“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
There are two fictions that most American conservatives have taken to heart. First, that the Republican Party stands for conservative ideas and principles; second, that there has been a conservative renaissance in the last several decades, a resurgence that culminated with the Reagan presidency and continues into the present. These two false premises form the foundation of Jonathan Schoenwald’s A Time for Choosing. Schoenwald examines the rise of the conservative movement since World War II and argues that, by the early 1960’s, it had articulated a political agenda and created an organizational structure that would eventually make it the dominant force in American politics. What this book, like most that chronicle the history of American conservatism, fails to recognize is that conservatism is far more than a political movement: It encompasses economic, social, cultural, and theological questions. These aspects of conservatism are thoroughly omitted from Schoenwald’s analysis. His book reads like a piece of Whig history, a tract that showcases prominent personalities, competing factions, and powerful organizations that created a political movement to compete against liberalism. Yet the conservatism that Schoenwald describes could never really replace liberalism, because it is steeped in all of the progressive assumptions of its supposed nemesis.
Schoenwald employs a natural growth metaphor to describe the history of the movement. To him, modern conservatism was born in the 1950’s, struggled to create its identity in the 60’s, and finally reached maturity in the late 70’s. He identifies three distinct but overlapping strands of thought that gave rise to the movement: traditionalism, libertarianism, and anticommunism. This foundation produced the two groups that led the assault on New Deal liberalism. Schoenwald describes the first as “mainstream” or “electoral” conservatism, which relied on the electoral process and the Republican Party as its vehicles of power. The second group comprises the “extremist” conservatives who used private organizations to disseminate information and broaden the conservative electoral base. The goal of the former was to capture political institutions through which conservative laws and policies could be enacted; the latter sought to instigate a populist movement that would change the political and social climate of the nation. While the two groups pursued different strategies, they were united against the communist threat, the growth of big government, and social decay.
During the Cold War, “extremist” organizations such as the John Birch Society and the Conservative Society of America made significant headway early on. They were instrumental in shifting the GOP to the right, ensuring the nomination of Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. Although Goldwater lost miserably, conservatives remained confident and energized. After all, Goldwater had managed to attract 27 million voters. More importantly, the party had been purged of overt liberalism. This newly conservative GOP began to focus on expanding its electoral base. But one obstacle remained—the “extremists.” While many Americans agreed with conservative principles, they remained wary of this element within the Republican Party. Party leaders knew that the group presented an image problem. But because it was a substantial faction, they could not afford to alienate it outright. Thus, the “extremists” needed to be carefully neutralized. In Schoenwald’s words,
Republicans marginalized extremists in favor of the solid middle of the party, while simultaneously calculating how to retain extremists’ loyalty. In this way the GOP learned to act like a broker state or the informal regulatory system adapted during Franklin Roosevelt’s administrations when competing interests fought for attention, favor and a chance to influence the federal government.
By refusing their donations, selectively condemning their activities and ideas, and expanding the party base, party leaders permanently relegated the “extremists” to factional status within the GOP.
For Schoenwald, this ideological reorientation was the turning point in the conservative movement. “Responsible” conservatives had prevailed over the “kooks.” This brilliant campaign strategy gave the GOP an air of ideological objectivity and allowed it to challenge the Democrats at every political level. The party used charming candidates to show that conservatives were not curmudgeons or reactionaries. Moreover, Lyndon Johnson’s blunderings in Vietnam and his mismanagement of the economy played into Republican hands, as did the continued decay of American social life exemplified by the sexual revolution, crime, and the general revolt against authority. All served to galvanize Americans against the liberal establishment and deliver them to the Republican Party. But Schoenwald attributes the success of the conservative movement, in the end, to its focus on issues rather than ideas and its management by professional conservatives—publicists, fundraisers, and policy people—who could steer it toward electoral victory.
Those who believe that a conservative revolution really occurred are sadly mistaken. The Republican Party took an ideological movement and used it to create a pragmatic “vote getting machine.” In order to build this machine, modern conservatives, unlike the Old Right, recognized that political power in 20th-century America no longer resided at the local and regional level: It was now concentrated in massive national institutions. Democrats understood this as early as the 1930’s. They utilized the federal government—the most expansive national institution of all—as an instrument of social change. As a result, they were able to reshape society in an unprecedented fashion, and the material and ideological consequences were indeed revolutionary. Another generation passed before conservatives began to comprehend and respond to this transformation. And to the credit of the Republican Party of the 1960’s, it did develop a respectable critique of New Deal liberalism. But it did not defeat it.
Big government was never dismantled. Instead, the GOP pursued a balance of power with the left. The Republicans developed their own pillars of institutional power: big business and those aspects of big government—especially the military—that served their ends. By creating new centers of national political power, conservatives had finally joined the Managerial Revolution that began with the New Deal. Thus, the real story of Schoenwald’s book is less the rise of conservatism than how the Republican Party co-opted an organic political and social movement and reshaped it to fit comfortably into the prevailing power structure. To do this, the party had to imitate Democratic electoral strategies and organizational structures. Most importantly, it had to pursue the main tenets of liberal ideology, which focused on social progress and the centralization of power. If conservatives, in short, wanted to compete in the modern world, they had to adapt themselves to mass society and the mass institutions that ran it. Thus, for every progressive institution and popular idea that liberals developed, modern conservatives created or discovered their own. Rather than champion big government, they championed big business; rather than pursue political solutions, they pursued economic ones; against welfare spending, they championed defense spending; rather than allow Hollywood to dictate American values, they chose Wall Street.
The main problem with Schoenwald’s book is that, like most writings on contemporary American politics, it fails to contextualize political struggles within these new constellations of power. (Most contemporary observers see the shift in power from localities and regions to the national level as either a neutral development or a positive one that was probably inevitable.) Schoenwald does provide insightful and detailed discussions of the personalities and factions within the conservative movement. A Time For Choosing is also well written and researched. But in the final analysis, it is narrow and naive, assuming that all meaningful political action takes place within the formal framework of political parties and elected office. In this view, politics is a contest in which competition and compromise lead to a result that may not be desirable to everyone but which reflects, nonetheless, the will of the people. The older elements of the conservative movement—traditionalism, libertarianism, and anticommunist populism, many
of whose representatives were labeled “extremists” and ultimately silenced or purged from the Republican Party—were the very groups that remained skeptical of these assumptions.
Schoenwald’s use of a simplistic growth metaphor to describe the rise of conservatism is also questionable, as it reduces the range of differing views and ideas within conservatism to those held by two groups: one that had “matured” and one that had not. To Schoenwald, maturation is synonymous with formalization and ideological moderation. Thus, in its early stages, the movement was filled with youthful dynamism. But as “irrational” and esoteric (immature) elements got out of hand, they had to be disciplined by the “responsible” (mature) conservatives, who finally put together a winning strategy based on their ability to manage a political movement and to sell an ideological one to the American public. Silencing “extremism” may have been a good tactical call for the GOP, but the party also squelched an incipient populist movement that might have been cultivated in time to create a conservative counter movement against the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. It was not just the populists who lost; so did the intellectuals. With the move to pragmatism, some of the most original conservative theories and critiques of the status quo—those articulated by Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Robert Nisbet, Murray Rothbard, and others—were purged from party philosophy and policy. By the creation of a rationalized mainstream conservatism, the emotional dynamism and intellectual rigor that had characterized the earlier phases of the movement were lost.
Back in 1965, James Burnham said that, even if a conservative like Ronald Reagan were elected president, it would do little to alter the structure and ideological orientation of the American system. The prescience of his view has been confirmed. Even at the height of the “conservative revolution,” the managerial power structure continued to grow in size and influence. As it did, the older centers of power that were rooted in family, community, region, and religion continued to weaken.
Perhaps an even more significant index of the prevailing power of liberalism is its influence over American culture. The revolt against authority that began in the 1960’s now shapes every aspect of American life. From sexual mores and eating habits to language, music, and dress codes, America has rejected the conservative norms of her Christian heritage in favor of those articulated by the liberal establishment. The rise of lifestyle politics that began in the 1960’s was really the second phase of the revolution that began with the political-economic synthesis of the New Deal. If the expansion of the state neutralized the older centers of influence by creating government dependency, the cultural revolution of the 1960’s sought to destroy them by focusing American society on the quest for material gratification.
e now have a fat, lazy, greedy, and comfortable society. Our new way of life contradicts anything that can historically be deemed “conservative.” Yet this contradiction is completely lost on modern conservatives. Perhaps it is because so many of them are deeply invested in maintaining the new culture, as evidenced by the fact that “conservative” corporate America has been one of the main engines driving the cultural revolution. Hedonism is good business. By aggressively selling a world of sensate pleasure, colossal business corporations have been as effective as the modern state in undermining social order by diluting the very principles that held it together: obligation, thrift, discipline, and faith. More importantly, the managers in charge of big business and big government know full well that Americans are addicted to the new way and will do anything—or rather, see anything done—to conserve it. Witness the Bush administration’s declaration that it was our patriotic duty to “spend, spend, spend,” so that the economy would not falter after September 11. Or take the unanimous political support for mass immigration. Ostensibly, current immigration policy is intended to keep the economy running and to make good on America’s promise to care for the world’s huddled masses. But the managerial class also benefits because it expands its power over ever-greater numbers of laborers, consumers, and welfare recipients. Middle America believes it also gains by avoiding the humiliating work of washing dishes, cooking food, cleaning house, and rearing children.
Mass society has become standardized and softened to the point where it is easily manipulated by political and economic elites. Modern conservatism has been wholly ineffective in mitigating this danger, precisely because it is part of the problem. From Wall Street to Washington, modern conservatives still trumpet the ideas espoused by the Old Right, yet the blather of “family values” and “controlled spending” rings hollow in a society where the majority of conservative voters are fully invested in mass culture. To paraphrase Michael Oakeshott, modern conservatives may believe in conservative ideas, but they resort to a liberal style in politics. And, we can add, they also adhere to a liberal lifestyle. Modern conservatives may lead ugly lives, but at least they can think pretty thoughts. Ideology, then, is the only real difference between modern conservatives and liberals. Whether you espouse liberal or conservative ideas means very little when the material and structural circumstances influencing your existence are identical either way.
A key issue cementing the various conservative strands after 1964 was anticommunism. Today, however, this cause has evaporated, and many wonder whether a new issue can give rise to a countercultural conservative movement that rejects both the materialism of modern American life and the power structures that support and direct it. Conservatives must choose a different tactic. As Wendell Berry has noted, modernization can only be defeated in those areas where it cannot effectively function—in rural towns, small neighborhoods, even inner cities. In such locales, strong families, communities, and religious organizations can at least restrain the power of large institutions.
Who can lead and organize such a movement? Certainly, nobody who is invested in the Washington-Wall Street-Hollywood power triangle, as the neoconservatives are. The Christian Right cannot, because it is intellectually inept. The scattered and battered remnants of the Old Right are still the best qualified to articulate a defense against an inherently liberal mass society. But only by convincing Middle America that the status quo is not to their advantage can any countermovement be successful. The populist element may yet hold the key to an authentic conservative resurgence. Conservatives were given a choice in 1964, but the only options then were political—and true conservatives have always known that cultural problems cannot be solved by purely political means.
[A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism, by Jonathan M. Schoenwald (New York: Oxford University Press) 338 pp., $35.00]