Conservative Crack-up(s)

The timing of George Hawley’s book is almost perfect. Questions raised over the past decade about the conservative movement’s survival have never been more pressing. Indeed, developments in the 2016 presidential campaign, combined with now-undeniable demographic, cultural, and sociological trends running against the Republican Party, may have shifted the burden of proof from naysayers onto anyone who is more optimistic.

Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism doesn’t resolve this debate, or try to. It’s a highly useful introduction-plus to a topic that has long deserved more attention. The need to understand such “critics of American conservatism” will become increasingly obvious, too, if the political and intellectual Right, and relatedly the GOP, continue to fracture.

Hawley, assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama, offers “an overview of those intellectual movements on the right that were never fully incorporated” into the general effort associated with National Review, the Goldwater or Reagan campaigns, the Heritage Foundation or other policy institutes, or most other right-of-center forces or leaders familiar to the public. Partly because they were not “fully incorporated” in what some now derisively call Conservatism Inc., they’re also the elements of the Right that are, he says, “forced to live on the fringes of American intellectual life.”

Hawley portrays these quasi-movements fairly and carefully, outlining their major emphases, their main voices, their starkest differences with regular conservatism—even a sense of how it feels to hold and promote one of these less influential, mostly unfashionable, often denigrated viewpoints. He also gives much attention to the housekeeping, gatekeeping, or censorship—he reports, you decide what to call it—by which stronger players such as National Review and its late editor William F. Buckley Jr. have, for more than 50 years, marginalized troubling factions and figures.

A scholar who has written previously on voting behavior and its connection to race-related issues including immigration, Hawley does not tell readers what his own political position is. This is slightly frustrating, given the book’s ideologically laden subject matter and the vivid use of “Right-Wing” in its title. One does pick up some clues. Hawley subtly indicates a low regard for much of paleoconservatism by titling that chapter “Nostalgia As a Political Platform” and at one point calling this school of thought “noticeably gloomy and negative.” He also seems to share a standard opposition to McCarthyism, and briefly but clearly notes his opposition to racism in a chapter on the latter.

Then, too, he confesses that he “find[s] some of the arguments discussed in this book persuasive and consider[s] others abhorrent,” from which one could deduce acceptance of unspecified elements of certain “Right-Wing critic” schools but a general agreement with none of them. The overall impression he leaves, though, is that he writes of conservatism in general as an outsider. His professional web page says vaguely that before graduate school he “worked in politics in Washington, DC, for multiple groups and individuals.”

Quite a man of mystery. And yet he is to be applauded for exploring even in modest depth the large, rarely studied minefield of intra-Right conflicts. Anyone concerned either intellectually or practically with politics must acquire a better than cartoon-level understanding of the principles by which different types of conservatives (including mislabeled “conservatives” such as libertarians) don’t get along. This analysis is useful in grasping the Right’s longstanding yet underestimated diversity—which ranges far beyond the distinction between “economic” and “social” conservatives—and also in laying out the many reasons for its continuing, and perhaps worsening, disunity.

“In the years ahead,” Hawley reasonably suggests, “organized conservatism may break down, and the conservative intellectual movement may lose its ability to determine the boundaries of acceptable right-wing thought.”

All the more reason to learn about what has been deemed outside, or just within, those boundaries. The circle might expand, and the forces within it might operate even more independently of one another. Above all, it would be wrong to assume that the conservative movement’s disintegration would mean the end of any common “Right” at all. This is mistaken because the American Right is by no means entirely a marriage of convenience, nor is it some ingenious invention. Nor is it, fundamentally, a cluster of allied institutions.

The Right’s commonality has been intellectual—notwithstanding the difficulties of defining that commonality precisely. Strong anticommunists tended to be passionate, also, about limited government or religious faith, often both. “Social” or “cultural” or “family values” or “Christian” conservatives tended to believe in relatively limited government. And so on. This logical, not accidental, overlap is sometimes referred to as “fusion,” a once-popular concept on the intellectual Right that has gathered dust for decades but holds more potential than many realize (and about which Donald Devine has written instructively for Law and Liberty).

Furthermore, there were always, in one sense or another, plenty of conservatives and “conservatives” out there. Hawley doesn’t seem to labor under the misconception that many others have: that conservatism barely appeared in the United States until definite leaders or institutions somehow created it in the 1950s and 1960s: Buckley and his National Review, traditionalist intellectual historian Russell Kirk with The Conservative Mind (1953), various free-market advocates, the Goldwater movement. He stipulates what is too often disregarded in simple accounts of conservatism: that a “Left-Right divide” already existed before what he calls the “contemporary meaning” of the Right was clearly established in the 1950s or later.

Still, that meaning has been important, making it easier for non-Left people to work together. Briefly put, it has sometimes been called (as by Hawley) a three-legged stool: anticommunism including a belief, partly for that reason, in maximum military strength; the limited-government, constitutionalist, free-market, pro-capitalist (and, since the 1980s, insistently “pro-growth”) principles encompassed by the word “freedom”; concern for traditional social mores and institutions, like family and religious faith as traditionally defined. The serious mainstream or “movement” conservative has stood upon all three legs.

The schools of thought covered in Right-Wing Critics are far more than three:

  • The “mainstream” libertarians, who are willing to work with conservatives and make some “compromises with the state”;
  • The “radical” libertarians, who won’t (both are at odds with social conservatism, in politics and often elsewhere);
  • The “paleoconservatives,” very culturally traditionalist anti-statists and foreign policy anti-interventionists, whom Hawley wrongly but pardonably (due to a strong emphasis in their writings) says are defined “almost entirely” by opposition to the neoconservatism that has long been so powerful in the main movement;
  • The “small is beautiful” communitarians or localists, who primarily oppose rootlessness and emphasize social connectedness and obligations, including, in Hawley’s description, “the importance of limits in an age obsessed with perpetual growth”;
  • Also what Hawley perceptively notices as a “secular” or “godless” right, justifying conservative or libertarian stances “on a purely rational basis,” avoiding any religious claims in political affairs;
  • And finally, the “white nationalist” and explicitly racist Right, even more marginal than the rest. (The author’s not-altogether groundless worries about racism, if one defines the word broadly, elsewhere on the Right sometimes have him walking on verbal eggshells in order, perhaps, to thoroughly distance himself from such.)

Hawley also considers a few ultra-intellectual European movements, including Alain de Benoist’s “New Right” based in France. But while interesting in themselves, especially given rising Muslim populations and metastasizing radical Islamist savagery, they have remained nearly invisible on this side of the Atlantic (despite respectful attention from some paleoconservatives and rejection by others in that camp). Although qualifying as “critics of American conservatism,” by Hawley’s account these movements serve that function only incidentally. The chapter on these quite distinctive Continental rightists, dramatically titled “Against Capitalism, Christianity, and America,” should either have been rewritten along the lines of “American Conservatism As Seen by Some Europeans” or, better, dropped to make room for slightly deeper analyses of our own factions.

Two major forces are correctly excluded from Hawley’s array of right-wing ideological antagonists to the conservative movement (although, of course, their attitudes toward many “establishment” conservative politicians are another matter). Tea Party supporters can be classified as “ordinary conservative Republicans, only louder.” The so-called religious Right, which is likewise “an integral part of the conservative electoral coalition,” has its own “seat at the conservative table and the ears of Republican legislators.”

In contrast, all the groupings Hawley analyzes here “disagree with one or more of the basic premises of American conservatism” especially by differently interpreting, or believing less in, one of the “stool legs.”

Why, then, do we call them right-wing? It is easy to assume the term means nothing, in a positive sense, if the philosophies lumped into it are so divergent. Hawley doesn’t make such a mistake, although at one point, probably for the sake of brevity, he calls them “nonleftist ideologies.” What they have in common, he reasonably judges on this complicated definitional question, is “the belief that some other value takes precedence over equality.”

In addition, Hawley seems to understand, to a great extent they share a reactive or preventive orientation, despite the great differences in content. The late political scientist Samuel Huntington and other scholars have interpreted conservatism as, in substantial part, the resistance to leftist or “Progressive” forces, understood to be the usual initiators, movers, or aggressors in modern politics. Hawley seems to agree with this view when he explains that the Right “fights the left in all cases where the push for equality threatens some other value held in higher esteem.”

Any book on current political forces is enriched by a discussion of their prospects even if that isn’t required, and Right-Wing Critics has one. Hawley presents clearly some of the key difficulties facing the entire Right. Its popularity, he points out, is threatened especially by the shrinkage of America’s white majority. He tends to reject the arguments sometimes put forth to answer such fears—for example, the questionable “Hispanics are natural conservatives” assumption often heard in Republican politics—and cites unspecified evidence on non-whites’ issue positions that is discouraging for the Right.

Much of the Right, he warns, is also threatened by the definite decline in religious affiliation and belief, and the fall-off in marriage rates. These reduce the politically conservative base because non-whites, single people, and non-believers or the religiously disconnected are more “liberal.” It seems hard to dispute Hawley’s judgment that, of all the factions he discusses, moderate libertarianism has the most plausibly good future. Although he cites its influence on the Republican Party and its greater similarity “to conventional conservatism” than is the case with other critics on the Right, it seems to me that moderate libertarianism might also be the position most popular or relatively popular in a more racially diverse, less religious, more individualized society.

Or does that depend on the election early next month? Hawley wrote just a little too soon to have witnessed the power of a new kind of nationalism infused much more with socioeconomic nostalgia than with classic traditionalist conservatism—the nationalism and nostalgia felt by Donald Trump’s millions of enthusiasts. “Make America Great Again” refers partly to greater strength in the world, but more to a confidently prosperous order in post-World War II America that was, arguably, built largely by statist “liberals” (including leaders of the labor movement) on a socially conservative base and a dynamic, capitalist economy.

Books on current political forces should also note, along with external challenges, any troubles that are due more to their own leaders or followers. Hawley joins certain other observers in perceiving a lack of “intellectual energy” at least among the Right’s “movement” mainstream, whose “talking points remain virtually unchanged since the 1980s.” He also laments a “dearth of recent conservative books and other media on a higher intellectual plane” than Fox News and most right-of-center talk radio.

In addition, Hawley sees much freely expressed philistinism, which might be unhealthy for a movement whose positions are supposedly grounded in a strongly principled core. He calls it problematic for a group of people who still “claim that ideas have consequences”—the now-venerable slogan that probably traces back to the brilliant traditionalist scholar Richard Weaver’s 1948 book title—to “ostentatiously embrace an anti-intellectual tone.”

Right-Wing Critics, even allowing for its narrower scope and generally shorter time frame, is hardly comparable to historian George Nash’s gold-standard work published in 1976, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. But it’s a meaty and thought-provoking study nonetheless, contributing to discourse on recent and relatively recent politics in more than one way. It will help a reader who has vaguely imagined these unfamiliar viewpoints as extreme or strange to get beyond dubious clichés about them.

At the same time, although the book doesn’t give a rich enough description of why their adherents find these perspectives compelling, a negatively inclined reader may well find more value in some of these movements than he or she expected, thanks to Hawley’s general reluctance to editorialize. Not least, for lay readers who are sympathetic to any of the thinking of these right-wing critics without previously being aware of it, Hawley’s work will help in political and cultural self-understanding.