Up from Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America
The World Turned Right Side Up: A history of the Conservative Ascendancy in America
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 classic conservatism of Plato and Burke but in its degenerate form, the intolerant worship of idols and dogma whether promoted by the falsified Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood or the falsified Christianity of Pat Robertson, whose invariable companions are self-deception and the deception of others. True conservatism, on the other hand, demands that the levers of change be placed beneath the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.
Lind and Hodgson show how for the past half century or so a band of quixotic counterrevolutionaries—Jacobins of the right attacking the symptoms of modernity—descended in the North from Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and William F. Buckley and in the South from Strom Thurmond and George Wallace—has attempted to distract Americans from their actual challenges, including their obligations to their own poor and to the solvency of their children and their children’s children, by turning them against a demonized version of their government and toward the recovery of a grossly fictitious golden age, the residue of sermons, films, and editorials in the Wall Street Journal. The result is a puritanical politics of simpering virtue versus hellish depravity, in which the middling condition of actual lives is ignored.
In his very useful survey of right-wing populism in postwar America, Godfrey Hodgson identifies as its three main components anti-communism, racism, and the fear of social disintegration: in other words a reaction to the intrusion of the outside world upon the long-isolated enclave of white male dominance. In a positive sense, one might say that the experience of the American right, as Hodgson presents it, has been its irritable and reluctant awakening from the long dream of exceptionalism to find itself alongside a disreputable and no less irritable bedmate called history, from whom there is no possibility, of divorce, while a century’s dirty dishes are piled in the kitchen below. Whether the bedmates reconcile or prolong their quarrel is an open question. Should the quarrel continue, however, the loser will not be history.
When the youthful William F. Buckley started National Review in 1955, he thrust his toy sword aloft and wrote in his manifesto that his job was to “stand athwart History and shout Stop!”1 Perhaps more optimistically than the evidence permits, Hodgson concludes that Buckley’s ideological descendants may now be ready to face the world more realistically, though he gives no reason to hope for such an outcome and may simply have wanted to end his book on a cheerful note. Yet there is reason to hope, if only to the extent that Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan are not yet the candidates of the party whose ideology they control in the name of their militant horde.
The American right, Hodgson notices, comprises two incompatible components: authoritarian traditionalists, who are usually members of fundamentalist or evangelical religions, and radical individualists, including “libertarian” businessmen, speculators, and their journalistic and academic apologists in departments of economics, particularly at the University of Chicago. Hodgson makes too much of their incompatibility. What binds the two is their hostility to federal regulatory and taxing power or, in a larger sense, their shared conviction that the United States ought to be a largely homogeneous culture, a fairytale version of its dishevelled self, a Disneyland whose brave citizens are free to make their fortunes no matter what the damage to competing interests, where differences are settled man to man, where women sing in church when they are not at their stoves incubating embryos, where overt nonconformists aren’t welcome and the income tax has been repealed. In practice the two groups have joined forces to dominate and perhaps eventually to destroy the Republican Party by alienating it from the complex reality of American life or, in the jargon of politics, the art of the possible; in other words, from history.
Lind’s view is more conspiratorial and simplistic, but not necessarily untrue. Formerly the executive editor of The National Interest, published by Irving Kristol, he believes that members of the business elite and their hired ideologues—including former Marxists like Kristol—have bamboozled the fundamentalist churchgoers into voting against their economic interests by supporting candidates chosen by Republican millionaires. According to Lind, these puppet candidates promise, if elected, to throw the tax gathers and sodomites into the Potomac but, in fact, intend only to cut taxes on the huge incomes of their patrons while dismantling the Democratic programs on which many lower-and middle-income Republicans have long depended. The arrangement seems more likely to have been one of mutual convenience aimed at a common enemy, the IRS. What Burke said of the American colonists is no less true of Americans today: the love of liberty was “fixed and attached on this specific point of taxing,” the question upon which the “great contests for freedom,” in the mother country itself, had been fought “from the earliest times.”
Among Hodgson’s many valuable observations is that it was the attempt by the IRS in 1978 to deny tax exemption to independent Christian schools that brought the Christian right led by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority into politics. The IRS ruling, during the Carter administration, that these schools were in fact segregated in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment
absolutely shattered the Christian community’s notion that Christians could isolate themselves inside their own institutions and teach what they pleased. The realization that they could not do so linked up with the long-held conservative view that government is too powerful and intrusive, and this linkage is what made evangelicals active. It wasn’t the abortion issue; that wasn’t sufficient. It was the recognition that isolation simply would no longer work in this society
—not, at any rate, at public expense.
Paul Weyrich, the right-wing political activist, had seen this possibility eighteen years earlier when the Supreme Court “came down with its decision on school prayer.” He “called…the Republican state chairman for Wisconsin,” and said,” ‘Look, I shouldn’t be doing this, but this decision is a means to ignite people who do not normally support Republicans.’ He thought I was crazy.” In fact he was merely two decades ahead of his times.
Eventually Weyrich and his allies would hit upon many other issues by which to “ignite people who do not normally vote Republican.” Anticommunism had been such an issue for years, but now school prayer would be joined by abortion, gun control, welfare fraud, and many other so-called “hot button issues” to turn the Republican Party into a congeries of fiery eccentrics. The IRS, however, which was seen as a mechanism for transferring funds from wage earners to welfare queens, was perhaps the most inflammatory issue of all since it appealed not only to fear but to greed.
A year after the IRS ruling, the Reverend Jerry Falwell was approached on the plane to Lynchburg by none other than God Himself, who told him “to call the good people of America together to fight…the pornography, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity that under the guise of sex education and ‘values clarification’ “now dominated the desegregated public schools. Weyrich claimed that it was he who named this movement the Moral Majority, which, at its Dallas meeting a year later, offered its votes to Ronald Reagan. It was at this fateful encounter that Reagan, a divorce and fornicator between marriages, shyly admitted, having arrived with the stench of Chasen’s perhaps still upon him, that “I know you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing,” by which he could only have meant operating illegally segregated schools at taxpayers’ expense.
Some sixteen years earlier, when the Supreme Court ruled against school prayer, an Alabama congressman, quoted by Hodgson, put it more bluntly than Reagan would later do. “They put the Negroes in the schools,” he declared, “and now they’re driving God out.” Not long afterward, Falwell preached against Martin Luther King that the church should refrain from politics: “Preachers,” he told King, “are not called to be politicians, but soul winners.” “Now,” Hodgson writes, “the boot was on the other foot.”
The tone was disconcerting even to such a would-be conservative as Irving Kristol, who recently recalled how he found the early National Review "simple-minded in its 'anti-statism' in general and its contempt for all social reforms in particular." (The Public Interest, Fall1995, p. 80.)↩
The tone was disconcerting even to such a would-be conservative as Irving Kristol, who recently recalled how he found the early National Review “simple-minded in its ‘anti-statism’ in general and its contempt for all social reforms in particular.” (The Public Interest, Fall1995, p. 80.)↩