The Vitiated Center
The successful failures of right and left intellectuals.
The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times, by Jeffrey Hart, Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 394 pages, $28
The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual, by Eric Lott, New York: Basic Books, 260 pages, $26
Two new books detail, and sometimes lament, the recent history of liberal and conservative ideas in America: Eric Lott's The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual and Jeffrey Hart's The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times. Together, they explore the perils and possibilities of radical ideologies in a centrist nation.
Lott, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that prominent liberal intellectuals in the Clinton era and beyond have smothered any truly revolutionary leftist radicalism. Hart, a retired Dartmouth English professor and longtime National Review hand, relates the saga of conservatism's flagship magazine along with the history of the American right the magazine shaped. In Hart's telling, the "responsible" center-right philosophy of James Burnham, a co-founder of the magazine whose reputation has been eclipsed by that of his more affable colleague William F. Buckley, guided the journal's worldly success. Burnham, Hart argues, ensured that the magazine eschewed "unrealistic" conservative or libertarian radicalism. This approach aided its surface success but guaranteed that NR's stated mission to 'stand athwart history, yelling stop" would fail.
Lott's book would most aptly be titled The Sellout Liberal Intellectual. For Lott, liberal boomer intellectuals such as Paul Berman (author of A Tale of Two Utopias, a popular '90s attack on the radicalism of the '60s left) and Todd Gitlin (a Students for Democratic Society president in the '60s and now a lamenter of modern leftists' lack of patriotism) have betrayed the '60s legacy of radicalism to which all boomer liberals ought to pledge allegiance. In Lott's telling, their attacks on the supposedly anti-American and identity-obsessed radical enemies to their left merely reinforce a corrupt status quo. While these liberal reformists fancy they speak truth to power from the pages of The New Republic and The American Prospect, to Lott they are "one of the chief obstacles to a reconstruction of social and political life in the twenty-first century United States."
Lott, a late boomer himself at age 47 but too young to have made the '60s scene, comes on like a new-generation leftist young gun. White but professionally an African-American studies maven, he shoots down elders he sees as sclerotic, ultimately ineffectual, and obsessed with pursuing what Lott mocks as "Utopian Clintonism": universal health care, more cash for Head Start, campaign finance reform, yada yada yada. That ameliorist nonsense is no cure for America's real problems, which to Lott have something to do with the fact that some people have more money than others.
When it comes to his own policy prescriptions, Lott is somewhat cagey. He reveals only a couple of times, and as asides, that he's for the People's Choice ideology of anarcho-syndicalism, from which arises his occasional libertarian-sounding swipes at his liberal enemies for their "accommodation of state power" and his declaration that "in the realm of even the most benevolent state there are nothing butcrimes."
Despite such flashes of anti-statism, Lott is mostly obsessed with finding true power for the people through race and other identity-politics categories. The boomer liberal intellectuals, Lott complains, want to retreat to their beloved pre-1968 leftism of economics and class, and to ignore race, gender, and sexuality.
But activists of race, gender, and sexuality need a power center as well, and Lott improbably offers labor unions as the agent of social change. While this book is, by design, mostly concerned with academic conferences and journals and big-think books about the state of contemporary liberalism, Lott's out-of-nowhere epilogue drags revolutionary praxis onstage: His soul is ennobled when he marches on the quad with local activist groups to squeeze out a raise for some University of Virginia employees, stuck in what Lott calls the "unspeakably grisly routine" of feeding babies to the dean's pet cougar? Coal mining over the corpses of their fellow workers to stoke the dorm furnaces? No: food service and secretarial work.
As befits the author of Love and Theft (1994), Lott's much-honored first book (a study of the intersections of race and class consciousness in American labor history through minstrelsy), Lott thinks Blackness is the most vital aspect of the American experience. He thinks Americans talk, walk, and are "significantly black." He sees white racism and exploitation driving the great American behemoth.
To learn why harping on race and racism might not be the answer to the political left's dilemma, Lott might profitably check himself (before he wrecks himself). He mocks Paul Berman for attacking the Black Panthers yet neither debunks Berman's reports of their rampant thuggery nor tries to balance them against some larger good the Panthers have supposedly done. (Lott doesn't even say what that good might have been.) He also thinks videotaped beating victim Rodney King took the "moral low ground" by calling for us all to get along. To Lott, conflict should dominate American life until the last capitalist is strangled with the entrails of the last bourgeois liberal intellectual.
Lott mocks Richard Rorty, another boomer liberal and a villain whose beating in this book is incommensurate with his actual public importance, for "mak[ing] no gesture toward any real notion of how to achieve economic redistribution, except to pass a law for it." But Lott himself can't even manage that much realism. In a nation where almost everyone is getting wealthier (even if not at the same rate), Lott shies from articulating his ultimate goal except in the vaguest way; he just says he's for radical egalitarianism and radical democracy. He certainly won't articulate how we're to get there. Wading through rivers of blood, perhaps" Or just inspiring a race-, gender-, and sexuality-conscious mass labor movement to grab hold of the means of production?
Objective reality, political or economic, gives way to ideological fantasy. At one point Lott declares that black kids in Harlem and Sudan both "labor under the unequal burdens of the same fallen world" of transnational capitalism. He should go ask any of the Sudanese if they are interested in trading places with the Harlem residents; surely even he wouldn't be surprised at the results of that particular experiment in radical democracy and egalitarianism. Such blindness to the benefits of Western quasi-capitalist modernity is surely more to blame for radical leftist ineffectuality than any number of Clintonian baby boomers.
Lott complains American liberalism isn't radical enough. In fact, his own radicalism, unmoored from history and economics, is self-defeating. Jeffrey Hart's history of the American right's leading journal shows the flipside of the American radical's dilemma: how hewing too doggedly to an acceptable centrism can weaken real effectiveness, even while creating a surface appearance of success.
National Review was founded in 1955 by a young William F. Buckley, fresh from the success of God and Man at Yale, his "J'accuse" against all the religion and tradition bashing at his alma mater. Buckley wanted to give shape and voice to an inchoate "conservative" intellectual movement, an uneasy anti-New Deal coalition at the time torn between F.A. Hayek's free market individualism and Russell Kirk's traditionalism, between faith in a free society and a panicked feeling that we had to crush international communism at all costs.
James Burnham, who helped guide the young Buckley into the CIA in 1950, was his most influential mentor. Burnham had written an important book in 1941, The Managerial Revolution, explaining the post-agricultural, post-industrial elite that controlled America's huge bureaucracies, both private and public. Burnham was an ex-Trotskyist, a former editor of The New International and early contributor to Partisan Review, a hard-headed Machiavelli scholar who believed only power moved the world. In Managerial Revolution he tried, neither cheerleading nor decrying, to sum up the nature of the new power centers.
Burnham was the perfect disillusioned former commie to write a relentless column for decades on the Cold War's shiftings and turnings. Though little lauded for it nowadays, Burnham is also a founding father of modern neoconservative foreign policy, as witness this, written by him in the 1950s: "The reality is that the alternative to the Communist World Empire is an American Empire which will be capable of exercising decisive world control. Nothing less than this can be the positive, or offensive, phase of a rational United States policy."
Burnham helped shape NR with his belief that it must speak to the regnant Eastern establishment and influence it in a right-wing direction, aiming its force where real power lay. His was the part of NR's soul that yearned always for Nelson Rockefeller. To Burnham, who died in 1987, conservatism meant little more than the endless twilight struggle against international communism. In practice, he wasn't much for either traditionalism or libertarianism, the other legs of the postwar conservative stool. The magazine wasn't purely Burnhamite: In the early days it was a big tent that could publish articles by Russell Kirk and Murray Rothbard, Whittaker Chambers and Milton Friedman, alongside one another in relative peace. But as time wore on, the magazine became less a home for independent and varied voices in a larger anti-collectivist coalition and took more seriously Burnham's suggestions that it hew to the respectable and possible. The early National Review endorsed neither Eisenhower nor Nixon; after some internal foofaraw about whether or not to back further-right challenger William Knowland in "56, Buckley proudly and publicly abstained from voting at all. It is difficult, though delicious, to imagine NR's current editor, Rich Lowry, doing the same on principle these days.
By following Burnhamite prescriptions, the conservatives in and around National Review have done well for themselves. But by their own ideological standards, they have not done much good. By linking themselves per Burnhamite prescriptions to real sources of social power—the rising postwar GOP—the NR boys failed to see most of their goals actuated, aside from the fall of international communism. That victory was hugely significant, of course (and might well have been the only one Burnham and Chambers cared about), though debate still rages about whether it was NR reader Ronald Reagan's policies or the inherent instability of a planned economy that was ultimately necessary to win it. But since then the old NR ways have been ineffectual toward achieving any of the other goals of the original right-wing coalition.
Libertarians wondering why they have never felt comfortable with National Review should contemplate its founding cabal, larded with ex-Communists. Aside from Frank Meyer, himself a former high-ranking American communist who plumped for a unifying "fusionism" to bridge the gaps between traditionalists and libertarians, not much in the way of even libertarian sympathies dwelled among the early National Review team of Burnham, Whittaker Chambers (another former Communist and lamenter of Western decline, most famous for fingering Alger Hiss as a fellow spy for the Russians), Willmoore Kendall (a Yale political science professor of Buckley's), and Russell Kirk (the supertraditionalist author of 1953's The Conservative Mind).
Kendall, for example, firmly believed that John Stuart Mill was all wet in believing tolerance of opposing ideas was vital to a decent polity; he was with Lincoln (and George W. Bush) in declaring that the survival of the nation superseded any constitutional niceties. For his part, Kirk thought libertarians were "metaphysically mad" and refused to be listed on the masthead at first because of his intolerance for Meyer's libertarian leanings.
Hart, a reader of NR from the start and a on-and-off staffer since 1969, knew and worked with most of these old lions of the right; his nostalgic yearning for the days of irrepressible, unique characters is palpable. (Check out Hart's accounts of Kendall's drunken late-night calls to Yale's dean demanding his tenure be bought out, or his speeding the wrong way down California freeways.) Love them or hate them, these fellows were originals, not well suited to building up or following any party line. That's one reason you'll hardly hear about them in the magazine these days. Over the years National Review became more and more a GOP salesman, cementing the Burnham attitude that NR must stand for the most conservative electable candidate, must always plump for the possible, must never stand outrageously outside the status quo.
Even on an issue that burns in the magazine's Catholic soul, abortion, it keeps its shirt buttoned to the top: A recent cover story by Ramesh Ponnuru about the rise in American pro-life sentiment managed to censure South Dakota for actually stepping so far outside the deliberate sense of the American people as to outlaw abortion entirely; he calls its action "a foolish repudiation of a successful incrementalist strategy." (One can imagine, in 2025, a Ponnuru manqué in NR's pages soberly explaining to some firebrand politician that infant cannibalism has become a settled part of the deliberate-sense consensus of the American people and must be handled gingerly.) This quest for conventional respect and a defensible middle ground created a general intellectual atmosphere in which hardcore anti-statism—and even hardcore conservatism—was mostly unwelcome.
To see a particularly appalling example of where the respectable defense of "reality" led the magazine down a strange path, turn to how NR handled Eric Lott's favorite subject, race. Hart quotes extensively from an unsigned March 1960 editorial saying: "In the Deep South the Negroes are retarded. Any effort to ignore the fact is sentimentalism or demagoguery. In the Deep South the essential relationship is organic, and the attempt to hand over to the Negro the raw political power [i.e., the vote] with which to alter it is hardly a solution." The most dudgeon Hart can summon about this is to comment, "Everyone has a bad day. This wanders off into the tall grass," and to note that, OK, the use of the word retarded "is insulting."
Hart brings up the topic only because honesty in studying NR's history requires it; he then shifts his discussion of race to attacking NR apostate Garry Wills for daring to praise James Baldwin and for showing an "astounding sympathy for the black "revolutionaries.'"Such sympathy becomes much less astounding when one contemplates that a magazine such as NR could write as it did on race matters as late as 1960. Wills' sympathy for black militants, and growing opposition to the Vietnam War, led to his no longer being welcome to write about political matters in NR. (For decades now, the magazine has of course taken a standard modern-conservative line on race matters"anti-affirmative action, but also anti-segregation and supportive of basic civil rights such as voting.)
Here we see how hewing to the supposedly possible made it impossible to be not utopian but genuinely realistic. Advocating radical change is often the only way to be realistic, since many central aspects of the modern world cannot, in the long run, survive—from segregation in the 1950s to the entitlement state today. Eisenhower, Burnham's perfect example of the "most conservative electable candidate," was sure that no party would ever speak of ending Social Security and live; thanks to ideological groundwork laid by "off-the-reservation" radical libertarians for decades, the idea is now a real part of the policy debate. Hart himself writes that a respectable right nowadays can't discuss banning abortion; surely, and regardless of the propriety of abortion laws, a sober reporter would have said the same about legalizing it completely in 1960.
If, as Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible, then what is possible can and will shift. To be an intellectual force in creating that shift you have to be willing to step boldly outside the existing consensus. National Review has remained respectable and, as such, has been a great success in terms of circulation and shaping an active political movement. But the modern state and the modern-liberal values of regulation, taxing, spending, and loosening of certain social restrictions (while creating new ones) have continued their march to dominance, even if the National Review team had the victories of Ronald Reagan becoming president and Buckley being published in The New Yorker.
Standing ultimately not for any firm ideological viewpoint but for some version of the "most conservative electable candidate" led the magazine to a bizarre combination of success and impotence. Even as NR's Ponnuru acknowledged, in defense of Bush, that the GOP has never really been serious about cutting government spending (so why gripe at Bush about it?), he wrote that defeat for Bush would be a "crushing blow" for the "organized conservatism" that is his audience. The Bushism that the magazine too often bows down to these days—defending his administration's peccadillos and power grabs, mostly standing by him through some of the biggest expansions of domestic spending in the magazine's history—stands for little recognizable in the magazine's ideological tradition. As Hart acknowledges, that's true even in matters of religion. Bush's modern evangelical Christianity is distinct from the creedal and traditional Christianity-with-authority of NR's Catholic roots.
Back in 1965, James Burnham wrote in NR that it was absurd for the right to try to fight Medicare. Forty budget-busting years later, NR's man Bush has expanded the program to impossible proportions. While NR's editors complain about that on occasion, it won't lead them to abandon their "most conservative electable candidate." What seems more realistic not in short-term political terms but in recognition of mathematical and economic facts: Burnham's respectable centrism or the radical libertarianism that says such programs were illegitimate and disastrous?
Lasting political change of any sort, whether good or bad—from emancipation to woman's suffrage to Social Security to the inevitable end of Social Security—starts on the radical fringe before it rules the center. A healthy intellectual discussion should not be restrained by toeing a middle line. As Eric Lott's bizarre views prove, being radical isn't the same as being right. But NR's history suggests that being a politically realistic centrist doesn't simply mean compromising on little things. Ultimately it makes you incapable of offering a true alternative to a status quo that can range from unmanageable to evil. NR's past positions on de jure segregation as well as de facto segregation, and its typical embrace of and shilling for GOP pols who pay little but lip service to any conservative principle nowadays other than endless war, show what those who attack radicalism too often forget: the impotence of realism.