Learning From Conservative History: Main Trails . . . and Less-Traveled Paths
This is part three of a symposium on contemporary conservatism hosted by ISI at Yale in November, 2008. Read part one. Read part two.
By training, I am an historian. I love the discipline and believe that historical mindedness—the ability to see and understand the grounding of current institutions, issues, and events in the complex matrix of the past—this is the superior way to make sense of reality.
All the same, I have been troubled for over a decade by the growing interest of American conservatives in the history of their cause. This is not to criticize fine books such as George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Nor is it to imply that ignorance is the better strategy for guiding a cultural, political, and intellectual campaign. Nor is it to deny that any movement calling itself “conservative” must, by definition, have a healthy—even determinative—regard for the past.
My concern is over a kind of triumphalism that has crept into American conservatism, a neo-Hegelian view that sees this cause rising out of the intellectual rubble of the Truman era, destined by the spirit to history to create mass publications, to control the radio airwaves, to found great think tanks, and to dominate a political party. This version of history sees the apotheosis of the movement in the creation of FOX News. This has actually tended, I believe, toward a narrowing of thought, and a closing off of healthy debate.
Well, I am not a Hegelian and I have agreed to speak about “Learning from Conservative History,” so let me turn to that. I will first examine four “Main Trails” that converged over the last sixty years to form American conservatism. I will then examine the legacy of the conservative ascendancy. Finally I will explore several “less-traveled paths,” forms of conservatism largely abandoned along the way.
The oddest thing about modern American conservatism is that it emerged during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, a time of perhaps unparalleled American power, economic expansion, and social order. The United States came out of World War II with an unprecedented military machine, and an astonishing global presence. The American industrial economy was the wonder of the world. The Bretton Woods agreement delivered stability to international finance and opened markets to American goods. American capitalists, demonized during the 1930’s, were heroes again, patriots all, and relatively humble in their compensation claims. Every year, hundreds of thousands of American families moved up into the middle class, becoming home owners in the burgeoning, optimistic suburbs. The American welfare state, organized around the New Deal’s social security, was modest in its claims and popular. The national debt was manageable, and shrinking as a percentage of Gross National Product. Most unexpectedly, negative family trends of a century’s duration had all reversed. A marriage boom commenced; the average age of first marriage fell to 22 for men and around 20 for women: records both. By age 40, 95 percent of American adults were married. More dramatic was the Baby Boom. Overall, the U.S. fertility rate nearly doubled between 1940 and 1957. Defying a law of sociology, the greatest rise in fertility was among women who had attended college. Following a post-war spike, even the divorce rate fell steadily through the 1950’s. Church construction was booming; the Sunday schools were bursting at the seams with little Christians. As LIFE magazine summarized in 1960, “the American people did all these things and more. They did them under the benign and permissive Eisenhower sun,” an era “in which so many age-old visions of the good life first became real.”
So, just what was the problem?
One set of answers came from a group of economists, loosely called the libertarians. A number of them had been raised and trained in Europe, only to become refugees from Nazism or Communism. Perhaps this grounding in Old Europe gave them a stronger sense of history, a deeper perception that allowed them to see beyond certain superficialities. They were vividly aware of how near the destruction of all human freedom had recently come. In 1940, Bolshevism and its collectivist economy dominated the earth’s greatest land mass, the Soviet Union. National Socialism in Germany was proving to be a remarkably effective vehicle for building racial empire through an economy planned for conquest. Other fascist variations—also harnessing the power of strident nationalism to socialist forms—were popping up around the globe: most effectively, the Japanese militaristic model. Historian John Lukacs has suggested that the United States and the British Empire, by themselves, could probably not have prevailed over this descending darkness.
Economist Friedrich Hayek’s masterpiece The Road to Serfdom, written in 1942 (but published after the war), ably captures the time. Pointing to both German Nazi and Russian Soviet examples, he concludes that “the cry for an economic dictator is a characteristic stage in the movement toward planning.” And economic planning was the great trap.
Only Adolf Hitler’s remarkable invasion of the Soviet Union—a war of choice on his part—and the consequent troubled alliance of Great Britain and America with the USSR, only those things allowed democracy to survive in Western Europe. However, victory over one totalitarian system quickly gave way to new problems: an expansive and again belligerent Communist Russia; and a newly emboldened Democratic Socialism. Even in Britain and America, many now believed that “democratic” economic planning had been vindicated by the war. In Great Britain, the Labour Party swept to power with a program of socialist planning. In America, Keynesianism—the demand-side theories of John Maynard Keynes—became the new orthodoxy. In liberated Europe, other political leaders turned to economists such as the social democrat Gunnar Myrdal of Sweden, who served as the Executive Secretary of the influential Economic Commission for Europe.
Hayek and other “Austrian economists” such as Ludwig von Mises settled in America. They raised their banner against Keynesianism, arguing instead for liberty, including a free economic system involving deregulation and faith in market forces. While building on somewhat different assumptions, American-born economists at the University of Chicago—notably Milton Friedman and George Stigler—agreed with the Austrians that Keynesian economics rested on contradictions that hampered efficiency, limited growth, and encouraged unhealthy “rent seeking.” They warned that the American prosperity of the 1950’s was precarious, the result of historical accidents that would not last.
Another set of warnings came from writers usually labeled “traditionalists.” In his 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences, rhetorician Richard Weaver argued that the true Western philosophical consensus had dissolved. Practical men—“those in charge of states, of institutions, of businesses”—now faced the task of persuading “to communal activity people who no longer have the same ideas about the most fundamental things.” With the then ubiquitous Life magazine especially in mind, Weaver said that vested interests now tried to maintain traditional values artificially. They had constructed what he called the “Great Stereopticon,” a medium which projected “selected pictures of life in the hope that what is seen will be imitated.” Moreover, these “metaphysicians of publicity” pressed the idea that the goal of life was “happiness through comfort.” Weaver believed, however, that the true result was “a sickly metaphysical dream,” too weak to sustain anything more burdensome than easy abundance.
Russell Kirk of Michigan also had no illusions about the American miracle of the 1950’s. A ruralist himself, he held no sympathy for the burgeoning suburbs. Referring to Long Island, he wrote:
During the late fifties . . . , I watched . . . the devastation of what had been a charming countryside. . . . To make room for a spreading population was necessary, but to do it hideously and stupidly was not ineluctable.
Elsewhere, he called “this brutal destruction of the very landscape . . . a belligerent repudiation of what we call civilization. It is a rejection of our civilized past.” So much for the creature comforts of Levittown.
Kirk’s essential project was to recover and animate an American conservative philosophy. His great teacher in this respect was the British statesman Edmund Burke. From him, Kirk adopted the concept of “moral imagination,” which he described as an intuitive human power to perceive ethical truths and a natural law within the apparent chaos of experience. He traced the legacy of Burke’s “moral imagination” through American philosophers and poets, including Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, and T. S. Elliot.
Kirk called “traditions” the “wisdom of the [human] race; they are the only sure instruments of moral instruction . . . , and they teach us the solemn veneration of the eternal contract which cannot be imparted by pure reason.” He defined traditions as “presumptive social habits, prejudices, customs and political usages, which most people accept with little question, as an intellectual legacy from their ancestors.” Kirk readily acknowledged that change must and would occur. Yet such reform had to take place within sound tradition. Moreover, while Kirk praised free enterprise as “the most productive and most [generous] economic arrangement conceivable,” he cautioned that a market economy could only survive within a web of custom, religion, and community.
Libertarians and Traditionalists: these were the two strands of a proto-conservatism that emerged in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. William F. Buckley, a son of Yale University, took on the task of unifying them—fusing them—in the journal National Review, launched in 1955. “Ordered liberty” became the catch phrase. Early results, though, were not encouraging. Friedrich Hayek, for example, saw no grounds for cooperation. And while he regularly wrote for National Review, Kirk turned down an invitation from Mr. Buckley to become an editor.
It was from Frank Meyer, who did serve as an editor at the magazine, that fusionism gained theoretical coherence. His book In Defense of Freedom described conservatism as an embrace of “the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of man”; while “reason operating within tradition” formed the core principle of the West. Meyer argued that the American founders had adopted the “fusionist” scheme of James Madison, instead of the “authoritarian” ideas of Alexander Hamilton or the “libertarian” approach of Thomas Jefferson.
Still, many traditionalists and libertarians refused to buy into fusionism. Politicians, however, found it immensely useful. As Senator Barry Goldwater explained in his 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative, the conservative approach “is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom and experience and the revealed truths of the past to the problems of today.” Freedom and order became his catchwords. In his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention, Goldwater declared: “This party . . . has but a single resolve, and that is freedom—freedom made orderly for the nation by our constitutional government; freedom under a government limited by the laws of nature and of nature’s God; freedom—balanced so that order, lacking liberty, will not become a slave of the prison cell; balanced so that liberty, lacking order, will not become the license of the mob and the jungle.” So did fusionist conservatism reach into the Republican Party.
Of course, the golden days, the “happy days,” of the 1950’s did come to an end. Actually, the year 1964 is an excellent choice to mark the advent of the notorious “60’s.” Some wag once said that if you can remember the 1960’s, you weren’t there. Whatever the case, over a ten-year period, the Potemkin village that had been Eisenhower’s America mostly crumbled. The counter-culture, the drug-culture, the New Left, bra-burning feminism, the political assassinations, the sexual revolution, the blood claimed by a land war in Asia: these and more tore through American culture, leaving it disfigured. By 1974, America was in global retreat, with the fate of South Vietnam soon to be sealed. The American economy was in serious recession; the Keynesian bromides no longer worked. The divorce rate was soaring; the marriage rate tumbling; the Baby Bust was in full swing; and abortion-on-demand was the law of the land.
These disorientations actually generated two new elements of the emerging American conservative coalition: the neo-conservatives and the Religious Right.
A neo-conservative has been defined as “a liberal mugged by reality.” There is truth here, but the ideological origins of the neo-conservatives were more complex. Some such as Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell emerged out of the radical politics centered around the City University of New York during the 1930’s, where as young men they had tried on Marxism. Others such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick were Roman Catholics disturbed by the liberal utopianism and irrationality of the New Left. Concerning domestic politics, they used social-science to counter ambitious radicalism, a recurrent theme in the late journal The Public Interest. They also defended the limited New Deal welfare state as necessary to social peace. In foreign affairs, they advocated a strong anti-Communism, and they defended the state of Israel from New Left criticism. More broadly, they believed that the United States must continue the role of global policeman, lest chaos ensue. In economics, neo-conservatives such as Michael Novak became exuberant cheerleaders for what they called Democratic Capitalism.
The Religious Right was a product of the 1970’s. Its first manifestation came in 1972 as Phyllis Schlafly of Illinois launched her remarkable and successful campaign to stop the feminist-inspired Equal Rights Amendment. When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, creating a right to abortion, most evangelical Protestants actually were unconcerned. Some prominent evangelical figures even welcomed the decision as an advance of religious liberty, against Roman Catholic machinations. However, over the next several years Protestant writers including Francis Schaeffer and Harold O. J. Brown reawakened the evangelical conscience over abortion. In 1977, the new Jimmy Carter Administration launched a series of bizarre initiatives against American churches. The Carter regime wanted to regulate religious fundraising, to strip some Christian schools of their tax exemption, and to otherwise narrow religious exemptions from Federal oversight. Carter’s promised White House Conference on The American Family became instead a conference on “American Families,” where concerns over soaring levels of divorce, abortion, and illegitimacy were displaced by a strange celebration of unmarried mothers and other “new family forms.” All these developments led to new organizations, ranging from the poorly named, short-lived, but influential Moral Majority to the formidable Focus on the Family. Centuries-old suspicions between conservative Protestants and orthodox Catholics definitely gave way to a new spirit of practical alliance.
Ronald Reagan drew these four strands—libertarianism, traditionalism, aggressive anti-Communism, and Christian activism—together in his successful run for the Presidency in 1980. In declaring his candidacy, he famously announced:
A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality—and above all—responsible liberty for every individual; that we will become that shining city on a hill.
Well, as of this last Tuesday night, the Reagan Era is over. The conservative political coalition that kept the California governor, his Vice President, and that V.P.’s son in the White House for 20 of the last 28 years, and that brought Congress under Republican control for a dozen years: that coalition was pretty well drubbed.
There had always been tensions within. Traditionalists were troubled by the libertarians’ lack of respect for the transcendent moral order and by what they saw as the neo-conservatives’ messianic view of foreign policy. Libertarians distrusted the traditionists’ call for order, the neo-Conservative faith in government, an activist foreign policy, and war, and the Religious Rights’ insistence on a normative family structure. Neo-conservatives were put off by what they considered the musty Toryism of the traditionalists, by the libertarian faith in a spontaneous international order, and by the anti-intellectualism of the religious Right. The Religious Right saw libertarians as “libertines” and constantly found Christian “Main Street” values subordinated to “Wall Street” priorities. These tensions became more visible as the “glue” of anti-Communism faded away after 1990; but the coalition soldiered on, most recently under John McCain, to the dawn of the Age of Obama.
Where are we now?
In foreign affairs, the United States is caught in two Middle Eastern wars. While matters have surely improved in Iraq—more through short-term deals cut with tribal sheikhs and ethnic leaders than through military victories—the situation in Afghanistan steadily deteriorates. Regarding the economy, the United States is in an odd and oddly crippling recession, triggered by financial speculation in American housing and insurance markets and reverberating around the globe.
Fairly or not, American conservatism as defined by the Reagan coalition appears to be taking the ideological fall, so to speak, for these circumstances, particularly for the consequences of the Bush Doctrine in foreign affairs and of deregulation in the economic sphere. As conservatives reassemble in the post-Reagan era, I suspect that a new variation, a different kind of coalition, may be necessary. What might it look like? Alas, that is the arena of the futurist, not the historian. However, there have been other “conservative” possibilities in the past, paths that were not followed. Perhaps one or more of these might help provide a more coherent response to the new circumstances of our time.
One less-traveled path could be labeled Distributism, American style. In 1934, a young American journalist and historian—Herbert Agar—wrote a long essay for the American Review, entitled “The Task for Conservatism.” It reflected the six years he had just spent in England, working as a junior editor at G. K.’s Weekly, the journal published and edited by G. K. Chesterton. While embracing the label “conservative,” Agar stated that it had been thoroughly “discredited,” twisted by what he called the apostles of plutocracy into a defense of “gamblers and promoters.” He now wanted to save the term, by appealing to “another, and an older, America,” a time when there was virtue in and a moral plan for the nation.
Central to this plan, Agar insisted, was “the widest possible distribution of property.” Among some of the American founders, such as Jefferson, “this [had] meant agrarianism,” or self-sufficient farming. To others, such as John Adams, “this [had] meant an interdependent community” of farmers and modest merchants, with government maintaining the balance. Agar insisted that all the founders believed that “a wide diffusion of property . . . made for enterprise, for family responsibility, and in general for institutions that fit man’s nature.”
But America, he continued, had lost its way over the course of the 19th Century. The natural wealth of the nation tied to the industrial revolution had raised “the rewards for a successful raid on society to dangerous heights.” Protestant Christianity went into decline, proving incapable of restraining economic “buccaneers.” Property grew concentrated; the sharecropper replaced the yeoman; the renter replaced the home owner; factory workers fell into dependence on an hourly wage; democracy degenerated toward mob rule.
Could the situation be reversed? Agar thought it possible that trends had gone too far in the wrong direction. “If Americans have come to believe that a wage is the same thing as freedom; if they prefer such a wage, with its appearance of security, to the obvious danger and responsibilities of ownership, then they cannot be saved from the servitude which awaits them.” Yet, he concluded that a “redistribution of property” could still be accomplished; this would be “the root of a real conservative policy for the United States.” The ownership of land, machine-shop, store, or a share of “some necessarily huge machine” needed to become the normal thing, to set the moral tone for society. Such a system, though, was not in line with existing trends. “It must be produced artificially,” Agar said, “and then guarded by favorable legislation.” He argued for differential taxation on business profits and corporate-held property, to favor the small, family-held operation.
Following Chesterton and his sometime collaborator Hilaire Belloc, Agar also warned against an informal merger between Government and the great Banks and Corporations. In this scheme, financiers would continue their speculations and consolidations, while the state would confirm workers in their dependent status through a minimum program of social insurance and welfare, tied to wage labor. The result would not be socialism, Agar explained, but what Chesterton called the Business Government or what Belloc labeled the Servile State.
A second less-traveled path was conservative communitarianism, a defense of society’s little platoons, a suspicion of all big entities, including the great corporations and the national security state. While prefigured in Burke and also to be found in Russell Kirk, this orientation received full expression in the work of sociologist Robert Nisbet. His 1953 book Quest for Community focused on “the individual uprooted, without status, struggling for revelations of meaning, seeking fellowship in some kind of moral community.” Nisbet dissected what he called the “ideology of economic freedom” falsely built on an atomistic view of human nature. He argued that “the so-called free market never [really] existed at all save in the imaginations of the rationalists.” The 19th century capitalist system seemed to work, Nisbet asserted, only because it had inherited the moral capital of truly natural communities—the family, the village, the church—“which had nothing whatsoever to do with the essence of capitalism.” Direct social affiliation alone brought acceptable order: “Not all the asserted advantages of mass production and corporate bigness will save capitalism if its purposes become impersonal and remote, separated from the symbols and relationships that have meaning in human life.”
Nisbet said something similar about the national security state. In an essay entitled “Uneasy Cousins” he compared and contrasted libertarianism and traditionalism, here called conservatism: He reported: “ . . . there is a common dislike of war and, more especially, of the war-society this country knew in 1917 and 1918 under Woodrow Wilson and again under FDR in World War II.” Nisbet noted that opposition to America’s modern wars, from the Spanish-American conflict on, “ . . . came from those elements of the economy and social order which were generally identifiable as conservative—whether ‘middle western isolationist,’ traditional Republican, central European ethnic, [or] small business. . . .” These were persons “closely linked to . . . church, local community, family, and traditional morality.” Nisbet concluded: “This was the element in American life, not the miniscule libertarian element, that both Woodrow Wilson and FDR had to woo, persuade, propagandize, convert, and, in some instances virtually terrorize in order to pave the way for eventual entry by U.S. military forces in Europe and Asia.”
A third less-traveled path is the original cultural pessimism of the neo-conservatives. An exemplary expression of this was Daniel Bell’s 1976 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. In brief, Bell argued that the frenzied economic impulse of capitalism had long been held in check by Puritan restraint and the Protestant ethic. While these checks permitted great capital accumulation, they also limited sumptuary or extravagant consumption. “One worked because of one’s obligation to one’s calling, or to fulfill the covenant of the community.” “Being moral meant being industrious and thrifty.” “If one wanted to buy something, one should save for it.” Alas, according to Bell, the Protestant ethic of vocation and thrift was done in by capitalism itself. He wrote:
The greatest single engine in the destruction of the Protestant ethic was the invention of the installment plan, or instant credit. Previously one had to save in order to buy. But with credit cards one could indulge in instant gratification.
The creative trick here was to avoid the word “debt,” while emphasizing the word “credit,” allowing everyone to live beyond their means . . . for a time.
Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neo-conservatism, also linked “the decline of the bourgeois ethic” to the “drainage of legitimacy out of the business system” in his 1978 book, Two Cheers for Capitalism. Crafting a sharp critique of Friedrich Hayek, Kristol charted the transformation of the United States from “a capitalist, republican community, with shared values and a quite unambiguous claim to the title of a just order” into “a free, democratic society” where “the will to success and privilege had been severed from all moral moorings.” In short, “the dynamics of capitalism itself,” especially the building of a system of easy consumer credit, subverted both virtue and justice, bringing the whole system into crisis.
Dismantling the Servile State, building a true Distributist property state, defending small communities of virtue from mega-systems, exposing within capitalism the corrupting influence of a culture of debt: these paths less-traveled may be of greater appeal to a future William F. Buckley and to the next American conservatism.
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