The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 10, 2018

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American Conservative Thought

For a time during the 1990s, it looked as though a new, post–Cold War conservative consensus was building along rather traditionalist lines. While some younger libertarians began to forge an independent, non- or even anticonservative identity emphasizing the attractions of a “dynamist” social and political ethic, the conservative mainstream addressed itself to shoring up what was seen as a declining and often toxic American culture. Neoconservatives brought their formidable social-scientific skills to the study of family breakup. They offered the Victorian Age as a model for the re-moralization of society. The secularization of American public life, driven in no small part by decisions of the Supreme Court, was vigorously critiqued by Evangelicals and others, and a more prominent role for religion was advanced, including in the university. Virtue became a widespread theme, and America’s regime of abstract rights was subject to powerful theoretical criticisms. The best social science confirmed the longstanding traditionalist view that the health of a polity depends on a vigorous civil society. The end of the Cold War meant in any event that American society need no longer be mobilized for war.

World Trade Center, Sept 11, 2001

This emerging consensus—the rudiments of a new “fusionism” bringing neoconservatives and traditional conservatives together—was cut short, however, by the events of September 11, 2001. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on that day, neoconservative intellectual energies were thrown into foreign policy. In effect, anti-Islamofascism was proffered as the new anticommunism, a potential “glue” to hold together conservatism’s disparate tendencies. Questions of culture were displaced by an emphasis on political regimes. A decade of critiques of American culture and society gave way to a new literature championing America’s progressive, liberationist modernity against a backward, “medieval” foe. The transformation was vertiginous. But what exactly was “conservative” about progressive, liberationist modernity? The conflict with radical Islam had revealed an important piece of unfinished intellectual business left over for conservatives from the end of the Cold War.

One of the paradoxical difficulties for conservatives after the Cold War was the very success they had had in arguing that communism represented a species of totalitarianism. By yoking communism together with Nazism, there was a loss of the sense of the “leftism” of communism. Now understood as a species of the genus totalitarianism, and therefore as a form of “tyranny,” communism for many Americans was translated in effect from the progressive Left to the retrograde Right. The West’s victory over communism, therefore, tended to lose its specifically conservative character. If communism was not the historically inevitable “wave of the future”—as it claimed to be, and as many, including its enemies, understood it to be for many decades—then our victory over communism could more readily be understood not as the victory of a conservative resistance movement but rather as a victory for “true progress.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

What might have been learned from the defeat of communism—what perhaps should have been learned—is that there are no historical inevitabilities. While modern ideologies had subsumed free and responsible individuals to inexorable collective processes of one sort or another, in fact it was the individual choices of such leaders as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II, together with the irreducible individual moral witness of such figures as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which precipitated the Soviet collapse. In other words, our victory over communism might have been understood as a vindication of the traditional Western conviction about the dignity, freedom, and responsibility of every human person—a conviction shared by libertarians, traditionalists, and anticommunists.

But that is not what happened. In a fateful intellectual development, Francis Fukuyama argued instead that communism’s defeat revealed that we have now arrived at “the end of history,” and that it is the triumph of Western liberal democracy which has been shown to be historically inevitable—not the victory of communism. The Communist Party was not the vanguard of the proletariat, but America with its liberal-democratic way of life stands as the vanguard of all mankind: the whole world will eventually, inevitably, follow. Such a view is certainly flattering to American sensibilities and it viscerally appeals to our patriotism; in its embrace of a kind of American exceptionalism, however, it oddly fails to recognize the very exceptional cultural and historical circumstances which allowed for the success of America’s unique regime of freedom. In the contentious intra-conservative arguments surrounding the Iraq War, nonetheless, Fukuyama’s view became a background tenet of what has been called the “second neoconservatism.”

The first generation of neoconservatives were, famously, liberals “mugged by reality.” In the face of the 1960s counterculture, they came to a new appreciation for what they earlier might have scorned as the “bourgeois virtues.” In the face of the policy failures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society welfare programs, they came to recognize that all public action brings in its wake unintended consequences—and so they embraced a more cautious approach to public policy, one less given to state intervention in free markets and civil society. The neoconservatives even came to recognize the importance of culture. Such was the extent of the conversion of these former leftists that at length, Russell Kirk opined that Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, was in fact not a neoconservative: he was a conservative, simply. And indeed, owing to their public prominence, such neoconservatives clearly represented the leading voices of conservatism after Reagan.

Emboldened after the fall of communism by America’s position as the globe’s sole “hyperpower,” armed with Fukuyama’s theory about the meaning of history, and rightfully alarmed at the emergence of the Islamic threat after 9/11, leading members of the second generation of neoconservatives seemed to their conservative critics to have been “mugged by ideology.” They advanced a vision of permanent U.S. hegemony around the globe that critics saw as a form of empire. They also pursued a policy of regime-change in Iraq and promised a grand “transformation” of the politics of the Middle East that paid little heed to cultural particularities. Wars are always contentious affairs in the politics of a nation, and so too was the Iraq War.

The political and cultural difficulties encountered in America’s engagement in Iraq have led neoconservatives to reflect on the experience in fruitful ways. Francis Fukuyama for his part has sought to distance himself from the very body of ideas to which he gave birth. What conservatism now will be remains to be seen. But as Iraq wanes in importance and its lessons are assimilated, the prospects are certainly good for a new reconciliation. Those prospects will be especially bright if younger conservatives make the effort to learn the often colorful and contentious history of their movement.

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