Alive and Well
A historian of modern conservatism ponders the future.
Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
The 1960s and '70s saw the addition of two more components to the conservative coalition. Neoconservatism arose among disaffected liberals in response to the excesses of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs; the tendency on the left, which received loud expression during the Vietnam war, to blame the world's ills on America first; and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Nash deftly analyzes the intellectual trek made by a small but influential group of liberals led by Public Interest editor Irving Kristol and Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz from left to center to right. At the same time, he describes sympathetically the obstacles that original components of the conservative coalition confronted (and still confront) in welcoming into the fold those who, while opposing the left's intellectual predilections and public policies, still wish to conserve key elements of the welfare state and energetically promote liberty and democracy abroad.
A fifth component, the religious right, emerged in the 1970s and became politically potent in the '80s. Nash takes care to distinguish their perspective from that of traditionalist conservatives, with whom they share much. Whereas the traditionalists were predominantly intellectuals criticizing mass society, the ranks of the religious right are composed of ordinary people rebelling against what they regard as the pretensions and usurpations of a secular cultural elite, particularly on social issues, especially abortion. And whereas the traditionalists were disproportionately Roman Catholic, the religious right, while including Catholics and Orthodox Jews, has been predominantly a movement of evangelical Protestants.
The several essays he devotes to Herbert Hoover, a "neglected conservative sage," advance Nash's overarching argument that conservatism's vitality depends on its capacity to achieve a prudent balance. Entering the college at Stanford University the year it opened its doors in 1891, and graduating in the class of 1895, Hoover was trained as a mining engineer and prospered in business ventures in Australia and China. He turned to public life at the beginning of World War I, concentrating on relief efforts until his appointment by Warren Harding as secretary of commerce in 1921. It will come as a surprise to many readers to learn from Nash that, thanks to "his far-flung humanitarian endeavors," Hoover "was responsible for saving more lives than any person who has ever lived." Elected to the presidency in 1928 as a progressive Republican, he presided over the greatest economic catastrophe in American history and was unable, before Franklin Roosevelt defeated him in 1932, to find a way out of it. After leaving office, he became a preeminent critic of the New Deal for its massive expansion of government, and kept up his defense of individual freedom until his death at 90 in 1964.
Nash examines its many parts and shows that Hoover's career presents an "idiosyncratic blend of progressivism and antistatism" and provides a surprisingly compelling model of how to combine a passion for reform with a commitment to limited government. In what Hoover said of "true liberalism"-that it "is found not in striving to spread bureaucracy but in striving to set bounds to it"-Nash discerns an attainable and worthy goal for a true conservatism today.
But important as such a goal is, conservatism, in Nash's assessment, can hardly be limited to limiting government bureaucracy. Limited government is a means to securing individual freedom-the larger goal, Nash admiringly observes, to which America's experiment in self-government is dedicated. But neither the dedication to political freedom nor the wherewithal to maintain it and enjoy its many blessings can be assumed. So conservatives seek means, consistent with limited government and individual freedom, to nourish the taste for freedom and discipline its exercise. In other words, they appreciate the mutual dependence of freedom and virtue. Not all conservatives will agree with Nash, who embraces Tocqueville's contention, which echoes Washington's Farewell Address, that liberty "cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith." It is, however, incumbent on those who disagree to explain from where, if not in morality and faith, the virtues on which freedom depends will emerge.
However that question is decided, if it wishes to prosper and preserve freedom, a free society can neither neglect virtue nor legislate it directly. That's one important reason why "American conservatism at its Reaganite best is a combination of impulses-of realism and idealism, of prudence and hope, of worldly sobriety and faith-based aspiration." Nash's graceful and incisive exploration of the history of conservatism in America demonstrates that the need to achieve balance among rival principles and competing goods is nothing new, and in a free society, will always go to the heart of the matter.
Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.