Onward Conservative Soldiers

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September 2000

Onward Conservative Soldiers

What we can learn about the conservative movement from five stalwarts

By Jacob Heilbrunn

Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Crusade

By Nina Easton
Simon & Schuster

Click on the title to buy the book

A good case can be made that the real radicals of the past century weren't on the left. They were on the right. Beginning in the 1950s, William F. Buckley Jr. set out not just to purge the right of anti-Semites, but also of Rockefeller Republicans. Once Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan had cleansed the party of the "wets," conservatives could get to post and assail the establishment--the liberal left, epitomized in the 1960s in the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, Harvard and Yale, and so forth. Far from presenting an obstacle to conservative aspirations, the rise of the New Left and the McGovern wing in the Democratic party helped complete the destruction of the New Deal-era liberal establishment and created a new establishment that proved an ideal target for Buckley & Co. A new, hardened left-wing based on affirmative action, multi-culturalism, and opposition to American intervention abroad could easily be portrayed as a caricature of liberalism, which it was. Now conservatives, who had earlier heaped contumely on traditional liberals, could lament the perversion of traditional liberalism by the young leftists turned tenured radicals.

The 1994 Gingrich revolution was the last stage in the general conservative revolt over the past decade. So sweeping were the aims of Gingrich and his paladins, however, that the American public revolted against the revolt--and President Clinton denuded conservatism of its most attractive features by hijacking them, the 1996 Welfare Reform Act being only the most prominent example of this political cross-dressing. As a result, the conservative movement is, in William Kristol's post-mortem after John McCain's victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary, "finished."

Or is it? For all his tacking to the center, George W. Bush owes conservatives big-time. Whether it's tax cuts, Supreme Court nominations, or the Strategic Defense Initiative, Bush will not have much leeway. And Bush's own memories of conservative disgruntlement with his father should help prompt him to remain on the straight-and-narrow path, even if he attempts to package his brand of conservatism as compassionate. Republicans seem more united than Democrats who carp about Al Gore and, on the party's left, worship at the shrine of the bitch-goddess Arianna Huffington. Nina J. Easton's Gang of Five thus arrives at an opportune moment. A former writer for the Los Angeles Times, Easton seeks to excavate what she calls the "hidden history" of the baby-boom generation: the political rebels on the right who emerged on campus in the 1970s and decried the established liberal order. Easton is interested in personalities--her model is Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas' acclaimed The Wise Men--and she focuses on five renegades: William Kristol, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, Clint Bolick, and David McIntosh.

Easton's book will be devoured by political junkies. No incident or anecdote seems to have been too trivial or recondite for her to chase down. The pace, though, never drags: Easton unites perceptive analysis with a lively prose style. She shows that these movement figures are, excepting Ralph Reed, products of elite universities. Bolick even comes across as hopelessly idealistic. Though her politics are clearly not those of her subjects, Easton approaches them in a sympathetic spirit of inquiry rather than condemnation.

The first thing that marks out Easton's book as a winner is the care she takes, as the literary theorists would say, to foreground her characters. Right off the bat, she launches into a discussion of the influence that German émigré Leo Strauss, one of the greatest political theorists of the past century, exercised on Irving Kristol and, by extension, William. Though Easton might have noted that Strauss himself was not particularly interested in contemporary politics, many of his influential disciples were. The Cliff's Notes version of Straussianism would go something like this: Ancient philosophers, from Plato to Aquinas, had to write simultaneously in both an exoteric and esoteric code because their thoughts were too dangerous to communicate openly to the vulgar masses. Only Straussians could crack this code and understand the ancients as they wished to be understood, namely, that virtue was the highest good and that this truth could only be comprehended by an intellectual aristocracy. The Straussian bugbear is Machiavelli; he took the ideals of the ancient city down-market by lowering man's sights; the Enlightenment was the final blow because it emphasized egalitarianism and social engineering rather than virtue.

This truth rang as powerfully for Kristol fils as pére, says Easton. At Harvard, Kristol was indoctrinated into Straussianism by government professor Harvey Mansfield. The profoundly conservative, anti-modern message of Strauss seemed radical to Kristol and others. "To young men questioning the egalitarianism of the Left," writes Easton, "the insights of the philosophers they studied offered fortitude, making the case that the leveling of society would lead to a worship of mediocrity." There was more: "The notion that truth could be dangerous, or at the very least politically unacceptable, also rang true to students who had witnessed rising leftist orthodoxy on college campuses." Kristol wanted to become the adviser to powerful political figures; as Strauss himself wrote, "The political philosopher who has reached his goal is the teacher of legislators ...the umpire par excellence."

But Straussianism was not for everyone. Take Grover Norquist. Like Kristol, Norquist, the leader of the crusade against taxes, is also a Harvard graduate, but he inherited his world-view from his old man who, Easton relates, would grab his children's ice cream cones and steal a bite: "This is the federal tax." Another bite: "This is the city tax." Norquist became a freedom-fighter, traveling to Angola and Mozambique to champion nominally anti-communist leaders. Easton carefully shows how Norquist's rhetorical excesses, contempt for intellectual distinctions, and infatuation with warfare, at home and abroad, turned him into a divisive figure in the conservative movement, always sniffing out heresy in the ranks.

Kristol and Norquist are now at loggerheads. Easton notes that most of Norquist's populist activists have "stayed away from family life, despite all the talk about 'family values' pervading the right." By contrast, "Bill Kristol's circle of friends embraced bourgeois values." Still, no one can be pure enough for Norquist: in his eyes, even Ronald Reagan turned out to be soft. Easton reports that at a 1984 symposium at The Heritage Foundation, conservatives "vent[ed] their rage over the president's 'unwillingness to do battle with the Washington establishment.'"

Enter David McIntosh. Educated at Harvard and the University of Chicago, McIntosh has used his establishment credentials to ride roughshod over traditional liberal causes. A staunch libertarian, McIntosh headed Dan Quayle's Competitiveness Council at age 33. "When developers complained to Quayle about President Bush's pledge that he would countenance 'no net loss of wetlands,' the Council set out to change the definition of wetlands, taking millions of acres out from under federal protection." Now that he is leaving the House to run for governor of Indiana, McIntosh has slightly softened his stands, but the Federalist Society libertarian may prove the most potent of the gang.

Even McIntosh, however, has had to curb his anti-government rhetoric, chastened by the realities of constituent demands for government services. As Easton points out, conservatives never really figured out how to cope with Clinton. He may have roused them to new pitches of indignation, but the fervor with which conservatives attacked the president only united the public behind him. Once conservatives began attacking the public as well, they seemed intent on becoming a parody of the New Left, which had decried the immorality of the U.S. Whether it was abortion or Clinton's behavior, the 1960s were seen as culpable for all of America's woes. In 1996, Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus asked in his journal, First Things, whether "The End of Democracy?" had arrived. Robert Bork and Charles Colson suggested that civil disobedience might be in order to stop abortion. The parallel was completed by the Clinton administration's air war against Serbia; many on the right, with the notable exception of the Weekly Standard, condemned the American bombing of the Serbs and called upon the U.S. to heal itself before it intervened abroad.

Despite these antics and ructions, it seems wildly premature to write off the conservative movement. To be sure, conservatives, as Fareed Zakaria recently observed in the New Yorker, are a victim of their own success. The Soviet Union is gone. Welfare has been reformed. Crime is down. The economy, new or old, is booming. Conservatives have largely been deprived of their favorite activity: complaining about the miserable state of the union. But it is precisely the debates taking place within conservatism that may attest to its fundamental vitality. Kristol may complain that Republicans are gathering behind a nonentity for president, but his is the view of a permanent rebel. He's become bored with success. Indeed, given that Kristol has become fed up with the right, Bush would in many ways seem to be the perfect choice; a president who would carry out the right's agenda, even more than Reagan did, with bonhomie and imperturbability.

But count on it: Should Bush win the election, Kristol will go on the offensive against him for not being enough of a conservative. That kind of vitality, though, may be what ultimately keeps the conservative movement from running out of gas. An inherent tension is built into the conservative movement between the Straussian intellectuals and the religious populists. The contrast with the lassitude of the Democrats is striking. As far as intellectual firepower is concerned, the best that the Democrats can muster is the Democratic Leadership Council, while Ralph Nader blasts Gore from outside and Arianna Huffington gathers up the remnants of the left. Kristol is wrong. The conservative movement hasn't expired, and he's part of the reason why.

Jacob Heilbrunn has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Times Literary Supplement.

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