Allan Carlson, the conservative scholar of the family, gave a really interesting lecture about American conservatism in 2008, but I’m only now seeing it. It begins:
I have been troubled for over a decade by the growing interest of American conservatives in the history of their cause. This is not to criticize fine books such as George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Nor is it to imply that ignorance is the better strategy for guiding a cultural, political, and intellectual campaign. Nor is it to deny that any movement calling itself “conservative” must, by definition, have a healthy — even determinative — regard for the past.
My concern is over a kind of triumphalism that has crept into American conservatism, a neo-Hegelian view that sees this cause rising out of the intellectual rubble of the Truman era, destined by the spirit to history to create mass publications, to control the radio airwaves, to found great think tanks, and to dominate a political party. This version of history sees the apotheosis of the movement in the creation of FOX News. This has actually tended, I believe, toward a narrowing of thought, and a closing off of healthy debate.
Wait, why does a professionally trained historian and a conservative worry over conservatives having interest in the history of conservatism? Here’s where it gets interesting. Carlson takes his listeners on an abbreviated but informative tour of postwar American conservatism. If you don’t know this history, it’s well worth your time to read at least this portion of Carlson’s lecture. Liberal or conservative, it will help you understand the tensions within factions of contemporary conservatism — and why a renewal of conservatism today requires a deeper knowledge of the history of intellectual conservatism than today’s conservatives may realize. Among the tensions, says Carlson:
• Traditionalists were troubled by the libertarians’ lack of respect for the transcendent moral order and by what they saw as the neo-conservatives’ messianic view of foreign policy.
• Libertarians distrusted the traditionists’ call for order, the neo-Conservative faith in government, an activist foreign policy, and war, and Religious Right’s insistence on a normative family structure.
• Neo-conservatives were put off by what they considered the musty Toryism of the traditionalists, by the libertarian faith in a spontaneous international order, and by the anti-intellectualism of the religious Right.
• The Religious Right saw libertarians as “libertines” and constantly found Christian “Main Street” values subordinated to “Wall Street” priorities.
Carlson goes on:
In foreign affairs, the United States is caught in two Middle Eastern wars. While matters have surely improved in Iraq — more through short-term deals cut with tribal sheikhs and ethnic leaders than through military victories — while Iraq is better, the situation in Afghanistan steadily deteriorates.
And in economics, the United States is in an odd and oddly crippling recession, triggered by financial speculation in American housing and insurance markets and reverberating around the globe.
Fairly or not, American conservatism as defined by the Reagan coalition appears to be taking the ideological fall, so-to-speak, for these circumstances, particularly for the consequences of the Bush Doctrine in foreign affairs and of deregulation in the economic sphere. As conservatives reassemble in the post-Reagan era, I suspect that a new variation, a different kind of coalition, may be necessary. What might it look like? Alas, that is the arena of the futurist, not the historian. However, there have been other “conservative” possibilities in the past, paths that were not followed. Perhaps one or more of these might help provide a more coherent response to the new circumstances of our time.
He then discusses those paths. Read the whole thing. I especially liked this insight about communitarianism and the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet:
A second less-travelled path was conservative communitarianism, a defense of society’s little platoons, a suspicion of all big entities, including the great corporations and the national security state. While prefigured in Burke and also to be found in Russell Kirk, this orientation received full expression in the work of sociologist Robert Nisbet. His 1953 book Quest for Community focused on “the individual uprooted, without status, struggling for revelations of meaning, seeking fellowship in some kind of moral community.” Nisbet dissected what he called the “ideology of economic freedom” falsely built on an atomistic view of human nature. He argued that “the so-called free market never [really] existed at all save in the imaginations of the rationalists.” The 19th century capitalist system seemed to work, Nisbet asserted, only because it had inherited the moral capital of truly natural communities — the family, the village, the church — “which had nothing whatsoever to do with the essence of capitalism.” Direct social affiliation alone brought acceptable order: “Not all the asserted advantages of mass production and corporate bigness will save capitalism if its purposes become impersonal and remote, separated from the symbols and relationships that have meaning in human life.”
Carlson believed, as did many of us, that the devastating recession and the decisive Republican defeat in 2008 would bring about a real moment of reflection and reform on the Right. Didn’t happen. Not gonna happen soon. But will happen eventually. Conservative members of the Millennial generation would do well to read Kirk, Nisbet … and Carlson.