Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism
by George H. Nash
ISI Books, 400 pages, $27.95
Conservatism in the United States begins at a rhetorical disadvantage. Conservatives believe in preserving tradition, but in America the distinctive national tradition is liberal. A great many liberals have seized on that fact to insist that America is only truly, authentically itself when it functions in a way congenial to those who claim the liberal heritage. That is a tendentious argument, of course: Modern liberalism is a far cry from what existed in the eighteenth century, and conservatives can plausibly claim that their beliefs are closer to the classical Lockean liberalism that prevailed at the founding than those of the contemporary left.
But, until fairly recently, conservatism in America has been a hard sell. President Dwight Eisenhower was considered politically daring when he admonished Republicans not to be afraid of the term. Indeed, as George H. Nash points out in Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism, prior to the 1950s “no articulate, coordinated conservative intellectual force existed in the United States.”
Things have improved considerably since then, especially following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, but conservatism remains a suspect political commodity. The political disaster of George W. Bush’s second term and Barack Obama’s sweeping electoral victory in 2008 set off the latest in a recurring wave of predictions concerning the imminent demise of the conservative movement. That’s to be expected from Democrats and liberals, but a number of those ominous sightings have come from the right as well. As after the Barry Goldwater debacle in the presidential campaign of 1964 and Richard Nixon’s resignation over Watergate a decade later, critics from all over the political spectrum have brought the future of conservatism into serious question.
George Nash is a good candidate to make sense of all this. His The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, published in 1976 and revised and updated twice since then, is the standard work on the subject. He has impeccable scholarly credentials: His three-volume biography of Herbert Hoover, twenty years in the making, is considered definitive for the years it covers.
Nash brings to the current subject a historian’s perspective and an unwaveringly irenic temper. He writes fairly, accurately, and sympathetically of conservatives of all persuasions. While unabashedly a man of the right, he carefully avoids taking sides in disputes among conservatives. Nash is, if anything, ecumenical to a fault. There are certain episodes in conservative history, such as the political thuggery of Senator Joe McCarthy, where immaculate evenhandedness really ought to have given way to frank judgment. But that is not Nash’s way, and, all in all, his disinclination to reveal his preferences serves his purposes admirably.
It is surprising that Reappraising the Right works as well as it does. It is not a sustained argument, but rather a greatly varied collection of thirty-two essays, reviews, scholarly articles, and lectures dating from the 1980s to the present. But Nash’s interest in things conservative is so catholic and comprehensive that very little of what needs to be said about modern conservatism is left out. There are only scattered mentions of Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, but those two rather esoteric figures aside, virtually all major (and a great many minor) conservative thinkers, institutions, journals, and points of view get their due. The book is more about conservative ideas than conservative politics, but what’s said about politics is shrewd and instructive. The only really eccentric portion of the volume is the four chapters devoted to rescuing Herbert Hoover from the (well-deserved) neglect conservatives have visited on him, and one grants the author that idiosyncrasy.
Modern conservatism began with William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review in 1955, and Nash shows in a series of essays how Buckley transformed an initially cult operation on the far edge of intellectual respectability into the most politically influential journal of opinion in American history. NR’s original editors and contributors were a notably difficult and contentious lot, many of them converts to the hard right from the radical left, many also members or fellow travelers of the pre–Vatican II Catholic Church.
Buckley, who, as Nash notes, was more a controversialist than a theorist, skillfully presided over his uneasy coalition of free-market libertarians, antimodernist traditionalists, and hardcore anticommunists. He patrolled the movement’s borders with care, inclining to a firm “maintain the paradigm” adherence to correct doctrine while firmly resisting heretical intrusions from Birchers, Randians, and anti-Semites. What united the early conservatives was opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and, by extension, all forms of collectivism. (In their general opposition to the left, it must be said, they sometimes failed to note important distinctions among liberals, socialists, and communists.)
If the early conservatives were rebels against the ’30s, their later neoconservative allies were rebels against the ’60s. The neocons, exemplified for Nash by Norman Podhoretz and Commentary magazine, began as liberal dissidents appalled by the anti-American radicalism of the New Left, which developed in the wake of the Vietnam war and the civil-rights protests. The acquiescence of New Politics liberals in the adversary culture gradually persuaded Podhoretz and his friends—against all their instincts—that their natural political home was now on the right.
Working (mostly) together, the traditional right and the neocons, joined by a religious right galvanized by cultural antinomianism in general and Roe v. Wade in particular, slowly edged from minority status into something like the silent majority originally dreamed of by Nixon. What put them over the top, what made them for a generation the ruling coalition in American politics, was the extraordinary and, for conservatives, unfortunately unreproducible figure of Ronald Reagan.
Nash indicates that, while Reagan’s policy victories were limited, his ideological impact was profound. Put simply, Reagan changed the terms of debate of American politics. He placed liberalism on the defensive, breaking the spell that had made the received story line of America a seemingly inexorable march toward an encompassing social democracy. After Reagan, successful liberal politicians learned the wisdom of proclaiming, like Bill Clinton, that the era of big government was over. They didn’t mean it, but they had to say it.
No political season lasts forever, and the departure of Reagan and collapse of communism meant the loss of major unifying forces on the right. Still, conservatives did better than might have been expected in the post-Reagan era, both at the presidential level and, perhaps more significantly, in the struggle for control of Congress. Until, that is, the off-year elections of 2006, when things went badly downhill politically and revealed both something of a liberal revival and increasingly troublesome divisions in conservative ranks.
Traditionalists on the right rebelled against Bush’s compassionate conservatism at home and aggressive pro-democracy initiatives abroad. Most people, right and left, wearied of the war in Iraq, and the collapse of the financial system in late 2008 paved the way for the Democrats’ easy victories in November. Given the left’s adulatory enthusiasm for Obama and a divided right’s skepticism concerning John McCain’s conservative credentials, it is hardly surprising that things turned out as they did.
Nash’s concluding essays on the conservative future do not minimize the right’s current discontents or disagreements, but his scholarly temper protects him from confusing the conventional wisdom of the news cycle with the judgments of history. (It was, as many of us can recall, the common conviction of liberals in 1980 that the nomination of Reagan for president was definitive evidence of a Republican death wish.) Nash avoids prediction, but he gives reasons for supposing the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy is not yet in its death throes.
Begin with Barack Obama and his startlingly ambitious program for extending the reach and influence of the federal government. Nothing unifies political parties like the presence of a formidable enemy, and Republicans, whatever their internal differences, can agree that the most expansive liberal agenda since the New Deal and the Great Society must be opposed without reservation. Republicans are not terribly popular these days, but conservatives still are (twice as many Americans call themselves conservatives as call themselves liberals), and there remains among Americans a bedrock conservative suspicion of a government too big for the individual liberty they cherish.
There are, of course, limits to a merely oppositionist stance. The antimodernist strain of American conservatism—the conservatism of the Tory harrumph—remains a dead end, even if Nash is too polite to say so. Similarly, opposition to the redistributive state need not imply unqualified rejection of the welfare state, a distinction that Nash appears to elide.
But Nash is right to suggest the enduring political attractions of an American exceptionalism that defines itself over against the transnational universalism to which liberals have attached themselves. Americans are democratic capitalists, not social democrats. They are also open to a religiously informed public philosophy in a way that leaves liberal secularists baffled and dismayed.
Nash avoids prescription, but his implied lesson seems clear enough. If conservatives can manage to explain themselves engagingly to what is still a center-right society, they can put to rest, at least for the near future, intimations of their political mortality.
JAMES NUECHTERLEIN is senior editor at First Things.