Right Off Target

The World Turned Right Side Up: A History of the Conservative Ascendancy in America, by Godfrey Hodgson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 365 pages, $27.50

"Libertarians: See conservatism"--thus the index of this book. Story of our lives, right? No matter what we say or do, we keep getting lumped with the right.

The connection, never exactly comfortable, is getting harder to defend these days, as many traditional conservatives lurch toward a policy agenda of decidedly coercive content. Even aside from (Pat) Buchananism with its dirigiste economics, more conservative public figures are devoting themselves these days to their pet "culture war," increasingly conceived as a campaign to get the state to suppress cultural developments welcomed and pursued by a large body of their fellow citizens. "Liberty," "individualism," and "pursuit of happiness" crop up as pejoratives in the season's hot right-wing book, Robert Bork's Slouching Toward Gomorrah, which calls for bringing back censorship in ferociously stringent form; for example, Bork would apparently ban private adult reading of prose on grounds of excessive violence as well as sex. (Don't even ask about the Internet.) The Weekly Standard, which aspires to set the tone for younger conservatives, seldom lets a week go by without taking a swipe at freethinkers, libertarians, the Enlightenment, and suchlike. Capitalism itself, having spawned such pet hates as MTV and IBM's domestic- partner benefits, is fast coming under fire on the right, as more trads make common cause with explicit left-communitarians like Daniel Bell, Eugene Genovese, and the late Christopher Lasch.

Back in the 1950s Frank Meyer proposed that classical liberals and trads belonged together, being "arrayed against a common enemy." But with post-Soviet Marxism consigned to the cobwebs of the academy and Western ideas surging through what used to be known as the Third World, do the constituent groups of the old right--advocates of individual liberty and of quasi-military social discipline, convinced secularists and those who'd enforce biblical law, cosmopolitan techies and agrarian despisers of development-- still share enough of a "common enemy" to swallow their increasingly apparent differences?

We could certainly use a few good books on how American conservatism came this far, how it got into its present fix, and where it's headed. Unfortunately, this particular book won't help much.

Author Godfrey Hodgson has penned several books of popular history, including America in Our Time and a biography of Henry Stimson. His effort to make sense of the American right is not without its merits. He proposes to "take conservative ideas seriously," a worthy aim. His splendid title--The World Turned Right Side Up--well evokes the mood of activist conservatism on a good day. And his early chapters show him to be an efficient narrator, given the right materials.

But Hodgson is profoundly unsympathetic to the ideas he treats, especially those of free marketeers, and in the end proves fatally uncomprehending of those ideas. To be sure, the publisher provides fair warning that libertarians will not like this book, in blurbs clearly signed "Kevin Phillips" and "Michael Lind" (Garry Wills is missing; maybe he was out of town). Such blurbs are threats, not promises, and the book proceeds to deliver on them.

A longtime American correspondent for the U.K. press, Hodgson today resides at Oxford, yet readers expecting a British flavor will be disappointed. Much of his effort breathes the pure airlessness of Washington punditry, specifically the variety that's built on close attention to the pronouncements of other pundits. By page five he's already serving up block quotes cut from those peat bogs of platitude, Richard Lee Strout and Hedrick Smith.

It does get better, for a while. To explore the movement's intellectual origins Hodgson profiles four books of diverse content and tone, three finished in 1943 and the fourth a decade later: Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Albert Jay Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, and Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. One could pick a worse conceit for organizing such an inquiry, and the results show the author at something like peak form as to independent judgment, though most readers on the right will disagree with much or most of what he says.

Another readable chapter or two bring the story up to the Goldwater campaign, after which point the genre begins to shift from history to current affairs and the quality begins to slide. Like many critics, Hodgson overestimates the importance of race in motivating the American conservative movement, which leads him into several lulus, such as the notion that the famed "Southern strategy" led the Nixon administration to cease punitive enforcement of civil rights laws (true perhaps in the case of busing, a policy whose deep public unpopularity had become clear; not true in many other areas).

In general, Hodgson keeps better control of his temper than do such would-be slayers of conservatism as Phillips and Lind, and gets through more of his material before beginning to splutter. Like many a pundit, his usual tic of would-be fairness is to salute admirable personal qualities in his opponents. Thus he acknowledges Bill Buckley's gift for friendship, Rand's romantic flair, Hayek's gentlemanliness, and so forth. Barry Goldwater, he says, was the target of "perhaps the most one-sided and unfair press coverage ever deployed in a presidential campaign."

The limits of this approach become clear in Hodgson's treatment of monetary policy. By any measure the defeat of inflation counts as a crucial triumph of the new "ascendancy," a direct result of conservative (or, given the credit due such figures as Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, libertarian/Objectivist) brainpower. Previous governments had generally professed to believe that inflation came about as a result of "inflationary pressures" such as commodity shortages, and of self-seeking by businesses and unions. Our side thought it was a matter of governments' running the printing presses late into the night to print greenbacks, pounds sterling, and lire. They were wrong, we were right, and we proved our thesis in action to the point where even most left-of-center governments in the West have absorbed the basic lesson and now go light on the currency printing.

To judge by comments he lets drop, Hodgson is among those who still think the causes of inflation are to be found among such things as crop failures. So while praising Friedman as cheerful, energetic, and widely liked, he proceeds to brush off the professor's lifework on monetary theory as obsolete and discredited. Committing the opposite error-- misrepresenting Friedman personally as an indolent grump, but at least getting right the extraordinary worldwide benefactions of his public career--would hardly have been less "fair" and would certainly have left the relevant passages of the book looking less knuckleheaded.

But the author is content to crib his economic ideas from such as Bennett Harrison, Barry Bluestone, Robert Kuttner, Samuel Bowles, and Robert Gordon. Put differently, while he apparently doesn't think of himself as a lefty (instead affecting Whiggery), he's willing to let lefties do his thinking for him. And so for him there can be "no serious argument" that the 1980s were bad for workers. Worrisome labor-market trends seldom emerge from impersonal market processes; instead, "American management imposed a tough new regime." (Even when it comes to an arguable trend as multifarious in origin as the widening of income disparities, his formulation is that "business imposed greater inequality.") We may hope to restrain the federal deficit's growth, but "there is no prospect of reversing" it--presumably a passage written before that deficit began shrinking. Marginal tax rates? The "badge not only of the government's need, but also of its determination to provide services for the citizens."

It's brave for an outsider to try a sweeping account of a big movement, and in other circumstances I'd probably have cut the author more slack for his various petty lapses, such as misspelling Ronald Hamowy's and Robert Bauman's names, failing to realize you need to include the "Smith" when naming the Smith Richardson Foundation, and so on. Or his lack of familiarity with specialized ideological terrain: He imagines that the difference between Objectivists and anarcho-capitalists was that the latter "stressed economic over personal freedom" and that the Ayn Rand of the late 1950s "tended to see communism as the issue." Or his doomed-at-birth metaphors: "By the 1970s, the eagles of populism, fickle birds, had flown into the camp of the conservatives," as if, seeking to express the idea of fickleness, one would reach naturally for the image of an eagle.

What resolved me to be mean to Mr. Hodgson is simply that he breaks his own big promise. If you wish to take your opponents' ideas seriously, as he pledges to do, there's a fairly simple, mostly negative algorithm to follow: You just have to presume they reached those ideas by intellection and not to rationalize their creature comforts or sex drives, keep their incomes flowing, vent their racism or liberal racial guilt, feel bighearted or superior or cool, etc. There's no obligation to extend this courtesy to any one opponent, and none of us do it all the time to all our opponents, but if one takes credit for doing so one should follow through. Yet by book's end Hodgson has become a motive-spotter like the rest, detecting careerism and veiled racism and labeling free marketry as merely "the self-interest of the business class" in that same old Wills-Lind-Phillips style. Which prompts me to say that I don't have the slightest idea what motivated Mr. Hodgson to write this book; I only wish he'd written a better one.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement