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What does it mean to be an American conservative?

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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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
Schlafly and the Young Americans for Freedom, and notes the centrality of the Roe v. Wade decision to the shape of modern American politics.

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.