The Conservative Movement Since 1950

IT IS ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD, I BELIEVE, who is credited with saying that the history of philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato. So, too, anyone assigned to declaim on the subject of “The Conservative Movement Since 1950” is essentially compelled to offer a gloss on George Nash’s famous and important book, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. And this makes my position ridiculous, since George is here, not to mention Bill Rusher, who made his own important contribution to our self-understanding with his book The Rise of the Right. So I am in the frame of mind that James Stockdale expressed in that woeful moment of the 1992 vice presidential debate: Why am I here? The positions are clearly reversed: George or Bill should be giving this keynote, and I should be sitting in wait as a respondent, for I am their apprentice.

Perhaps it might be said that the time has come for a representative of the next generation of interpreters or advocates of the conservative cause to step forward and take the reins. Perhaps this is sensible. Perhaps—nay hopefully—it will start a productive argument.

If we begin with the plainest definition of conservatism distilled from Russell Kirk—a belief in a transcendent moral order—we would say that there is nothing new under the sun in the 30 years since Nash published his great book. And this is undoubtedly correct in the ordinary sense. But I have always thought that Kirk’s core axiom about a transcendent moral order is better adapted to account for the maelstrom of modernity by viewing conservatism as an attempt to understand and defend the unchanging ground of our changing experience. In this case the question before the house is: In what way has our changing experience in the 30 years since Nash wrote revealed new strengths, weaknesses, gaps, or failings of conservative thought and the conservative movement?

The most obvious difference to be observed over the last 30 years is the increasing organization, both intellectually and politically, of the conservative movement. Whereas Russell Kirk once observed that, in the 1950s, conservatism was “unorganized and undirected,” today the right is well organized and formidable. A more interesting vista into the substance of conservatism over the last 30 years is to observe what has not happened: the fault lines and theoretical disagreements among conservatives have not led to a crackup, though a crackup has been predicted by friend and foe alike for a long time now. As far back as the 1950s it was suggested that the theoretical tensions between free market libertarians and traditionalists would cause a split, as Kirk’s traditionalism could be set off against Hayek’s market-oriented dynamism as expressed in his essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” The mid-stream arrival of “neoconservatives” was thought to make the right into an even more unstable three-legged stool. To be sure, antagonisms and deeply grounded differences exist. In 1992, Russell Kirk wrote, “I predict that within a very few years we will hear little more of the Neoconservatives.” Today we hear a lot about neoconservatives in Washington, although the term is most often used as an empty epithet to mean “anyone on the right that we don’t like.” Despite these tensions and disagreements, it must be said that the spirit of Frank Meyer’s famous “fusionism” is alive and well.

The end of the Cold War, and the loss of a unifying foreign enemy, was suggested as the proximate cause for a conservative crackup, and the failure of this prediction to come true might be attributed to the perception that the domestic left is enemy enough to maintain unity: the Cold War at home lives on. To borrow something Churchill once said in response to something Coolidge once said: “True—but not exhaustive.” I want to take as my main theme that gradually over the last 30 years we have started to see coming into focus a distinctly American conservatism that may be better suited to doing battle with the decayed and dangerous forms of liberalism we see today. And it is possible to see a common thread within all the discrete branches of conservative thought.

A distinctly American conservatism comes to sight in two ways, both of which Nash clearly implied or foreshadowed 30 years ago. The first is the rise of what can be known as “populist conservatism”—an apparent oxymoron on par with “parsimonious liberal” or “French resistance.” The second is the way in which contemporary conservatism has begun to deepen its appreciation and defense of the specifically American political order—what the Straussians would call the principles of the regime—which in turn is beginning to produce a more robust attack on the pillars of modern American liberalism.

Let us begin with the first point: Who would have thought that conservatism would become popular, or that, even in the judgment of conservatism’s honest and thoughtful opponents, the right is “where the action is”? This represents, I suppose, the victory of Willmoore Kendall’s advocacy of populism over Albert Jay Nock’s conception of conservatives as a Remnant. But it has to be recognized that the relative popularity of conservatism has required a large measure of accommodation with the broad undercurrents of modernity and the specific problem of big government.

Populist conservatism is problematic on both a theoretical and practical level. It runs against the grain of regarding the task of conservatism as restraining the irrepressible base impulses of human nature. Nock and Kirk, among others, would regard popularity as a cause for deep suspicion. A vulgarization of conservative thought can be observed. Charles Kesler recently observed the perils of populism: “It is one thing (a blessing, I can tell you) to grow up reading and watching Bill Buckley; another to grow up reading and watching Bill O’Reilly.”

A larger source of concern might be that on the practical level, populist conservatism has involved an accommodation with big government. Almost no one now speaks, as Ronald Reagan did 25 years ago, of shrinking the size and influence of the federal government. Instead we have figures like Fred Barnes arguing explicitly for “big government conservatism,” not to mention a president who has embraced “compassionate conservatism.” Compassionate conservatism represents more than just a realistic concession to the power of entrenched interests and frequently popular support behind most facets of modern government, but also a concession of a core principle of modern liberalism—that compassion replaces charity as an expression of virtue, and that government is the primary instrument for the expression of human compassion. President George W. Bush’s rhetoric (let alone his spending record) on this subject is not strikingly different from that of Lyndon Johnson.

The course of the Social Security reform debate displays this accommodation to practical politics. Leading conservatives once stressed philosophical rather than empirical objections to Social Security. Bill Buckley, Milton Friedman, and others protested its compulsory character. Social Security should be abolished, Friedman argued. Today’s conservative policy prescriptions promise to save Social Security by making it work better. To be sure, buried in the premises of President Bush’s “ownership society” is the perhaps too-subtle premise that the way to reduce the supply of government is by reducing the demand for it. But it doesn’t seem to be making much headway. The spectacular triumph of welfare reform ten years ago seems for the moment to have been the limit of conservative reform of the welfare state.

There are at least two ways of thinking about this accommodation to political “reality.” The first and gloomier view is that the conservative movement has abandoned the task of forming citizens by educating their opinions. The second is that this “mellowing” of conservatism was to be expected as the movement began making a transition from being a critical, opposition movement to a governing movement.

I find merit in both points of view on both theoretical and prudential grounds, and here we can observe the most significant fault line between neoconservatives and other camps on the right. Given that there is not much intramural disagreement about specific issues, the difference revealed in these two positions correspond to differing attitudes about politics and “ideology.” Traditional conservatives and libertarians disdain politics and scorn partisanship as “ideology,” whereas neoconservatives embrace partisanship and are much more comfortable with the grubbiness of practical politics.

A conservatism more comfortable with partisanship and practical politics will in due course arrange its priorities in a different hierarchy. Tactical concessions on pensions and health care policy, for example, are perhaps defensible in the service of maintaining the political power necessary to set about after larger and more important goals. Is this application of political prudence necessarily or solely a neoconservative trait? Ronald Reagan threw over the side some of his more controversial opinions on peripheral subjects (such as, for example, abolishing OSHA) in his quest for the presidency, so that he would have the chance to pursue the main quest—to rebuild our defenses, our economy, and our national spirit. This is one of the reasons, I think, why Irving Kristol wrote that Reagan was the first neoconservative, even though Reagan does not fit the profile temperamentally or intellectually.

Kristol put the matter more broadly in an essay, “The Neoconservative Persuasion,” two years ago: “[T]he historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.” Kristol makes clear that he has no fundamental objection to the general direction of the modern progressive welfare state:

Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on ‘the road to serfdom.’ Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable.

For all that recommends this outlook, it is always going to be a source of heartburn and disagreement on the right. For one thing, concessions to practical political calculation seem out of harmony with the fighting spirit of the conservative movement—the fighting spirit that generates much of its populist energy. This fighting spirit manifests itself in what would seem to be an odd expression of conservative political energy, the frequent recurrence of the un-conservative rhetoric of “revolution.” In the 1980s we were said to be in the midst of the “Reagan revolution.” Despite Reagan’s many important accomplishments, it was not a revolution, and barely even a counter-revolution (which would be the more accurate nomenclature anyway); to the contrary, the Reagan experience taught conservatives bitter lessons in the difficulty of turning back big government, especially the regulatory state. Winning elections, it turns out, is not enough.

Midge Decter took note of this in an article nearly 15 years ago: “There was no Reagan Revolution,” she wrote in Commentary, “not even a skeleton of one to hang in George Bush’s closet. But what he did leave behind was something in the long run probably more important—a series of noisy open debates about nothing less than the meaning of decency, the limits of government, the salience of race, the nature of criminal behavior.” That noisy debate was extended in the 1990s by the sequel that became known as the “Gingrich revolution.” The fervor of the Gingrich revolution dissipated rather quickly, as he predicted it would, though it did have the virtue of compelling Bill Clinton to tell arguably his biggest lie, the declaration that “the era of big government is over.” This declaration was followed by an hour of proposing nearly a hundred new ways for government to become bigger. No one seemed to notice.

While “conservative revolution” may sound oxymoronic as well as out of harmony with the incremental nature of the American political order, at a deeper level the frequency of revolutionary rhetoric offers an opening to the increasingly distinctive nature of what I am calling American conservatism. Leo Strauss liked to say that one of the things he found congenial about America was that one of the most conservative organizations in the nation had the term “revolution” in its title—the Daughters of the American Revolution. The ideas and principles of the American founding have always held a prominent place in modern conservative thought, as Nash explained 30 years ago.

However, in the intervening years I think we can discern a deepening of conservative understanding of the nature and importance of the American founding and our own unique political culture that flowed from it. It is not necessary to resolve intramural arguments about whether the American founding represented a mere evolution or extension of British liberalism, as Kirk and many others essentially argued, or a decisive break from it to a “new science of politics,” as Tocqueville observed, to see the ways in which the principles of the American founding are being deployed more robustly against liberalism.

A number of conservative thinkers of the last 30 years can be highlighted, but the shift I am suggesting here is best embodied by a doer rather than a thinker: Ronald Reagan. Reagan was not, of course, an intellectual, yet paradoxically the role of ideas was more important to his political career than any other modern president.

Hugh Heclo discerned early that Reagan was among a small number of presidents “who have conducted their careers primarily as a struggle about ideas” and was probably the only one of the 20th century “so thoroughly devoted to contesting for the public philosophy.”

Reagan especially embodies what I am calling a specifically American conservatism, loaded with contradictions and paradoxes. At the same time Reagan harkened to America’s past he also struck consistent progressive notes that rankled conservative intellectuals. George Will complained, “[Reagan] is painfully fond of the least conservative sentiment conceivable, a statement from an anti-conservative, Thomas Paine: ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.’ Any time, any place, that is nonsense.” Reagan had explained years earlier, in his 1965 memoir Where’s the Rest of Me? his understanding of a frequent theme of conservative interpreters, namely that modern conservatism is a branch of 18th century liberalism:

The classic liberal used to be the man who believed the individual was, and should be forever, the master of his destiny. That is now the conservative position. The liberal used to believe in freedom under law. He now takes the ancient feudal position that power is everything. He believes in a stronger and stronger central government, in the philosophy that control is better than freedom. The conservative now quotes Thomas Paine, a long-time refuge of the liberals: “Government is a necessary evil; let us have as little of it as possible.”

Reagan’s combination of the older liberal view of the necessity of limiting government power alongside his sometimes frothy “small-P” progressivism is not as incoherent as it is often portrayed in the abstract. It finds a precedent in Federalist #55, wherein the oft-recalled view of the necessity of limiting government because of man’s depravity finds a rare tribute to the kind of positive human virtues that clearly captivated Reagan’s imagination. Madison (it is thought) wrote, “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust; So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

Andrew Busch performed a content analysis of major presidential speeches from Lyndon Johnson through Reagan and discovered the astonishing fact that Reagan cited the Founders three to four times as often as his four predecessors. And most of the references to the Founding made by Reagan’s predecessors, Busch found, were perfunctory and vague. Reagan mentions the Constitution ten times in his memoirs, often in a substantive way; Carter, Ford, Nixon, and Johnson mention the Constitution a grand total of zero times. Reagan’s invocation of the ideas of the founding, while not extensive, was nonetheless usually serious, as in, for example, his first inaugural address, where, referencing Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, Reagan suggested that the growth of government had grown beyond the consent of the governed.

Reagan’s frequent and serious use of the American founding may be the key moment in the turning toward a more fully American conservatism. At the core of this is a rehabilitation of the Declaration of Independence. While conservatives have always admired and defended the Constitution, the Declaration has not always been popular, and is still not wholly embraced by conservatives today. Russell Kirk famously dismissed the Declaration: “Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence carried the American cause into the misty and debatable land of an abstract liberty, equality, fraternity.” It should be understood, Kirk thought, more as a diplomatic than a theoretical document, intended to curry favor with the French. More recently Harvey Mansfield, following Tocqueville and in a lesser sense Willmoore Kendall’s thesis about the Declaration as a “derailment” of American politics, has worried about the corruption of the idea of equality as expressed in the Declaration: “A regime based on the self-evident half-truth that all men are created equal,” Mansfield observed, “will eventually founder because of its disregard of the many ways in which men are created unequal.” In other words, equal rights, properly understood, will be subsumed or corrupted by an all-consuming egalitarianism that ends up destroying our constitutionalism, and our liberty. Instead Mansfield emphasizes, as expressed in one of his book titles, America’s “constitutional” soul.

Looking at the current scene there is obviously much to be said for this view: a mindless egalitarianism is joined at the hip with nihilism on the left. On the other hand, it is worth noting that the root of the liberal attack on our constitutionalism required a sustained attack and rejection of the whole of the American founding, including the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution. Hence Woodrow Wilson, the first American president to criticize the Constitution openly and a prime, if overlooked, architect of the left’s violence against our constitutionalism, attacked the Declaration of Independence in exactly the same terms as Russell Kirk. “It is common to think of the Declaration of Independence as a highly speculative document,” Wilson wrote, “but no one can think so who has read it. It is a strong, rhetorical statement of grievances against the English government. . . The business of every true Jeffersonian,” Wilson continued, “is to translate the terms of those abstract portions of the Declaration of Independence into the language and the problems of his own day. If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.”

Wilson understood, as did all the other leading thinkers of the Progressive Era revolution in American constitutionalism, that the Lockean philosophy of the Declaration was a stumbling block, an obstacle, to their project of rewriting the Constitution by making it a “living” document. In his 1922 book on the Declaration Carl Becker could write that “to ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.” Meaningless, because History and Progress had replaced nature as the ground of political thought.

I dwell upon this point at length because one of the salient aspects of the Progressive turn in American political thought was that there was little or no conservative resistance or opposition to this attack on the founding as it was under way. This is one reason why Progressivism was such a bipartisan affair, with Republicans joining Democrats in applying the wrecking ball to our constitutional traditions. Indeed, conservatism such as it was in the late 19th and early 20th century can be charged with collaborating in the attack on the founders.

The recrudescence of conservatism starting in the 1950s only slowly developed its perception of the core of modern liberalism, discussing liberalism chiefly through the lens of the French revolution and its Marxist successors. This was understandable under the shadow of revolutionary Communism and semi-revolutionary utopian “social democracy.” Now that these specters have largely passed away we can, I think, see conservatism deepening its appreciation for the importance of reviving the principles of the American regime as an antidote to the dominant form of liberalism today, which is a direct heir of Progressivism. Thomas Pangle has observed, “[W]hile for considerable stretches of our history we Americans have ceased arguing over and debating fundamentals, the turning points of our history and the leaders who have stepped forward in those periods have usually drawn us back to very deep wellsprings of theoretical controversy.” This is what I see occurring today much more so than even in the 1970s.

This trend can be observed in two specific ways. The first is that, their theoretical divisions notwithstanding, all three camps on the right—libertarians, traditionalists, and neoconservatives—nowadays show an abiding interest in the principles of American constitutionalism that is much more pronounced and intense than a generation ago, and each camp has its own version of constitutional “originalism.” To be sure, the emphasis is different in each case: libertarians emphasize economics and individual rights; traditionalists emphasize moral and historical continuities, and neoconservatives focus on philosophical foundations. But taken together this interest in American constitutionalism represents a relatively unified and formidable challenge to the left. And it is this challenge that generates the second way its seriousness can be seen: the current battle over the judiciary. The reason the political battle over judicial nominations has become so bitter is that it is the one forum in which the fundamental debate about the American constitutional order is forced to the surface. To be sure, the debate is not exactly conducted with lucidity or precision in the Senate Judiciary Committee. This controversy would continue, I would add, even in the absence of the specific issue of abortion. That we are now having a controversy about the judiciary and the idea of originalism, when we didn’t one or two generations ago even though it was clear liberal constitutionalism had lost all moorings, is a sign of the concentration of the conservative mind.

Finally, insofar as conservatism represents an opposition movement—opposition to the still-dominant liberalism of our time—it is necessary to say a few things about the changing character of contemporary liberalism. Not long ago Martin Peretz wrote in The New Republic that “it is liberalism that is now bookless and dying. . . Ask yourself: Who is a truly influential liberal mind [on par with Niebuhr] in our culture? Whose ideas challenge and whose ideals inspire? Whose books and articles are read and passed around? There’s no one, really.” Michael Tomasky echoed this point in The American Prospect: “I’ve long had the sense, and it’s only grown since I’ve moved to Washington, that conservatives talk more about philosophy, while liberals talk more about strategy; also, that liberals generally, and young liberals in particular, are somewhat less conversant in their creed’s history and urtexts than their conservative counterparts are.” While there is something to this lament, it seems overstated. Even leaving aside the popularity of fevered figures such as Chomsky, one can point to a number of serious thinkers on the Left such as Michael Walzer, or John Rawls and his acolytes, or Rawls’ thoughtful critics such as Michael Sandel. However, the high degree of abstraction of these thinkers—their palpable distance from the real political and cultural debates of our time—is a reflection of the attenuation of contemporary liberalism. Whereas the left-liberal spectrum once had a vision of the good society based on large ideas, today liberalism comes to sight more often as pure snobbery, a set of formal values adopted in place of serious political thought, perhaps best expressed in Thomas Franks’ unintentionally hilarious title What’s the Matter with Kansas? Franks wonders why lower and middle class voters align with Republicans when this is purportedly against their economic interests, without ever wondering why the Upper East Side votes overwhelmingly against the party that wants to reduce their income tax burden substantially. “The pre-eminent issue of our day,” Frank writes, “is people getting their interests wrong.”

Quite aside from the merits of what constitutes economic interest properly understood, it is clear that Kansas voters—“Kansas voters” being a proxy term for the religious voters who have swung so decisively to the conservative side in the last generation—perceive the cosmopolitan snobbery of liberalism that denigrates their moral principles and more broadly that denigrates or rejects both American principles and practices today, preferring instead to defer to the United Nations and “international norms.” Now, there are some respectable arguments in favor of cosmopolitan liberalism or internationalism, but they are seldom made in any serious way. Above all, a liberalism of snobbery that explicitly challenges America’s cultural, political, and constitutional principles tends to be avoided, probably because liberals know that making their rejection of these principles openly would be politically suicidal.

Beyond mere calculation, however, is the very problematic status of reason itself within the horizon of post-modern liberalism. Postmodernism, that tiresome and tedious category of intellectual life today, represents an ironic rejection of two pillars of historic liberalism—the belief in reason as commonly understood, and the confidence in progress. This has left contemporary liberalism without a foundation. As Jim Ceaser and Daniel DiSalvol wrote recently in The Public Interest: “For Democrats, a minimal consensus among thinkers from Berlin to Berkeley is the substitute for a foundation. If such a consensus is absent, it is a sure sign that America has gone off course.”

This leaves a breathtaking opportunity for the advancement of what I have here called American conservatism. The older conservatism of mid-century rightly cast a jaundiced eye on appeals to reason because “reason” was the supposed basis for all of the bogus redemptive utopianisms of modernity. Yet between the postmodern left’s rejection of Enlightenment rationality, along with the impressive application of rational critiques of modern politics and policy from the right over the last generation, the field is left wide open for American conservatives to reassert rationality—or “right reason” if you prefer—in just the manner our Enlightenment-era founders understood it. In other words, conservatives now have the opportunity to rescue reason from the slough of modernity’s two-century degradation of reason.

In doing so, American thought is finally coming out from under the shadow of European thought, or perhaps can be said to be rescuing the great tradition of western thought that Europe has nearly abandoned. Hamilton observed in the first Federalist that Americans had the first opportunity to arrange their political order according to “reflection and choice” instead of accident or force. That would seem to be our position today as well.


Steven Hayward is Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This article is excerpted from Hayward’s keynote address at “The Conservative Movement: Its Past, Present and Future,” a conference held in December 2005 at Princeton University.