Conservatism's Hollow Defeat

The intellectual right, now in the wilderness, keeps deluding itself about supposed past glories.

Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan, by Kim Phillips-Fein, New York: W.W. Norton, 368 pages, $26.95

The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution, by Gregory L. Schneider, Lanham, Md.: Rowan & Littlefield, 264 pages, $39.95

In Invisible Hands, the New York University historian Kim Phillips-Fein recounts a group of businessmen’s efforts to push pro-market ideas. At one point she describes a document, the “Powell Memo,” that is now notorious among those who posit a vast, successful right-wing conspiracy to institute rapacious laissez faire: a 1971 Chamber of Commerce report, written by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, suggesting conservatives launch a concerted attempt to influence the universities, media, and courts in an ostensibly free-market direction. One of the closest of Powell’s friends, a man he especially wished to convert, was the general counsel of General Motors.

Since then, GM has continued to advocate trade barriers. And today,in the era of the “new New Deal,” we see it at the forefront of ensuring that all the rest of us are on the hook to ensure the company can navigate the rough waters of the “free market.”

The lesson, not fully internalized by Phillips-Fein, is that free-market advocacy is not the success that books like hers crack it up to be. For conservatives and activists who have linked their lives, reputations and fortunes to the Republican Party, it’s a time of reappraisal, retrenchment, and recrimination. Just six years ago, their team controlled the executive branch, both houses of Congress, and a majority of gubernatorial seats. Since then the party has fallen dizzily, weighed down by an unpopular war, a deadly hurricane, and a deepening recession. Republicans have lost control of the White House and Capitol Hill, and now hold just 22 governorships.

What’s particularly galling to true believers is that the candidate who knocked them off their perch, Barack Obama, is a man they labeled the most socialist, culturally liberal, and downright un-American foe they’ve faced since George McGovern. With the choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for vice president—a decision that seemed at first madcap, then inspired, and now highly contentious—conservatives appeared to have rallied their troops by election eve 2008. And still they were smacked down mercilessly at the polls. Neither experience nor war nor patriotism nor taxes nor immigration nor values nor populism could seal the deal for party nominee John McCain. The GOP, and by extension conservatism, now seems thoroughly repudiated.

That conclusion, too, would be shortsighted. With varying degrees of severity, Republicans have looked like they were stranded in the wilderness several times during the last few decades. In the 1964 election, Barry Goldwater got drubbed and Democrats won control of more than two-thirds of both houses of Congress. The Republican Party could not have—and hasn’t since—looked more dead. Yet the GOP managed to hold the White House for 28 of the next 44 years.

Republicans seemed dead three decades ago as well, with President Jimmy Carter managing our national disco party and the Democrats enjoying a 119-seat lead in the House and 17-seat lead in the Senate. Two years later came the Reagan landslide.

Two new histories of the American right, Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands and Gregory L. Schneider’s The Conservative Century, should help Republicans and conservatives assess their current predicament in calmer terms. But the books also inadvertently indicate that in many ways the right has been doomed all along. The GOP will have a future after the age of Obama, but not because of the allegedly eternal liveliness of conservative ideas. The less comforting truth is that the right has shown an amazing ability to fool almost everyone, from average voters to academic historians like Schneider and Phillips-Fein, into believing that the conservative movement has won key victories and substantially achieved its most important goals.

In a little more than a decade, the field of conservative history has gone from neglected to overcrowded—especially given how often the books tell more or less the same story: Anti-FDR (and sometimes anti-Semitic) kooks in the fever swamps of opposition to the peaceful postwar liberal ideological consensus are tamed by the elegant but infuriating William F. Buckley, whose cleaned-up and intellectual coalition of ex- and anti-communists begets Goldwater, who fails to win the White House but succeeds in being Barry the Baptist for the Reagan-Christ, who with the help of such props as ’60s cultural madness, stagflation, and Jerry Falwell brings sweet redemption for this questionable but still vital set of ideas, whose reign, cheered or regretted, continues apace under both Democrats and Republicans as welfare is reformed, communism collapses, and further wars are waged. You can find that basic story, sometimes admiring and sometimes slightly scolding, in texts ranging from Lee Edwards’ The Conservative Revolution (1999) to Jonathan Schoenwald’s A Time for Choosing (2001) to John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s The Right Nation (2004).

These two new contributions offer fresh perspectives on the narrative. Schneider is a historian at Emporia State University and the author of Cadres for Conservatism, a fine 1998 study of Young Americans for Freedom and the conservative strain in ’60s student activism. In The Conservative Century, he shows that the positions held dear by the self-defined conservative movement have not in fact been conserved. Rather, they have been shifted and adjusted to changing circumstances, as an electoral—as opposed to philosophical—tendency must shift.

Schneider is accurate enough in identifying what most self-conscious conservative intellectuals and activists have embraced from the mid-’50s on: muscular foreign policy and aggressive nationalism (against first the commies, now the Islamofascists), traditional Christian values (as they are understood at any point in time), and at least lip service to free markets as opposed to government economic engineering.

Schneider starts with the pre-Buckley right of forgotten journalists and literary figures such as Albert Jay Nock, Ralph Cram, Seward Collins, Paul Elmer More, and the Southern Agrarians. (If the figures he discusses held social attitudes that moderns would find unforgivable, such as belief that blacks could never be whites’ intellectual equal, he makes sure to let you know, even if those attitudes had nothing to do with their core political beliefs.) Schneider then shows that when William Buckley, a young Yale and CIA man on the make, tried to forge a viable postwar political coalition out of the various strains of conservatism (something few of the pre-war figures gave a fig about), some of the more unsightly Old Right ideas were bleached from the conservative cloth. Among them: distrust of the leveling and centralizing powers of unchecked mass democracy and forthright opposition to everything about the welfare/warfare state launched by Franklin Roosevelt. The Buckley coalition was an eternally uneasy and shifting amalgam of traditionalism, constitutionalism, libertarianism, and a bloody-minded enmity toward international communism.

Schneider, who manages to keep a poker face when it comes to revealing his own politics, does a spirited job of walking through the standard post-Buckley history, but with a careful emphasis on what was new about its traditionalism, what was tossed away in its conservatism, what was statist in its supposed defenses of liberty. We see the intellectual movement adjust to the political realities of abortion, to the death of the “state’s rights” approach to civil rights, to the acceptance of an entitlement state that might be adjustable on the margins but won’t go away, and to any advance in state spending and even thought control (the right-wing youth movement was born in a campaign for loyalty oaths) in the name of fighting communism.

Schneider might not agree, but the lesson that comes through most clearly is this: War is the health of the state and the death of a principled movement supposedly dedicated to keeping the state limited. From the Cold War to the Iraq war, conservatives—and certainly Republicans—have sacrificed liberty in the name of national security.

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