Even in its best moments, American conservatism has never offered a culturally powerful alternative to liberalism.
Connoisseurs of the history of American conservatism will recall that Russell Kirk first proposed to Henry Regnery that his book ultimately titled The Conservative Mind be called, instead, The Conservative Rout. Consult your own feelings about today’s world, dear reader, and reflect with the wise author of Ecclesiastes that truly there is no new thing under the sun.
If Kirk could feel, circa 1953, smack-dab in the middle of the Ozzie and Harriet era, that conservatives had been routed, what should we who live in the disastrous year of 2020 call what has happened to them? The word massacre strikes one as far too sunny. Obliterated, perhaps? Annihilated? I suppose canceled might be the most temporally appropriate term.
Since late May, when America’s center-right institutions, already having proven themselves all but useless during the coronavirus pandemic, could not bring themselves to publicly condemn mob violence, cultural Maoism, and incipient revolution, the nation’s conservatives have been anxiously calling, texting, and emailing one another to ask: what the hell just happened? And where do we go from here?
To both questions, but especially the latter, compelling answers have been hard to come by. It’s not hard to understand why. Kirk may have thought conservatives had it hard in the early 1950s, faced as they were with a new and powerful military-industrial complex, unprecedented economic and political centralization, and an increasingly pervasive mass culture. But—such has been the success of their movement—70 years later conservatives are not only saddled with feckless center-right institutions. They are still faced with all the problems of the 1950s plus the overt and thoroughgoing hostility of, let’s see, the media, the education establishment (at all levels, public and private), the entertainment industry, big business, big technology, big philanthropy, and virtually every professional association, and even, to a large extent, professional sports, the military, and the police.
In the face of such a Washington Generals-esque record of success, one naturally opens Andrew Bacevich’s new Library of America volume, American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition, with something less than a heart brimming with hope. Is it probable that the conservative intellectual tradition has the resources we need to mount what Daniel McCarthy has rightly referred to in these pages as a counter-revolution? Is there anything useful in conservatism’s past? Hasn’t conservatism failed?
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It is interesting to page through Bacevich’s anthology with these questions in mind. Perhaps the best that can be said for the conservative tradition is that it delayed the Revolution for several generations. Conservatives really did help defeat Soviet communism; the victory had its costs, but it was certainly a victory. Conservatives managed to mount a popular case against socialism (although it must be confessed, as traditionalist conservatives have pointed out, that capitalism did much of socialism’s atomizing work for it, and more efficiently). And conservatives managed to help hold the line somewhat in the field of law; without their work, the deluge in our courtrooms would have come faster and more furiously.
But beyond that? America’s conservative intellectuals can claim to have effected some unquantifiable delay of our cultural catastrophe, at best. Conservatives could not even conserve the principle of two genders, for Pete’s sake. Other ideals presented and defended in these pages—from Kirk’s contention that civilizational health requires “many sorts of inequality” to Eugene Genovese’s call for a conservatism that “demands submission to a moral consensus rooted in elementary piety”—would be considered by all but hard-core conservatives today as ranging from quaint to shockingly retrograde. For 100-plus years (if we accept Bacevich’s dating of the tradition) American conservatives have been talking, organizing, fighting, and about the only ideas of theirs to take root in the fields of public life were those which had to do with economics, national defense, and private property. Today, conservative ideas about all three are in trouble, much less conservative ideas about family, religion, community, and human nature.
And yet one is struck by how philosophically penetrating, how phenomenologically on-point, most of Bacevich’s selections are. If American conservatism has not been blessed by a spokesman, or spokeswoman, of real genius, it has certainly not failed to be shaped by profoundly insightful thinkers and powerful writers. William F. Buckley’s prose continues to charm. No one could craft a more lucid argument than Willmoore Kendall. No one was more fearless than Zora Neale Hurston. No one cut through the bullshit with more wit than Antonin Scalia, or with more wry precision than Joan Didion.
Yes, unexpectedly and delightfully, Didion and Hurston are both included here, along with rising thinkers like Andrew Sullivan and Patrick Deneen and writers who were not claimed by or lived outside the bounds of Conservatism Inc., like Randolph Bourne, Christopher Lasch, Wendell Berry, and Charles Beard. Libertarians, too, are given fair representation—perhaps a little too fair, in a volume devoted to conservatism—in the persons of Frank Chodorov, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, and others. The major neoconservatives and Straussians—Richard John Neuhaus, Harry Jaffa, Allan Bloom—are present and accounted for. Only the paleoconservative wing of the tradition receives somewhat short shrift (Pat Buchanan, who turned out to be right about almost everything, probably deserved inclusion). Bacevich has done his job well.
In light of contemporary circumstances, the most resonant pieces are those from African Americans Glenn Loury and Shelby Steele. Well before the advent of Twitter, that curse upon humanity, it took extraordinary courage for black men and women to buck progressive orthodoxies on matters of race. Loury, writing in 1995, explains that too many blacks are caught in a racial “loyalty trap” that keeps them from engaging in the kind of communal self-reflection necessary for real social progress, a trap that spurs them too often to display a “finely honed moral outrage concerning American racism” that is sometimes placed in defense of the indefensible.
Steele, writing in 1991, provides a moving meditation on affirmative action. He gives affirmative action its logical and sentimental due. Yet he does not shrink from the conclusion that, in practice, affirmative action “indirectly encourages blacks to exploit their own past victimization as a source of power and privilege. Victimization, like implied inferiority, is what justifies preference, so that to receive the benefits of preferential treatment one must, to some extent, become invested in the view of one’s self as a victim. In this way,” Steele concludes, “affirmative action nurtures a victim-focused identity in blacks.”
Even the most dull-witted observer can see that the same dynamic, 30 years later, has seeped well beyond racial borders. Steele predicts as much. “The power to be found in victimization, like any power, is intoxicating and can lend itself to the creation of a new class of super-victims who can feel the pea of victimization under twenty mattresses,” he prophesies. As for reparations, Steele foresees more harm than good from the implementation of such a scheme. “Suffering can be endured and overcome, it cannot be repaid. Blacks cannot be repaid for the injustice done to the race, but we can be corrupted by society’s guilty gestures of repayment.”
If anything lies at the core of the conservative tradition, it is this sort of mature understanding of the human heart.
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Today Steele and Loury are associated with 1776 Unites, a project of mostly black intellectuals that is attempting to counteract and delegitimate the New York Times’s race-focused 1619 Project. Here we get a glimmer of why conservatism failed. 1776 Unites recognizes the power of myth. It is as a myth, as a master narrative, that liberalism has been so successful. Myth and master narrative are the business of popular education and popular culture, and those spheres of life have been almost exclusively owned by liberalism since World War I, at least.
However perceptive its insights, conservatism has by contrast been too intellectual. The overarching liberal narrative that happiness is the fruit of an individual’s achieving freedom by breaking loose from unchosen constraints was opposed by no conservative counternarrative of comparable strength, certainly not in popular education or popular culture. Not even close. What grand, overarching nonliberal myth America has had has been the nationalist myth of American exceptionalism—a myth, alas, that is easily assimilable to the liberal-progressive story.
In short, stories have consequences. More so, perhaps, than ideas.
Ah, well. Even if, on the world’s terms, they failed, we ought to honor the conservative thinkers who preceded us. After all, as American conservatism reminds us, conservatives have always thought their task a nearly impossible one. Does that make them born losers, as some have maintained, or merely realists? It hardly matters. What matters is that we never got the culturally powerful conservative mythology we needed, and now we reap the whirlwind. God help us.
Jeremy Beer is chairman of the American Ideas Institute. He has worked in the nonprofit sector since 2000. He is the author of several volumes, including as co-editor of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, and his most recent book, Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player.