The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 16, 2017

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

Excerpt from Modern Age 50:1

The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History, by Donald Critchlow (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007)

Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, ed. Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008)

Upstream, The Ascendance of American Conservatism, by Alfred S. Regnery (New York: Threshold Editions, 2008)

Perhaps contemporary conservatives misunderstand their own movement because conservative philosophy distorts conservative history. Ideas, not material conditions, drive history, conservatives aver. Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (an editor’s title much disliked by Weaver) established a powerful model for tracing moral and civilizational change—often decline—to rather small alterations in beliefs, such as medieval nominalism. Importantly, most of the sweeping historical narratives produced by conservatives in the early days of the conservative awakening emerged from the typewriters of non-historians—men of letters whose training and intellectual dispositions were more literary than empirical. Often works of genius (one thinks of Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order, for instance), the most powerful books at the dawn of the movement provided such a compelling case for understanding history as idea-driven that conservatives have inherited an overly simplistic historical imagination—one excessively philosophical and insufficiently empirical.

The tendency to understand historical causality in this way, and to understand the history of the conservative movement in terms of the fight over ideas, is greatest among those who are more traditionalist and who think of American civilization as the latest and imperiled bastion of Western civilization (people like me). But thinkers from those other streams of conservatism that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s also tend to think in terms of a clash of ideas, a struggle over cherished beliefs. This is true of those who point to Hayek as their inspiration or to Buckley or Strauss or even Meyer’s later fusionism. All of these schools of thought deemphasize material conditions at the expense of lofty ideals. Moreover, these same people often chastise the materialist arguments of the leading academics not only as in error but also as expressions of the kind of bad ideas that threaten to undermine our civilization.

The brilliant book by George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, provided a paradigmatic narrative of the conservative movement through the 1960s. Nash’s command of the wide-ranging materials of the diffuse movement and his ability to note connections, to articulate an intellectual movement that had coherence despite enormous ideological tensions, made it possible for almost all self-conscious conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s to think of themselves as heirs to an intellectual flowering, even as they focused their energies on politics and policy. Of course Nash never intended his first book to define conservatism in America as such, and a careful survey of his body of work reveals that no scholar has a better grasp of the subtle complexities of the history of conservatism. But the success of Nash’s book gave his subject—conservative intellectuals—a primacy in the larger narrative that Nash never intended. And so the excellent telling of history contributed to our distorted view of history.

The rise of a political conservatism in the 1970s and the dominance of self-identified conservative political figures since the early 1980s have created interesting difficulties in defining conservatism and in understanding the relationship between the intellectual movement and the political movement, and it has tested greatly the view of history as simply ideas-driven. Conservative scholars have written often on the relationship between ideas and politics, of the connections between the literary scholar or the political theorist and the politics of tax policy, of liberationist foreign policy, of almost all the policies now associated with the Republican Party. Some find in the story an evolution—ideas have consequences and good philosophy leads to good policy. Others find the rise to political power of right-wing elements to have so disconnected the movement from its philosophical origins as to represent a betrayal.

These narratives are all flawed. They are flawed not because ideas don’t have consequences but rather because the intellectual movement was essentially a rebellion against disordered times. When Weaver and Kirk defended the historical, literary, and moral imagination, they did so because the modern era had nearly lost contact with this central part of human reality. The distortion developed when their literary acts of rebellion substituted for the more empirical work of historians.

Some of us have attempted to redress this imbalance with ever-more complex taxonomies, trying to discover the connections among the many different groups of political actors who file a claim to the label “conservative.” The problems with trying to connect all the claimants on some taxonomical grid are numerous, because one finally discovers that no philosophical principle, no matter how elastic, truly threads its way through this political family tree. The problem, perhaps, is that some of us (and no one is more guilty than I) have tried to approach historical narrative with a desire to find philosophical coherence.

A new day is dawning in the historiography of conservatism. During the past decade a number of fine and narrower empirical histories have begun to clarify details and to complicate larger narratives. Now it appears that we are about to break free of the obsession with both the founding generation and the political earthquake of the 1980s and focus on the neglected 1970s. Even more important, historians are now placing the history of American conservatism within the larger structural changes in the economy, culture, and politics. We will not discover in this process an intellectually coherent movement, but we will be rewarded with a most fascinating story that reminds those of us who have grown tired of slogans (which is what ideas sometimes become when they lose their subtlety) that humans are complex, and that democratic politics is beyond the reductive tools of political scientists to comprehend.

Exhibit A of the maturing of historiography in this field is Donald Critchlow’s The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History. Critchlow is one of the best conservative historians of the past few decades because of his combination of excellent research and his scrupulous fidelity to evidence. In his newest book Critchlow seeks to tell “the story of how conservative beliefs were translated into political power, and how, through ideological and political compromise, the GOP Right made history in its ascent to power.” He warns the reader that he did not write a “cautionary tale of how principle is betrayed by practice” nor did he write a polemic in defense of the conservative victors. The author tells the story rather than leads a cheer.

In both the introduction and in the concluding pages, The Conservative Ascendancy promises to be a history of American conservatism that is de-centered from ideas, or rather, it promises a story that contextualizes ideas and beliefs within a larger narrative of structural change from an industrial to a post-industrial society. The very breadth of this model is its potential strength, because it promises to blend into the narrative the economic changes that made the New Deal coalition less stable, and this model offers a chance to explain the complex social changes that attended the decline of the industrial order and the rise of a postindustrial order. The rise of a new form of populism—directed against the government rather than against industry—as well as a new configuration of values, of definitions of freedom, of strange clusters of liberation movements and government protections, all might be explained better within the story of economic change. This was the promise of Critchlow’s book, not its product.

In two pages (3–4), the reader espies the big themes, the fascinating and unpredictable twists of history that turned members of the right wing of the GOP into the agents of both revival and revolution, conservation and transformation. We learn that the right wing rode the crest of historical change rather than being the rancorous advocates of change and revolution. We detect the outlines of a narrative that will shake up the outdated categories and give us hope that we can understand the history that better explains our present situation.

Critchlow is explicit when he explains that economic changes “fostered” a changed society and he gives the reader reason to believe that the story that follows will trace that complex relationship. This promising explanatory model opens up greater possibilities still—to place recent conservative history in the context of the broader sweep of liberalism. Critchlow notes, here and there, that the New Deal phase of liberalism placed a special emphasis on security by using the government to provide protections for the elderly and subsidies for farmers, and by partnering with big business and unions to foster a stable industrial order that offered steady economic progress along with a government-sponsored safety net. However, the larger impulse of liberalism has always been toward liberation—freeing people from all manner of restraints. The first liberation in the American model was from tyrannical governments, but in every age since we witness a new struggle to liberate some group from some restraint or limitation. Even as the government focused more on security and protection, the liberationist impulse remained and strengthened in the 1960s and the 1970s.

By the 1970s the various forms of government interventions (especially federal) and the relentless drive for ever-greater liberation produced very strange constellations of fears and resentments. The right wing of the GOP—the group who took power in Critchlow’s narrative—forged a new model of politics that incorporated new fears about cultural and moral decay alongside their own liberationist vision of America that reflected the emerging economic conditions.

If this is the story that Critchlow sought to tell and to document, he failed. The basic elements are in place in the book, but almost immediately following the discussion of the rise of a postindustrial society, the author delivers a rather standard chapter about European intellectuals and homegrown reactionaries. The chapter is very solid, and it even pushes beyond most such chapters by including neglected figures like George Benson of Harding College. Every chapter is like this, solid narrative with new details.

As a standard history of conservatism in this period, Critchlow’s book is among the best because it combines an admirable economy of words with the inclusion of some neglected parts of the story to give the reader a solid grasp of the events, intellectual developments, influential people, and political maneuverings of recent American history. Moreover, Critchlow explores the development of new institutions in the 1970s as well as bubbling resentments and fears that drove so many people to reconsider their political allegiance. The book includes a serious and thoughtful examination of most of the Bush years, and here Critchlow contributes a great deal to our understanding of the relationship between the Bush administration and the Republican Party. He attempts, with some success, to account for the growing partisanship and ideological divisiveness of our own age. In short, Critchlow has written a very good history of right-wing conservatism, but it is a story that augments rather than challenges the older narratives.

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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