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The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism. by Eugene D. Genovese.
Harvard University Press. 138 pp. $22.50

This is a compelling and provocative book. The work of a devout (though by his own admission chastened) leftist who is also one of this country’s leading historians, The Southern Tradition is a perceptive and sympathetic portrayal of one of the main currents in American conservative thought. It is also historical revisionism of a very high order. As is so often the case with revisionists, Eugene Genovese is not content simply to reinterpret the past. Rather, he consciously exploits the past to subvert the present. In short, this concise volume is at once an impressive work of scholarship and a stimulating polemic.

As scholarship, The Southern Tradition mounts a crisply argued challenge to one of the central tenets of historical orthodoxy, namely, that ancient Southern pretensions to a distinctive intellectual tradition are fraudulent, having been irredeemably tainted by the South’s association with slavery and racism. Cynically fabricated (before 1865) to justify the “peculiar institution” and (subsequently) to keep African-Americans under heel, neither the Southern critique of Northern capitalism nor Southern claims to uphold a unique way of life are to be taken seriously—at least not if one aspires to be classified among the righteous and right—thinking intelligentsia.

Genovese rejects this view categorically. His own extensive writings on the slave system protecting him from attack as an apologist for slavery, he argues that the Southern intellectual tradition all along has been more than a defense of Southern racial arrangements. Citing Southern thinkers from John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline through John Calhoun and the Southern Agrarians of the 1930s down to the (inevitably) lesser known exponents of Southern conservatism of our own day, Genovese sets out to rehabilitate that tradition and to offer it as the proper basis for an authentic American conservatism.

What is the essence of that tradition? Genovese takes pains to distinguish genuine Southern conservatism from the faux conservatism of present-day politicians whose Southern attachments are merely incidental. Genuine conservatism, according to Genovese, is not to be confused with slavish devotion to the free market, hostility toward social welfare programs, and undifferentiated antagonism toward governmental authority. Rather, as manifested in the Southern tradition, bona fide conservatism is rooted in a “belief in a transcendent order . . . in society as well as nature.” For those who acknowledge the primacy of this order, a brand of politics that subordinates all else to the twin goals of underwriting economic growth and advancing an agenda of increasingly nihilistic individual “rights” is anathema. Instead, in the eyes of genuine conservatives, “political problems are revealed as essentially religious and moral.”

In Genovese’s view, this perspective—rooted in Judeo-Christian values today largely abandoned by American elites but still retaining a powerful influence in the country at large—need not and should not place authentic conservatives in opposition to capitalism per se or to a belief in individual freedom. But it does lead them to reject the excesses to which both the market and individualism are prone when un-checked by serious religious and moral considerations. Thus, according to Genovese, the Southern tradition of conservatism recognizes “the indispensability of private property” while rejecting any system “that makes the market the arbiter of our moral, spiritual, and political life.” Thus too, Southern conservatives endorse the “Christian notion of a God-given dignity of the personality” while condemning a radical individualism “torn loose from family, community, and civic responsibility.”

Today’s religious conservatives, according to Genovese, are heirs to this Southern tradition. This linking of past to present is central to the author’s overall purpose. Genovese uses it to demolish the argument that today’s much maligned Religious Right is an illegitimate perversion of American political thought, to be dismissed accordingly. Instead, he shows that the views of present-day religious conservatives have roots deep in American history and grow directly out of the South’s long-standing critique of liberalism, modernity, and the underside of capitalism. Indeed, the phenomenon represents more than outgrowth: it reflects a significant expansion. No longer confined to the South, today’s religious conservatism is likely to be stronger than even its leaders imagine and certainly stronger than secularized elites are willing to acknowledge.

Whether correct or not—having once viewed the Soviet Union as the wave of the future, Genovese admits to an imperfect record of political forecasting—this assessment gets to the heart of the author’s subversive purpose. Genovese is hardly the first to note the cleavage that runs down the middle of the new conservative majority, dividing mostly secular free market libertarians from predominantly religious cultural conservatives. As Newt Gingrich and other Republican standard-bearers understand, holding that uneasy coalition together is crucial to their party’s hopes for 1996 and beyond.

Genovese will have none of that. On the contrary, he summons religious conservatives to expose the cleavage for all to see. He insists that they remain true to their beliefs, to refuse any compromise on those issues that are clearly the most difficult for secular conservatives to swallow: abortion, homosexuality, and religious-based education.

If religious conservatives are as strong as Genovese suggests, perhaps such a confrontational strategy will succeed. Perhaps. Arguably, however, such a showdown would provoke an explosion, abruptly terminating the current conservative ascendancy, destroying the existing party system, and causing a fundamental realignment of American politics. Although he does not say so outright, it is hard to avoid the impression that Genovese, the veteran radical and inveterate critic of American institutions as oppressive and corrupt, might actually welcome the prospect of such an upheaval. It is one measure of the power of this book that even a conservative reader comes away wondering if he might not be right.

A.J. Bacevich is Executive Director of Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.