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Volume 45, Number 2 (Spring 2007)

Prudential Conservatism?

book cover imageThe Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and its Times by Jeffrey Hart. ISI Books (Wilmington, Delaware), 410 pp., $28.00 cloth, 2006.

James Seaton

Jeffrey Hart’s The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times is both a memoir of his years at National Review and a prescription for the sort of conservatism he favors. Hart succeeds at the former; the anecdotes he provides in abundance are almost always telling and often comic, and he has a gift for capturing strong personalities in a few phrases. William F. Buckley, Jr., the journal’s youthful founder, was “heretically American,” an aristocrat in “taste, prose style, manners, yachting, wines, piano, and harpsichord” whose “intermittent populism” was memorably expressed in his willingness to be “governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of the Harvard University.” James Burnham was “decorous, diplomatic, and elegant,” a man who confronted untoward political events “much as a botanist might regard a strangely colored and probably poisonous mushroom.” Willmoore Kendall, on the other hand, was a “drastic personality” who was “always on speaking terms with one person” at the magazine, but “this was not always the same person.” He knew that “America is not an open society, and the Constitution was not written by Walt Whitman.” While defending his view of human nature as “Man against the Sky, creating himself is perpetual acts of choosing,” Frank Meyer “combined physical and intellectual energy to a degree that could be overwhelming: wiry, in motion, pacing and talking, smoking and drinking bourbon.” Hart remembers Russell Kirk dazzling Dartmouth students by defending the notion that “the chief motive in building character . . . is an unwillingness to disgrace one’s ancestors,” a notion so foreign to his young audience that Kirk appeared “more rebellious than Che Guevara and Malcolm X combined.”

Hart is much less successful in his more ambitious goal of persuading readers to accept his preferred version of conservatism on the basis of his intellectual history of “the making of the American conservative mind” over the last half-century as seen from the vantage point of National Review. His book highlights the views of four figures at National Review: James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, and Russell Kirk. (Though he acknowledges the leadership of Buckley, Hart pays little attention to his ideas.) In Hart’s analysis, the views of Burnham and Kendall emerge as the most valuable. Though Frank Meyer’s “fusionism” played a key role in the past, Hart thinks it is not particularly relevant today, while the Russell Kirk that appears in Hart’s presentation was always living in the past.

James Burnham is perhaps the most prominent among the four (though that is relative: outside his presumed conservative audience, none but perhaps Kirk remains in any sense well-known). Hart considers him “absolutely central to National Review”; Burnham was “indispensable,” perhaps because he articulated and defended the version of conservatism that Hart himself favors, a version Hart variously describes as “prudential conservatism,” “skeptical conservatism” and “prudential and strategic conservatism.” This kind of conservatism leads “away from alienation and toward engagement and centrality.” It rejects “idealist acts of political self-expression,” “sentimental illusion” and “dreamy escapism.” What does this mean in specific terms? For Burnham, Hart reports approvingly, it meant a kind of Machiavellianism that sees “religions and ideologies as masks for the reality of power” [original emphasis], which concludes that “power thus is the real business of politics, the real business behind all the masks and rationalizations.” Hart praises Burnham for rescuing the conservative mind “from dogmatism and utopianism,” and, less successfully, struggling to keep the leadership of conservatism and the Republican party out of the hands of unsophisticated types who insist on injecting morality into politics and, worse, often base their morality on their religion. Burnham’s view of ideology and even religion as “masks” led him, Hart notes approvingly, to favor politicians such as Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford, even though, or perhaps because, such figures could not be accused of being “movement” conservatives, or perhaps of being conservative at all in any but the broadest sense.

Hart himself goes even further than his master in refusing to allow his own political opinions to be bound by any narrow—almost any meaningful—definition of conservatism. Hart’s rejection of what he considers “dogmatism and utopianism” leaves him free to admire equally the conservatism of Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, since “[e]ach was essentially prudent, and each achieved his goals. Each, in his time, was conservative.” “Prudence,” for Hart, is the great conservative virtue in politics, a view he shares with Kirk, a conservative who, after all, titled an essay collection The Politics of Prudence. Hart’s version of prudence, however, seems to differ significantly from Kirk’s, just as Hart’s notion of what should constitute the “American conservative mind” differs greatly from that of the author of The Conservative Mind. Hart’s “prudence” emphasizes subordinating moral considerations to power calculations. Thus when Hart discusses Eisenhower’s 1956 decision to refuse aid to Hungarians rebelling against Soviet Russia’s domination, he does not defend the refusal to provide support as a sad necessity but celebrates it. Eisenhower, “a grand-scale realist, an unsentimental, icy, and even ruthless leader who saw the world as it was” out-Burnhamed Burnham, giving “a lesson in the cruelties sometimes entailed by Realpolitik.” Burnham, who, Hart explains, “proved emotionally fragile in the wake of Budapest,” was foolish enough to think that national “honor” was lost when America failed to help the Hungarian rebels. Hart provides a scorecard: “Eisenhower 1, Burnham 0.” “We were fortunate,” Hart concludes in affirming the president’s decision to refuse assistance to allies in both Hungary and Suez, “that Eisenhower did not have one molecule of Churchillian poetry in his body or his mind.”

Perhaps. Yet one cannot help but think that there are times and places where “Churchillian poetry” is valuable, even necessary, at least if one believes that human life involves more than power relationships. In The Politics of Prudence Russell Kirk celebrates “the fortitude of Britain in general, and of Winston Churchill in particular” in offering “successful resistance to the enemies of a tolerable social order” and thus helping to sustain “order, justice, and freedom.” Yet the British decision to go to war against Hitler rather than acquiesce in the Nazi takeover of Poland, as Britain had acquiesced in the takeover of Czechoslovakia, was not a prudent decision, not, at least, according to the Burnham-Hart notion of prudence. Winston Churchill wrote that the decision to finally resist the Nazi aggression was “taken at the worst possible moment and on the least satisfactory ground.” And yet the decision was prudent according to Kirk’s notion of prudence, which requires that “any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-term consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity.” By this standard it was the Munich agreement that was imprudent, though it was extremely popular, took account of power relationships, and seemed to provide peace, at least for a time—a “temporary advantage” that many thought worth seizing, whatever the eventual consequences.

Hart’s ideal conservative mind has no room for “poetry,” Churchillian or otherwise, apparently because that might lead to “dreamy escapism” or “sentimental illusion.” This rejection of the claims of what Kirk, following Edmund Burke, championed as the “moral imagination,” seems odd from a distinguished literary critic. Once this aspect of Hart’s outlook is recognized, however, his failure to acknowledge or even to describe accurately the contribution of Kirk himself to “the making of the American conservative mind” becomes more understandable (though not more defensible). Hart’s praise of Kirk for his “self-creation,” calling him “a marvel,” a “self-invented work of art,” who could dazzle undergraduates, to whom he “embodied the romance of learning,” carries the implication that Kirk’s “aesthetic-Tory reverence for tradition” is irrelevant to the sober consideration of practical matters that is the hallmark of Hart’s “prudential conservatism.” A reader who learns of Kirk only through The Making of the American Conservative Mind would view him as little more than an “antiquarian traditionalist,” whose “aesthetic attraction to the old and antiquated” might be charming, but who really has little to offer in regard to the serious business of establishing a “prudential, effective conservatism.” Even when Hart discusses the book from which he takes his own title, Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, he forgoes any substantive analysis but manages to suggest that the book’s impact was due not so much to its intrinsic merit as merely to the year of its publication. If, as Hart finally concedes, Kirk nevertheless managed to create “a major statement,” he did so, Hart suggests, not because of his own thought but because Kirk “assembled an array of major conservative thinkers” and then went about “virtually anthologizing long passages.”

Hart means to join with Russell Kirk in championing “the permanent things” while distancing himself from what he views as Kirk’s “attraction to the old and antiquated,” but he devotes a good deal more verbal energy to the latter than to the former. In a chapter entitled “Russell Kirk vs. Frank Meyer” Hart begins by presenting himself as an honest broker who admires both: “It was a minor tragedy for National Review that Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk not only disagreed with each other but despised each other.” Yet when Hart sums up the two perspectives in a fictional exchange, Meyer is given the best line and Kirk an implausibly weak one:

Luther had said, “A mighty fortress is our God.” Kirk might say, “A mighty fortress is my library.” Meyer might reply, “A mighty fortress is my mind and my conscience.”

Those who have not read The Conservative Mind or any of Kirk’s other books could scarcely be faulted for assuming that Meyer was the deeper thinker—certainly “my mind” and “my conscience” have more resonance than “my library.” Yet those familiar with Kirk’s life and work would know that it would be quite appropriate to assign Meyer’s line to Kirk, and, for that matter, Luther’s as well.

If Hart holds up Russell Kirk’s kind of conservatism as a temptation to be avoided, it is the putatively more disciplined conservatism of Burnham and Kendall that provides the model to be followed. Burnham’s contribution to Hart’s “prudential conservatism” is the reduction of politics to power relationships. Kendall’s “teaching,” in Hart’s presentation, is part of “the skeptical-prudential conservative tradition in politics” that, most importantly for Hart, rejects “paradigm conservative politics” in favor of “consensus, strategic politics.” This kind of conservatism rejects “the absolutist dictates of some minority”; although “others might find absolutes as they chose, . . . they were not part of conservative governing.” This rejection of moral absolutes unless supported by majority opinion—“the absolutists’ position on whatever issue was before us had first to command a consensus”—was, according to Hart, “most forcefully and thoroughly articulated by Willmoore Kendall.” Hart’s version of this philosophy includes the notion that opposition to abortion on demand is “not conservative but Jacobinical.” The Roe decision, though an example of “judicial overreach,” had, according to Hart’s self-described “Burkean analysis” some justification, since “it did address the reality of the women’s revolution, a social process with deep roots in actuality.” Hart not only considers recovering the once virtually universal view that abortion is legally and morally wrong “surely a utopian notion,” he even questions the value of simply returning the question of abortion to state legislatures since “a checkerboard of state legislation might merely increase the value of Greyhound Bus stock.”

It is sometimes difficult to discern what is distinctively conservative about Hart’s conception of “the American conservative mind.” He not only rates Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower with Ronald Reagan as conservative leaders, he finds that Bill Clinton in many ways exemplified a “prudential conservatism”:

As a political leader, Clinton sought to capture the center while marginalizing the utopians and extremists in his own party. He was a man of compromise, conciliation, and a sense of contingency, preferring results to ideological satisfactions. . . . Clinton is even now—dismaying to conservative partisans—rising in general estimation, and no doubt will achieve a decent place in the judgment of history . . . his overall performance was better for the country than it looked at the time.

Even when Hart praises a principled conservative like Ronald Reagan, he praises him for qualities that have little to do with conservatism. Reagan wasn’t really serious about opposing abortion, Hart asserts approvingly; he “leaned libertarian.” Hart’s version of Reaganism is “at one with Whitman’s open poem, William James’s open philosophy, and Roosevelt’s ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” One cannot help but wonder what sort of conservatism whose highest praise for the most successful conservative president in recent decades is to align him with a trio of self-professed enemies of conservatism. Here Hart finds himself in opposition both to his mentors Burnham and Kendall and to his own assertion, noted above, that one of Kendall’s most valuable insights was his awareness that “America is not an open society and the Constitution was not written by Walt Whitman.”

The philosophical confusion that impoverishes Jeffrey Hart’s “prudential conservatism” is well illustrated by his coupling of a call for “a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics” with the suggestion a few pages later that “the philosophy of William James, so distinctively American, might be the best guide, a philosophy always open to experience.” If Hart had taken The Conservative Mind more seriously, he might have been learned to be suspicious rather than enthusiastic about both Walt Whitman and William James from George Santayana, whom Kirk endorsed as an exemplar of cultural and philosophic conservatism. Santayana pointed out that Walt Whitman’s achievement was to exemplify “the poetry of barbarism,” a poetry “not without its charm” but achieving its effect by purposefully ignoring the achievements of civilization. As Santayana puts it, Whitman “accomplished, by the sacrifice of almost every other good quality, something never so well done before. He has approached common life without bringing in his mind any higher standard by which to criticize it. . . . Being the poet of the average man, he wished all men to be specimens of that average.” Santayana pointed out that the “open philosophy” Hart admires prevented William James from learning from experience—“Experience seems to most of us to lead to conclusions, but [James’s] empiricism has sworn never to draw them.” Thus in regard to religion, James “did not really believe; he merely believed in the right of believing that you might be right if you believed.”

It is true that prudence is a great virtue in politics, and there is a good deal to be said in favor of “prudential conservatism.” Unfortunately, however, when prudence is detached from principle, it becomes mere expediency. The effect of Hart’s lively book is to commend a “prudential, effective conservatism” whose effectiveness would, one fears, be measured not by its success in putting conservative principles into practice—prudently of course—but simply by its success in winning elections. Hart warns against what he fears might be the decline of National Review from an earlier emphasis on philosophical questioning to a focus on “topicality to the exclusion of serious reflection.” Yet Hart’s own baldly pragmatic preference for “results to ideological satisfactions” seems to leave little room for philosophical or moral considerations.

Hart is a fine literary critic and an often thoughtful writer, and his book on National Review and its times deserves a wide audience. He is surely right when he argues that American conservatives should aim to govern responsibly rather than secede and isolate themselves in frustration or disgust from American politics. It would be a shame, however, if the intellectual, moral, and spiritual effort involved in “the making of the American conservative mind” were to lead to a result no more profound and no more thoughtful than his “prudential, effective conservatism.”

James Seaton is a professor of English at Michigan State University. He is the editor of a volume on George Santayana forthcoming in Yale University Press’s “Rethinking the Western Tradition” series.

Posted: September 8, 2007

The survival of any culture, or of the material fabric of civilization, requires vigorous imagination and readiness to sacrifice. By dullness and complacency are intellectual and social orders undone.

Russell Kirk

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