Had conservatism a Cassandra, she might, amidst the current mood of triumph, point out that whereas 50 years ago the American Right boasted several political theorists destined to exert a lasting influence, today it has not one to its credit. In the 1950s and ’60s, James Burnham, Richard Weaver, Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa, Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, and Willmoore Kendall (among others) were all at the apex of their powers. No figure of similar stature remains.
To be sure, this does not mean that conservatism has gone into intellectual decline. We may, on the contrary, be living through the high summer of conservative ideas in America. If in 1950 all the right-wing intellectuals in America could fit into a single living room, today they could fill Madison Square Garden; if in 1950 one could read their combined monthly output in a single sitting, today one could not possibly keep abreast of the voluminous popular and scholarly literature that they produce. From journalism, politics, and law to religion, economics, and international relations, self-identified right-wingers abound.
Nonetheless, while the American Right may not have been losing candlepower, it has been deploying it in different ways. A half century ago, Willmoore Kendall proclaimed that he would become the American Burke. He meant at least three things: first, that America had lacked a genius to trace for all time the lineaments of an American conservative tradition; second, that an American conservative tradition nonetheless existed; and, third, and that he alone could midwife it into self-consciousness.
Nor was Kendall alone. Several of his coevals were contending to become the Father of American Conservatism. Russell Kirk made the cover of Time after The Conservative Mind rediscovered—some would say imagined—a Burkean sensibility in American politics. Others, imbued with Cold War foreboding, sought to define all that European civilization stood for in the hope of averting what they called the “crisis of the West.” In their warnings against liberalism and socialism, Richard Weaver, Whittaker Chambers, Leo Strauss, and Eric Voegelin assumed the prophetic office. “Put away thine abominations,” they warned, “lest the Lord’s fury come forth like fire.”
No similar figure exists today. At the end of his life, Kendall was writing a book that he hoped would demolish his rivals’ claims to have understood American conservatism. He need not have bothered; there is no “American Burke” from whom all conservative ideas in this country derive. Rather, the achievement of Kendall and his brethren was collective: together, they left behind a set of doctrines assumed to constitute the essence of American conservatism—limited government, anti-utopianism, free-market economics, patriotism, traditional morality and religion, federalism, anticommunism, and belief in “absolutes.”
Few today wish to reinterpret these doctrines, much less re-evaluate them. Though every year the conservative movement raises thousands of aspiring intellectuals, they have no interest in creating a new intellectual synthesis. If they go into academia or the think-tank world, they contribute to research projects long under way; if they go into journalism, they defend an established editorial line. In blogosphere parlance, they become “instapundits,” not philosophers.
Meanwhile, young conservatives—in contrast to the anticommunists of the 1950s and the neoconservatives of the 1970s—rarely come to right-wing ideas through any kind of epiphany. Rather, they inherit their conservatism from parents or grandparents. Through generously funded seminars and think-tank internships, they study the canon of conservative thought: The Road to Serfdom, Ideas Have Consequences, Capitalism and Freedom, The Conservative Mind, Witness, Atlas Shrugged, In Defense of Freedom, The Closing of the American Mind, and others. These works, almost all written in the 1940s, ’50s, and ‘60s, define the ideology they are charged with advancing.
Meanwhile, though the conservative counter-establishment still occasionally raises hackles, liberals have become increasingly accustomed to it. In the 1990s, Hillary Clinton posited the existence of a “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy,” an epithet become so hackneyed because it is not altogether inaccurate. Today, by contrast, leftists write thoughtful histories of the conservative movement 30 years after William Rusher and George Nash wrote theirs. Even Ronald Reagan has been apotheosized.
In recognition of this trend, the New York Times recently established a conservative beat whereby one reporter, rather than dismiss conservatives as malevolent extremists, tries to discover what they are actually thinking. Like all journalists, to make sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world, he settles on what seems to him the most interesting theory: every disagreement among conservatives augurs the opening of ideological fissures. Hence, the Times regularly treats its readers to stories on conservative debates and suggests that we will see more of them in the future.
The conservative establishment invariably reacts with hoots of derision. Silly Gray Lady, didn’t you know that we have always had debates among ourselves? Then they congratulate themselves for tolerating opposing points of view—unlike those rigid liberals at the Times.
Neither side bothers to observe that conservatives lost interest in internal debate 30 years ago, when the nature of American conservatism remained an open question. Since then, the possibility of a “crack-up” has grown more remote, not less. Fresh debates among right-wingers still occur, but rarely at the highest theoretical level. Gone are the days when Kendall could accuse Weaver of “ill-tempered name-calling” or Burnham could call Meyer “the perfect ideologue.” Meanwhile, like Ixion’s wheel, the disputes of 40 years ago grind on.
Yet few worry that conservatism will go flabby. The tenets have already been settled, they think; all that is left is to promote them. Conservatives already know what they believe and no longer need anyone to explain it for them. Others accomplished that great and arduous work a generation ago.
Given this philosophical complacency, one would think that Kirk, Hayek, and others (including eccentric outsiders such as R.J. Rushdoony, L. Brent Bozell, and Ayn Rand) had left behind a commanding legacy. One would expect that, like Burke, they had articulated ideas so powerful that they can only be contended with, not refuted. Americans have produced such ideas before: the pragmatism of C.S. Peirce and William James, for example, recurs so often in so many fields of inquiry as to constitute a permanent mode of thinking.
Has conservatism achieved this exalted stature? If we are honest, we must answer no.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, conservatives sought not just to refute modern liberalism but to obliterate it. Thus they charged that liberals were not merely wrong but were trying to “immanentize the eschaton”—an ancient heresy! (Voegelin) Or that they were in the grip of William of Occam—an insidious 13th-century Simon Magus! (Weaver) Or they were contemptible second-handers—sub-human weaklings! (Rand) And so on. Each conservative writer claimed to have uncovered the Holy Grail—the argument or principle that would expose the errors of liberalism (and communism, socialism, feminism, etc.) once and for all.
Since then, while American conservatives have retained their passion for Big Ideas, their passion for the biggest idea of all—the Holy Grail that will refute liberalism—has waned. Most simply assume that the Grail has already been found. Thus, they breezily dismiss liberals with some of their favorite epithets—“rationalists,” “relativists,” “statists,” “utopians,” or “historicists.” (Sometimes they could hardly be more inapt. A person who regards government health care as a human right, for example, is not a “relativist” but an arch-moralist.) Never mind that liberals, nonplussed by the vituperative quality of right-wing thought, themselves reject these labels. Someone out there has already proved that one or another will stick.
Yet the Holy Grail has not been found. One can still find lapel-grabbing right-wingers who will argue late into the night that their favorite thinker has figured everything out for all time. (My personal favorite: certain libertarians believe that Alan Gewirth, a now forgotten philosopher of the 1970s, showed how the rightness of limited government derives ultimately from Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction.) This is not the place to take up the argument with them. I only wish to observe, as an empirical matter, that no one person’s ideas actually define American conservatism. If English conservatism is nothing other than Burkeanism, American conservatism is not Rothbardianism, Randianism, Jaffaism, or Hayekianism.
Indeed, the more a right-winger exalts one set of ideas, the more marginal he becomes; by contrast, the more foggy he remains about what the Holy Grail is, the more influence he can have. Thus, on the one extreme, the votaries of Ayn Rand refuse to talk to right-wingers who do not take Rand’s works as gospel; somewhere in the middle, “Claremont conservatives” sometimes castigate those who do not share their enthusiasm for the Declaration of Independence, yet stop short of trying to expunge them from the movement; finally, intellectual omnivores such as Buckley never allow themselves to be identified with one conservative theorist or another. In the end, nearly all the competing schools of thought manage to co-operate.
Conservatism has reached an unacknowledged consensus about the outcome of the theoretical debates of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The consensus holds, first, that someone has discovered the Holy Grail that will vindicate conservatism once and for all, otherwise why be a conservative in the first place? Second, it holds that, whatever the Grail actually is, it does not do any good to describe it with too much specificity. These beliefs contradict each other, yet the conservative consensus has proved remarkably stable.
Take, as a case study, libertarianism. Unlike most other right-wingers, libertarians have a distinct idea of what they stand for: less government. They also have, in free-market economics, the Right’s most fruitful research program and, in F.A. Hayek, the only recent right-wing theorist to command serious attention from the Left. What libertarians do not have, however, is a comprehensive argument for their ideology.
Their failure to uncover this argument stems from no lack of trying. Even more than other right-wingers, libertarians love abstract debates over why their views are correct. Richard Epstein, for example, the brilliant libertarian law professor at the University of Chicago, subtitled his latest book, A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism. It is his third contribution to the literature of libertarian apologetics, a somewhat occult genre dating back to the 1920s.
To put it bluntly, the genre is a failure. No economic model can prove that government interference in the economy by nature tends to do harm. While economics can show that some government programs will fail—rent control, say, or confiscatory tax rates—it cannot show that all government programs will fail. As for the various moral arguments for libertarianism, they are even weaker. Liberal theorists such as Ronald Dworkin and Amartya Sen have long since shown that libertarians simply fail to grasp the full dimensions of equal liberty, which does not demand, as libertarians would have it, that everyone should be equally free to starve, but that everyone should have a fair chance to pursue his goals freely. This principle may require a more active government than libertarians would allow.
Most libertarians are chagrined, of course, to hear that they cannot justify their political views. The best-informed among them, however, know that no comprehensive argument for limited government exists. Hence, Richard Epstein acknowledges in Skepticism and Freedom: The Modern Case for Classical Liberalism that recent scholarship has undermined the case for limited government—but nonetheless proffers the hope that classical liberalism can be vindicated once more. Charles Murray, in his 1996 book, What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, made not the definitive argument for libertarianism but rather the argument that he thought would go furthest in convincing the non-libertarian. The most intelligent libertarians, in short, know libertarianism remains an ideology. Nevertheless, they still self-identify as libertarian, perhaps because they remain convinced that the decisive argument is just fingertips away.
What is true of libertarians is true of American conservatives in general. The wisest conservatives know that the Grail remains beyond their grasp. Yet, like Arthurian knights of old, they never give up hope that it is there.
Some may read this description of the American Right with bemused impatience. Conservatism doesn’t need a master-philosopher; to the lofty theoretical disputes of the 1950s and ’60s, they say good riddance. Perhaps they are correct: American conservatism doesn’t need a Holy Grail. Nonetheless, conservatives should not let the intellectual restlessness of their early years give way to decadent complacency. It has happened before in American political life—to American liberalism—with unhappy consequences both for liberalism and the nation.
The story of liberalism’s decline is often rehearsed these days, by rueful liberals and gleeful conservatives alike. Few, however, tell the more interesting story of liberalism’s ascendance. The vague sense still prevails that liberalism grew naturally out of 19th-century progressivism before culminating in the New Deal and reaching apogee in the Kennedy administration. This view owes less to history, however, than to liberals’ conceit that theirs is the crowning American ideology.
Liberalism began not as an outgrowth of progressivism but as a reaction to it. The progressive movement, born out of fear of the centralizing tendencies of the Industrial Revolution, lacked intellectual foundations. Its leaders favored a farrago of policies that pitted the farmer against the urban sophisticate, the common man against the plutocrat, the native American versus the immigrant, and traditional religion against modern corruption. Progressives spoke the language of evangelical revival, famously exemplified by William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech. Often literally, they called on their fellow citizens to repent and return to the Lord.
As the Progressive Era waned, liberals viewed these populist enthusiasms with dismay. The people, in their view, remained stubbornly benighted, saw political problems in naïve moralistic terms, and could not carry out the project of reform. Accordingly, liberalism’s leading intellects began to fashion a new ideology that called for elite social scientists, rather than a virtuous populace, to address the problems of the modern world.
In his 1922 classic, Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann argued that ordinary people lacked the intellectual resources necessary for even the feeblest grasp of modern complexities. A piqued John Dewey then responded with The Public and Its Problems, billed as a refutation of Lippmann. It turns out, however, that Dewey conceded nearly all of Lippmann’s points. The best he could contribute was the vague hope that with sufficient education, the people might eventually become capable of democratic government. Though Dewey’s mind macerated in vacuous abstractions such as “democracy” and “experience,” in the end his views differed little from Lippmann’s: in Deweyan as in Lippmannian democracy, elite social scientists should rule.
Liberalism came of age in the New Deal, which finally succeeded in replacing representative government with a European-style administrative state, staffed by the nation’s ablest, most idealistic men. After World War II, when the national mood no longer favored reform, liberals turned to an even more elite institution—the Supreme Court—to continue remaking American society. For a generation, liberalism so dominated American life that, while conservatives saw conservatism as the taste of a saving remnant, liberals became convinced that their ideology expressed the natural sentiments of the American people.
Intellectual sclerosis, however, soon set in. Second-tier intellects such as Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith took over from Lippmann and Dewey and began to take liberal ideology as a given. They proposed not new ways of understanding the world but new ways of advancing liberalism. In the hour of their triumph, liberals became blind to their own ideological shortcomings, which later became all too manifest.
The rest of the story is well-known: in the 1960s and ’70s, liberalism ran up against the “limits of social policy,” failed to respond to crime and urban decay, lost its appetite for resisting Communism, exacerbated racial tension with policies based on wishful thinking, and surrendered the commanding heights of culture to New Left radicals. At the same time, liberals alienated ordinary people with their sympathy for criminals, race-rioters, anti-Americans, and moral libertines. As Nixon put it, the Democrats became the party of acid, amnesty, and abortion. They have been losing power ever since.
That same intellectual complacency may afflict the conservative movement today. (The reader may identify for himself where the blind spots exist and which will become conservatism’s undoing.) Happily, however, original thinking on the Right can still be found. I can think of three examples.
On the libertarian side, a small group of academics affiliated with the journal Critical Review is quietly working a revolution. They forthrightly acknowledge that neither free-market economics nor moral philosophy have produced a comprehensive argument for libertarianism. Nonetheless, they argue, limited government is still preferable because it mitigates the problem of public ignorance.
The majority of voters in a mass democracy, they reason, are stunningly ignorant of even the most basic political information. Moreover, to the extent that their voting behavior can be rationalized, they employ heuristics of the most obtuse sort: “Candidate X cares about people like me.” As for the tiny but relatively well-informed elite, they too have limited intellectual resources for understanding current politics. Hence, they rely on naïve heuristics such as “Republicans are greedy, religious fanatics” or “liberals are hypocrites who only care about making themselves feel better.”
The reliance on such heuristics can perhaps be explained in terms of rational economic decision-making—in that there is not enough time in the day to bother to learn much about politics—but, more deeply, in terms of evolutionary psychology. The human mind is too primitive to understand the complexities of modern politics. Democratic politics thus present a choice between the ideological rigidity of the elites and the sheer incompetence of the masses. We can escape this predicament only by reducing the role of government in our lives.
Only a small coterie of academics has any acquaintance with the ideas explored in Critical Review. This is no doubt the way they like it. With their thoroughgoing critique of modern democracy and their imperviousness to sentimental, patriotic gestures, their views will probably never become popular. Salutary reform in their minds can only occur at the behest of a knowledgeable and hidden elite.
Second, a loose network of what John O’Sullivan has called “evolutionary conservatives” attempts to understand politics in light of genetic science. Unlike many conservatives, evolutionary conservatives remain undaunted by the apoplectic reaction of liberals to Charles Murray’s Bell Curve and Dinesh D’Souza’s End of Racism. Steve Sailer, for example, the most talented evolutionary conservative, writes with rigor and imagination on such scabrous topics as race, IQ, voting patterns, and national identity. Though other writers treat these ideas as taboo, perhaps because they seem to undermine American ideals of equality and self-reliance, evolutionary conservatives pride themselves on preferring truth to wishful thinking.
This attitude enables them to understand affirmative action and identity politics in a way that others cannot. More timid conservatives believe that if only we embraced the American Creed with sufficient fervor, we would become a color-blind society at last. As Thomas Sowell observes, however, every country that has racial or ethnic groups of differing economic achievement has adopted a system of preferences. Race relations seem to have an irreducibly tragic dimension; identity politics may well be a permanent feature of all multiethnic societies, often, as in Bosnia, Rwanda, or Sri Lanka (and perhaps Iraq) with calamitous results. Human biodiversity is important; we owe it to ourselves to try to understand it.
Finally, techno-skeptic conservatives, such as those who write for the journal The New Atlantis, are rallying to the defense of human nature. In essence, they spin clever arguments against things that people want, such as greater longevity and bodily health, on the grounds that they negate the nobler aspects of human life—love, honor, and piety.
With their frequent invocations of Huxley’s Brave New World and C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, techno-skeptics sometimes write as if they have indeed found the conservative Holy Grail. Thus they identify the Fundamental Error of Liberalism with an attempt to deny people their full humanity and to obscure the truth of who we really are. The techno-skeptics in essence accuse liberals of extreme misanthropy. Fair or not, this view has inspired some provocative thinking about what conservatives really stand for.
These three sources of fresh ideas on the Right have certain features in common. First, a preoccupation with modern science. Compared to them, the canonical works of postwar conservatism seem woolly and abstract. This is not surprising: the Cold War gave conservatives an armed ideological enemy, which provoked an ideological response. Second, the three schools are all either forthrightly or implicitly elitist. Like conservatives of the ‘40s and ‘50s, they do not expect that their ideas will be popular.
This elitism, perhaps an electoral handicap, is an intellectual strength. Original thinking often flourishes under conditions of intellectual marginality. Unfortunately, the conservative movement, having discovered a mass audience, risks squandering the intellectual marginality that once made it so interesting and daring.
In future years, it may take a smaller, elite group of right-wingers to animate conservative ideas once more.
Austin Bramwell is a lawyer in New York City.