The Right’s Exit
The 2008 elections raised important questions about the prospects for conservatism in the United States. Many conservatives express disillusionment with the Bush administration and the Republican party generally, while Barack Obama’s election hints at a political sea-change. Looking back over the past few decades might offer a sense of the electoral landscape, but much of the literature degenerates into polemic. Accounts like Thomas Frank’s What’s Wrong with America have argued that conservatism rests on nothings so much false consciousness among voters hoodwinked by self-interested elites. Republican commentators respond in similar vein with dire warnings about liberalism’s war on America that can only be stopped by rallying around the candidate of the day. The consequence discourse resembles nothing so much as the tale told by an idiot in Shakespeare’s Hamlet whose sound and fury signifies nothing.
A slim volume by Paul Gottfried offers a welcome guide for the perplexed that teases conservatism and its intellectual framework out from the dynamic of party politics. Conservatism in America sets out the development of an organized political movement that frames positions for the Republican party and provides staff for administrations. The movement sprang from a particular moment during the 1950s when anti-communism brought disparate views and interest groups together and gave them an organizing principle in the face of an existential challenge. Cohesion forged then provided a framework that made conservatism a movement, but at the cost of grounding it on the shifting sands of values rather than a firm social or economic base.
Gottfried brings an impressive erudition to his theme, along with considerable sympathy. An historian of ideas fluent in European languages and deeply immersed in the cultural criticism of the Continental right, Gottfried spent decades as an academic figure within the American conservative movement before disillusionment over its drift sparked a break. He combines an insider’s view with a much wider frame of reference than most writing on the subject, and the connections he draws with developments in Germany and elsewhere underline the book’s importance. Indeed, Conservatism in America fits within a wider intellectual project on the trajectory of liberalism and Marxism amidst twentieth century social changes and the therapeutic culture that emerged from them.
Conservatism in America predates the conservative movement. Louis Hartz erred in 1955 when he claimed liberalism to be the only authentic American tradition. Lionel Trilling’s description of conservatism as merely irritable mental gestures in an world where liberalism not only dominated but provided the sole intellectual tradition marked little more than a slur. Nonetheless, such claims stuck in an environment where the political right had been marginalized since the 1930s and rightist thought lacked a toehold in the academy. Conservative critics of the New Deal might often be described more accurately as classical liberal opponents of corporatism. Many conservative intellectuals from Henry Adams to T. S. Eliot and the Southern Agrarians had cultural or intellectual preoccupations that distanced them from politics. Both the Republican and Democratic parties drew support from voters of a conservative bent. Only from the 1960s would they turn decisively to the Republican party. The 2008 clash between race and gender in the struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton thus highlights a persistent dynamic that has left key Democrat constituencies without a political home. As Ronald Reagan quipped with good reason, he did not leave the Democrats so much as they left him.
Anti-communism joined with a wider late 1940s backlash against the economic consequences of the New Deal and wartime rationing to bring conservatives together into a movement that provided an alternative. Gottfried points out that only after 1945 did anti-communists, anti-New Dealers and Catholic traditionalists adopt the name “conservative” as an alternative to other more common American labels. The term lined them to wider tradition in defense of Western civilization and allowed the nascent movement to draw upon European intellectuals in creating a usable past. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, from Burke to T. S. Eliot set forth an intellectual geneology that William F. Buckley’s National Review popularized through subsequent decades. Edmund Burke not only gave conservatives a powerful critique of revolution, and by default totalitarianism, but rhetoric justifying custom, community, and tradition that had a broader appeal. Gottfried notes the sophistication this gave the American right, but it also facilitated outreach to a broader public. The conservative movement offered more than either a program for party operatives or defensive criticisms by property owners and business interests, and by doing so it could accommodate disparate perspectives with a common view of the present crisis.
Conservatives made the Republican party a national force for the first time since the 1920s and on a much broader basis than before. They helped Republicans poach voters from established Democratic supporters. Publications and institutions sustained the movement and built a constituency that looked to them for information and guidance. Political leaders associated with conservatism now had an electoral base, along with sources of ideas and rhetoric. Think-tanks provided politicians off-the-shelf policies and the means of selling them. Access to funds and politicians gave conservatives power that gradually mattered more than principle. A symbiotic relationship emerged between the movement, its mass base, and Republican administrations that gave it considerable power.
The problem with establishing the conservative movement on Western values lay in the fact that different times brought different mores. Conservatism at different times or other places defended a social order or commitments more absolute than values open to redefinition. Neoconservatives saw their role adapting the movement, along with the Republican party, into the conservatism necessary for governing a modern democracy. But that project does not correspond to principles and views conservatives thought essential only a few decades before, and it has an increasingly shaky base. The new emphasis on rights, equality, and democracy strikes a decidedly un-conservative note. Gottfried sees conservatism in America has having declined into a vehicle for electing Republican politicians, and personality replaced principle as its driving force.
Observers associating conservatism with prudence and realism have difficulty in explaining the misadventure in Iraq and other Bush administration policies, but the answer lies in the fact that much of American conservatism is not conservative at all. Having already lost its way, the conservative movement seems lost even more in the 2008 elections. Gottfried takes a bleak view of what conservatism in America has become. The next question is how it will redefine itself amidst present discontents.
William Anthony Hay is an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University, and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Posted: April 5, 2010
The Critics of Burke
Volume 31, Number 3 (Fall 1991)