, and economic history often has beautiful patterns to which our ideological framing has made us blind.

Rightward Bound pushes us to think of the 1970s and of conservatism in new ways. Myriad were the reactions to the ever-larger government of the Great Society and diverse were the ways Americans sought to find authenticity and coherence in a decade of cultural and economic disorder. New, often populist, forms of “conservatism” bubbled up alongside other movements. This book, for all its flaws, does not allow us to think of the time before Reagan in terms of political organization alone, but stretches us to understand Reagan’s success in terms of anxieties and needs that were not necessarily conservative.

Meanwhile, Alfred S. Regnery’s memoir, Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism, reaffirms the very idea-centered understanding of conservatism that I’ve advocated getting beyond. But it would be a huge mistake to assume that Regnery’s book is unimportant, wrong, or outdated. In many ways I was charmed by this book and I believe it points to some very important threads of modern American history at a time when many conservative intellectuals lament the disconnect between conservative philosophy and “conservative” politics. Regnery reminds us that, beyond the seeming ideological incoherence of our times, conservatism has a philosophy, an intellectual disposition, or at least a civilizational taproot that places the rapid changes of the moment in the context of a great and threatened civilizational inheritance.

Regnery, who is now editor of the American Spectator and who, like his father before him, was president of one the great institutions of the movement, Regnery Publishing, does an admirable job of reading the history of the movement and retelling the familiar story of post-1945 conservatism. His historical labor provides him with a way of sharing his personal journey of these years, connecting his experiences with a well-known history and giving the reader a sense of journey, of discovery that gives life to the larger story.

“Movements founded on ideas generally last for a long time,” Regnery notes in the preface. He outlines briefly the ideas that gave form to the movement in the 1950s—individual liberty, free markets, limited government, strong national defense. These ideas, and the institutions formed to promulgate them, brought intellectuals together with audiences who were looking for ways of formulating their own philosophy, their own reaction to the world they were experiencing. Nash gave us this essential story in the 1970s, but Regnery gives us some sense of why these ideas found receptive soil and how these core beliefs found new adherents in changing environments.

Regnery’s book tells the story of ideas as embodied and helps us to understand how those who championed these ideas—through such institutions as Regnery Press—created, against all odds, an alternative intellectual culture to the university and media culture. Ideas do not promulgate themselves, and no matter how beautiful, powerful, or truthful the ideas themselves, they change things only when people fight for them, and when institutions disseminate them.

So, what of the relationship between ideas and the material conditions that alter, support, or undermine beliefs? As I read Upstream I was struck by how much a movement that began with a small band of cantankerous and heterogeneous thinkers, and that still claims that ideas have consequences, has lost contact with the great books of a bygone era that, collectively, reminded a people in an age of rapid transition that they belonged to an ancient but living civilization. Regnery’s book should tell young conservatives especially that policy and politics do not form the primary horizon for understanding conservatism. But we should also become aware that, after more than a half-century, American conservatism is part of a very complex American history and that ideas do not find life in abstract purity but rather find particular expression relative to economic and cultural resources. A brilliant story of conservatism as idea-driven tells only part of the story. What we do not yet understand properly is the way conservatism as a cultural form, as an organic part of the American story, developed or changed as America changed.

The more abstractly conservatives construct ideas, the more ideological they will become. A grounding in the messy history through which conservative beliefs, habits, and dispositions develop will help conservatives understand themselves as belonging to a living tradition rather than being devotees of an abstract doctrine.

To learn more, visit the ISI short course on Conservative Thought.

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