The Conservative Ascendancy
How the GOP Right Made Political History
by Donald T. Critchlow
Harvard, 368 pp., $27.95
Does the conservative movement still exist in any meaningful sense? It is now nearly two decades since Ronald Reagan left office, and during that time conservatives have been in constant tumult. Looking back, the Hiss verdict, California's tax-cutting Proposition 13, the Reagan presidential victories, the failed fight for the Bork nomination, now seem like relatively rare, halcyon moments of conservative unity. Today, that unity is found almost nowhere in conservative ranks. Immigration policy, trade, defense spending, foreign intervention, Social Security reform, George W. Bush--these comprise just a short list of the topics that send self-identified "conservatives" into paroxysms of fury.
Maybe fury, at least the slow-boiling kind, is good for the conservative soul. Unlike liberalism, American conservatism has always proudly worn the cloak of the embattled and neglected underdog. Its little magazines, from The American Spectator to The New Criterion, have been best in opposition. And its most outsized, colorful figures--Patrick Buchanan, Charlton Heston, William Bennett, George Will, Ann Coulter--have more verve when they are firing from the trenches.
The late William F. Buckley Jr., early in his career, coined a motto for the movement that stuck: A conservative is someone willing to "stand athwart history yelling 'Stop!'" Almost four decades later Vice President Dan Quayle offered another pithy self-description: "I wear their scorn as a badge of honor." You have to wonder: Does the latter quote capture the political temperament of modern conservatives better than the first?
Despite its masochistic tendencies, conservative politics have been an effervescent and transformative force in American politics for the past few decades. What is remarkable about the cautious, unimaginative campaign speeches of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is how much they bear the stamp of conservative intellectual debates that preceded them. These liberal Democratic presidential aspirants coyly demur on tax increases. Their discussions of foreign policy invoke American credibility. They talk about efficiency in government. Yes, conservatives know these are poll-massaged, manufactured personas; yet surely they reflect how much of the conservative flavoring has seeped into the Democratic drinking water.
That said, Donald T. Critchlow has the misfortune of publishing a book entitled The Conservative Ascendancy at a moment when conservative prospects have never looked worse and conservative activists are depressed. To his credit, Critchlow does not try to analyze the coming presidential season or place any bets. His book is part intellectual history, part policy analysis, with each part trying to explain how the ideas that motivated the conservative movement translated, however roughly, into political power.
There are other solid histories of the conservative movement in America, notably George Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. Critchlow, a professor at Saint Louis University, is no stranger to the conservative universe, having already written books on federal social policy and grassroots conservatism. Perhaps that background allows him to identify quickly a nagging problem buried in the roots of conservative thought: Many of the earliest theorists hated modern American society. Albert Jay Nock's 1935 classic Our Enemy, the State captured the isolationist, anti-New Deal tendency that, at the time, was the essence of what it meant to be a conservative.
It would take a long time to shake that sentiment completely out of conservative thought. Nearly 20 years on, Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind, a much better book that introduced readers to some neglected parts of American history. But no one can read The Conservative Mind, or any of Kirk's subsequent writing, without getting a sense that Kirk was never comfortable with 20th-century American life. As a political matter, this was clearly a problem. As Critchlow points out, the unavoidable issue with the reactionary conservatives is that "they offered no programmatic alternative to modern liberalism."
In fact, it is hard to say when conservatives evolved from a fragmented collection of economists and traditionalists to a political movement with electoral heft. The broad national popularity of F.A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom (which sold 600,000 copies in a single year), Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, and even Ayn Rand's novels, surely helped cement the conservative movement to the defense of personal liberty. But these were intellectual achievements, not political ones.