The Magazine

Alive and Well

A historian of modern conservatism ponders the future.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Reappraising the Right

The Past and Future

of American Conservatism

by George H. Nash

ISI, 400 pp., $27.95

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.
A senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, and an associate of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, Nash provides good reasons to think that they are wrong. He argues that the Bush presidency, which demoralized many conservatives, is fading into the past; conservatism has become institutionalized in a "burgeoning infrastructure of alternative media, foundations, research centers, think tanks, publishing houses, law firms, homeschooling networks, and more"; and most important, the original factors that gave birth to modern conservatism-dramatic expansion of the federal government, menacing foreign threats, and a popular culture hostile to faith and traditional morality-have never gone away, or have resurfaced in new guises. To be sure, Nash adroitly investigates the tensions and strains within modern conservatism. But his sobering and steadying book shows that the death of conservatism has been greatly exaggerated.

Despite having earned a Harvard doctorate, and having performed prolific scholarly labors for several decades, Nash for the most part has worked without
a conventional university appointment. The author, among his six other books, of the landmark study The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (1976) and a three-volume biography of Herbert Hoover (the last of which appeared in 1996), he writes with an all-but-unparalleled command of the figures and forces that mark American conservatism. This new book may provide the single most lucid analysis available of the varieties of American conservatism and their common convictions, mutual opponents, and underlying antagonisms. It effectively illustrates that conservatism in America is, and has been since its emergence in the 1950s, "a wide river with many tributaries." And it persuasively argues that to persevere today, conservatives must learn in changed circumstances how to preserve its sources and navigate its crosscurrents.

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."