White Mischief

Up from Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America

by Michael Lind
Free Press, 295 pp., $23.00

The World Turned Right Side Up: A history of the Conservative Ascendancy in America

by Godfrey Hodgson
Houghton Mifflin, 365 pp., $27.50

What, if anything, does political conservatism mean today in the United States? How, for example, do Plato and Augustine fit with Joe McCarthy and Ralph Reed; or Burke, Gibbon, and Dr. Johnson with Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, and Irving Kristol; or original sin with free market theory, or the Ten Commandments with selling machine guns? The crude answer given by many opponents of the movement is that today’s doctrinaire conservatism is simply political opportunism, the pursuit of power by selfish interests through the exploitation of popular frustrations and credulity; the manipulation, in other words, of right-wing populism in its typical forms—nativism, racism, status envy, and so on—disguised as patriotism, traditionalism, and a love of liberty thwarted by illegitimate authority. This is the answer suggested by Michael Lind, a reformed conservative, and, more cautiously, by the British journalist Godfrey Hodgson. But the crude answer is not quite the full answer.

Modern so-called conservatism arises like the traditional kind from the desire for order and certainty, a yearning so widespread among all human types as to seem instinctive but often so reckless in its perverse form as to result in its opposite. Other species are spared this yearning. They buzz, they sing, they mate not because they choose to but because they can’t choose not to. Alone among living creatures, Adam’s hapless seed may, indeed must, choose, err, regret. The history of religions, like the history of despotism, records humanity’s compulsive dependence on deities and dictators upon whom to wish this painful burden. Thus we abandon ourselves to fantastic cosmologies, derive certainties from wishes, and defend our illusions with passionate, often brutal, intensity. Keats said that only geniuses—he was thinking of Shakespeare especially—can be “content with half-knowledge” without “undertaking an irritated search” after improbable certainties. The rest of us tend to stake our lives, and often those of others, on our certain knowledge of which end of the egg to crack.

Yet the uncertainty of everyday life is inescapable. It is not that science is no longer explanatory, but that it can’t explain enough. We are no more likely than our ancestors were to find the straight path or evidence that we are more than a random accident in an in-different universe, soon to die and be forgotten. Nor has prosperity brought its promised comfort, for prosperity teaches that desire is endless, while abundance is not. The promise of abundance and its frequent corollary, political freedom—the promise, in other words, of American life—has been, for all its blessings, a cheat, and not simply for the poor. It has robbed many who are better off of their respect for scarcity, which for millennia joined us in families and tribes and made us balance our books.

From the suburbs of Mecca to the pools of Beverly Hills, there is no wonder that rootless multitudes now yearn increasingly for the absolute and submit to its avatars, who flourish as disorder accumulates. This yearning, now so prevalent in the United States, has resulted not in the…

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