Dilemmas of conservatism: start with the labeling…


Readers on the Porch might want to check out The Dilemmas of American Conservatism, edited by Ken Deutsch and Ethan Fishman and published by the University Press of Kentucky (perhaps the only nonreligious academic press consistently to publish titles by and of interest to conservatives).

The point of the volume is to explore the contributions to conservative thought made by nine thinkers representing various schools and traditions, including old stand-bys like Eric Voegelin, Kirk, Hayek, Nisbet, and Weaver; the relatively obscure James Hallowell; the questionably conservative John Courtney Murray; and the often splenetic Willmoore Kendall.

I’ve just obtained a copy. The editors’ introduction, in my opinion, concedes far, far too much to the continuing aptness of the “Nash narrative” (however slightly modified) of conservatism’s varieties. Thus, they claim that there is currently a raging “battle . . . for the soul of conservatism.” (When has there not been?) The “combatants,” they claim, are “traditional conservatism, laissez-faire conservatism, and neoconservatism.”

I’m highly skeptical of the usefulness of this framework. It applies old categories that are no longer particularly descriptive or useful. For one thing, most everyone, especially at the grassroots and popular levels — the kinds of folks who read and write for Pajamas Media and Townhall and NRO, etc. — holds views that are essentially a higgledy-piggledy blend of these three types, combined with strands of populism and nationalism that have their roots outside of any of these sources. There are some old-school traditional conservatives still flying the flag, and good for them, but the fact is that the smartest members of the post-Reagan generation(s) with more “traditional” leanings are going in unpredictable directions that the older traditional conservatives don’t necessarily understand or approve (ahem). And what of the reform conservatives — Douthat, Salam, Friedersdorf, and The American Scene folks? What about the pomocons and pomoer-cons at the League? What about Larison and Kauffman and the civil-libertarian, anti-empire types gathered around TAC?  The list could go on for a long while.

The simple tripartite framework doesn’t illuminate much, if anything, about any of these new “schools.” It obscures more than it reveals. All praise to George Nash for performing such keen analysis back in 1976. But we need a new analysis today, new language. No scholar that I know of has yet assimilated, considered as a whole, what the younger “conservatives” have been up to for at least ten or fifteen years now. But I do know that what they are up to is not helpfully described as “traditional conservatism,” “neoconservatism,” etc.

The Deutsch/Fishman volume is helpful here. The 45-and-under crowd needs to be introduced to Kendall and Hallowell and Nisbet and Murray. There’s a lot of wisdom and insight there. Just don’t read them with Nash-narrative eyes only. Fortunately, Dan McCarthy does not do that in his wonderful chapter on the complex and problematic Kendall, the philosopher of “constitutional majoritarianism.”

I urge you to support regional, non-trade publishing and buy the book, in any case. Perhaps we can convince Kentucky editorial director Steve Wrinn to let us run an excerpt from McCarthy’s essay here on the Porch.

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