Friday Mini Book Review: Conservatism in America


The Mini Book Review is back. See many old ones.

Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, by Paul Gottfried (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Gottfried's outlook on a topic oft-addressed by many writers (this is, in fact, his own second book assessing the American right) is at least a rare and bracing one: a paleo-rightist himself who thinks most of the popular and successful manifestations of the American right have sold out its own values–quite literally sold out, in pursuit of foundation cash and job openings controlled by neocons. This is most certainly a book for deep-insiders–you couldn't really make much sense of it if you weren't already versed in reading and thinking about, in, and among the American right–but for those types, its perspective is necessary.

The heart of Gottfried's thesis? Conservatism "has developed a talent not only for presenting takeovers as the serene march of the past into the present but also for treating a general retreat from its original positions as a progression of victories." The American right has retreated from a genuine oppositional intellectual movement to one with "a situational function, that of framing policies for the Republican Party and contributing to the administrative staff of Republican administrations."

He grants, with consummate fairness and a great deal of truth, that a conservative movement more to his liking–one that "stood where….Ron Paul…does today, might well have opposed the liberal Left even less effectively than the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute do today."

Gottfriend distinguishes the classless and unrooted, purely intellectual, American conservatism from any European roots; laments the passing of Russell Kirk (though he has his reservations about him as well) as a prime right-wing influence in favor of Jaffa and Strauss; traces the subtle shifting and occasional precarious combinations of dueling systems of "value conservatism" within the movement (while noting that nowadays it's easier for value conservatism to forgive being tolerant of gay marriage than being intolerent of endless wars for democracy); and ends with sadness that that global crusade for "democratic values" has inhabited the shell of conservative institutions, all the while tracing this more to cashflow than idea flow, and denying any modern conservative triumphalism that claims their neo-conservatism is more intellectual or ethically purer than the old variety they superseded.

In the end, noting intellectual conservatism's lack of any mass social or class base, he declares it mostly "contrived" and a "media phenomenon," and darkly suspects it functions well as an ally to left-liberals in keeping more paleo-cons, like himself, safely segregated from the public conversation. For a book undergirded to some degree by anger at what he sees as a conspiracy to subvert true conservative values, it remains dispassionate enough that even those who disagree with his thesis can do so without feeling embattled. Gottfried leaves you room to consider his thesis, even be enlightened by it, without agreeing with it, a refreshing rarity in interested assessments of political movement and theory.