In the closing weeks of 1969, a debate broke out in the pages of National Review about how American conservatives should respond to the threat posed by the New Left—the expanded universe of socialists, civil rights activists, anti-war protesters, feminists, environmentalists, and other lefty radicals then making political waves. Fifteen months earlier, police and demonstrators had met in a bloody clash outside the Democratic National Convention. The year before that had seen the storied "summer of love," coverage of which drove home for many Americans the sweeping cultural changes that were afoot.
For an ornery political science professor named Donald Atwell Zoll, the implications of these developments were clear: Conservatives must reject liberalism's thanatos, or death wish—"its preference for extinction (with its ideological purities preserved) as against adaptation or revision." By purities, he meant commitments to pluralism, individualism, and proceduralism, the "rules of the game" by which liberals were convinced opposing groups could coexist in peace.
The core problem, Zoll wrote, was that the New Left had proven itself uninterested in playing by those rules. "Its adherents were obviously willing to shoot at people," he claimed. "When they talked about 'revolution,' they meant storming a hundred Bastilles, not changing the minds of men after the fashion of older and more comfortable collectivists."
In response, liberalism might have opted to "repress its opponents…thus entailing a candid recognition that it had real live opponents." Alas, "the liberal establishment was unwilling to embrace" any solution that "would involve the abrogation of its 'democratic' preferences." This, Zoll thought, put conservatives in a sticky situation. They could either "go down with liberalism, clinging to the common values and abiding by the traditional rules of the game," or they could "elect to fight, uninhibited by the liberal thanatos or by liberal proprieties as to method."
Zoll allowed that this was "not an easy choice to make." But the risk, should his side choose not to fight uninhibited, was that "totalitarian radicalism would win the day." Against such an outcome, what's a little "countermilitancy, repression, force and forms of authoritarianism"? To survive, Zoll concluded gravely, conservatives would have to reject their traditional "anti-authoritarian inhibitions" and "prepare to fight—whatever this may entail—against the tide of contemporary Jacobinism, candidly facing the necessity of employing techniques generally ignored or rejected by contemporary Western conservatives."
Among those who were disturbed by this vision was National Review senior editor Frank S. Meyer, who fired back in the following issue of the magazine. "Professor Zoll's rejection of the values of an order directed toward the preservation of liberty and pluralism is a rejection also of the American tradition, the tradition of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers," he wrote. The choice between hard left-wing totalitarianism and soft right-wing authoritarianism, Meyer argued, was a false one: "There is a third alternative, and it is the only one conservatives can embrace if they are to remain conservatives": neither Robespierre nor Bismarck but George Washington.
Zoll was, to put it mildly, unsatisfied by this rejoinder. The back-and-forth continued until Meyer's death two years later, when it went dormant—for a time.
Back in 2019, then–New York Post opinion editor Sohrab Ahmari published an essay in First Things magazine with the curious title "Against David French-ism." Ahmari trained his guns on a lawyer and writer then employed by National Review, an evangelical Christian with a long record of defending civil liberties. The piece resurrected many of the notes Zoll had sounded 50 years prior.
"Conservative liberalism of the kind French embodies has a great horror of the state, of traditional authority and the use of the public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality," Ahmari wrote. Attempting to change the culture through noncoercive means, he warned, would not stop the left. Instead, conservative Christians must be willing to "fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils"—that is, with the goal of acquiring sufficient power "to enforce our order and our orthodoxy."
French, through his commitment to civility and liberal proceduralism, had "kept his hands clean, his soul untainted," Ahmari sneered. "But conservative Christians can't afford these luxuries. Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism."
Thus reads the script for the modern New Right: The left doesn't play fair. Survival necessarily means responding in kind. Liberalism prevents us from recognizing our enemies for what they are.
French responded much as Meyer had. "America will always be a nation of competing worldviews and competing, deeply held values," he wrote. "We can forsake a commitment to liberty and launch the political version of the Battle of Verdun, seeking the ruin of our foes, or we can recommit to our shared citizenship and preserve a space for all American voices, even as we compete against those voices in politics and the marketplace of ideas." But as French saw it, "there is no political 'emergency' that justifies abandoning classical liberalism, and there will never be a temporal emergency that justifies rejecting the eternal truth."
The historical resonance of this exchange suggests that conservatives inclined to agree with Ahmari might want to consider what happened the last time around. The Zoll of 1970 might be surprised by the state of things five decades on. His prophecies of doom have not panned out as expected.
Zoll's call to arms rested on a belief that not acting would be tantamount to suicide. Sure, he acknowledged "a theoretical chance that democratic pluralism might somehow survive on its own, in which case conservatism could weather the storm without coming down from its intellectual mountain to employ techniques both unfamiliar and distasteful." But that possibility clearly struck him as implausible. It rested on the hope that "decisively large sectors of the population" would reject the leftist agenda and that "the New Left, through lack of either will or means, [would fail] to bring about a violent political and social upheaval that would make the peaceful continuity of power and authority impossible."
Notwithstanding all the tumult of the '60s and '70s, the New Left did fail to bring down the liberal order or bring about a violent social upheaval. Not one Bastille has been toppled in America, let alone a hundred. Democratic pluralism has endured. Totalitarian radicalism has not yet won the day. The cultural cataclysm remains, as ever, in the future.
Is there reason to believe the danger now is greater than it was then? Are Ahmari and his fellow travelers more likely to be right about the intensity and imminence of the threat they face than their predecessors were? Time alone will say for sure, although it's worth noticing that most state and local governments, nearly all law enforcement agencies, the military, and the Supreme Court in 2023 skew conservative.
Incidentally, Zoll faded from the conversation after it emerged that he had lied about earning a Ph.D. Having lost his Arizona State University professorship, according to the 2006 tome American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, he "apparently made a new career in elephant training." Should the predictions of today's New Right turn out to be overblown, its proponents will perhaps take consolation from Zoll's example of the expansive possibilities available in our mostly free society for personal and professional reinvention.