Respond to this Article May 2006

The Great Conservative Crackup

What National Review wrought.

By Jacob Heilbrunn

To prove your conservative bona fides these days, you have to begin by denouncing conservatism. To the delight of many liberals, a flurry of conservative writers and think-tankers at places like the Cato Institute and the Nixon Center are doing just that, condemning George W. Bush for being, among other things, a "redistribution Republican" (George F. Will), a "socialist" (Andrew Sullivan), and an "impostor" (Bruce Bartlett). Now add Jeffrey Hart to the list of aggrieved accusers.

The Making of the American Conservative Mind
by Jeffrey Hart
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, $28.00

Hart, a professor of English at Dartmouth College and former speechwriter for Richard Nixon, has unimpeachable conservative credentials. He has been a regular contributor to National Review since the 1960s. His son Ben Hart was an editor at The Dartmouth Review and a leader of what the Heritage Foundation billed as a "Third Generation" of new conservatives in the early 1980s. A Burkean conservative, Jeffrey Hart has weighed in primarily on cultural issues, lamenting what he sees as the corruption of American arts and letters. But like NR founder William F. Buckley Jr. ("insurrectionists in Iraq can't be defeated by any means that we would consent to use"), he is also a critic of the Iraq war. In a March 11, 2005, letter to The Dartmouth Review, for example, Hart took aim at Bush's selling of the war: "You do not have to get eyesore burrowing in the archives to find astonishing patterns of deception."

Now, in The Making of the American Conservative Mind, Hart chronicles the emergence of the right and National Review's role in shaping it. His story begins in the 1950s and ends with the current Bush administration. By turns dyspeptic, melancholy, and ruminative, Hart casts a surprisingly detached eye on his subject. This is a book about a path not taken. It is also one of the most important and idiosyncratic meditations in recent memory about the conservative movement.

But the word is that the staff of National Review is less than pixilated with this work. It's not hard to see why. Hart seems to suggest that the original project of creating a responsible conservatism has gone badly awry--and that the younger crowd at NR bears some of the blame. Buckley once quipped, after Garry Wills, Joan Didion, and John Leonard had decamped, that he hadn't realized that he was "running a finishing school for young apostates." But what happens when one of the headmasters begins to express doubts about the enterprise?

As Hart reminds us, the notion that there was even such a thing as an American conservative mind seemed absurd on its face in 1955, the year when National Review was launched. Conservatism was thought to be a negligible force, hovering somewhere in the narrow frequency band between the Goldwaterites and the Birchers. And such marginalization felt like validation for conservatives, since it demonstrated the immense, implacable power of the liberal establishment. It also left them free to give up thoughts of electoral success and to focus instead on conspiracy theories about Dean Acheson being a communist agent. The immortal Murray Kempton rather snootily summed up the thinking at the time: "The New American Right is most conspicuous these days for its advanced state of wither."

Initially, William F. Buckley Jr. fell into the extremist camp as well. Having penned the polemic "God and Man at Yale," Buckley was a hot commodity on the far right. And the political pedigrees of the men who joined with Buckley to found National Review were, if anything, even more radical. Editor William Schlamm, a brilliant Central European intellectual, had once been a communist. Editor James Burnham, one of the most significant and neglected figures of the conservative movement, was a former Trotskyite. Other highly educated former communists, including Whittaker Chambers, also floated around the fledgling conservative movement. There is an inherent attraction among intellectuals for extremist positions--witness Christopher Hitchens lurching from youthful Trotskyism to his own very personal version of neoconservatism.

The magazine was lively from the start. As Buckley knew full well, few things are more exhilarating than standing on the intellectual ramparts in the face of jeers. Many of the articles amounted to intellectual declarations of war, and contributors included men such as Yale's Wilmoore Kendall, who was noted for writing out his lectures in green ink, railing against plebiscites, and favoring a return to a fundamentalist reading of the U.S. Constitution that foreshadowed the rise, decades later, of the Federalist Society. Saul Bellow would later say of Kendall that he had "made some of the most interesting mistakes a man could make in the twentieth century."

But the fight wasn't just with the world at large. Internecine disputes could get similarly heated: When conservative eminence Russell Kirk published an essay called "Mill's On Liberty Reconsidered," NR editor Frank Meyer, who correctly saw it as a scathing attack on himself, responded with "In Defense of John Stuart Mill." Such disagreements were, according to Hart, inevitable, because NR was beset from the start by a contradiction. "Did Buckley want to reform the Eastern Establishment," he asks, "or did he want to destroy and displace it?" In Hart's view, Buckley tended more and more towards reformation rather than destruction.

Either way, the political judgment of this crew was generally lousy. On two big issues, the magazine adopted positions that, in their own way, were almost as repellent as the embrace of Stalinism by the American left in the 1930s. The first concerned McCarthyism; the second, the civil-rights movement. The magazine was a consistent defender of the former, failing to discern, as the philosopher Sidney Hook rightly put it, that the simian McCarthy was the best thing that ever happened to the communist movement (which could use the senator to besmirch the anti-communist cause). On civil rights, NR went so far as to disapprove of the Supreme Court's decision on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Attempting to defend such unsavory opinions, Hart feebly contends that, whatever McCarthy's abuses, the senator "could sometimes smoke out a real witch." (Sure, just like a thousand monkeys pounding away on typewriters might inadvertently come up with a coherent sentence.) And he argues that Brown simply created white flight. This, too, is hardly a persuasive reason to uphold racial segregation. Still, Hart seems to recognize that such positions were, even at the time, antediluvian.

By the 1960s, which is when Hart joined the magazine, National Review had shed some of its less palatable dogmas, letting "the magnolias go" and denouncing the Birchers as a malignant force. NR was no longer a curator of political relics, but, rather, the avatar of a new, boisterous, self-confident conservatism.

The hinge-point for the conservative movement came, of course, with the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater. National Review, which was now in a position to be more influential, played a significant, if uneasy, role. Burnham, who pleaded for a moderate conservatism, stayed off in the empyrean, crafting essays. But publisher William Rusher, an icy operator who would later help to create the southern strategy, actively worked to help to shape GOP tactics. Hart is not a fan of Rusher's handiwork. Still, it's hard to avoid the feeling that it had more influence on the GOP than did the intellectual battles inside NR.

Hart approves of Goldwater, noting that Western conservatism ultimately produced Reagan. But Hart fears--no, loathes--the Southern, Bible Belt conservatism that also began to emerge as a major force in the 1960s and has reached its apogee in the Bush administration. To Hart, a staunch Catholic, evangelicalism actually goes against real conservatism: "[E]vangelicalism's focus on individual experience--the 'personal relationship' with Jesus as savior--works precisely against creedal Christianity, with its structure of dogma and authority."

For Hart, Reagan provided the last gasp of an acceptable conservative coalition, one in which the evangelicals received lip-service but no more. The rise of George W. Bush, "a southern evangelical and moral authoritarian," has led to policies based on a belief that "many moral issues [are] within the sphere of government." Hart leaves little doubt how he feels about the man and what he represents.

As Hart sees it, none of this had to be. The real villain in his book is Richard Nixon, whose personal flaws destroyed the possibility of creating a center-right coalition that could have matched the old New Deal coalition created by FDR. Hart seems to believe that Nixon, had he not been crippled by his paranoia about the Eastern establishment, could have integrated the liberal Rockefeller Republicans with conservatives: "In 1968 Nixon had united the anti-liberal vote. He had the historic opportunity to create a new conservative governing establishment. But with Nixon nothing ever was as it seemed."

National Review, too, gets part of the blame. Hart is clearly uneasy about the rise of the younger generation, which, under the editorship of Richard Lowry, has been generally enthusiastic about the Bush administration. "Perhaps surprisingly, none of these now prominent figures at the magazine had been known for books or even important articles on politics or political thought," he sniffs. "Where they stood on the spectrum of conservative thought--traditionalist, individualist, libertarian, skeptical, Straussian, Burkean, Voegelinian--was completely unknown."

Hart, it seems, yearns for a High Church conservatism, soaked in Anglophile traditions, in which conservatives behave like William F. Buckley Jr.--fine wines and harpsichord playing in the background--rather than Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly. Lowry and company, with their embrace of Low Church conservatism and the modern-day GOP, have encouraged the ideological slide. Meanwhile, the GOP has prospered, but the result has been a tyranny of born-again bumpkins in the hinterlands.

How credible is Hart's case? Certainly, the idea that Nixon could have created a durable center-right coalition that ignored evangelicals is simply fanciful. Karl Rove is right: A GOP without the credulous believers would be condemned to failure at the polls. (It's no coincidence that newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito immediately wrote an obsequious letter thanking James Dobson of Focus on the Family for his support.) And it was Nixon himself who championed the "southern strategy" that has come to be one of the pillars on which current GOP ascendancy rests.

Hart has a vision of a benign, aristocratic conservatism, but America was never a plausible candidate for this ideal. The truth is that, whatever feats of intellectual prestidigitation conservative thinkers like Kirk may have performed, they bore little relation to the realities of a country with a booming free-market economy. Conservatives have never been able to reconcile their worship of the almighty free market with its attendant social upheaval. They want unfettered free enterprise, but not all the freedoms that free enterprise brings, such as pornography and other vices. Hart may not be a severe moralist, but he does deplore vulgar taste in the arts, which is another inevitable byproduct of a capitalist economy.

What's more, for all Hart's emphasis on the power of ideas, it's hard not to wonder how influential NR really was. Writers and intellectuals love to believe they have their hand on the tiller of history, but often they're simply adjusting to it. And, if ideas are as important to the conservative movement as Hart seems to think, then he scants the significance of the neoconservatives. In terms of ideas, the neocons have proven far more seductive to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. It was neocons who banged the drum for Wilsonian intervention in the 1990s while the hard right drifted off into a kind of semi-isolationism, attacking Clinton for his interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, and elsewhere.

In reality, though, conservatism hasn't really changed all that much. The Christian right has certainly infused it with moralism and anti-Darwin mumbo-jumbo, but what's more striking about the GOP over the past 100 years or so is its continuity. The party's main, almost sole, purpose has been to ensure that as much money as possible goes to those who need it least and that as little as possible goes to those who need it most. In a party of moneybags, Theodore Roosevelt was the exception, not the rule. Whether Bush manages to extricate the United States from Iraq or not, his avalanche of tax cuts has already justified the main reason that Republican pooh-bahs selected him to become their candidate for president.

Hart indulges in wistful notions of what might have been, but Bush is not the betrayer of Reagan and the conservative movement. He is its purest expression. To its credit, National Review's older generation is recognizing what happens when utopia is in power. Buckley, gracious and inquisitive, has mellowed over the years and has little in common with the toadies serving Bush. This is all the more ironic since liberals have for several years been bemoaning their own lack of ideas and looking to the conservative movement's rise for inspiration. Who would have thought that, at the peak of the conservative movement's political success, its founding fathers would recoil from the Frankenstein's monster they created and end up as troubled heretics?

Jacob Heilbrunn is a writer in Washington, D.C.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here