What does it mean to be an American conservative?
Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
Patrick Allitt has succeeded admirably in his objective of producing a compact survey of American conservative thought that will be useful to students and general readers. The Conservatives features excellent succinct summaries of key conservative thinkers, going back to the Founding era, ably conveying along the way the inconsistencies and internal divisions on the right. If The Conservatives is in some way unsatisfying, it is not Allitt's fault; the different strains of conservative thought are difficult or impossible to reconcile. The dynamic tension among conservatives is the secret of the right's success, but is hard to capture in a chronological narrative, and remains baffling to observers on the left.
The virtue of Allitt's book is its focus on American conservatism, which is distinct from European conservatism even as it draws upon European sources. Traditionalist conservatives of the Russell Kirk variety have always tried to implant Old World, Burkean-style conservatism on these shores, but it fits as insecurely as a bowler hat on a sprinter for the simple reason Allitt grasps near the middle of his account: "American conservatism has always had a paradoxical element, entailing a defense of a revolutionary achievement."
The American Revolution has been a stumbling block for some conservatives, who either deny its revolutionary character, or try to portray it as being in essential continuity with British or European political thought. (Hence Kirk's dislike of the Declaration of Independence, for example.) James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, both rightly considered 18th-century liberals, emerge in Allitt's account as "conservative innovators"--only in America would such a phrase not be considered an oxymoron--and The Federalist, according to Allitt, should be considered "the new nation's first conservative classic."
The inconsistency and internal divisions among American conservatives derive, Allitt thinks, from a general antitheoretical approach to the world; conservatism is more "an attitude to social and political change that . . . puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy." But this is another paradox: At some point, deference to history becomes an abstraction. Although Allitt discerns a suspicion of democracy and equality, and constant worry about the fragility of civil society, as recurrent themes across the broad spectrum of conservatives, his narrative offers many exceptions and contradictions of even these lowest common denominators. The social and political split between the North and South, culminating in the Civil War, is obviously the largest stumbling block to a coherent or consistent account of American conservatism. Allitt offers good accounts of the divergent streams of antebellum Northern and Southern conservatism, both suspicious of populism and skeptical of democracy. Allitt subtly conveys the intellectual and political problems of Southern conservatism, as well as the overweening elitism of some strands of Northern conservatism. There is no escaping, however, that the Civil War was "an encounter of two incompatible conservatisms."
While Allitt strives to present an unbiased or objective view of the conservative landscape, he does not shrink from making some judgment calls that will not command universal assent. He offers a long account of why "Lincoln deserves a place in the American conservative pantheon" because, in preserving the Union, Lincoln succeeded "in this most basic of all conservative tasks" while acknowledging that many conservatives (mostly southerners) then and now vehemently reject Lincoln's company.
Many more conservatives will rightly disagree with Allitt's inclusion of Theodore Roosevelt in the conservative pantheon, merely on account of his elitism, opposition to radicals, utopians, and pacifists, and his belief in the value of human struggle. T.R.'s large and admirable personality should not distract us from his anti-conservative and often demagogic progressivism that manifested itself in a cavalier attitude toward the Constitution and saw the transformation of the presidency and the birth of the modern administrative state.
With this much latitude, why not include Franklin D. Roosevelt as a conservative for having preserved capitalism?
Certain other judgments Allitt offers raise problems. "The most lasting and conservative achievement of the Federalists--one from which we still benefit today--was their role in creating a strong independent judiciary," he writes, adding that "judicial review, in effect, means judicial supremacy." Most conservatives disagree with the last part of that judgment, and have conflicting views about the first part. And do all or most conservatives agree with Tocqueville's judgment that (as Allitt summarizes it) "the spread of democracy had discouraged the pursuit of statesmanship"? An adequate treatment of this difficulty is beyond the scope of this book, but it is the kind of detail that brings us back around to the complexity of attempting a broad survey of American conservatism.
Allitt gives a good account of interwar conservatism in the 20th century--figures such as Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and Albert Jay Nock--though without offering new insights into why this era of conservatism seemed so anemic. The lack of significant contemporaneous intellectual opposition to progressivism and its New Deal successor is one of the important mysteries of American history, and a crucial defect of American conservative thought.
Like most recent surveys of the right, Allitt's narrative really gets hopping in the postwar years, with the emergence of free-market intellectuals such as Hayek, von Mises, and Friedman, and the sensational arrival of William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review. Allitt also gives a nod to a few important conservative activists and activist organizations such as Phyllis
Of course, any narrative account of the contemporary conservative scene runs up against the problem of becoming like a Russian novel, with too many characters and subplots to keep straight. Allitt does as good a job as can be done in a book of this scope, giving generally fair and adequate treatments of the paleocons, neocons, libertarians, and the religious right.
There are some curious omissions, however: Leo Strauss and his circle get barely a mention (with the sole exception of Allan Bloom), while George Will gets two pages. While The Public Interest and Triumph receive worthy discussion, along with libertarian figures such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, there is no mention of Reason, the preeminent libertarian publication for many years. Possibly these and other figures and themes worthy of inclusion ended up on the cutting room floor for reasons of length, but it leaves the account less than fully complete.
Not until the very last page does Allitt confront the central issue of American conservatism: Is it, as Louis Hartz's famous thesis in The Liberal Tradition in America implied, merely a branch of liberalism, or something distinct and antithetical to liberalism? Allitt suggests the latter, writing that "it would be perverse [today] to voice an argument like Hartz's." But this question gets at the very heart of the fractiousness of the right, and it is by no means clear that even the main currents of conservatism represent a fundamental rejection of (or alternative to) liberalism rightly understood.
Allitt shouldn't be faulted too much for punting on this issue, or giving it perfunctory treatment. The fault lines between pro-market classical liberals and champions of community, tradition, and authority mimic, in some ways, the clash between reason and revelation that was such an important part of the story of Europe for nearly two millennia. This story now plays out in America in a new form, mostly on the right, and is just as hard to resolve or synthesize as it was at the time of Thomas Aquinas.
Patrick Allitt's inclusive history is a solid and worthy contribution to the growing literature about conservatism, but it will still leave many observers scratching their heads trying to make sense of this many-sided force in our political and intellectual life. t
Steven F. Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989.