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Lee Edwards’ Just Right and the Lessons of Movement Politics

Mainstream conservative luminaries such as George Will, Bill Kristol, Glenn Beck, and Jennifer Rubin are at a nadir of influence, and many are asking themselves when and how their movement got off course. The movement described in George Nash’s magnus opus, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, has apparently lost control of the Republican Party. Prior to the most recent presidential election, conservative pundits declared that Donald Trump was unfit for office. National Review spent an entire issue attacking Trump, hoping to halt his momentum in the GOP primaries. Trump’s victories demonstrated that grassroots Republicans have lost interest in conservative shibboleths.

It is perhaps even more significant that this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) showed that traditional conservatism no longer even inspires right-wing activists.  Nationalist speakers such as Marion Le Pen and Nigel Farage were greeted as heroes, whereas Mona Charen’s critique of Trump was met with boos. If CPAC is a bellwether of the American right, then traditional conservatism in the mold of William F. Buckley is giving way to overt nationalism. Ascendant right-wing populists challenge the “three-legged stool” of cultural traditionalists, free market purists, and foreign policy hawks for control of the American right.

I read Lee Edwards’ new memoir, Just Right, hoping to find clues that could further explain conservatism’s decline. Although this was not his intention, Edwards’ book suggests a few reasons for the movement’s current state of disarray.

Edwards, now a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, has known the conservative movement from the inside from its earliest days. He was a founding member of Young Americans for Freedom, and served in Goldwater’s presidential campaign. As a consultant, he worked for the marquee names of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. After earning his PhD, he became an important historian of American conservatism.

Edwards’ history books describe his subjects in the best possible light. They are worth reading, though I cannot help approaching them with a skeptical eye, given his relationships with his subjects. Writing dispassionate history books about your friends and the institutions that write your paychecks is surely a difficult task.

Despite my reservations, Just Right is a great read. Edwards provides new insights into the conservative movement, offering details about the major figures’ personalities and reactions to various crises. Edwards has an advantage over most scholars engaged in this kind of research. Whereas other historians must rely entirely on interviews and archives, Edwards can supplement this work with his own memories. He was there for all of it. He can tell us how Goldwater reacted to Kennedy’s assassination, about Richard Viguerie’s fury at President Ford’s decision to name Rockefeller as his vice president, and the eccentric patrons who kept the movement financially afloat.

Throughout the book, Edwards presents most of his political allies as paragons of idealism. His narrative describes a smattering of drunks and kooks, but according to Edwards, principled and energetic men and women dominated the movement. These activists never stopped writing, speaking, campaigning, and fundraising, even when the political winds blew against them. This persistence was vital to conservatism’s success, which activists of all political persuasions would be wise to remember.

Edwards admitted he was not providing an objective account, and his decision to focus on conservatism’s best elements is understandable. He clearly hopes to inspire the next generation of conservatives to carry on the struggle. Yet the book may have benefitted from a more detached analysis. Edwards described the movement as an unwavering band of happy warriors, united in their cause, and always exhibiting generosity and collegiality. Edwards mostly ignores or papers over the movement’s many acrimonious internal struggles.

Karl Hess, Goldwater’s speechwriter, makes seven appearances in the book, yet Edwards did not think it worth mentioning that Hess later abandoned conservatism entirely, embracing a form of left-wing libertarianism and even joining Students for a Democratic Society. He tells us nothing about the bitter disputes between the paleoconservatives and the neoconservatives. He writes of his friendships with Midge Decter and Russell Kirk, but does not inform the reader that the two despised each other. Edwards unfortunately chose not to provide new insights into the public and private battles that shaped the movement.

Edwards and the other figures in his book approached their work with the zeal of religious crusaders. To a significant extent, that is what they were. Conservatives like Edwards viewed communists as an unprecedented, apocalyptic threat, as heathens hell-bent on destroying the West. Yes, each element of the conservative coalition had its own interests, but nothing mattered more than defeating the godless, totalitarian, anti-capitalist Reds. Conservatives mostly heeded William F. Buckley’s call to make peace with a “totalitarian bureaucracy” for the Cold War’s duration.

These conservatives viewed their movement as the only thing thwarting global communist domination. When we consider their Cold War mindset, it is not surprising that conservatism enjoyed so many steadfast advocates.

Even today, Edwards insists that the hardline approach to communism was always appropriate. He wrote of the disgust he felt when Nixon began normalizing relations with China, and gave no indication that he has reconsidered those feelings. Rather than a brilliant diplomatic move that drove a wedge in the communist world, Edwards views Nixon’s rapprochement with the Chinese communists as a betrayal. Conservatives’ hatred of communism was justified, but it may have diminished their ability to think strategically.

Edwards’ passionate anti-communism was notable, but not unique. The Soviet menace was the overriding concern of conservative icons like Whitaker Chambers. Young Americans for Freedom famously declared, “The forces of international Communism are, at present, the greatest single threat.”

We can criticize the first conservatives for many reasons, but I do not question their sincerity. I take Edwards at his word that his colleagues were idealists. Tireless activists who dedicated their entire lives to a political philosophy built conservatism from the ground up. They believed the stakes of politics were high, and that what they were doing mattered.

This may no longer be true. Conservatism was a victim of its own success. As the 20th century dragged on, conservatism transitioned from a cause to a career – especially after Viguerie and others demonstrated the movement’s massive earning potential. With that much money on the table, the conservative movement attracted its share of conmen.

The conservative intellectual movement has also seen better days. This was perhaps unavoidable; brilliant thinkers like James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall are rare. We can forgive the movement for failing to consistently find and promote intellects of that caliber, but its intellectual stagnation becomes more apparent every year. Rather than create new ideas, conservatives insist that the arguments their forbearers formulated in the 1950s are relevant today – they just need to market them more effectively. Conservatism’s intellectual calcification may be driven partially by fear. Frank Meyer and the other proponents of “fusionism” provided a semi-coherent philosophical justification for a movement of strange political bedfellows. Having accomplished that impressive feat, conservatives are justifiably hesitant to reconsider their formula. Intellectual torpor has consequences, however.

The conservative canon – those books authored by Hayek, Burnham, Chambers, Kirk, Friedman, Buckley and others – becomes more anachronistic every year. These books were important and insightful, but most of them spoke to different conditions than those we live with now. We do not need to learn why communism is evil or why centrally planned economies will suffer long lines and shortages. Those battles have already been won. Contemporary conservatives repeating mid-20th century arguments are the political equivalent to Civil War reenactors.

It is telling that Edwards focused his post-Cold War political energies on creating the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, DC. The struggle against communism had to continue, even though it was hard to find many actual communists.

Inertia, endowments, and Reagan nostalgia kept the conservative stool together and influential after its mortal enemy passed from the scene, but it is increasingly rickety. The conservative coalition is less coherent than it once was. The alliance between big business and cultural traditionalists assumed that big business was interested in maintaining traditional moral norms. This may have been true in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the titans of our post-industrial economy have few qualms with the cultural left. Similarly, the Rust Belt voters that gave President Trump his narrow victory are uninterested in arguments about constitutional government or free markets.

Edwards is optimistic about the movement’s future. Given his experiences, perhaps this is justified. R. Emmett Tyrell once noted that conservatism is America’s “longest dying political movement.” Every time the movement faced a setback, pundits across the political spectrum published a deluge of obituaries for conservatism. Every time, it has bounced back. The conservative movement’s problems are real, however, and they will remain after Trump leaves office. Unless conservatives can articulate a new vision that speaks to the realities of 21st century America, its decline will continue. Fighting communism is no longer enough.

Reader Discussion

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on April 16, 2018 at 12:22:19 pm

Nice essay. Many quibbles.

With that much money on the table, the conservative movement attracted its share of conmen.

Surely this is true of any movement? Indeed, a movement dedicated to articulating the merits of entrepreneurialism should expect such an outcome.

The alliance between big business and cultural traditionalists assumed that big business was interested in maintaining traditional moral norms. This may have been true in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the titans of our post-industrial economy have few qualms with the cultural left. Similarly, the Rust Belt voters that gave President Trump his narrow victory are uninterested in arguments about constitutional government or free markets.

I wonder about this. Yup, there was some alliance between big business and cultural traditionalist when they agreed on “traditional moral norms” in the 1950s and 1960s. These were the Mad Men norms of hierarchy—for example, norms that minorities were held in their place, and that high-status men would have free access to women with or without their consent. If the titans of industry have changed, it has not been by becoming more libertine; quite the opposite.

And what does Rust Belt mean? I regard it as referring to cities in Midwestern states that have experienced economic decline—and thus, those states rely ever more heavily on their successful industry, agriculture. Yet Trump’s policies are about to trigger a trade war which will torpedo agriculture. Rust Belt voters may be uninterested in arguments about free markets, but I suspect they’ll get interested when state services dry up for lack of tax revenues.

[B]ooks authored by Hayek, Burnham, Chambers, Kirk, Friedman, Buckley and others … becomes more anachronistic every year. These books were important and insightful, but most of them spoke to different conditions than those we live with now. We do not need to learn why communism is evil or why centrally planned economies will suffer long lines and shortages. Those battles have already been won. Contemporary conservatives repeating mid-20th century arguments are the political equivalent to Civil War reenactors.

That’s some clever writing. And I couldn’t agree less.

First, it’s important to read such books to understand how much they DIFFER from libertarian orthodoxy. If conservatives want to reconcile with their populist colleagues, they might get half the distance by simply returning to their roots.

Second, Yes, those battles have been won—but the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. As Sinclair Lewis remarked in It Can’t Happen Here, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross.” (The book was about the rise of a populist president in the nature of Huey P. Long—a guy who actually said, “Sure we'll have fascism in America—but it'll come disguised as 100 percent Americanism.”) The same can be said of central planning.

The problems with planned economies do not arise merely when the plans are proposed by someone wearing a hammer and sickle or red star. Trump arose to power by proposing protectionist measures, proposing industrial policies that favor some industries over others, and that interfere with various business transactions—all in an effort to plan the economy in a way contrary to market forces. Every economist agrees that Trump’s tariffs would be a net drain on the economy. And his proposals to advance coal consumption were so boneheaded, even his own appointees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission couldn’t countenance them. (Of course, those appointees cannot be removed except for cause, which may explain their capacity for principled opposition. Let those who despise bureaucratic independence declare their opposition to this outcome.)

In my lifetime, can’t think of a time when the threat to free exchange has been more pressing. And the fact that the author doesn’t recognize the threat only attests to its gravity.

In candor, I support policies addressing wealth distribution. But, except as necessary to address market failures (e.g., pollution), I largely believe society shouldn’t interfere with wealth creation. Alas that conservatives have done a better job stigmatizing reallocation programs then they have stigmatizing central planning. A voter may look down his nose at a neighbor who receives public assistance, yet feel no qualms about publicly demanding protectionist policies that would have the effect of transferring wealth to himself at great expense to his neighbors. In short, conservatism has trained people to disparage welfare unless it’s wildly inefficient.

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nobody.really
on April 16, 2018 at 13:39:57 pm

"In my lifetime . . ."

How long has that been, actually?

My response to Hawley was going to be: If conservatism failed it failed because its electoral base, the wage earning voters, were primarily interested in the first leg of the stool and only conditionally interested in the second, preserving the culture and their jobs, while their putative conservative leaders were only interested in marshaling the resources of the state to protect their own private property against socialism. To that end, conservatives exalted private property and the military that defended their property far beyond what was safe or prudent in a republic.

Now that communism is a distant memory we see conservatives are still mindlessly supporting militarism against any imaginable threat to national security [and hence their property] and caring not a fig for what economic calamities happen to befall what used to be their base.

This has been the weakness of liberal Anglo-american constitutional democratic republicanism since it was born in 1646. It was the issue in the famous exchange between Col. Rainborowe (Leveller and republican) and Gen. Ireton (Grandee and proto-Whig) at Putney in October 1647. The issues have not changed in all that time.

The abiding feature of the fundament divide amongst us liberals has been property. For Whigs the summum bonum is, and always will be, their own private property, they are a class of rent seekers. Democratic-republicans respect private property but our summum bonum is, and always will be, salus populi suprema lex esto, we are the working class with no expectation rente (annuities) until age 67 1/2, should they live so long.

Thus, back in the day, Rainborowe, Lilburne and Winstanley clearly recognized that they were on one side of this fence and that Ireton, Cromwell and Hobbes were on the other side. Unless there is an immediate threat to what both Whigs and republicans hold dear, Whigs and republicans are natural enemies.

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EK
on April 16, 2018 at 13:51:58 pm

"The problems with planned economies do not arise merely when the plans are proposed by someone wearing a hammer and sickle or red star."

AND

"In candor, I support policies addressing wealth distribution. But, except as necessary to address market failures (e.g., pollution), I largely believe society shouldn’t interfere with wealth creation. "

Anyone, anywhere see any problem with these positions.

To accomplish nobody's stated goal of "RE-distribution" it is entirely likely that a planned economy, or at a minimum one clearly approximating such an economy, would be required.

And, of course, this generous and considerate nobody would not dare to tinker with wealth creation - Balderdash!!! - as we immediately detect the option (aren't there ALWAYS optiosn for the PLANNERS of the world) to affect wealth creation when market failures arise. Gee, who gets to determine what constitutes a market failure. We also observe the option to affect wealth creation in the case of "pollution;" and surely" global warming, and other externalities shall follow for the rest of our un-planned economy.

AND:

"A voter may look down his nose at a neighbor who receives public assistance, yet feel no qualms about publicly demanding protectionist policies that would have the effect of transferring wealth to himself at great expense to his neighbors."

Let us modify this claim to, perhaps, better reflect the realities of our current *planned* economy.

A [planner] may look down his nose at a [recently unemployed] neighbor who receives public assistance, yet feel no qualms about publicly demanding globalist, unbridled *free* trade] policies that [has had] the effect of transferring [enormous] wealth to himself [and other globalist insiders] at great expense to his neighbors.

Now tell me that the current economy is NOT PART OF A PLAN that results in massive transfer of wealth from one segment of the population to another, while simultaneously devastating the lives of millions of ones fellow citizens.

Again - Balderdash and Poppycock upon the claims of this self proclaimed free trading nobody!!!

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gabe
on April 16, 2018 at 14:21:14 pm

“In my lifetime . . .”

How long has that been, actually?

* * *
This has been the weakness of liberal Anglo-american constitutional democratic republicanism since it was born in 1646….

Ok, by that standard, I am something of a whippersnapper….

The abiding feature of the fundament divide amongst us liberals has been property. For Whigs the summum bonum is, and always will be, their own private property, they are a class of rent seekers. Democratic-republicans respect private property but our summum bonum is, and always will be, salus populi….

Unless there is an immediate threat to what both Whigs and republicans hold dear, Whigs and republicans are natural enemies.

This analysis suggests a high degree of class consciousness—that is, people identifying by class more than by region or religion or race.

This conciseness seems more characteristic of Europe. In the US, the working class has always been divided by race. Thus, people are surprised to hear that Hillary Clinton won the majority of the working class vote. People are surprised because when I say “working class” they think “WHITE working class,” with the understanding that white people don’t identify with people of color, even if they are members of the same economic class.

But one reason whites have not identified with blacks is that they have honestly experienced different economic circumstances. White unemployment has been half the rate of black unemployment; white life expectancy is longer than black life expectancy; etc. So white could distinguish themselves from blacks, and use that fact to maintain themselves on the hierarchy. And so long as the economy held up—especially the demand for less-educated labor—the Whigs and the White democratic-republicans might maintain an alliance. And this kind of economy prevailed in the US during the postwar years.

But as I’ve previously remarked, the economy of the postwar years was the result of a highly atypical combination of forces. It may well be that the social stratification of Downton Abbey is more typical, and we’re simply regressing to the mean.

As demand for labor—and especially less educated labor—declines, the working-class whites find themselves increasing in the circumstances of working-class blacks: They feel aggrieved that their better-educated and upwardly mobile brethren have moved away and abandoned them. And they find themselves increasingly relying on government assistance. Not only has this change resulted in a loss of buying power, for Whites it has resulted in a loss of status. Arguably the populist rebellion of the white working class reflects both frustrations. In the long run, it may result in more class consciousness.

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nobody.really
on April 16, 2018 at 16:29:59 pm

"Thus, people are surprised to hear that Hillary Clinton won the majority of the working class vote. People are surprised because when I say “working class” they think “WHITE working class,” with the understanding that white people don’t identify with people of color, even if they are members of the same economic class. "

Interesting situation in which the conclusions may very well be correct, i.e. 1) white working class not identifying with black working class and 2) in the long run, it may result in more class consciousness BUT the premise is (or may very well be) incorrect.

1) It should come as no surprise to many that a Democrat Party candidate wins the working class vote. Has not the Democrat party postured itself as the "friend" of the working man for nearly a century? This has been successful in spite of many Democrat policy prescriptions that cause harm to the working class - unlimited immigration, globalist trade (notice i did not say *free* and fair trade), radical environmental policies that have caused a loss of many jobs, etc. Working class people see the Democrat party as the friend of unions, of which more working class than middle class Americans are members (excluding of course Public sector unions).
2) You are apparently NOT "of" the working class. Had you been, you would recognize (and possibly appreciate) that there has always been a sense of "class consciousness" amongst the working classes and that the working class has always looked at the "superior" classes with both great skepticism and wariness, devolving into hostility at times. Certainly, this is not to be compared to the "class' structures of the UK, France or India; yet, it is present and widespread nonetheless. As one who actually enjoyed the benefits of "working class" existence as a young lad, I can assure that there is a clear and deep[ening] sense of class / resentment among the working class segments of the population.

But yes, you are correct. working whites are now placed in a situation not at all dissimilar from poorer working class blacks AND this does entail a loss of status. More importantly, it represents a loss of hope perhaps akin to the level of hopelessness experienced by many blacks in the past BUT they do not feel *aggrieved* that their (presumably) better educated brethren have moved on - at least not yet! Maybe you should come tailgate with me and get a better perspective on what white working class folks feel. As it is a group that encompasses most socioeconomic classes, there may be lessons for you to learn.

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gabe
on April 16, 2018 at 16:51:38 pm

Oh yeah--I look forward to tailgating with you, your working class buds, and a case of Mosquito Fleet Cabernet Sauvignon as we wait for for the guards to open the gates at the Seahawks game. If you're buying, count me in. :-)

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nobody.really
on April 16, 2018 at 17:23:04 pm

Nah, class has always been very important in US politics. The elections of 1800, 1824, 1932, 1968, 1972, 2000, 2008 and 2016 all turned on class. Race was always a secondary issue and only important nationally for a few congressional cycles after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and even then only in the old Confederacy.

As long the bennies were flowing down the food chain it could be papered over but it was always there. Certainly, you can not be arguing that any one who is not a free trade globalist is a racist.

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EK
on April 16, 2018 at 19:19:16 pm

Hey, how did you know about Mosquito Fleet? I am impressed. It garnered a rating of -10 on a scale of 80 - 100 on wine spectators List of Great wines - but why wouldn't I buy the best for my blogging buddy, right. The mosquitoes are on me!!!! Ha!!!!

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gabe
on April 16, 2018 at 19:20:58 pm

No, but nobody really may believe that anybody who is NOT a racist is a free trade globalist - or some such thing!

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gabe
on April 16, 2018 at 19:37:23 pm

BTW:

Here is just aniother one of the Democrat party policies that adversely affects the people that the Democrat party alleges to support. In this case, we observe the diminution of black americans voting rights / representation as a result of the Democrat Party's insistence on unlimited immigration and its reckless refusal to accept a 2020 census that includes a citizenship question.

Yep, them Dems really do care about all of their subjects - oops, I must mean their dependents, oops again, I must mean their wards, oops again, I mean their voters !!!! (living and dead, presumably).

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gabe
on April 17, 2018 at 08:40:34 am

Oh, relax already, guys. Why so defensive?

I'm not going to accuse you of being racist just because you favor protectionism. Indeed, I try not to accuse anyone of being a racist, because I try to avoid using the verb "to be." (Admittedly, I don't always live up to this standard, but I try.)

Rather, I'll accuse you of letting race influence your opinions and decisions.

Except that I should probably choose a different verb than "accuse," because I regard this as a pretty much a universal condition for people socialized in the US. (Probably elsewhere too, but I don't now as much about other societies.)

So you can feel free to advocate any trade policy you like, secure in the knowledge that it will not alter my opinion of whether considerations of race have influenced your opinion.

Feel better now?

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nobody.really
on April 17, 2018 at 10:44:04 am

Just for the record, my comment was intended as commentary NOT on the alleged racists protectionists but rather upon the alleged "sanctimony" of the globalists.
And no, I don't think that you were claiming that protectionists are racists but rather that you assume that because racism does exist in the US AND that "protectionism" (as you would term it) also exists in the US that the two are inextricably related. they are NOT - although there may be some overlap observable in some cases.

As your friends at First things have often commented, "Love begins at home", "The Love of one's own...."

As for me, I see Americans as my own and that includes ALL Americans.

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gabe

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