Dilemmas of conservatism: start with the labeling…

by Jeremy Beer on October 15, 2010 · 10 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short,Uncategorized

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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Rob G October 15, 2010 at 8:11 pm

Jeff “Maximos” Martin gave this book high marks over at What’s Wrong With the World a couple weeks ago. I added it to my Amazon list then. This post makes me move it closer to the top.

avatar Maya October 16, 2010 at 4:25 am

Hi, I’m a liberal if I must label myself, but I found your blog on another friend’s page. I find myself very interested in what you are writing and was wondering if you could point me to a few books that perhaps chronicle conservatism in the US? My father was conservative but I do not see anything in what is going on today that reflects his views on things. This made me wonder just how different is conservatism today from say 45- 50 years ago? And how different was that from say 100 years ago…

avatar Patrick J. Deneen October 16, 2010 at 8:51 am

Maya,
I hope you get a lot of suggestions. You should read George Nash’s book – “The Conserative Intellectual Movement in America” – (mentioned here by Jeremy) with exactly the cautions that Jeremy issues in this post.

It’s still useful to read E.J. Dionne’s chapter on American conservatism in “Why Americans Hate Politics,” which gives a good precis about the rise of contemporary political conservatism. A good updating of movement conservatism up to contemporary times is found in the first half of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salaam’s “Grand New Party.”

These titles give a historical snapshot of movement conservatism in America. Then pick up a title like the one recommended here by Jeremy for a good overview of the intellectual content (and debates) within contemporary American conservatism. Or, go to the sourcs and read some Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Robert Nisbet, Willmore Kendall, as well as other flavors like Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, Friedrich Hayek, Eric Voeglin, Christopher Lasch, Alasdair MacIntyre, our friend Peter Lawler, and even some Wendell Berry. The latter list includes some heavy lifting, but it’s necessary if you want to go to the source of some of these debates.

Again, I hope you get many other suggestions – I’m sure I’ve overlooked many. Happy reading!

avatar AML October 16, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” is a must read, but it is a large tome. ISI Books http://www.isi.org/books/ has some collections of Kirk’s essays which can be read independently of each other and without a major time commitment. See: http://www.isi.org/books/bookdetail.aspx?id=3a172e5e-ddb3-429d-b3b7-62e287574ec6 . ISI also has some books that collect some of the essays of the Southern Agrarians: http://www.isi.org/books/bookdetail.aspx?id=cb388d06-818a-43b9-83a6-17c494890e69 .

I hope this is helpful. I definitely agree with you about the current state of political discourse. As an undergrad I was mostly repulsed by the college Republicans (the college dems were no better), so I got involved with ISI and discovered there a much more thoughtful conservatism.

Best,

AML

avatar Steve Berg October 16, 2010 at 2:10 pm

You might also benefit from a book I have thoroughly enjoyed. It is entitled: “The Conservative Bookshelf” by Chilton Williamson Jr. It is published by the Citadel Press, of the Kensington Publishing Corporation. Mr. Williamson worked for many years at National Review, and now labors at Chronicles Magazine.

avatar Allen Roth October 16, 2010 at 8:34 pm

I find it interesting that in providing guidance to understanding conservatism no one has mentioned Bill Buckley. Lee Edwards’ provides a valuable guide to Buckley’s intellectual influence and development in his new biography. Buckley also tackled the challenge of presenting the various sides of the conservative movement with his collection of essays Did You Ever See A Dream Walking. I prefer the first edition but both editions are informative. You will find all kinds of “conservative” thinkers in these pages. A good overview of the the modern conservative movement is “Upstream” by Al Regenry.

All of the conservatives of the last generation were deeply influenced by the Cold War and threat of Communism. The collapse of the Communist threat weakened the bonds that kept the movement whole. Today foreign policy differences among conservatives are growing more pronounced. While neo-cons hailed Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan many conservative feel we should pull out of a war we are not committed to winning.

Today the conservative movement is populist, patriotic, and in danger of splitting into several directions. Buckley faced a similar challenge and succeeded in cementing a viable multi-faceted force. Along the way he exiled Ayan Rand, The John Birch Society, Joseph Sobran, and a few others. It would be interesting to see if the current conservative leaders can muster the influence to bring cohesion to the movement.

avatar Maya October 17, 2010 at 1:36 am

While I call myself a liberal due to some issues like abortion and Gay right I find that most of my views mirror my father’s and he is as conservative as they come. At least he was 45 years ago, his brand of conservatism is not one that he himself sees reflected today. He is disgusted with what he is seeing and no longer identifies as Republican even changed to Independent. My father is voting Democratic mainly because he feels like the Republican/Tea Party candidates offered do not reflect his views, and in some cases even dangerous to the health of the nation (his words not mine).

Thanks for all the suggestions, it seems I will be doing a lot of reading.

avatar Jordan Smith October 17, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Your father sounds like a wise man.

avatar Brandon October 18, 2010 at 12:16 am

“issues like abortion and Gay right”

The sacred cows of hedonistic technocracy.

avatar Gerald October 18, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Jeremy–

Thanks for your kind words about the book, which has my contribution on Kirk. The Nash story is an important one, but it is not a fully nuanced reflection of the varieties of conservative discourse.

Gerald Russello

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: