The Conservative Movements
Religion & Liberty commissioned George H. Nash, author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945, to assess what Nash characterizes as “the current intellectual drama on the right.” Since the Acton Institute just reposted this essay, it may be timely to ponder Nash’s perspective. In his judgment, “there will be no clearcut restoration of the Reaganite paradigm or the fusionist status quo that existed before 2016.” Rather the future will see “an attempt by mainstream conservative figures to refurbish the house of conservatism with a certain amount of Trumpian furniture but without Trump himself as the proprietor of the house.” This incorporation of alien elements must be done carefully but may also be unavoidable if conservatism is to survive: “Conservatives in the public arena will probably become somewhat less libertarian and anti-statist on economic and social policy and more anti-elitist as they try to nail down the working class vote at home and confront the economic and military threat from China.”
Nash believes that something of great worth is slipping away. It is the conservative movement, as understood by this historian and conservative establishmentarian, one that took shape with National Review under the stewardship of William F. Buckley and then culminated in the Reagan Revolution and the conservative initiatives that came out of Reagan’s presidency: “From the perspective of a historian, this flowering of applied conservatism, this institutionalization of conservative discourse and advocacy is a remarkable and laudable development. Since the 1960s, what has been called a conservative parallel universe has arisen in America and it continues to expand. It should not be cavalierly disparaged.”
As a historian who has written almost as much as Nash on American conservatism, but whose work has rattled “Conservatism, Inc.,” allow me to present a very different view. Nash writes as a defender of the Conservative Movement, which is almost entirely distinct from the conservative movement, lower case. These two entities have sometimes intersected but usually remained apart and often at war. In the second edition of his magisterial work on American conservatism, which appeared in 1996, Nash entitled his last chapter “Can the Center Hold?” That chapter describes as dispassionately as Nash could the battle that was then raging between a conservative movement already falling under neoconservative domination and their paleoconservative adversaries. It is a no brainer who won that shootout, because of superior resources and more influential contacts. Not surprisingly, the paleos no longer merit Nash’s attention in his assessment of the right. Nash may be treating this group as ousted heretics who stood in the way of the one sacred faith. Heretics are to be expelled, not put in the company of believers.
Moreover, the true faith is supposed to remain unchanging in its doctrine, which is exactly how Nash depicts the Movement. Supposedly it has stood tall for the same principles and causes since its inception in the 1950s and has been occupying the same “parallel universe” in relation to the same left since the 1960s. It was in response to the heretics that a gathering took place at New York’s Union Club on January 22,1990, which brought together the Movement’s notables. At that holy convocation, which included WFB, Norman Podhoretz, and Edwin Feulner of Heritage, it was learned that “certain people were not invited because they attacked the people who were there.” An “Agenda for the Nineties” that Buckley brought with him laid out detailed plans for how the Movement would develop in the coming decade. Integral to this plan for growth was marginalizing paleoconservative troublemakers.
That was how the Movement in the 1990s dealt with dissent on the right. But even then, it differed ideologically from what it had been in the 1960s. Back then the Movement, grouped around National Review, was generally critical of Civil Rights activists, including Martin Luther King, featured pro-Confederate contributors, and sometimes wrote scathingly about Israel. National Review was founded in 1955, as we learn from Nash’s own scholarship, by anti-Communist defenders of Senator Joe McCarthy, like WFB, Brent Bozell, Willi Schlamm, and Frank Meyer. The Conservative Movement today is certainly well to the left of where it was in the 1960s on almost every social issue, just as Ronald Reagan was more sympathetic to the welfare state than such earlier conservative heroes as Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater.
What Nash is really celebrating is the “institutionalization” and expansion of the Movement, which is now far richer and enjoys more media outreach than it did 20 years ago. But that does not mean the Movement has been promoting the same positions since the 1960s or that the fusionist combination of economic libertarianism and moral traditionalism that Nash recommends to us looks the same now as when Nash brought out the first edition of his history in 1976.
There is another omission in Nash’s analysis that should be pointed out. Although the Movement has become the most visible and most well-heeled opposition to a left that continues to move leftward, it hardly embraces all conservative resistance. There is also a much looser conservative movement made up of a wide variety of résistants, many of them unacceptable to the Movement and in some cases consisting of those whom the Movement has purged. These groups range from the so-called alt-right and neo-reactionaries to paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians. At least some of these opponents of the left have rallied to the populist right, together with more establishment conservatives of the Claremont Institute, The American Conservative, and First Things. This degree of cooperation among authorized and non-authorized conservatives on behalf of an evolving populist cause may not be entirely to Nash’s liking.
Most significantly, Nash understates the amount of conflict that has characterized the history of the Movement. Purges have not been a minor feature of that history but, as the contributors to The Vanishing Tradition contend, a defining feature. The conservative coalition that Buckley forged came about not just through a fusion of older conservative traditions. That coalition took shape partly because of Buckley’s removal of isolationist conservatives who rejected his Cold War bellicosity. In the 1950s and 1960s, these purges occurred only occasionally and typically over the protracted struggle with world Communism. But they took on a greater significance in later years.
This practice reached its apogee when the neoconservatives came to power in the 1980s and 1990s. Thereafter driving away the undesirables became a common Movement practice. Nash would have us believe that there was an aspect of permanence attached to his institutionalized conservatism before the populist intruders began raising holy hell. What he conveniently leaves out of the Movement’s history are the purges and changing party lines. Perhaps even more relevant, some of those whom the Movement drove away then came back as a populist opposition.
By the way, Nash’s association of “homeschooling networks” and “classical Christian academies” with the Movement is not at all apparent to me. Such enterprises would likely be operating through local and family initiatives even in the absence of the Movement’s institutional presence. Such communal and family activities prospered long before the Movement’s agglomeration of business and media interests came into existence. Of course, we may be sure that the Washington’s “conservative foundation community” want members of this “vibrant counterculture” to stress its interests and mirror its talking points.
The danger that Nash may fear is that the long-scorned movement may take revenge on his Movement. But I doubt this will be a total victory because of a continuing imbalance of power. Although it is hard to imagine replications of what happened in New York’s Union Club in 1990, the Movement will follow Nash’s advice and try to coopt populism without Trump’s “counterrevolutionary tone.” The Movement people enjoy staggering media and financial resources. We needn’t be surprised that members of that group got into Trump’s administration and influenced what was advertised as populist politics. Fox News celebrities now marinate the public in populist slogans; the very conventional Steve Hilton runs a populist program on Sunday night in which the host parades around in a bowling shirt reeling off populist rhetoric, and although most of his guests are recycled Fox-personalities from other programs, they all sound like wannabe populists.
Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 14 books, most recently Antifascism: The Course of a Crusade.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated as it incorrectly stated that Nash’s essay had appeared in Law & Liberty. In fact it appeared in Religion & Liberty. We regret the error.