Gottfried on Conservatism

by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

Conservatism in America Since 1930, edited by Gregory L. Schneider (New York: NYU Press, 2003), 446+X pp.

Gregory L. Schneider, an associate professor of history at Emporia State University, has followed up his monograph on the conservative youth organization Young Americans for Freedom with this book of readings, and useful introductions, on American conservatism. As a longtime commentator on the same subject, I find this work to be a visit down memory lane. Schneider’s anthology is admirably comprehensive, moving from the Southern Agrarians, interwar Distributists, who idolized the English Catholic critics of big government and capitalism, Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, and the elitist individualist Albert J. Nock, down to the libertarian Murray N. Rothbard and the fractured conservatism of the post-Reagan era.

Schneider’s remarks, which exemplify balanced narrative, avoid taking sides in disputes, and, like George Nash in his history of the postwar conservative intellectual movement, describe tensions and fissures without reflecting them. Schneider’s attempt to structure conservative epochs around political figures, particularly Goldwater and Reagan, is ultimately justified. Electoral campaigns and Republican standard-bearers have created the appearance of unity on the American Right, although, as Schneider indicates, this appeal to solidarity with a view toward controlling the national executive has only served to paper over doctrinal differences. The failure of self-described conservatives to turn around government decisively has radicalized part of the right, while repeated statements by Heritage Foundation spokespersons that the "conservative victory was completed" by the end of the Cold War has not resonated well outside of Beltway think tanks.

The problem that Schneider’s anthology underlines is that the American right has never cohered, outside of certain electoral campaigns and outside of magazines that have tried to build bridges on the right. The glaring differences among conservatives were apparent by the thirties and will strike anyone who thought differently after reading this anthology. Shared enemies, starting with the New Deal, have held together the jerry-built conservative alliance, which embraced at one point both Russell Kirk and Ayn Rand. The "conservative movement" has been split more than once, e.g., in the thirties and fifties by the battle between pro-interventionist and anti-interventionist conservatives and in the eighties and nineties by the eventually protracted war between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. Although Schneider does not belabor this point in his comments, looking over his readings drives home the persistence of such divisions.

What separates the present from the past, however, is the determination of the establishment right, now equipped with multimillion-dollar foundations and a publishing-media complex, to shut down debate within the "movement." There are two reasons for this attempted suppression: One, the neoconservatives, who are coextensive with the center or center-left of the sixties, are by now the party of order and enjoy financial support and media access on a scale that was unavailable to the marginalized Rights of the thirties and fifties. Why should the neoconservatives damage their establishment respectability by being associated with "extremists," who may drive away their centrist and moderate Republican donors? Two, the issues over which self-identified conservative are now battling seem more profound to the participants than those issues that divided conservative camps seventy years ago. As particularly the concluding section of Schneider’s anthology amply shows, including the attack leveled on me in Commentary in 1987, the warring sides detest each another far more than they do the liberal left. Less important than whether the invectives against me were accurate (they are not) are the bitter charges hurled by Commentary at the "neo-medieval" right. By the nineties these charges would include accusations of anti-Semitism and complaints about "whiffs of fascism." Despite more limited resources, the paleos have pelted their "Marxist, Trotskyist" accusers with equally inflamed charges.

Another reason for what Jon Judis in the eighties named "the conservative wars" is the media attention and concentrated firepower that are available to the partisans on both sides. Although an historian of the paleos, Joe Scotchie, insists that for his subjects "every day is Monday," this gloomy judgment is only partly true. The neoconservatives can out-staff and outspend their opponents at a rate that can no longer be measured; yet the other side enjoys better funding and more media exposure than the conservatives of the thirties whom Schneider features in his anthology. In the fifties, only William F. Buckley on the postwar right had the access to the mass media that paleo champion Pat Buchanan does today. Even the much weaker side in the conservative wars can keep the hostilities going, on the basis of foundations, magazines, media celebrities, and websites. The anti-New Deal, isolationist website draws more readers than the now neoconservative National Review. This ideological struggle resembles the change in war caused by expanding military technology, with the parallel feature that the media equivalent of nuclear weapons — the Internet — can keep an otherwise less well-equipped side competitive with an economically more powerful foe.

Schneider’s anthology provides much food for thought; and it may be exactly what a scholar who blurbed this book claims on the back cover, "the best collection of conservative writings available today." It may also be indicative of the partisan motives of others who put out such collections that this honor should fall to NYU Press, which has no axes to grind in conservative wars. Nor, from what I can tell, does the well-informed, clear-writing producer of this anthology.

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