Conservativism under Academic Scrutiny

Gerald Russello

Editor’s Note: Our Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest feature is at present being written by guest authors. The perspectives and opinions presented are those of the authors and will of necessity vary from issue to issue.

Conservative Studies

Conservatism has become a respectable academic subject even if conservatives themselves are thin on the ground in the lecture halls. Academic conferences in intellectual history or politics now routinely include sessions devoted to conservatism, articles and books continue to pour off the presses, and writing about the “Right” has become a respectable way to distinguish oneself as a younger scholar. The blog of the United States Intellectual History Society, for example, contains lengthy exchanges on conservatism and conservative thinkers. This trend makes sense; since World War II, conservatives and conservatism have proven to be a resilient and at times dominant force in American politics. And although there are some exceptions, this literature continues to follow the parallel paths that have plagued scholarly writing on conservatism since the 1950s.

First on the Right

On one side are conservative reflections on conservatism. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953) and a cluster of other important books such as Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) and Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948) established the themes, such as the tension between order and liberty and the role of government, that have occupied conservatives ever since. On the other side is a legacy that may be traceable to two 1964 works—Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Daniel Bell’s Radical Right—that not so much interprets conservatism as diagnoses it. This approach continues through the writings of historians such as Rogers M. Smith, whose “Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America,” which appeared in the September 1993 American Political Science Review, describes the “racial, nativist, and religious tensions” supposedly illustrated by conservatism. And recent scholarship such as an infamous 2003 Berkeley study that associated conservatism with “fear and aggression” and “dogmatism” attempts to add a sociological explanation of what is to liberals aberrant behavior. This scholarly body of work is largely devoted to figuring out where conservatives “come from” and treats the conservatives’ concern about liberty versus order, or the claims of tradition, as the result of something else: displacement by modernity, for example, or a “situationist” ideology—to use Samuel Huntington’s term for an outlook fixed on defending the established order, whatever it may be.

That intellectual landscape remains in place today. Academic interest in conservatism remains fixed on its political expressions, which are deplored, and then investigated to locate “links” between modern conservatives and their “roots,” usually in some form of extremism.

The Right That’s Always Wrong

The latest example of this approach is Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford University Press, 2011). Conservatism for Robin, assistant professor of political science at Brooklyn College and CUNY, has one fixed principle—

the voice of animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity.

The details of such a defense of hierarchy and principle will vary across time and circumstance, but it always devolves into oppression of the “other”: husband over wife, owner over worker, master over slave.

The Reactionary Mind is divided into eleven chapters and a conclusion, and consists mostly of pieces that originally appeared elsewhere. Taken together, they do not advance his thesis that conservatism, whatever its methods, exists only to further patriarchy and class oppression. Conservatism, it seems, can do no right: its embrace of populism, for example, is simply a ruse, its legacy forever tainted by Alexander Stevens and the Lost Cause, and any change in tactics, emphasis, or rhetoric is only a cover for furthering master-class oppression.

Robin dismisses conservatism’s electoral victories as a kind of mass delusion, and he omits Progressivism’s connections to privilege. The old South, after all, relied on supposed scientific advances to prove its racialist theories, while devout Christians like William Wilberforce helped abolish slavery. More recently, examination of Progressive icons like Margaret Sanger has revealed the Progressives’ mixed record in championing the oppressed; more generally, Robin’s history simply does not explain why millions of non-elite citizens consistently describe themselves as conservative.

Taken individually, his chapters fare no better. His account of Ayn Rand omits the central fact that most conservatives do not take her seriously, and have not since the 1950s, and few on the right look to John Gray or Edward Luttwak, subjects of another chapter, for intellectual arguments. The chapters devoted to the Iraq War are typical anti-neoconservative bluster, which is unsurprising but not terribly enlightening. The work of Paul Gottfried, not cited by Robin, would have provided him with a different lens to view neoconservative influence. Gottfried looks to the neoconservatives’ left-wing orientation and sees their imperialist arguments as an importation of leftism rather than conservatism. And Robin ignores extensive conservative criticism of the war on terror, the PATRIOT Act, and the TSA, exemplified in the work of Daniel McCarthy, Gene Healy, or the writers grouped around the magazine Chronicles.

In the end, Robin condemns conservatism for creating a party of “Scalia, D’Souza, Gonzalez and Yoo,” names used here mostly to arouse fear and not treated substantively, though Robin does devote a chapter to Scalia. But this list of public figures, whatever one might think of their arguments, is not bad for a political party of elitists dedicated to preserving their status and only serves to undermine Robins’s arguments. A generation previously, not one of these figures would have been considered a member of a privileged class. This lack of nuance reduces The Reactionary Mind to an anguished cry of a Left that cannot understand how any reasonable person could be conservative and so seeks only the darkest motives.

A more balanced view with a better selection of representatives is David Farber’s The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2011), which examines the role of six figures in shaping conservatism, from Ohio senator Robert A. Taft to President George W. Bush. Farber, who teaches history at Temple University, correctly focuses on activist Phyllis Schlafly as a conservative catalyst who awakened many middle-class Americans—especially Catholics—to the purported dangers of a liberalizing nation. Farber concludes that conservatism may not recover from what he sees as the debacle of the younger Bush’s administration, but is unclear about how conservative that administration actually was. Moreover, the book was obviously published before the Tea Party began electing members of Congress. The coalition of groups making up the Tea Party is conservative but has little to do with the neoconservatives and the inside-the-Beltway movement that has called itself conservative since September 11.

Balancing the Scales

More worthy of attention as a work of history is The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), by Michael Bowen, currently a visiting professor of history at Westminster College in Pennsylvania. Conservatism is typically traced to Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and the founding of National Review in 1955 by William F. Buckley, Jr., but Bowen follows the dispute between conservative and liberal Republicans further back in time to a more political forum: the contest between Wendell Willkie, the standard-bearer for the Eastern Republican establishment, and “Mr. Republican,” Robert A. Taft, the embodiment of Midwestern Republican conservatism. As Bowen recounts, the opinions of the two diverged further over time as each sought to capture the party. Although Willkie defeated Taft for the presidential nomination in 1940, he was himself defeated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in that election. There are few liberal Republicans of the Willkie stripe left in the party, but his internationalism remains a cogent force in Republican politics, mixed at times with the evangelical sense of American exceptionalism.

And contrary to Robin, who wrote a piece titled “Why Conservatives Love War,” Taft represents a noninterventionist wing of the Republican Party that remains influential, as in the presidential candidacy of House member Ron Paul, and which has some surprising connections with the liberal antiwar tradition. This is set out by Chronicles contributing editor Bill Kauffman in some recent books, including Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism (Henry Holt, 2008). Bowen also does a service in placing the influence of Joseph McCarthy in context, noting that neither of these factions of Republicanism embraced him and at the time he was not considered as important a figure as some have painted him in hindsight.

Back to Burke

Edmund Burke in some ways remains the source of conservative reflection, although the emphasis in recent years has changed. Where conservatives once focused almost exclusively on Burke’s attacks on the French Revolution and the Jacobin ideology it spawned, some scholars are finding more relevant Burke’s defenses of the Irish, Americans, and Indians against British imperial depredation. In Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics (Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), William Byrne tries to claim Burke as a member of a “postmodern” imaginative Right, continuing the work of Peter Lawler, Claes Ryn, and others. These writers have counterposed conservatism’s reliance on narrative and imaginative reasoning to Enlightenment rationalism typically associated with liberal modernity. Postmodernity, in some of its guises, has for these writers represented an opportunity for conservatism to reassert the value of tradition, custom, and moral values, even ones that cannot be justified, for example, through strict logic or scientific analysis.

Byrne, who teaches politics and government at St. John’s University in New York, distances Burke from the utilitarianism and natural law that are usually employed to interpret his work in favor of an approach centered on the “moral imagination.” Burke used that term once in Reflections on the Revolution in France, but it has become a touchstone for conservative writers beginning with Kirk, who used the term to encapsulate Burke’s combination of sympathy, imagery, and tradition. Burke’s rendition of the death of Marie Antoinette, for example, combined a defense of hierarchy and also incited sympathy for the queen by painting a word-picture of her character and role in French society.

Using examples from Burke’s work on aesthetics and early writings such as his often-ignored English History, Byrne argues that Burke’s moral-imaginative approach takes on conservatism’s fundamental issue: whether and how to accept change. For too many conservatives, conservatism is merely reaction and resistance to change, regardless of whether it is viewed as positive or negative change. Carefully reviewing Burke’s writings on changing circumstance—and mindful that Burke was a Whig, and one not indisposed to the rapid industrial changes occurring in Britain—Byrne locates Burke’s response in the subjective experience of those experiencing change:

Burke’s focus is not on the objective problem of whether or not the innovation is “good,” or even whether the change is suitable for the circumstances at hand. His focus is on the subjective experience of the people. This emphasis on subjectivity is one key to Burke’s approach to fundamental problems of order, meaning, and the good.

Thus, the revolution in France subjected the populace to terror, literally, by bringing them into a supposed new world. For Byrne, the Terror in France, which resulted in the emergence of a dictator in the form of Napoleon, was immoral, even if the intentions of those in revolt—to end a corrupt feudal system or restore democracy—may have been admirable.

Byrne notes that Burke lamented the effect Britain’s imperial adventures had not only on the subject people but on the British themselves, a sentiment with current valence given America’s continued imperial commitments—although the results need to be considered realistically in that the empire also brought much good to the colonial peoples, at least in the British case, as some such as H.W. Crocker III in The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire (Regnery Publishing, 2011) have argued. Seen in this light, Burke seems less a natural law thinker and more a political pragmatist who believed that while the transcendent exists, political systems reflect it poorly and it is better sought in aesthetics and customary modes of behavior, a school of thought also exemplified by later British thinkers like Michael Oakeshott.


In The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order: Defending Democracy against Its Modern Enemies and Immoderate Friends (ISI Books, 2011), Daniel Mahoney in effect reverses the thesis proposed by Robin. Professor and chairman of political science at Assumption College in Massachusetts, Mahoney does not regard conservatism as a redoubt for all those poised to resist modernity and fight equality, but finds some conservatives not only friendly to liberal modernity, but even immoderate in its praise. Mahoney explores the work of those thinkers who, while conservative, provide the intellectual substructure that makes liberal modernity possible. According to Mahoney, democratic ideology cannot survive on its own premises. Liberty is not the same as freedom from every restraint, and Mahoney finds that liberalism has confused these concepts. He looks to some of democracy’s conservative friends, beginning with Tocqueville, for insight into solving modernity’s central problem, the tension between liberty and license. Liberty is autonomy bounded by law, custom, and some common moral sense; without these boundaries, liberty is mistaken for license, the sense that one can do no wrong so long as one feels the action is “right.” Such a moral milieu, Mahoney argues, makes appeals to a common culture difficult, as one can always assert one’s “right” to behave in ways detrimental to oneself or the community.

Mahoney devotes a significant portion of the book to a sympathetic critique of neoconservative foreign policy, noting that while the administration of George W. Bush often acted with prudence and self-restraint, its rhetoric encouraged overreach and forced the nation into policy positions it need not have taken. Thus, what Mahoney calls the “rhetoric of democracy” promotes

misplaced pressures to confront nontotalitarian regimes…with demands for “liberalization” that have nothing to do with America’s legitimate national interests and everything to do with the view that Western-style democracy provides the only legitimate model for political development in our time.

Using Tocqueville and others, such as the French political philosopher Raymond Aron, Mahoney argues for a chastened liberalism that would be free of such rhetoric. This kind of “conservative” liberalism finds resources for its survival in non-liberal moral and religious values that can counter its natural tendencies toward an extreme form of individualism (defined by an overemphasis on rights) and a kind of political absolutism, which deems current democratic forms as the only legitimate structures of government.

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