Is Conservatism Dead?

By Piereson, James | New Criterion, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Is Conservatism Dead?


Piereson, James, New Criterion


When in 1962 Clinton Rossiter published a revised edition of Conservatism in America, he gave it the subtitle The Thankless Persuasion. A decade earlier, Raymond English had touched upon a similar theme in an article in The American Scholar titled "Conservatism: The Forbidden Faith." Their point was that conservatism as a political philosophy runs against the American grain and thus will always play something of an incongruous and subordinate role in a revolutionary nation dedicated to equality, democracy, and restless change. While the conservative case for order, tradition, and authority may be useful as a corrective for the excesses of democracy, it can never hope to supplant liberalism as the nation's official governing philosophy. As Rossiter put it, "Our commitment to democracy means that Liberalism will maintain its historic dominance over our minds, and that conservative thinkers will continue as well-kept hut increasingly restless hostages to the American tradition." Liberals will always set the tone for public life, he argued, leaving conservatives with the thankless task of fighting liberal reforms and then adjusting to them after they have been adopted.

Rossiter, like other liberal observers of the post-war scene, such as Richard Hofstadter, Lionel Trilling, Louis Hartz, and Daniel Bell, lamented the fact that an authentic conservative movement was difficult to locate in the United States. To be sure, there were some thoughtful conservatives to be found, such as the author Russell Kirk and Senator Robert Taft, but they were eccentrics, who had little in the way of a popular following, and whose views on policy were hardly distinguishable from those of the business community. On the other hand, the new American right that arose in the 1950s to challenge the New Deal and the Cold War policies of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations did not seem to fit into the conservative tradition at all. Populist in tone and suspicious of leaders from both parties, the new right seemed to have more in common with extremist movements than with conservative parties that traditionally distrusted democracy and defended elites. The radical right, as the liberals called it, was especially frightening because it mobilized huge popular followings behind figures like Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and the various fundamentalist ministers who spread their messages through the radio waves. The very idea of a President McCarthy or, more realistically, a President Nixon, was enough to send chills down the spine of any right-thinking liberal. Naturally, those liberals preferred to deal with "real" conservatives like Sen. Taft than with populist figures like McCarthy and Nixon who, because of their popular appeal, actually threatened to topple them from power.

The liberal analysis of conservatism that was passed down from the 1950s and 1960s has caused endless confusion about what conservatism in America is and is not. It is never a good thing for any philosophical movement to permit itself to be defined by its adversaries, but this is more or less what happened to conservatism in the post-war period, as liberals sought to define it in such a way as to guarantee its failure or ineffectiveness. For one thing, they created a combination of traps and paradoxes for conservatives that gave added meaning to Rossiter's concept of "the thankless persuasion." On the one hand, conservatives, if they wished to maintain that designation (at least in the eyes of liberals), were obliged to endorse all manner of liberal reforms once they were established as part of the new status quo. Thus, self-styled conservatives who attacked the New Deal were not acting like conservatives because they were in effect attacking the established order--and, of course, "real" conservatives would never do that. So it was that conservatives who wished to reverse liberal victories became radicals or extremists. Conservatives, moreover, could have no program of their own or, at any rate, any program that had any reasonable chance of succeeding, because any successful appeal to the wider public would turn them into populists and, through that process, into extremists and radicals. …

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