Writing a history of recent American conservatism is not like writing a history of baseball or the Social Security system. There is fairly wide agreement about what constitutes baseball and Social Security; at issue are specific details. But there is little agreement about what American conservatism is. Not merely the rocks and bushes, but the very terrain remains undefined.
There have always been “conservatives” in America—Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about “the conservative” in the 1840’s. Throughout the 20th century there has been a recognizable right wing in American politics that included such figures as the late Ohio senator Robert Taft and Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. But until the late 1950’s there never was a self-identified “conservative movement.”
American conservatism was invented, not discovered. The politics of this movement were not simply borrowed from foreign models like the British Conservative Party, but were developed out of existing and sometimes obscure strands of American politics. And the different parts and tendencies of The Conservative Movement were held together not by a common essence, but sometimes frayed family ties. Thus, to define conservatism remains not simply a historical but a political act, and venturing out on this darkling plain even well-traveled scholars like Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming can become lost.
In this slim volume, Gottfried and Fleming display considerable sensitivity to writing about modern conservatism. Their narrative is filled with the different “isms” (traditionalism, neoconservatism) and the different “Rights” (New, Old) that have laid claim to the term “conservative.” They understand that conservatism was created in the 1950’s. They understand the seminal role played in that process by the disreputable senator from Wisconsin, Joseph “I have a list of 205 communists” McCarthy. And they also understand that the movement itself has gone through distinct stages since its inception—most importantly, the move toward the political center that took place after Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. This is commendable and makes The Conservative Movement a valuable commentary.
But Gottfried and Fleming, who belong themselves to a distinct “Old Right” fraction of conservatism, run into trouble drawing a line between history and commentary. In pressing their own conception of conservatism, they tend to magnify some strands of the conservative past and unduly shrink others. Two examples will suffice. Gottfried and Fleming appear to be uncomfortable with the populist pretensions of conservatives, and in describing the New Right, they claim that it “has learned to emphasize themes that are more populist than conservative.” Some of what Gottfried and Fleming then list as populist—like “fear and resentment of the Eastern establishment”—have broadly characterized the American right in the 20th century and were an integral part of the conservatism of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Goldwater, for instance, was fond of asking for a saw so that he could cut off the Atlantic seaboard.
A more significant example concerns the relationship between “traditionalism” and the “Old Right.” In the first chapters, Gottfried and Fleming argue perceptively that traditionalists’ defense of “civilization” was “essential” to the definition of Old Right conservatism. But they also maintain—correctly, I believe—that Old Right traditionalism has become “increasingly irrelevant” to a “postwar right” that now appears fixed on achieving the peculiar American ideals of liberty and equality. In the conclusion to The Conservative Movement, however, Gottfried and Fleming bewildered me by asserting that the Old Right is not only alive and well, but the only faction of The Conservative Movement that “can most accurately be described as a social movement.” Their proof of this point is more obscure—for instance, the fact that Confederate stalwart M.E. Bradford was supported in his bid for the directorship of the National Endowment for the Humanities by 20 senators and 60 congressmen. Using this criteria, one must assume that neoconservative William Bennett, who bested Bradford, represented a considerably larger “social movement.”
The confusion that besets the conclusion of The Conservative Movement comes largely from not making a distinction—enunciated in the 1950’s by political scientist Philip Converse—between “mass” and “elite” beliefs. Professors, activists, and intellectuals in general have always had a much more coherent framework of belief than the average voter, who is likely to detest “big government” but crave higher government spending on his roads and medical bills. It would have been a mistake to attribute, say, Rexford Tugwell’s clearly articulated New Deal liberalism to the average Democratic voter of the I930’s; it is equally mistaken to attribute the traditionalists’ view of social stratification or world history to congressional supporters of M.E. Bradford or, worse, those Southern voters who voted for Bradford’s friends in the Senate. The late John East might have been aware of the Gnostic heresy, but it is unlikely many North Carolina Republicans were. They were often responding to other, disparate cues that were not necessarily at the core of elite traditionalism or conservatism.
This point is essential in assessing conservative history and in understanding conservatism’s present political impasse. Gottfried and Fleming understand the extent to which traditional themes undergirded the Goldwater intelligentsia (not including Goldwater himself) and the Old Right of National Review. New York’s Conservative Party, they note, opposed the welfare system “as a symptom and cause of social degeneracy.” But they fail to note the difference between the Conservative Party’s high-flown statements—best articulated in William F. Buckley’s 1965 mayoral campaign—and the cruder sentiments that motivated that party’s growing following among ethnic voters.
The failure to distinguish mass and elite blurs Gottfried and Fleming’s discussion of the New Right, which played an extremely important role in making conservatism politically viable in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. New Right leaders like Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich based their politics on the distinction between mass and elite. Their goal was to unite George Wallace’s mass constituency, which was drawn together by racial resentment and hatred of the Eastern establishment, with the elite conservatism of the Young Americans for Freedom or American Conservative Union. Kevin Phillips’s book, The Emerging Republican Majority, was their guidebook. They knew the fit wasn’t perfect between Voegelin and a Southern “redneck” committed to the common man while being fearful and contemptuous of blacks, but they were playing coalition politics, just like the Democrats. Gottfried and Fleming miss this entirely. They don’t see the Wallace influence on Viguerie and Weyrich. Indeed, they mistakenly describe Wallace as a Republican. This leaves Gottfried and Fleming ill-equipped to appreciate the pickle that conservatives presently find themselves in: how to back a candidate like the patrician George Bush and retain this political coalition between mass and elite that has been at the heart of conservative political success.
Gottfried and Fleming are at their best handling intellectual rather than political developments in The Conservative Movement, but here, too, they suffer the pitfalls of redefining rather than interpreting history. The authors attribute Noam Chomsky’s critique of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism and Edward O. Wilson’s sociobiology to a “conservative” reaction to liberal intellectual trends. According to Gottfried and Fleming, Wilson’s sociobiology or Konrad Lorenz’s studies of human qua animal behavior “restored a sense of the ‘givenness’ of human nature.” This is a provocative idea, and a novel way of seeing Chomsky (a political leftist), Wilson, and others who were rejecting liberal utopianism.
But what is intellectually stimulating is historically misleading. Calling Wilson’s neo-Darwinism “conservative” tells us more about Gottfried and Fleming’s eccentric and (in this respect) commendable brand of conservatism than it tells us about postwar American conservatism. The authors are again blurring the distinction between conservatives and American conservatives. As the authors acknowledge, not only fundamentalists like the Rev. Pat Robertson (whom Gottfried and Fleming inexplicably describe as “among the best educated political figures in the United States”), but also the Old Right and even some sophisticated neoconservatives treat Darwinism as a Bolshevik heresy. Here the relevant distinction is not between mass and elite, but between the conservative intelligentsia, which remains dominated by philistines and religious fanatics, and Gottfried and Fleming, who are willing to see the relevance of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures, Darwin, Freud, and Wittgenstein to the pursuit of knowledge.
Gottfried and Fleming’s own political views do not come through clearly in The Conservative Movement, largely because they are trying to describe rather than take part in factional beefs. But it is evident that the authors’ traditionalism is itself highly untraditional. The traditionalists of the 1940’s and 1950’s, like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, were, if anything, trying to adapt British conservatism to a mix of old Southern Democrat and Taft Republicanism. They quoted the Eliot of London, but their ideas still bore the stamp of Eliot’s St. Louis. As the authors say, much of the “Old Right’s outlook was determined by an inchoate patriotism, a sentimental affection for what remained of the old America.”
But not Gottfried and Fleming’s views. To the extent their views emerge, they have a strangely foreign cast, as if they were acquired in time travel back to 19th-century Europe and before. For instance, Gottfried and Fleming criticize—yes, criticize—the Reagan administration for not defending European colonialism as “symbols of European man’s manifest destiny.” Of course, 1950’s conservatives like James Burnham defended European colonialism, but on the grounds of the Gold War against communism. Burnham expected colonial regimes would make more dependable allies; he said nothing about “manifest destiny” or “civilization.” Gottfried and Fleming appear to be not merely traditionalists who believe that all men were not born equal, but racial theorists who believe only certain peoples are capable of self-government and intellectual advance. One gives thanks in the end that they don’t represent a social movement, and are only the authors of this interesting and provocative book.
[The Conservative Movement, by Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming; Boston: Twayne Publishers]
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