Peter Viereck reintroduced conservatism to modern America in 1949 with his classic Conservatism Revisited. “This was the book,” wrote George Nash in his seminal history of 20th-century conservative thought, “which, more than any other of the early postwar era, created the new conservatism as a self-conscious intellectual force.”
Viereck’s conservatism was pre-political, “more contemplative than activist.” In fact, he believed that to identify conservatism primarily in political terms would be self-defeating. He opposed the notion of a “conservative movement” before it even got off the ground.
He directed an early salvo at God and Man at Yale, which most of today’s conservatives consider a founding text of the movement (in most cases, without having read it). In a 1951 review published in the New York Times, Viereck took issue with the young William F. Buckley Jr.’s indiscriminate alarmism:
The author irresponsibly treats not only mild social democracy but even most social reform as almost crypto-communism. He damns communism, our main enemy, not half so violently as lesser enemies like the income tax and inheritance tax. Words will really fail you when you reach the book’s final ‘message’: trustees and alumni should violate the legally established academic freedom to ‘banish from the classroom’ not merely Communists but all professors deviating from Adam Smith!
As the movement coalesced over the next few years, Viereck’s wariness of economic materialism and “right-wing nationalist thought control” led coalition-builder Frank S. Meyer—a senior editor of National Review—to dub him a “counterfeit conservative.” Viereck returned the compliment. In a 1962 New Republic essay, “The New Conservatism: One of Its Founders Asks What Went Wrong,” he explained: “A scrutiny of the plain facts of the situation has forced our report on the new conservatives to be mainly negative.”
That was Viereck’s last formal written pronouncement on the state of conservatism. Yet more than a half-century later, his views are making a comeback among independent, “post-movement” conservatives. Even more curious, Viereck’s disciples can be found not on the fringes but in the pages of The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, and The Atlantic, where Viereck was first published. For a new generation of writers and conservative thinkers, it is almost as if Viereck had set the tone of 1950s conservatism instead of Buckley.
Of course, the Viereck disposition was never meant for the high-pitched fervors of movement conservatism. Viereck himself accepted the New Deal and trade unions as “counter-revolutionary” measures and acknowledged the rootedness of both the American conservative tradition and our “moderate native liberalism.” “The Burkean builds on the concrete existing historical base, not on a vacuum of abstract wishful thinking,” he wrote. He warned against conservatism as a zero-sum political program, and he decried its adherents’ stubborn ambivalence toward McCarthyism as the movement’s “original sin.” He was equally uncomfortable with its later fixation on Goldwater: “Fortunately [Russell] Kirk’s positive contribution sometimes almost balances such embarrassing ventures into practical national politics.”
Above all, Viereck worried that a politically charged conservatism would degenerate into “a transient fad irrelevant to real needs.” A static conservatism “does real harm when it … enters short-run politics conjuring up mirages to conceal sordid realities or to distract from them.” He quoted a 1953 essay by philanthropist August Heckscher: “Conservatism at best remains deeper and more pervasive than any party; and a party that does claim it exclusively is likely to deform and exploit it for its own purposes.”
The Rise of Post-Movement Conservatism
For his part, Buckley perpetuated Cold War frenzy in National Review but also published cheerful and significant conservative thinking on literature and public policy. Among some dissidents, however—openly in the case of Viereck and quietly in the case of Kirk—there had always been a certain Burkean unease about NR’s partisan politics. As the movement doubled down on the GOP, its legions took groupthink to new and bizarre levels, placing party loyalty at a premium and backing wholeheartedly the Republican line.
Post-movement conservatives are not political operatives. Unorthodox writers like Ross Douthat, Andrew Sullivan, and Conor Friedersdorf can be loosely described as Burkeans. A few, including former Bush speechwriter David Frum and Reagan economic adviser Bruce Bartlett, were forced out of the movement for their apostasies. Those who have eschewed built-in movement career paths—a gig on Fox News! a talk show on AM radio!—and multiplatform merchandising opportunities face a dilemma. They must forgo the movement entirely or operate carefully at its margins, working toward a conservatism that is interested in much more than electoral success.
Perhaps because of their aversion to narrow-minded activism, these writers have been adept at incorporating a broader, more nuanced conservative sensibility into the mainstream. Friedersdorf, a libertarian-leaning writer who got his start as an under-blogger for Sullivan, happily advances a critique of liberalism and contemporary conservatism alike at The Atlantic’s website. His blog post “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama” (on constitutional and civil liberties grounds) was shared by 174,000 readers on Facebook.
David Frum went independent in 2009 with the now defunct website FrumForum—a “gathering place for conservatives who still believe the Earth is round,” according to The New Republic—and was fired from AEI a year later for breaking with the party on healthcare reform. (He joined Newsweek/The Daily Beast after that.) In a 2011 essay for New York, Frum decried the “drying up” of conservative creativity and described the movement as a “going-out-of-business sale for the baby boom generation.”
“The problems that generate political movements are either solved or are shown to be unsolvable or just irrelevant because of passage of time,” Frum told The American Conservative. Continuing with the same ideas after that means “you become blind to reality around you. The conservative movement is increasingly removed from the concerns of future generations, which don’t use politics to memorialize old historical conflicts.”
“I don’t think it makes sense to use the phrase ‘conservative movement’ now,” he says, “when the conservative outlook almost entirely overlaps with the Republican Party, and in some ways is bigger than the Republican Party. A lot of the practices and habits that you develop when you’re a small faction become inappropriate when you get big.” The Procrustean movement, he wrote in New York, has become a “whole alternative knowledge system.”
The conservative media in particular—once the vibrant repository of philosophical debate and keen wit—has become bigger, more consolidated, and corporate. As former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough, who brings concerns about the debt and perpetual war to MSNBC and Politico, observed at a National Review Institute event in January: “the debate has been stifled. It has been stifled because we have created this conservative groupthink over 30 years that has become more and more narrow. A conservative groupthink that would allow all of our primary presidential candidates being asked if they would take a 10-to-1 deal on spending cuts to taxes, and everybody’s afraid to talk.”
The groupthink is so extensive that several conservative publications seem to exist only to promote the work of other, indistinguishable movement outlets. (One typical headline from the Washington Free Beacon: “Fox News Cites Free Beacon Report.”) Here the mission ranges from “use journalism to advance the movement” to “#war.” As one attendee at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual conference told Atlantic reporter Molly Ball last year, “You couldn’t get in an argument around here no matter how hard you tried.”
Conor Friedersdorf says that much of the movement media simply feels old—“not many new ideas being batted around there”—and points to a generational conundrum: “What everyone thinks of as great moments in the conservative movement—Buckley founding National Review, Goldwater, Reagan getting elected—all of those things happened before Rush Limbaugh, talk radio, and Fox News,” he says. “The movement is still generating revenue for its various projects but now has little to do with actually advancing conservative ideas.” For instance, he asks, “what has the Heritage Foundation accomplished since the mid-1990s to justify its level of expenditure?”
“We need a certain amount of icebreaking to create space,” Frum adds. “We’re way overdue for generational change in the conservative world. … The Reagan record is not a motivator for next generation of voters.”
Meanwhile, post-Reagan, post-movement conservatism has distanced itself from boomer nostalgia and isn’t constantly compelled to dangle its ideological credentials out of fear of retribution from readers. These conservatives are free to explore different premises while leaving party shibboleths behind, particularly when it comes to post-Great Recession economics and foreign policy after Iraq. They are certainly not beholden to the short-term trajectory of the Republican Party.
Friedersdorf’s former boss Andrew Sullivan has brought the conservatism of Michael Oakeshott to the pages of The New Republic, Time, The Atlantic, and Newsweek/The Daily Beast. In February he took his blog fully independent—and has raised more than $600,000 in digital subscriptions from readers. Sullivan makes the case for a conservatism of “no party or clique.” He turned to the example of Viereck in a recent blog post:
The conservative criticism of today’s GOP that I and others have engaged in is not new. It was there at the beginning of the ‘movement’ in the post-war period and has never really left. In other words, there is a distinctive conservative strain of non-violence, pragmatism, restraint and limited government that is at peace with the New Deal. How else to explain Eisenhower or the first Bush or Reagan in some moods?
Certainly, Viereck’s comfort with “generous emotions” in the context of civil rights, and his recognition of the “shared liberalconservative base” as a rooted American reality, resonates with Sullivan, a committed Obamacon who was gay marriage’s earliest and most articulate proponent.
The deeply pro-life Ross Douthat takes on philosophical and cultural questions in the New York Times. James Poulos, who founded the “Postmodern Conservative” blog at First Things, is now a producer at Huffington Post Live and contributor to Forbes and Vice. Others, like Josh Barro, a sharp policy analyst for Bloomberg, resist the conservative label altogether. Barro calls himself a neoliberal.
Friedersdorf notes that the movement itself began as a meager upstart: “Alternative or dissident conservatism has a better chance” of succeeding “than America suddenly deciding that [National Review writer and historian] Victor Davis Hanson has been right all along.”
“A Revolt Against the Revolt Against Revolt”
Buckley’s insurgency challenged a crumbling, staid liberal establishment; now the counter-establishment he founded suffers from the same large-scale intellectual decline. It’s a scenario that Viereck half-foresaw in his review of God and Man: “some of us have preached a conservative ‘revolt against revolt.’ If the laboring mountain of the new campus of conservatism can turn out no humane and imaginative Churchill but merely this product of narrow economic privilege, then we might need a revolt against the revolt against revolt.”
Should the present revolt, if we can indeed call it that, heed the movement’s lessons and break the bondage of the Republican Party? In an essay for the Imaginative Conservative website, George Carey, a professor of government at Georgetown, put it this way:
A Burkean based conservatism cannot be true to itself if it is aligned permanently with either of our political parties. The most obvious considerations bear out this conclusion. On what basis can loyalty to an organization, lacking any abiding principles and seeking nothing more than electoral victory, be justified? … At this level, the party is effectively brain dead, beyond repair. …Instead of worrying about the trials and tribulations of the Republican party, for instance, we ought to repudiate it and move on.
Carey elaborated in an email: “Why is there this deep concern for a political party that has abandoned us? Does this linkage to party make these ideas more attractive? If the ideas are sound, why can’t they just stand by themselves?”
Indeed, conservatism is “deeper and more pervasive than any party,” a sensibility that is naturally incorporated into the mainstream. In Viereck’s words: “The answer is: children, don’t oversimplify, don’t pigeonhole: allow for pluralistic overlappings that defy abstract blueprints and labels.”
While the movement may continue its political huckstering for some time—in part because it is so profitable—the Republican Party has hit a wall. Meanwhile, the conservative temperament flourishes in scattered, improbable places. Could this fugitive existence be more authentic to conservatism?
Perhaps post-movement conservatism won’t accomplish much in practical political terms, but in nurturing a fertile intellectual tradition it may well do more good for the country than all the political campaigns of the last decade.
Maisie Allison is editorial director, digital of The American Conservative.