In the 1950’s, American conservatives, subscribing to what Clinton Rossiter called the “thankless persuasion,” were a hard-shelled, pig-eyed lot who took no prisoners and asked no quarter. National Review, in a once-famous but now largely forgotten editorial in its premier issue, vowed that its mission was to stand athwart history and cry stop. Admittedly, this was hardly the most fetching advertisement with which to inaugurate a political and intellectual movement, but it reveals the grim mentality of the American right of that era.
In the 1980’s, the new breed of conservatives, of whom Rep. Newt Gingrich and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp are representative, is at pains to distance itself from that mentality. Its exponents seize every opportunity to make known their differences with a school of thought and politics that scorned the enlargement of the state and the slogans of “mandate,” “crusade,” and “vision” that legitimized it. What is now somewhat deprecatingly called the Old Right despised the notion that the government should help redesign the society it was supposed to protect, expressed contempt for the Utopian effervescence of progressivism, and espoused a deep loyalty to and affection for its country and the historic culture and people who defined the country.
What some are calling “progressive conservatism” parts company with the Old Right on all these fronts. Last winter, during a Republican strategy conference at which Mr. Gingrich presided, the talk was all about how to sever whatever links remain between the conservatism of the past and the translucent future that the new Minority Whip wants to personify. “We’re going to have to start talking, for example, about civil rights and affirmative action [to appeal to black voters] in ways that we haven’t before and that may offend some conservatives,” one “key conservative theorist” was quoted as saying. “We have to have a caring, humanitarian, reform Republican Party,” said Mr. Gingrich himself, “that accepts the burden of being a governing conservatism, not just an opposition conservatism.” “We have to get over the hump of being the parsimonious, anti-compassion, anti-humanitarian party which really doesn’t care if people starve in the streets as long as the budget is balanced,” said Republican strategist Jeffrey Eisenach, one of Mr. Gingrich’s close advisers. “I never thought, frankly,” said New Right leader Paul Weyrich, “that I would sit in a Republican meeting and hear the terms ‘crusade to save the children.'”
Mr. Kemp, too, seems enthusiastic about the new role that the federal government will enjoy. Early in his brief-lived campaign for the presidency in 1987, Mr. Kemp promised that “‘Getting the government off the backs of the American people’ will be no one’s slogan in 1988. Making government more efficient and more effective will be the thing this time. I’ve never understood why conservatives positioned themselves against government.” Mr. Weyrich added, “the truth is that some of us believe in government activism. . . . too often, we have attempted to reject the obligation welfare represents, the obligation to the poor, the homeless, the unemployed and the disabled. . . . We accept the obligation welfare represents.”
The zest for government activism appears to be the center of the new conservative vision. That alone would dissociate it from the antistatist conservatism of the past, but more is involved in the transfiguration of the American right than a mere tactical change of instruments by which its political leaders may work their will.
The changes in thought and rhetoric that distinguish “progressive conservatism” from its predecessors of the Old Right reflect a significant social and demographic transformation of American political culture. Whereas Old Right conservatism was by and large the expression of the interests, values, and aspirations of the American bourgeois elite, the new political formulas express those of a relatively recent elite of urbanized, technocratic professionals who make their living and gain power and status in mass organizations. This new “managerial” elite, as James Burnham called it, displaced the older bourgeoisie as the dominant force in politics, the economy, and culture in the early 20th century. Between the Depression and the end of World War II it seized power at the national level, and in the 1960’s, through the New Frontier and the Great Society, embarked on what it thought would be the final mop-up of its bourgeois rival.
The new elite found a rationale for its aspirations to power in the ideology of liberalism, which offered justifications for the enlargement of the state and its fusion with other mass organizations—corporations and unions in the economy, mass universities, large foundations, and the mass media in the managerial cultural apparatus. The cosmopolitan and universalist ethos of liberalism served to challenge bourgeois moral and social codes and attachment to local and national institutions, while liberal meliorism and progressivism legitimized the new elite’s application of its technocratic and managerial skills to government, the economy, and society.
With the exhaustion and discrediting of liberal ideology in the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, the elite had to formulate a new ideology. This is where “progressive conservatism” comes in.
In the 1980’s, the younger members of the managerial elite came to be known as “yuppies,” and though they questioned many of the policies of New Deal-Great Society liberalism, they retained its cosmopolitan and essentially materialistic values and showed little hesitancy about using governmental power against persistent social and cultural institutions to create “openness,” “opportunity,” and “democracy.” They also became enamored of new technologies that seemed to promise all sorts of secular salvations, from the end of war and poverty to the global unification of government and culture, and that offered endless frontiers for the utilization of their esoteric skills.
“Progressive conservatism” and its ideological siblings are designed to capture and mobilize the young (now tending toward middle-aged) urban professionals of the managerial elite. The Republican Party may not need them to win elections—they have plain old Middle Americans, who have nowhere else to go, for that—but it does need them to govern. The federal government, the congressional staffs, and the think tanks and media institutions on which neoconservatives and progressive conservatives depend simply can’t operate without them.
The union of the Republican Party with the managerial elite and its apparatus in the government means the end of an era in American political culture. Bourgeois conservatism and its determination to stop history and get off has become a moribund political and intellectual force, because the social formation that supported it and the values and interests of which bourgeois conservatism was an expression are extinct or dying. The progressives come not to praise, let alone restore the bourgeois order, but to bury it; not to stand athwart history and cry stop but to clamber on board, toot the horn, and press the throttle full steam ahead. If there is to be any resistance to or restraint on the managerial state and its interminable war against what remains of American culture, it can come from neither the progressive conservatism of Gingrich and Kemp nor the bourgeois conservatism of the Old Right, but from some new force that has not yet taken shape.
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