Alive and Well
A historian of modern conservatism ponders the future.
Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
Reappraising the Right
The historian George H. Nash begins his invaluable collection of essays on conservatism's origins, current predicaments, and future challenges by noting that, following the historic election of Barack Obama last November, the demise of conservatism was widely reported. Leading progressive thinkers including New Yorker staff writer George Packer, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, and New York Times Sunday Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus were quick to proclaim that modern conservatism was dysfunctional and decadent and was rapidly descending into a death spiral. Not a few prominent conservatives worried that they might be right.
Despite having earned a Harvard doctorate, and having performed prolific scholarly labors for several decades, Nash for the most part has worked without
Nash in no way minimizes the conundrums that the conservative coalition confronts. He knows that "intramural squabbling" runs deep. He appreciates that hard choices must be made: Some conservatives want to "go 'back to basics' and proclaim their principles with renewed fervor after the frustrations and muddled compromises of the past eight years." Others insist that conservatives ought to "calm down and concentrate on devising fresh public policy initiatives designed to attract a putatively centrist and pragmatic electorate." He recognizes that conservatives who put limited government first, those who put culture, morals, and religion first, and those who put national security first, are having a difficult time agreeing on priorities. And he realizes that whatever path conservatives choose, if they are to regain the confidence of a majority of Americans, they will have to develop a positive agenda and devise a compelling language appropriate to the controversies and adversaries America faces as it enters the second decade of the 21st century.
This urgent need to adjust to a changing and threatening world is, in fact, a common condition for conservatism. Nash reminds that, more than a half-century ago, Whittaker Chambers observed that, "Those who remain in the world, if they will not surrender on its terms, must maneuver within its terms." For those who seek to defend eternal truths and enduring virtues, and who also recognize an obligation to take a share of responsibility for the conduct and the direction of public life in a free society, balancing the good and the necessary is a constant imperative. Because that balancing must be artful, judicious, and not in flight from but in the service of principle, it is also a daunting task.
From the beginning, the variety of principles at play compounded the difficulties. Modern American conservatism emerged after World War II as a coalition of competing schools united by a common opponent: "There was not one right-wing renaissance but three, each reacting in diverse ways to challenge from the left."