The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

Conservatism at the Crossroads
George H. Nash - 02/03/10
Reappraising the Right

Are we witnessing the “death of conservatism,” as the title of a recent book has it? Or is conservatism rising again “on the steppingstones of liberal excesses,” as George F. Will argues? To determine where conservatism is headed, there is no better authority than George H. Nash, the preeminent historian of American conservatism.

First Principles is proud to present this excerpt from Nash’s new book, Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism.

In the American election year of 2008, as Barack Obama glided unexpectedly toward the White House, a new political narrative took hold among the chattering classes: the conservative era, the Age of Reagan, was said to be ending. According to liberal writers like George Packer and E. J. Dionne, the once mighty conservative intellectual and political movement that had dominated the nation’s debates since the late 1970s had fallen into moribundity and disarray.

A few conservative pundits seemed half-inclined to agree. Yuval Levin, a frequent contributor to National Review Online, sensed “intellectual fatigue” among his ideological allies and added, “The conservative idea factory is not producing as it did.” Another rising conservative commentator, Jonah Goldberg, commenced a column in USA Today in mid-2008 by quoting the writer-humorist Philander Johnson: “Cheer up, for the worst is yet to come.” Although Goldberg went on to insist that the conservative movement had “a lot of life left in it,” his bon mot captured the mood of trepidation gripping many around him as the election approached.

Some—especially in the subset of right-wing thinkers known as paleoconservatives—were more acerbic. At a paleocon website in August 2008, Austin Bramwell posted a piece provocatively entitled “Is the Conservative Movement Worth Conserving?” Elsewhere, Patrick Buchanan—the preeminent paleoconservative spokesman in the country—expressed his dismay at the conservative Establishment by paraphrasing an aphorism attributed to Eric Hoffer: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

Such sentiments did not dissipate with the defeat of the Republican Party—that imperfect vehicle of modern conservatism—at the polls later in the year. Some weeks before the election, Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, asserted in print that the conservative movement in America had entered “its last and genuinely decadent phase.” Some weeks after the election, his prognosis became grimmer still. Writing in the New Republic, he offered an “intellectual autopsy” of the movement under the title “Conservatism Is Dead.”

Once again voices on the Right could be found who at least partly agreed with him. Within days of the election, Jeffrey Hart—a longtime senior editor of National Review who left the magazine in 2008 and endorsed Obama—declared at a liberal website: “Movement conservatism, RIP.” A few months later, at the national meeting of the conservative Philadelphia Society, the political scientist Claes Ryn—a distinguished traditionalist conservative—bluntly suggested that “the so-called conservative movement” needed “chapter 11 reorganization.”

Most activists and intellectuals on the Right, however, seemed less convinced of their movement’s supposed bankruptcy than of its need for a speedy escape from the political wilderness into which it had been cast. But how, on what terms, and under whose banner? Just a week after the traumatic election, Rod Dreher, the leading journalistic advocate for the persuasion known as “crunchy conservatism,” predicted that “the scattered and demoralized armies of the right” would soon engage in a ferocious “civil war.” The very next day, the neoconservative columnist David Brooks asserted in the New York Times that “the battle lines” had “already been drawn in the fight over the future of conservatism.” In one “camp,” he contended, stood those he dubbed the “Traditionalists,” including the radio talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and an “alliance of Old Guard institutions” such as Americans for Tax Reform and the Family Research Institute. These, said Brooks, were committed to returning to the “core ideas” of the Republican Party, like cutting taxes and reducing the size of government. In the other “camp,” he wrote, were “Reformers” like himself, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, and the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, committed not to “slashing government” but to “modernizing” Republican “priorities” for “new conditions.”

In the aftermath of the Democrats’ decisive victory, signs multiplied that Dreher and Brooks were correct. At times in the long winter of 2009 it seemed that a class war of sorts had broken out on the Right as “elitists” confronted “populists” over such issues as the place of religious conservatives in the coalition. At the vortex of much of this disputation was the radio superstar Limbaugh, who—with twenty million or more listeners per week—commanded a larger audience than any other conservative in the land. Early in 2009, upon saying of President-elect Obama, “I hope he fails,” Limbaugh triggered a national media firestorm that Democratic Party strategists and the Obama administration gleefully tried to exploit.

But not all of Limbaugh’s detractors were on the Left. In The American Conservative magazine, John Derbyshire accused the practitioners of “lowbrow talk radio” of “catering to reflex rather than thought” and of inhibiting a potentially “much more worthwhile project: the fostering of a middlebrow conservatism.” Writing in Newsweek, the neoconservative author David Frum claimed that Limbaugh was “kryptonite, weakening the GOP nationally”—especially with independents and women. Limbaugh and his defenders duly returned verbal fire, and few denied that, however polarizing, he was “a huge benefit to the Right.” By the time the tempest subsided, his national radio audience had nearly doubled in size.

Beneath all this intramural squabbling lay philosophical and strategic fault lines of sobering importance. How should American conservatives regain their footing in the new political terrain? Should they go “back to basics” and proclaim their principles with renewed fervor, after the frustrations and muddled compromises of the past eight years? Or should they calm down and concentrate on devising fresh public policy initiatives designed to attract a putatively centrist and pragmatic electorate? Should they militantly reaffirm their antistatist convictions or reluctantly concede that, like it or not, “big government” was here to stay? How much—if at all—should the conservative message be revised and its tone modulated? In what way, if any, should the movement itself be reconfigured?

These questions recalled a dilemma that Whittaker Chambers had described to William F. Buckley Jr. in another time of conservative anguish more than fifty years earlier.“Those who remain in the world,” Chambers observed, “if they will not surrender on its terms, must maneuver within its terms. That is what conservatives must decide: how much to give in order to survive at all; how much to give in order not to give up the basic principles.” All this, he predicted, would lead to “a dance along a precipice.”

In 2009 a new era of conservative maneuvering began. At the dawning of the Age of Obama, many conservatives feared that Chambers’s precipice had drawn closer than ever. Yet as unfriendly as the world may have looked to them, in truth it was a far less lonely place for conservatives than it had been in 1953 when a young don from Michigan named Russell Kirk brought forth a book he originally intended to call The Conservatives’ Rout. In the early 1950s, only three small conservative publishing houses existed in the United States. By 2009 the outlets for conservative expression were exponentially more numerous, and conservative books like Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny were often bestsellers. In 1953 National Review—the flagship journal for conservatives—did not yet exist. In the spring of 2009 the magazine’s circulation surged to more than 200,000. The Internet, meanwhile, pulsated with right-wing websites and blogs. If nothing else, a marketfor conservative discourse had developed and appeared to be self-sustaining—a point for conservatives to remember amidst the encircling gloom.

Even the internal arguments on the Right were in their way a sign of vitality, and as 2009 wore on, the gallows humor of 2008 gave way to a more proactive mood. The “tea party” demonstrations were a notable case in point. Hyped though the phenomenon may have become in sympathetic media, the fact remained that on April 15, 2009, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans citizens came together, voluntarily, at sites all over the nation, on a work day, to protest the perceived leftward lurch of the new administration in Washington. In the annals of American conservatism such a swift and far-flung mobilization was without precedent.

Perhaps the most hopeful portent for conservatives, paradoxically, was the audacity and perhaps hubris of their ideological foes. As the Obama administration and its congressional supporters galloped to the left (or so conservatives judged), the threat of a crippling “civil war” on the Right seemed to diminish. Embattled conservatives could not afford such an indulgence. More quickly than many observers expected, President Obama’s initiatives galvanized his intellectual and political opponents. During the campaign of 2008, Governor Sarah Palin’s nomination for vice president—and the tumultuous reaction to it—had reinvigorated millions of despondent grassroots conservatives. The reality of liberalism in power, in 2009, bestirred them even more. It began to appear not only that they must resist but that they had a fighting chance to recover lost ground.

Nevertheless, there was no concealing the depth of the challenges that the American Right now faced. The multiplicity of “camps” and factions under its umbrella—neocons, paleocons, crunchy cons, libertarians, and more—attested to the fissiparous tendencies among them: not a fatal flaw (conservatives had survived and transcended these tensions for decades), but a complicating fact of life just the same. The very success of conservatives at building institutions since the 1970s had bred another peril that columnist Ross Douthat called “cocooning”: conservative voices there were aplenty as Obama took office, but were they reaching and persuading anyone outside their own precincts?

Long-term trends also seemed problematic. Make a list, as Ronald Brownstein and David Wasserman have done, of all the counties in the United States with at least twenty thousand people. Then look at the one hundred “best educated” of these counties: those having the highest percentage of college graduates, defined as people over the age of twenty-five with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Most of these counties—America’s so-called Diploma Belt—used to be Republican. By the early twenty-first century this was no longer the case. In 1988 the Democratic presidential candidate carried only thirty-six of these one hundred counties. In 2008 the Democratic candidate won seventy-eight of them.

Another datum sent a similar warning signal to conservatives. According to exit polling statistics cited by political analyst Michael Barone, Americans aged thirty and over divided their votes almost evenly in the 2008 presidential election—50 percent for Barack Obama, 49 percent for his opponent, John McCain. But among voters twenty-nine and under, Obama won by a margin of 66 percent to 32 percent. It was the widest “generation gap” in the history of American exit polling—and probably in the history of the United States.

There was no certainty, of course, that these and other demographic trends would continue. Wars, recessions, scandals, and other unforeseeable events could alter the political landscape at any time. But if the disappointments of the Bush presidency and the 2008 election taught conservatives anything, it was that they could no longer take their political prosperity for granted. If they wished to know what tomorrow, and the day after, might bring, they would need to heed the somewhat unconservative advice of the computer scientist Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

But again: how, on what terms, and under whose banner? “When you come to a fork in the road,” said Yogi Berra, “take it.” By 2009 American conservatives sensed that they, too, had come to a fork in the road—or at least to a painful bump. As they pondered uneasily which turn (if any) to take, the need for reflection and reappraisal grew apparent. From Vermont to Virginia to Michigan—and innumerable other locations as well—conservatives young and old were forming study clubs and discussion groups and revisiting the intellectual and spiritual sources of their movement. At places like the Alexander Hamilton Institute in upstate New York and the Colloquium on the American Founding at Amherst College, bands of conservative professors, college students, and alumni were analyzing current discontents and seeking renewal in the light of the foundational principles of Western civilization. Peering forward, as it were, through a glass darkly, many conservatives felt impelled also to look back, the better to find a compass for the journey ahead.

For more than three decades I have been a historian of American conservatism, particularly of its intellectual manifestations. During that time the conservative movement, once inchoate and marginalized, has grown in intellectual sophistication and political heft to become a competitive presence in our public life.

Yet as I travel and lecture around the country to college students and other audiences, I am struck by how little of this history people actually know, including many who self-identify with the conservative community. In our age of “saturation media” (as George Will calls it)—focused on the sound bites and squalls of the eternal Present—it is hard, even for professed conservatives, to take stock and stay connected to their heritage, even when a deeper acquaintance with it might yield a bracing perspective on present predicaments.

In Reappraising the Right I attempt to supply such perspective. In 1976 I made my first major foray into this territory in my book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Since then I have returned to this subject often, from many angles, exploring topics not covered (or covered only briefly) in the original book. As the conservative intellectual community has matured and diversified, the range of my inquiries has necessarily expanded. Reappraising the Right is one product of these labors.

Historians are not necessarily good prognosticators, but by deliberately taking a longer view we can try to liberate our readers from the provincialism of the present. 

For readers impatient for a sneak preview, let me say here simply that, come what may in the long run, it appears to this historian that in the short run, at least, conservatives will participate importantly in our national conversation. Conservatism in America is not dead.

In the current political climate, perplexed conservatives especially may decide to turn to the pages of Reappraising the Right, and I hope they do—in search not of instant formulas for success but of something deeper and more sustaining: enhanced perspective on who they are, where they came from, and what they believe. Gaining that, they may more wisely face the future—and perhaps even invent it.

“The only thing new in the world,” said Harry Truman, “is the history you don’t know.” In Reappraising the Right, I hope readers discover much that is both new and worth knowing.

Click here to purchase Reappraising the Right.

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