The Authoritarian Movement
by Daniel McCarthy by Daniel McCarthy
Historian of the conservative movement George H. Nash probably did not intend his remarks at the Heritage Foundation on June 17 to underscore the Right’s flight from its libertarian origins, but what he had to say nonetheless made that point. A Hoover Institution resident scholar and biographer of Herbert Hoover himself, Nash is still best known for his seminal 1976 work The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, the first full-bore historical survey of the postwar Right in its more theoretical modes. Before Nash, historians of the Right either looked for signs of psychopathology and sociological maladjustment in their subject or else — or as well — focused on conservatism as a political phenomenon rather than as a body of thought.
Twenty years after The Conservative Intellectual Movement first saw print, Nash revised the work to take into account developments which, truth be told, go a long way toward rendering the old narrative obsolete — the emergence of neoconservatives and the populist New Right, including the Religious Right, in the 1970s and ’80s. In the decade since the second edition of The Conservative Intellectual Movement, it has become more obvious that the Right has not simply acquired two new components in addition to its old coalition of libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-Communists. Instead, the new constituents represent a largely distinct movement in their own right, one that has displaced the old conservatism as surely as a new kind of liberalism displaced an older kind early in the last century.
Nash may not see it that way; his talk, entitled "The Uneasy Future of American Conservatism," centered on the perils of movement success and temptation to sectarianism. A genteel scholar, his remarks had an occasional touch of irony to them without indulging in any overt polemics. Conservatism, said Nash, finds itself "middle-aged and feeling prosperous" but haunted by a "note of unease." Its political successes have gone unmatched by "changes in the way we live." So some have begun to ask, "Is the sun about to set on the conservative empire?"
Before answering that, Nash outlined what is now the official narrative of the conservative movement, as told definitively in his book. "American conservatism is not, and never has been, univocal," he said. It began with the libertarian individualists of the late ’40s, particularly émigré economists like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek and, at a more popular level, novelist Ayn Rand. The first chapter of Nash’s book is called "The Revolt of the Libertarians." At Heritage he called them "the first of the dissidents."
"Concurrently and independently" there arose the traditionalists (at the time, they were called the New Conservatives), men like Russell Kirk who were "appalled by totalitarianism and total war" as well as by the rise of mass culture and New Deal liberalism. Filling out the ranks of postwar intellectual conservatism was a third group, the anti-Communists, including many ex-Communists such as Whittaker Chambers and early National Review editors Frank Meyer and James Burnham. (As well as National Review’s long-forgotten co-founder, Willi Schlamm.)
Nash’s book is the story of how these three disparate groups came together and the arguments that threatened to tear them apart — and did tear them apart, in the end. The conservative intellectual movement was only ever a loose coalition, with few institutions behind it, and its main currents did indeed flow in different directions. But from 1945 to the early ’60s, a modus vivendi, if not a philosophical consensus, prevailed. Anti-Communism predominated — it was the ideology of National Review, the movement’s main organ — and what came to be called "fusionism," a balance of libertarianism and traditionalism that ultimately satisfied neither libertarians nor traditionalists, went some way toward bridging the factions — for a time. The last chapters of Nash’s book in its original form looked at the state of the intellectual movement by the late 1960s and early 1970s. They bore the ominous titles "Things Fall Apart" and "Can the Vital Center Hold?"
It was around that time that the neoconservatives first appeared on the Right — too late for Nash to deal with them at any great length in his book. He gave them and their significance rather cursory treatment in his Heritage talk as well, summarizing with Irving Kristol’s remark that neoconservatives were liberals who had been mugged by reality. The Religious Right, which came along later still (and is discussed briefly in the epilogue to the 1996 edition of The Conservative Intellectual Movement) also received fleeting mention. Both sorts of newcomer have been sources of tension for the Right. "An angry group of traditionalists," said Nash, who is evidently not fond of them, finds the neoconservatives "secular, Wilsonian internationalist, and welfare statist," while other parts of the movement criticize the Religious Right as "insufficiently anti-statist." Nash acknowledged that there has indeed been a decline of anti-statism on the Right: "I think that the anti-statist impulse is not as strong as it was 25 years ago," he said.
But Nash doesn’t see that as the chief source of the "unease" cited in the title of his talk. Early on, the Right considered itself as a Remnant (a metaphor borrowed by libertarian writer Albert Jay Nock from the Prophet Isaiah). Now, said Nash, there’s a "conservative conglomerate," yet "even as conservatives escaped the wilderness for the promised land inside the Beltway" the culture has taken a turn away from what conservatives desire. Moreover, political and institutional success has brought its own discontents as well: professional specialization, "the emergence of niche markets," "attenuation of movement consciousness" — all things that erode a sense of unity. There is now "no gatekeeper, as National Review was in its early days," no "commanding ecumenical figure" like William F. Buckley. Conservatives have come to be categorized into ever smaller sub-groups: neocons, theocons (which Nash simply called religious conservatives; primarily, they are the First Things coterie), Leocons (i.e., Straussians), Crunchy Cons, and even "minicons" (which Nash defined as conservatives under the age of 25. There seems to be some confusion over this term — others have used the term to denote not young conservatives but second-generation neoconservatives and their peers.)
And that’s just the beginning of the right-wing sectarianism. Without communism to define itself against, the Right has sought other slogans and formulae around which to coalesce: a "leave us alone coalition" (Grover Norquist’s term), "big-government conservatism," "compassionate conservatism." But what has been most successful as "the functional equivalent of the Cold War," according to Nash, are other metaphors of war — particularly the Culture War. "The contest for our culture may be the great unanswered question," one that has given conservatives "a new sense of embattlement and identity."
Nash said that he sees little reason to think that the conservative movement, whatever its internal frictions, is going to collapse. "Each wing of the movement has become thoroughly institutionalized," and after listing a few institutions, he suggested, "these are not the manifestations of a dying conservative army." He concluded with an exhortation to his audience — some 130 interns, college students, and other young people — to eschew the temptation to fragment.
But fragmentation has already taken place, albeit not in the way that Nash had in mind. In his Heritage remarks, the historian pointed not to 9/11, 2001, but 11/9, 1989 as the pivotal date in conservative intellectual history since the first edition of his book. 11/9 was the day the Berlin Wall fell, and with it fell the anti-Communism that had staved off the fracturing of the conservative movement. Only it didn’t stave off the fracturing — for really the pivotal moment in recent (relatively speaking) conservative history was not in 1989 or 2001 but sometime in 1968 or 1969. The events of 1989 and 2001 did not spawn new factions on the Right; the paleoconservatives were not a new faction at all and had been dissenting from the official Right for years before the Berlin Wall came down. After 1989, anti-Communism may have been moot, but anti-Communists quickly found new enemies to substitute for the Russians, beginning (and still continuing) with Iraq. 9/11 changed the conservative movement even less.
By contrast, the Vietnam era and the rise of the New Left led directly to the splintering of the conservative intellectual movement that Nash described. Thoroughgoing libertarians like Murray Rothbard, who in the early ’60s could still find some limited common cause with the mainstream Right, looked to the New Left for more compatible allies. And at least one traditionalist text, Robert Nisbet’s Community and Power (otherwise known as The Quest For Community) found a readership among the young radicals and "became something of a cult book for the New Left." But the greatest political realignment to come out of these years would only become apparent in retrospect: the revolt against the New Left gave birth both to neoconservatism and the Religious Right.
Two of the three elements of the conservative intellectual movement that Nash described in his book — the libertarians and traditionalists — had been shaped by their opposition not only to the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt but also total war. Although traditionalists and libertarians are often seen as diametric opposites, in fact the two had in common (or at least, significant representatives of each side had in common) an antipathy to the modern welfare / warfare state. The anti-Communists, on the other hand, were by definition committed to the warfare state and could be found on any side of the question of domestic welfarism. Frank Meyer was relatively anti-statist in his domestic views; James Burnham, on the other hand, was a big-government Rockefeller Republican by inclination.
Anti-Communism dominated the institutional expression of the conservative movement in National Review, but on the margins there had been a bedrock of anti-statism among the leading traditionalists and, of course, the libertarians. The newer conservative movements that arose after the New Left, on the other hand, were not rebelling against militarism, as the traditionalists and libertarians had been, nor against the New Deal — they were cast instead in opposition to the culture of the New Left. (Certainly government policies, particularly those dictated by the Supreme Court — busing and nationally legalized abortion above all — were crucial in the rise of the ’70s—’80s New Right. But it seems to me the hatred of the New Left is too often underestimated as a motivation.) The neoconservatives had been Cold War liberals until the Vietnam era, when their disgust at the antiwar movement and black radicalism lead them to seek a united front with the Cold Warriors of the Right. The Religious Right is usually seen as a reaction against Roe v. Wade and Carter-era regulations of Christian schools and broadcasting. But one can see deeper cultural trends behind those particular spurs to mobilization which shaped the Religious Right psyche before the movement itself coalesced. Plainly enough, the Religious Right is at least in part a reaction against the free-love ethos and incipient paganism of the Vietnam-era Left.
Not only were the new right-wing movements not shaped primarily by opposition to government and war, but the movement they were reacting against was in fact the most libertarian and Jeffersonian manifestation of the Left in half a century or more. The New Left could be violent and antinomian. But it was also antiwar, "anti-American" (which included both anti-government and countercultural strains), and localist. Unsurprisingly, the backlash movements are pro-war and "pro-American" (in a nationalistic sense tending toward the identification of America and its government with all things right and true, including Christianity). By the end of the 1960s, the radical libertarians had already split off from the conservative movement, depleting it of much of its anti-statist character and leaving the militaristic anti-Communists more in control than ever. The addition of the actively statist neoconservatives and Christian Right to the rump of traditionalists and anti-Communists essentially reconstituted the movement.
A decade ago, Irving Kristol, the godfather of the neoconservatives, called attention to this reorientation in American conservatism. In an essay entitled "America’s u2018Exceptional Conservatism,’" he wrote, "it is fair to say that an antisocialist, anti-Communist, antistatist perspective dominated the thinking and politically active part of American conservatism from the end of World War II to the Goldwater campaign of 1964." But that changed, as Kristol explains:
What happened, I would say, were two things. First in time, though certainly not in order of political significance, was the emergence of an intellectual trend that later came to be called u2018neoconservatism.’ This current of thought, in which I was deeply involved, differed in one crucial respect from its conservative predecessors: Its chosen enemy was contemporary liberalism, not socialism or statism…. The second and most spectacular thing that happened was the emergence of religious conservatives, especially Protestant evangelical conservatives, as a force to be reckoned with. … And it is important to emphasize that, insofar as they are antistatist, as most are, it is not only on economic grounds, or even on Jeffersonian-individualist grounds. These religious conservatives see, quite clearly and correctly, that statism in America is organically linked with secular liberalism — that many of the programs and activities of the welfare state have a powerful antireligious animus.
What little anti-statism the Religious Right had was purely adventitious, a product of the Leftist cultural character of government intervention in the ’60s and ’70s. It did not spring from principle. George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives have since eroded that marginal anti-statism further: a pro-Christian welfare state, even beyond restrictions on abortion and homosexuality, is perfectly unobjectionable to many on the Religious Right. A representative institution, the Family Research Council, demands the prohibition of flag-burning, bans on internet gambling, and the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars on, mirabile dictu, sex ed — Christian conservatives used to be against sex ed, but when it’s called "abstinence education" they now see their way clear to supporting it.
(Just how ridiculous this can be is illustrated by FRC telling its activists to thank Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for allocating $1 million for abstinence education, even though the FRC press release notes, "the funding would not replace comprehensive sex education but compliment it." In other words, Massachusetts is going to spend an additional million to teach teens not to have sex after spending millions more teaching them how to have sex.)
There were, to be sure, always some people with an agenda like this within the earlier conservative coalition. But in the epilogue to the 1996 edition of The Conservative Intellectual Movement, Nash overstates the case when he writes, "in a very real sense the Religious Right of the 1980s and 1990s was closest in its concerns" to traditionalist conservatism, except that "whereas the traditionalists of the 1940s and 1950s had largely been academics in revolt against secularized mass society, the New Right was a revolt by the u2018masses’ against he secular virus and its aggressive carriers in the nation’s elites."
On the contrary, many of the old traditionalists of the ’40s and ’50s had more in common with the libertarians of their day, at least in the realm of basic attitudes toward the state, than they have with latter-day theocons and Christian conservatives. Robert Nisbet, one of the towering figures of the old traditionalism, let it be known exactly what he thought about the new Religious Right in his 1986 book, Conservatism: Dream and Reality:
Conservatives dislike government on our backs, and Reagan duly echoes this dislike, but he echoes more enthusiastically the Moral Majority’s crusade to put more government on our backs, i.e. a moral-inquisitorial government well-armed with constitutional amendments, laws and decrees. Moral Majoritarians do not like governmental power less because they cherish Christian morality more — a characteristic they share with those Revolution-supporting clerics in France and England to whom Burke gave the label "political theologians" and "theological politicians," not, obviously, liking either.
From the traditional conservative’s point of view, it is fatuous to use the family — as the evangelical crusaders regularly do — as the justification for their tireless crusades to ban abortion categorically, to bring the Department of Justice in on every Baby Doe, to mandate by constitution the imposition of u2018voluntary’ prayers in the public schools, and so on. … the surest way of weakening the family, or any vital social group, is for the government to assume, and then monopolize, the family’s historic functions.
Early traditionalists in fact had more in common with their individualist predecessors than is commonly realized. Far from emerging "concurrently and independently" of the libertarians, the most important traditionalist, Russell Kirk, actually came from a Jeffersonian Old Right background. Kirk opposed conscription, voted for Norman Thomas in 1944 on account of his anti-war credentials, and had early on been influenced by Albert Jay Nock — not only Nock’s cultural elitism but also his disdain for statism. As Nash writes in his book:
Kirk’s wartime letters showed the persistence of his libertarian convictions; his correspondence was replete with disgust at conscription, military inefficiency, governmental bureaucracy, u2018paternalism,’ and socialist economics. He denounced liberal u2018globaloney’ and feared that America was doomed to live in a collectivistic economy.
As the war came to a close, Kirk, anxious to return to civilian life, grew increasingly worried that the army, unnecessarily alarmed about Russia, would strive to perpetuate conscription. … [Eventually] he predicted, the New Dealers would deliberately create an enemy abroad; it could only be the Soviet Union.
Even after Kirk began to style himself a Bohemian Tory and turned away from Jefferson — denouncing libertarians as "chirping sectaries" — he maintained many of his old convictions, albeit with new justifications. He continued to oppose conscription.
A third great traditionalist of the early conservative movement, Richard Weaver, was the most explicitly anti-statist of all, defining the true conservative as something close to a libertarian:
I maintain that the conservative in his proper character and role is a defender of liberty. He is such because he takes his stand on the real order of things and because he has a very modest estimate of man’s ability to change that order through the coercive power of the state. He is prepared to tolerate diversity of life and opinion because he knows that not all things are of his making and that it is right within reason to let each follow the law of his own being.
Traditionalists like Weaver did not need a doctrine like "fusionism" to find common ground with the libertarians. (And in fact, as David Gordon has related, when Weaver overheard a discussion between fusionist Frank Meyer and libertarian George Resch over the morality of preventive nuclear war, Weaver agreed with Resch that it was unconscionable.) But times have changed. The traditionalists and libertarians shared a dislike of governmental, and particularly federal, power. The Religious Right and the neoconservatives share a love of active governmental power in the form of moral legislation at home (Irving Kristol once wrote a famous and elegant essay in favor of censorship) and aggression abroad (the Christian Right seems to be unwavering in its support not only for neoconservative wars like the one in Iraq, but even for intervention in places like Darfur; Religious Rightist Sen. Sam Brownback is a leading advocate for the latter).
Later this year, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute is publishing a new edition of Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement with an updated preface. It will be interesting to see how Nash deals with developments on the Right since the last edition ten years ago. But really the old, at least partially anti-statist conservative intellectual movement that endured from ’45 to roughly ’69 is gone. What now goes by the name of conservatism is a new authoritarian movement, whose history has not yet been written.