alien & sedition.
Monday, January 08, 2007
  Reading Conservative History 0.1 - 1974: The Wave on the Horizon

I found the book on a dusty shelf in the local coffee shop, piled with the romance novels and the outdated travel guides - free reading for the rare customer without a friend or a laptop. That was me, and the title caught my eye: The New Conservatives: A Critique from the Left. You could judge from the cover that "new" in this context referred to about three decades ago. I skimmed through it for a few minutes, until I realized what I was looking at: notes from the last days of a civilization.

It was, in a political sense, the final words of people who were looking out to sea and beginning to see the shape of what was about to crash down upon them.

The contributors were liberal and socialist New York intellectuals of the 1970s: people like Michael Harrington, Michael Walzer, Joseph Epstein, Hanna Fenichel Pitkin. The editors were the sociologist Lewis A. Coser, and Irving Howe, publisher of Dissent magazine. These were leading public intellectuals: people representing what was then the dominant school of American social and political thought. Since the New Deal, liberal and social democratic ideas had driven the national agenda; even in periods of reaction there had been no real doubt about that. Now these intellectuals had turned their attention to a new development: the emergence of what was being called 'neoconservatism.' For the moment, don't read that term in the context of the present day - Iraq, Cheney, the Pentagon. Understand it in another sense, something more like what Coser's contributers were beginning to see: a growing intellectual 'mood' constituting a sort of leading edge of a new conservative reaction.

The left intellectuals of 1973-4 regarded this neoconservative development with what seems to be a mixture of disdain, bemusement - and growing alarm. The New Conservatives comes across as an attempt to make sense of a movement that liberals could scarcely find credible - yet which they sensed was gathering momentum. In his introduction, Coser described them this way:
These new conservatives do not give the impression of having reflected in a sustained and systematic manner on political philosophy. They express a mood and a fashion rather than a deeply felt political stance. [...] They wish to bring about a counterrevolution of declining expectations. [p. 4]
Later, he reiterates this disdain:
[W]hile neoconservatism need not be taken too seriously as a new departure in political philosophy, it should be taken very seriously indeed as a sign of the regressive drift of social thought in these barren times. [p. 8]
For Coser and his contributors, the neoconservatives - typified by Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer - represent an abandonment of the promise and the responsibility of real thinking. Epstein calls them "intellectuals in retreat." The fact that the neoconservatives had been men of the left is significant in this analysis: these are fallen intellectuals, "former liberals who got cold feet in the late 1960s [p. 5]."

We can discuss the specific reasons for those cold feet in later posts (at any rate, we're still fighting the same culture war). What I want to emphasize here is the underlying attitude, the set of assumptions on which this entire volume is based. It is the work of a dominant and theretofore confident school of public intellectuals, reading its new opponents and seeing nothing but reactive nihilism. There was no conservative intellectual tradition. Or rather, there had been no such thing. Epstein sets the stage:
Over the past century in America, conservatism has had an ample popular and a scant intellectual following. In American intellectual life, in fact, it was not so very long ago that conservatism seemed a dead issue. [...]

As recently as the middle 1960s, it could still be said with some confidence that conservatism counted for little in intellectual circles. It took the political madness committed in the name of the left to make conservatism not merely intellectually respectable but to many intellectuals deeply appealing - no small task in the United States, where the overwhelming political intellectual tradition has been clearly liberal-left. [pp. 9-10]
Epstein has some sympathy for the motivation behind the neoconservatives' break with the left, but - even as he discusses its growing legitimacy - he clearly understands the new conservatism as based entirely in reaction, as opposed to innovation.

The essays in The New Conservatives call to mind guards defending their ramparts against barbarian attacks: Harrington on the welfare state, Edwin Schur on crime, Robert Lekachman on economic policy. Thirty years later we can see it for the last stand it actually was.

How has so much changed since 1974? Consider Richard Nixon, the bete noir of the 1960s-70s left. The very same year that The New Conservatives was published, William F. Buckley was writing in the National Review about how Nixon was a disappointment, a liberal. Now, in bitter hindsight, many liberals understand what Buckley meant. American political history seems to have pivoted on the once-extreme views of these barbarians, these neoconservatives.

Increasingly over the past decades, conservative "intellectuals" - or have they earned the right to the label free of scare quotes - have set the agenda in public ideas. Even with a Democratic president, liberals spent the 90s reacting and adapting to the conservative paradigm, and by the early 2000s it was the left which had come to seem like a "dead issue." Conservative think tanks churned out policy ideas based on conservative principles; the ideas were amplified by a broadly integrated and massively funded media network, and impressed fully-formed upon conservative politicians elected by breathtakingly efficient conservative electoral machines. In the conventional wisdom, the conservatives constituted the "party of ideas," while Democrats hastened to distance themselves from anything that could cause them to be accused of that deadly political sin, liberalism.

How did this happen? Could such a powerful movement be built on populist smoke and mirrors alone? Was it possible for a "party of ideas" to so thoroughly set the agenda without having any real ideas at all? If there were conservative ideas, were they a completely new development in American political history, or were they the inheritance of a longer tradition? Is there such a thing as creative conservatism, or merely a more energized form of rejectionism - and in what forms might these energies have been lurking in our politics all along?

With those questions in mind, we'll begin next week.

Next: Is Conservatism un-American?
Previous: Introduction

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Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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