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.