Reading Conservative History: A Brief Introduction
This week I'll begin the project that is one of my primary reasons for starting this blog: reading the history and development of American conservatism, from a liberal perspective. I hope to post a new installment roughly once or twice a week - beginning with a brief prologue later today.
Despite the title, this is not exactly a history
of American conservatism - I can't claim to to be that systematic, nor can I claim to have captured every source. Instead, I'll be taking advantage of the blog format to do something more like a genealogy
of conservatism - or what has been called conservatism - in the United States. I'll be roughly chronological, but that shouldn't imply that I believe in the possibility of uncovering singular origins or ironclad logical progressions through history. Conservative history, like the history of anything, is meandering, contingent, and full of contradictions. I only want to explore some of it in order to better shed light on where we are today.
I argued in my very first post
that traditional conservatism was alien to the United States from the founding. That's still something of a working thesis, but I now want to problematize that claim. It's at the top of the list of the questions I plan to ask over the next months (or, god help me, years). A few of those questions:
- Is there a "true" American conservatism? Was conservatism rejected by the American founders?
- Is conservatism ever really drawn from a mass movement, or is it primarily driven by economic, social, and political elites?
- Is there a substantive difference between what you might call "passive" and "active" conservatism? Is "radical" or movement conservatism a fundamentally different project than traditional "anti-change" conservatism?
- What the hell is neoconservatism, really?
- Is conservatism primarily an enduring set of beliefs about the way society should be ordered, or is it primarily a reaction to change? Can the radical ideas of one generation serve as the conservative ideas of another?
- Is conservative governance even possible in modern America?
I imagine that the questions themselves will evolve as the project continues. They may not be the right questions, or they may be asked wrongly. At any rate, the over-arching concern here is to examine the genealogy of American conservatism so as to strengthen the progressive project in this country (and around the world). The present conservative movement grew so powerful, I believe, in part because liberals were so ignorant of it: where it came from, who its players were, how it operated, how it thought, where its weaknesses lay, and how it could grow even stronger.
Have we seen the high-water mark of the current conservative movement? Maybe, but the tide has a long way to go before we can say it has receeded, and it won't go easily. The conservative movement is complex, highly developed, and extremely effective. Truly defeating it - not just winning an election, but winning the war of ideas for a generation - will require a good deal of familiarity with our opponent.
This genealogy is an attempt to advance that knowledge.
Labels: conservatism, conservatives, Reading Conservative History