Barron YoungSmith, over at TNR’s Plank, suggests that leftists should study conservatism, or more accurately the conservative movement, and laments that public school students don’t learn enough about the Right. What the public does know about conservatism is wrong, he contends, blaming among others Russell Kirk for giving “the misimpression that modern conservatism is simply a cautious cast of mind, no different from the conservatism of Burke or Eliot.”
One might charitably describe this take as oversimplified: Kirk, writing in the early 1950s, was not describing the modern conservative movement at all in The Conservative Mind, and what he was describing was not “simply a cautious cast of mind.” I can forgive YoungSmith his errors, though, since he’s indirectly paying tribute to the role of traditionalists and paleoconservatives in preserving the Right’s intellectual estate. Indeed, he writes, “whenever anyone does try to read up about the conservative movement, he is inevitably handed Kirk’s book–along, perhaps, with a copy of Patrick Buchanan’s A Republic, Not An Empire, or something similarly misleading–and hustled off to learn nothing about his intended subject.”
Well, it’s true: paleos and trads care a lot more about the Right’s intellectual history than the neocons or Republican establishment do, and unfortunately one usually won’t get a very good sense of the latter from reading the former — though Paul Gottfried’s The Conservative Movement and Robert Nisbet’s Conservatism: Dream and Reality are exceptions, being the two best overviews in print of conservatism as a movement and as a social philosophy. (Although actually, I’m not so sure that Gottfried’s book is still in print.)
There are a number of good non-paleo histories of the conservative political movement, though: I reviewed two of them, Al Regnery’s Upstream and Donald Critchlow’s The Conservative Ascendancy, in TAC a few months back. Critchlow’s study is a non-ideological, scholarly history of the Right. Another one, coming in June from the Atlantic Monthly Press, is Allan Lichtman’s White Protestant Nation ( which I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say whether it’s any good). In fact, these are boom times for academic literature on conservatism: Julian Zelizer and Bruce Schulman, for example, have recently published a scholarly volume examining conservatism in the 1970s. I could name many more books along similar lines; these are just a few that have crossed my desk recently.
Ironically enough, if liberals take up YoungSmith’s challenge, they might quickly find themselves knowing more about the Right than the typical movement conservative does. And who knows? If they approach the history with an open mind — not what YoungSmith recommends, to be sure — they might come not only to understand the difference between conservatism and the conservative movement but to find something attractive in the former.