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In These Books, You Know They're Right

Jun 14, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 37 • By MAX SCHULZ
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By the 1950s, the classical form of liberalism that we call conservatism -- enshrined in the Constitution and prevalent through the 1920s presidency of Calvin Coolidge -- was clearly moribund. Conservative notions about capitalism, free markets, and limited government had been indicted by Hoover's Great Depression and sentenced to death by Roosevelt's New Deal.

Even Eisenhower's presidency, and the Republicans' brief control of Congress, seemed no great break in the Left's triumphal march. The Supreme Court was increasingly viewing the Constitution as an obstacle to get around, a mild socialism seemed ascendant in America and Great Britain, and various Marxisms appeared on the rise throughout the rest of the world.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the socialist revolution. The Communist regimes in Eastern Europe disappeared. The plans of Roosevelt and Truman, Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson, sputtered and ran aground. The American public ceased to believe wholeheartedly in the ability of big government to care for its citizens from cradle to grave. A movement that hardly existed in 1950 has managed to elect presidents and Congresses, prime ministers and parliaments. And it has managed as well to construct something that looks like a coherent conservative philosophy for modern times.

Afraid that the victors are being short-changed in the history books, Lee Edwards, former aide and biographer of Barry Goldwater, has written The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America, a new chronicle of the conservative movement over the last half century. And afraid the organization and man-power that brought about victory have also been forgotten, Gregory L. Schneider has added Cadres for Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Right.

Presenting a blow-by-blow account of the major political events since 1946, Edwards pins his narrative to four towering figures: Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich. If this technique leaves the impression that conservatism owes some of its success to its cults of personality, that may not be entirely wrong. After World War II, conservatism, Edwards notes, "was so irrelevant that no major politician would dare call himself a conservative." But 1946 was a year loaded with portents: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Joe McCarthy all joined Congress, and the GOP obtained a congressional majority -- a hiccup during a time of general dominance by the Democrats.

The parallels to the 1994 Republican sweep are striking. Both were off-year elections. Both offered stinging rebukes to the Democrats in the White House. Both produced activist Republican majorities that got to work quickly and accomplished much. Yet both were turned into foils which the incumbent presidents, Truman and Clinton, could run against to maintain the presidency.

Nonetheless, the Republican successes of 1946 and the growing fear of Soviet militarism helped a conservative movement begin to gel. Its first leader was the mild-mannered Senate Republican leader, Robert Taft of Ohio. (Taft's untimely death in 1953 left the nascent movement rudderless, according to Edwards, and unable to rein in the excesses of Joe McCarthy.)

And the movement began to find as well a definite philosophical road to follow. Many analysts of the time could hardly fathom the new conservatism and its proponents. Arthur Schlesinger averred that only Henry Cabot Lodge and Jacob Javits -- two eastern liberal Republicans -- represented "intelligent conservatism." He also dismissed a study by the conservative intellectual James Burnham as "an absurd book by an absurd man."

But a powerful new intellectual groundwork was being laid at the time. Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind in 1953, Whittaker Chambers's Witness in 1952, F. A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom in 1944, and William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale in 1951 provided important ammunition for waging the political battles of the next fifty years. (Strangely, Edwards does not elevate Buckley to the level of his four key figures, for his treatment of Buckley is among the strongest parts of The Conservative Revolution, explaining the influence of National Review and the importance of Buckley's expulsion of the John Birch Society from the new movement.)