Histories Right and Left
By some accounts, conservatism in America is always in a state of near-collapse. Some place the date as early as 1994, ironically the year of the sweeping Republican majority elected to Congress and the “Contract with America,” which laid out a series of mostly-unaccomplished goals and which foundered on a highly unpopular move to shut down the government as punishment for its excessive spending. Others place conservatism’s demise around 1989, with the end of the Cold War. Conservatives, on this view, had nothing left to fight, and so would return to the rural backwaters whence they came, and leave governing to the liberals, who after all (on this view) had the ability and ideas to govern.
The debate over the dissolution and possible futures of the Right has only intensified during George W. Bush’s two terms as president. Even before September 11, the administration had drawn criticism from other conservatives on immigration and its advocacy of “compassionate conservatism.” After the invasion of Iraq, opposition exploded from conservatives who invoked a tradition of American anti-intervention and who rejected the “national greatness conservatism” and “unitary executive” theory promoted by Republican Party operatives. Loosely clustered around a set of magazines and websites, these conservatives have organized a revolt against mainstream conservatism and journals such as National Review. This dissatisfaction bore political expression in the short-lived presidential campaign of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, but their real standard-bearer is former Richard Nixon aide Patrick J. Buchanan, whose recent books have laid out an argument for extreme non-intervention in foreign policy that resonates with this new conservative mood.
It was not supposed to be this way, of course. When conservatism burst onto the American scene in the 1950s, it was considered the harbinger of a new dawn in American politics. Liberalism, conservative godfather Russell Kirk wrote, had lost its imagination and ability to win over adherents. Its obsessions with rational planning, collectivist politics, and its rejection of tradition would cause liberalism to collapse of its own weaknesses. In response, Kirk proposed an imaginative conservatism that would attract what he called the “sentiments” of a rising generation.
Kirk’s diagnosis was largely right; liberalism in its high-modern form collapsed with the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Genteel, Ivy-League bureaucrats like McGeorge Bundy proved themselves incapable of governing, and the “Sixties” eventually ended the Protestant Establishment domination of American cultural and political life, and with it the fabric of American society. However, Kirk and others of the founding generation of American conservatives did not foresee how liberalism would mutate. Rather than fully disappear, its intellectual descendants, political correctness and multiculturalism, spread throughout American society. These have come with their own set of ideological enforcers, in the form of diversity consultants, human resource bureaucrats, and much of the educational establishment. This enemy has proven harder for American conservatives to overcome, as it is couched in the very language of equality and rights that Americans use to express their deepest political beliefs. To postmodern American ears, conservatives’ calls to traditions or “family values” ring hollow after thirty years and more of cultural degeneration.
How that new liberalism emerged, and its connections with older forms, is the subject of the wildly popular A Conservative History of the American Left by Daniel J. Flynn. Flynn, a journalist, is one of a new crop of polemicists who have taken up an old conservative lament that the accepted narrative of “what really happened” is biased toward liberalism and obscures real historical fact with agitprop.
So Flynn has some scores he wants to settle, and he does so, criticizing everyone from Sylvester Graham and his “bread cure,” Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, social critic Normal O. Brown, sexologist Alfred Kinsey, and “Beat” poet Allen Ginsburg, to the utopians at Brook Farm and Oneida, various “Bible Communists,” “Yankee Utopians,” progressive exponents of the Social Gospel, economic radicals and religious eccentrics, all the way up to what Flynn calls the “9/12 Left,” that is, those who remained on the Left after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. The variety and eccentricity of the Left is well worth collecting and highlighting, as are the darker aspects the contemporary Left wishes to hide. Most Americans do not know that some American liberal icons were virulently racial or religious bigots, for example, or that many liberal Transcendentalists went in for utopian communities that failed miserably, or that influential spiritualists backed any number of foolhardy schemes to bring about a leftist paradise. There was, in other words, not a little of racism, religious bigotry, and simply snobbery in the history and foundations of liberalism. Always looking to the future, the Left too often neglects its often unpleasant past, and it is good to be reminded of that heritage in this post-election season, with its calls for endless “change.”
Leftists have always been among us, the poisoned fruit in the American Eden. Indeed, as Flynn notes, “utopian and collectivist ideas are as American as Plymouth Rock,” and the Puritan settlers of America were by some modern stances people of the Left (Flynn makes much of their early, disastrous experience with quasi-socialist economic planning). Despite clear differences in temperament and approach, for Flynn all leftists share the same ideological objects: “A brotherhood of man, human perfection, complete equality, needs provided without cost, wants pursued without consequence, heaven on earth-ideas too impractical to live in practice, ideas too beautiful to die as ideas.” Indeed, he writes that the cause of the Left is hopeless so long as it is characterized by “hostility to religion, patriotism, the family, and free enterprise.”
Flynn has done a significant amount of research, and the text is readable and lively, even if one would wish for more explicit connecting threads. The same ideas—common ownership of property, say, or free love, and odd juxtapositions of science and social criticism—occur throughout Western history. To merely lump them all on “the Left” is as helpful as a different farrago of ideas—monarchy, say, joined with capitalism, hierarchical social classes, and table manners—is when defining the Right. The problem is not that such dichotomies do not have explanatory power; it is that they do not explain enough. Even according to Flynn’s taxonomy, the connections among these various radicals are unclear. The Puritans may have opposed free enterprise, but no one could say they opposed religion or the family. Similarly, one can find in Washington or New York many Republican stalwarts defending free trade, but whose devotion to traditional values of the kind Flynn wants associated with the Right leave something to be desired.
By the time we reach the 1960s and 1970s, with the advent of the New Left and movements such as feminism, however, matters are on their way to becoming hopelessly confused. What once seemed staunchly conservative now comes under attack by conservatives. The American writer Bill Kauffman has written a series of groundbreaking books on intellectual history articulating, and reviving, a localist American philosophy that crosses the lines Flynn sees so clearly here. The eighteenth-century American founders, for example, were much stronger proponents of a centralized government than would give their conservative intellectual descendants much comfort today. On the other hand, figures like the outlandish liberal writer Norman Mailer, novelist Gore Vidal, or critic Edmund Wilson seem more resonant with an older conservative sensibility, at least in their rejection of big government and respect for localism and community, however tinged it was with trendy leftism.
The essays in Rightward Bound try to untangle this cultural knot. The contributors, academics all, want to explain how the country “turned Right” in the 1970s, after the supposedly liberating Sixties. The liberal consensus broke down, according to these contributors, not due to sincere decisions by voters or the failure of imagination. Rather, liberalism’s loss was “the product of political organization by energetic activists.” As an example, the essay “Inventing Family Values” attributes conservative success in channeling concern over social disintegration in the 1970s not to actual problems but rather to the Right’s success in finding “external scapegoats—most notably, feminists, gays, and lesbians—than to come to terms with the creative destruction of the capitalist economy or to look for explanations in the mirror instead of on the television screen.” But can anyone doubt that the offerings on the television screen have become coarser over the 1970s, and even more so today? Similarly with the essay treating gender and the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, titled “Gender and America’s Right Turn.” The essay casually assumes that the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 on, in part, a prolife ticket was for that reason antifeminist, seemingly ignoring those feminists who thought that position exactly aligned with their beliefs.
An essay on evangelicals does slightly better, by treating the beliefs of this major group in American society—a society whose members still, overwhelmingly, attend church and believe in a recognizably Christian God—seriously, rather than as either hypocritical cover for bad behavior or as a Marxist opiate. There was indeed a revival of conservative Protestant (“evangelical”) interest in politics in the 1970s, after having lain quiescent for decades. It was a direct response of the combination of mass media projecting the larger cultural revolutions into their living rooms and towns, combined with an activist government, spurred on by massive taxes and young activist-bureaucrats. Without this aggressive initial leftism, there may not have been a conservative revival, with or without the activists who also sprung up to organize and direct these political feelings.
By and large, however, the contributors are not really up to the task of explaining the Right. They stick too closely to the academic formula, where conservatism is somehow not an authentic cultural position for people who wish to preserve their traditions, but an ideological construct forced upon a supine electorate that is otherwise liberal except when manipulated by well-financed corporate cadres. The collection ignores the bigger stories of those years: why conservatism could not stop the leftist onslaught of the 1970s and later. Despite ferocious conservative opposition in the years following the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 1973, which legalized abortion, the decision still remains the law of the land. Where once mildly controversial television programs and movies would have spurred protest, young men and women from the South and Midwest (traditionally the most conservative parts of the nation) now compete on crass reality programs. What was it about the conservative strategies of the 1970s that, from the point of view of the cultural concerns that motivated conservatives to enter politics in the first place, have been largely failures?
Related to this omission, the contributors miss the conservative infighting of the period. This was the decade, after all, when the neoconservatives first rose to prominence and an older generation faded from view. The sunny optimism of Reagan, while better than the sulky defeatism of Jimmy Carter, was only partially conservative; he certainly was not about to dismantle the federal government, despite rhetoric to the contrary. That legacy of that conservative fallout in the 1970s, still influential today, is well worth exploring.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman, and author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.
Posted: November 10, 2008
Rediscovering a Neglected Conservative Mind
W. Wesley McDonald
Volume 34, Number 2 (Fall 1994)