Conservatives have long taken for granted their place on the right of the political spectrum. But as the organized Right, in the form of the Republican Party, has hitched its wagon to big business and big government in the decades since World War II, some unconventional voices on the American Left have spoken up for the traditionally conservative causes of decentralism, prudent government, and foreign-policy restraint. This “left conservatism” owes its name to Norman Mailer, but it has deep roots in American history. And now that so much of the official Right has been co-opted by advocates of a materialistic consumer culture—to be maintained by a military empire—the time may be ripe for conservatives to look in a new direction.
They might begin by turning to William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko. Williams, the pre-eminent historian of American diplomacy, served as ideological godfather to the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s while teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kolko, who was influenced by Williams, has long been an incisive critic of the Progressive Era and its relationship to the American empire. Both men spent their entire careers on the Left, yet their arguments more often parallel the small-town conservatism of the Old Right than the corporate ideology of conventional liberalism.
While Williams and Kolko were noninterventionists in foreign policy, they were decidedly realistic in their tone and approach. Instead of grounding their anti-imperialism on typical Leftist complaints about collateral damage, both men focused their criticisms on the consequences of military adventurism on the character of the United States. Taking a decidedly America First tack, Williams went so far as to suggest that the American imperial mindset was a greater threat to its own citizens than to the denizens of the Third World:
[T]he cost of empire is not properly tabulated in the dead and maimed, or in the wasted resources, but rather in the loss of our vitality as citizens. We have increasingly eased to participate in the process of self-government. … Finally we deny any responsibility; and as part of that ultimate abdication of our birthright, indignantly deny that the United States is or ever was an empire.
Williams noted that by the turn of the 20th century American culture “had been unable, after almost 300 years, to develop any conception of success—or fulfillment—except the idiom of the endless chase itself.” Imperialism, for Williams, was thus not just a matter of foreign policy. It also meant “the loss of sovereignty—control—over essential issues and decisions by a largely agricultural society to an industrial metropolis” here at home, and Williams feared it might be an ineradicable part of our modern way of life. Still, Williams distinguished between the “soft imperialism” of diplomacy and military preparedness and the “hard imperialism” of overt conquest. The prophets of “soft imperialism” were not bleeding-heart liberals or supporters of the New Deal; they were men like John Quincy Adams and the hero of Williams’s work, the realist and internationalist Herbert Hoover.
Williams saw Hoover’s statecraft as the thoughtful work of an American patriot who was interested in maintaining Americans’ standards of living without sacrificing undue amounts of blood and treasure. Believing that his countrymen understood “freedom” as an ideal inextricably linked with material abundance, Williams was at his pragmatic best when describing nonviolent approaches to securing foreign markets. Admittedly, any attempt to resurrect the legacy of Herbert Hoover would be a massive undertaking, and a lesser scholar than Williams might have been accused of contrarianism for trying to redeem the 29th president’s reputation. But Williams was undeterred.
Salvaging Hoover was not Williams’s only noble, if quixotic, project. He also advocated a return to the Articles of Confederation. Not only did he see the U.S. under the Articles as a relatively anti-imperial era, he also believed that the strong localism made possible under the Articles was the only form of governance suitable to real Americans living real lives. Williams’s belief that the Articles were “grounded in the idea and ideal of self-determined communities” is perfectly consistent both with the anti-imperial philosophy of the New Left and the Old Right’s traditional conservatism of hearth and home.
For Gabriel Kolko, the enemy has always been what sociologist Max Weber called “political capitalism”—that is, “the accumulation of private capital and fortunes via booty connected with politics.” In Kolko’s eyes, “America’s capacity and readiness to intervene virtually anywhere” pose a grave danger both to the U.S. and the world. Kolko has made it his mission to study the historical roots of how this propensity for intervention came to be. He was also one of the first historians to take on the regulatory state in a serious way. Kolko’s landmark work, The Triumph of Conservatism, is an attempt to link the Progressive Era policies of Theodore Roosevelt to the national-security state left behind in the wake of his cousin Franklin’s presidency.
Kolko’s indictment of what he calls “conservatism” is not aimed at the Southern Agrarianism of Richard Weaver or the Old Right individualism of Albert Jay Nock. In fact, Kolko’s thesis—that big government and big business consistently colluded to regulate small American artisans and farmers out of existence—has much in common with libertarian and traditionalist critiques of the corporatist state. The “national progressivism” that Kolko attacks was, in his own words, “the defense of business against the democratic ferment that was nascent in the states.” Coming of age in the ’50s and ’60s, Kolko saw firsthand the destruction of the “permanent things” as the result of the merging of Washington, D.C. and Wall Street. A sense of place and rootedness lingers just beneath the surface of his work.
Kolko remains a quasi-Marxist to this day, but his writing represents a kind of fusionism—not of so much of Left and Right as of libertarianism and populism. At times he even sounds like the “Jeffersonian conservative” historian Clyde Wilson. Kolko can also bring to mind the 18th-century agrarian John Taylor of Caroline, whom Wilson once described as representing “both a conservative allegiance to local community and inherited ways and a radical-populist suspicion of capitalism, ‘progress,’ government and routine logrolling politics.”
The Triumph of Conservatism and other works of Kolko’s scholarship furnish a poignant reminder that the original progressives of Theodore Roosevelt’s time were big-city bureaucrats and elitist Republicans, and that wing of the GOP has a long history of enthusiasm for American militarism. Under the proud banner of President William McKinley, Republicans developed a foreign policy grounded firmly on the principles of empire, substituting a global Manifest Destiny in place of the Monroe Doctrine. “Progressive Republican”—John McCain notwithstanding—is a label altogether out of fashion today. But the movement conservatism that overtook the Republican Party during the Cold War now pursues a foreign policy every bit as interventionist as TR’s progressivism.
To Kolko and Williams, this Cold War mindset was just the most recent manifestation of the quest for unlimited growth that has so grossly altered the landscape of American life for so long. Foreign policy became a fulfillment of American excess, or to paraphrase the title of Williams’s most overtly political work, “empire” became “a way of life” for much of the American Right. But the real targets of left-wing scholars Kolko and Williams are not libertarians and individualists of the Old Right or even the small-town conservatism of Russell Kirk or the Nashville Agrarians. On the contrary: these varieties of Left and conservative are more in agreement with one another than not. They are de facto allies in a war against empire, bigness, and the most pernicious doctrine of them all, American Exceptionalism.
Outlining the conservative worth of Williams and Kolko is neither hard nor foolhardy for any serious man of the Right. Libertarian historian Ralph Raico has leaned heavily on the works of both men, and conservative foreign-policy scholar Andrew J. Bacevich has asked the same questions about “American freedom and American abundance” as Williams, a man who laid the groundwork for much of his analysis. The reluctance of many conservatives to find common cause with men of the Left who just happen to be right—on some of the most pressing issues of our age—is a habit of mind well worth breaking.
Nearly 30 years ago, Williams asked if it was “possible to create and sustain a democratic culture without conquering or otherwise controlling and wasting a grossly inequitable share of social space and resources?” As the Republic of old continues to crumble and the GOP descends further into corruption and authoritarianism, it may be time for those on the Right to set their prejudices aside and ask a pressing question of their own: “What is Left?”
Dylan Hales is a freelance writer from Charleston, South Carolina. His blog, The Left Conservative, can be found at www.leftconservativeblog .blogspot.com.
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