An Open Conservatism?

Suppose that there is an open-minded twenty-something who reads widely and who generously consider views not shared by most others in his or her generation. This reader notices that the Library of America, committed to publishing “great writers and … exceptional writing that reflects the nation’s history and culture,” has published a collection on American Conservatism, subtitled Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition. This reader is hooked by the editor’s introduction, which lambasts the narcissist Trump, disses Hannity, Ingraham, and Limbaugh, and slams the talk-show hucksters on TV or radio who “line their pockets”—though he spares the cloned glamour-girl newswomen on Fox. Younger readers could not agree more that such people, as well as those who “sport MAGA hats,” have contributed to “the pervasive corruption of contemporary American political discourse.” He or she is intrigued by Andrew Bacevich’s claim that this collection provides “a second look” at the other side.

After reading forty-four essays over 600 pages, such a reader would surely come away pleasantly surprised to learn that conservatism is not what he or she assumed. There are diverse views among those who identify themselves as conservative. Some in the past have eschewed American exceptionalism (Randolph Bourne, Robert A. Taft); others are critical of capitalism and unrestrained free markets (John Crowe Ransom, Eugene Genovese, Wendell Berry, Patrick Deneen); still others decry the bungling evils of the military industrial complex that promotes American imperialism. Although some strains of conservative thought might put off this reader—Russell Kirk’s Burkean traditionalism, Richard John Neuhaus’s insistence that one can’t be an atheist and a citizen, Antonin Scalia’s charged dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges—there is still enough here to show that conservatism is not from an alien universe. Represented here are African-American conservatives (Zora Neale Hurston, Shelby Steele, and Glenn Loury) and a conservative case for gay marriage (Andrew Sullivan).

An Unlikely Conservative Canon

The reader’s surprise at this new and wider understanding of conservatism might very well correspond—but not in a good way—to the surprise of conservatives themselves. If you happen to have lived nearly as long as the editor and consider yourself part of that galvanizing moment when Goldwater ran for president in 1964, you look in vain in this hefty volume for the voice that offered a “choice not an echo,” as Phyllis Schlafly, “Mrs. America,” described him. Goldwater and Schlafly, along with Patrick Buchanan, are dismissed as “not original thinkers.” Fair enough—though, Frank S. Meyer, who is included, acknowledges the seminal importance of the Goldwater “surge” of 1960-1964. But why should we think that Theodore Roosevelt, Walter Lippmann, and Charles Beard are original thinkers? Original in some loose sense, perhaps—but conservative? If works included in the Library of America represent writing of lasting importance to American letters, I think we who do have some self-understanding as conservatives can say that our intellectual legacy has been diversified beyond recognition in this volume. There are some welcome surprises, such as Joan Didion’s acerbic essay on second wave feminism, but others simply make one question Andrew Bacevich’s claim that conservatism is an “ethos or disposition.” His ecosystem, rich and varied as it is, contains many an invasive liberal species.

Some of the collection’s choices are baffling. Among Bacevich’s least defensible authors are Theodore Roosevelt, Walter Lippmann, and Charles Beard. Roosevelt, enamored of Herbert Croly (The Promise of American Life, 1912), the father of American progressivism? Beard, the Marxist interpreter of the American founding? Lippmann, a founding editor of the New Republic? One can see that Reinhold Niebuhr’s ethos in The Irony of American History would be sobering to that rare conservative who expects salvation from politics, but most conservatives would be disposed to turn to Hamilton in Federalist 85, “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.”  Longtime conservatives from the Goldwater moment likely will detect what the rationale behind Bacevich’s selections might be. After dutifully plodding through four sections of the book to read the last and longest section, “The Exceptional Nation: America and the World,” one discovers that Bacevich (and presumably the Library of America) aims to expel from conservatism George W. Bush and his predecessors who have led us into war with the hope that spreading democracy would insure ordered liberty.

But does an anthology worthy of the undertaking prefer the dubious and peripheral contenders to those who clearly have had considerable influence on the movement?

At first, a committed conservative would take pleasure in some of the other entries, such as Ms. Hurston’s. Then serious frustration sets in. Where in this volume are the mid-20th century architects of conservatism’s challenge to modern liberalism? Wouldn’t it have enriched the volume to include essays by Dean Clarence Manion, the witty Clare Boothe Luce, and William Rusher, Buckley’s predecessor at National Review? Where is R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.’s writing in the American Spectator? Where is George Gilder? Where are Charles Rice and Judge Robert Bork? Why is there not even a tiny sample of the don of conservative political theorists, Harvey Mansfield? Scores of other truly representative spokesmen for limited government and ordered liberty come to mind. Where is Charles Kessler and other Claremont fellows? Harry Jaffa, Goldwater’s speech writer, makes the cut with an essay on the centennial of the Gettysburg Address. Do the others rub shoulders too closely with neo-conservatism, which Bacevich considers a “heresy akin to antinomianism”?

Defining the Center from the Periphery

Bacevich has an intense antipathy for neocons. To be fair, the job of an anthologist necessitates casting out some worthy candidates for inclusion. Bacevich, indeed, apologizes for having done so. But does an anthology worthy of the undertaking prefer the dubious and peripheral contenders to those who clearly have had considerable influence on the movement?

Students of American political thought will rejoice to see John Courtney Murray, S.J. and the inimitable Willmoore Kendall among the entries. Surely, for some, they need to be reclaimed. And, despite Bacevich’s condescending comment that the University of Dallas (my alma mater) “on the periphery of the nation’s intellectual life,” is the place where Buckley’s teacher at Yale last hung his hat, one has to give praise where praise is due. As Barton Swaim rightly pointed out, Kendall’s essay on McCarthyism nails the deepest concern for conservatives: America cannot survive unless she is a closed society and not ideologically committed to being an open one. No regime can survive on such terms. We have now become a closed progressive society, a commitment that cripples our polity and news sources daily.

Our imaginary reader will not warm to insights such as Kendall’s—but no matter. The veteran of decades of political wars will see exactly what is wrong with this anthology: it is organized by a non-political mind. Andrew Bacevich is a retired Army colonel who holds a Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton and who is Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations at Boston University. His energizing concern is with foreign affairs, not the nature of regimes. Many of the selections here reflect a deep skepticism toward the nation-state, yet the possibility of preserving a good and strong regime is integral to a concern for the whole intellectual and social life of a people—what de Tocqueville called the “habits of the heart.” Can America persist as an indiscriminately open regime? We conservatives think not. To think otherwise is neither to have the ethos nor the disposition of a conservative.

Anti-interventionism is Bacevich’s driving purpose. He sets up Theodore Roosevelt as an example of democratic evangelism countered by Robert Taft, whose “principled anti-interventionism fell out of fashion” by the fifties. Bacevich aims to put this view back in fashion. William Pfaff’s excerpt from The Irony of Manifest Destiny concludes the book with the statement that a “non-interventionist American foreign policy requires a White House that will understand its primary responsibility to be the well-being and quality of American life.” Barack Obama offered such a hope until he caved under the pressure of his advisors, argues Pfaff, who reveals Bacevich’s overall agenda in the volume: the idea that governance driven by war amounts to “political stupidity.”

If the point in choosing Bacevich as the editor was to get millennials and those younger to feel more comfortable with conservatism, the book can claim some success.

The irony is that, in featuring essays such as Charles Beard’s, which disparages those American presidents who led the nation into every American war, Bacevich’s collection pays insufficient attention to our regime, to right rule, to structures that conserve constitutionalism and its healthy limits. This is unfortunate, because he professes as a sine qua non “a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law.” He significantly under-represents thinkers whose work exhibits another sine qua non: as Russell Kirk would put it, “veneration of our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of stewardship for Creation.” To be sure, he sees Kirk as foundational, and he includes an excerpt from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind affirming the importance of nature, but where is Calvin Coolidge’s beautiful speech on the spiritual roots of the Declaration of Independence out of which the shape of the regime grows?

Forgetting the American Regime

For an editor whose uppermost concern seems to be with America’s propensity to foreign engagements, thus deviating from George Washington’s warning in the “Farewell Address,” Bacevich is thin on just what should be the internal concerns and policies of American conservatives. He rightly includes Frank S. Meyer, who challenges conservatives to take on exactly that responsibility: “Conservatism needs to be more than preservative; its function is to restore, and to do this by creating new forms and modes to express, in contemporary circumstances, the essential content of Western Civilization.” Admirably, like Aristotle in his Politics, Bacevich wants to place primary emphasis on preserving civilization’s content by focusing on the internal good of America. Yet Bacevich neglects to include a representative sample of essays on the internal threats to America from judicial activism, fiscal irresponsibility, and the growth of the administrative state, among other derailments. He also magically erases from his introduction any mention of prominent organizations (such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute or the Heritage Foundation) that cross lines among the academy, politics, business, and the professions. The conservative intellectual tradition began with grassroots efforts aimed at educating, discussing, and rethinking where we are now as a nation, while conserving the republic constituted in 1789.

If the point in choosing Bacevich as the editor was to get millennials and those younger to feel more comfortable with conservatism, the book can claim some success. Kirk, Meyer, Buckley, and Bloom are indeed at the center of conservatism. Henry Adams, Ransom, Berry, and Richard Weaver offer a profound critique of the economic goods, touted by Friedman and Rothbard, whose choice might imperil permanent higher goods. Ex-communists, such as the soul-deep Whittaker Chambers, show the cost of discovering the benefits of freedom after intellectual enslavement to a utopian ideology.

Surely now, with China (speaking of imperialism) more committed than ever to such an ideology, with Russia still stalled in her purgatory thirty years after 1989, and with riots in cities across America almost sixty years after the riots of the sixties, citizens of all political persuasions need their memories refreshed. Without memory there is nothing to conserve. One of the best ways to restore memory is to let the reader feel in his hips, as Willmoore Kendall put it, the enduring importance of conservative thought. Here was an opportunity, unfortunately missed, to persuade younger generations that there are not only clear political principles to guide us, but also a way to ground the understanding in permanent truths.