The Myth of American Conservatism
John Seiler has contributed an interesting piece on the pseudo-conservative David Brooks. I should dislike Brooks, since he once did a job on me in an article in which he asserted--hilariously--that I opposed the use of tranquilizers and pain-killers during pregnancy. He got this from a misreading of a part of The Politics of Human Nature, where, trying to grapple with feminism, I observed that modern medicine had converted the natural, female-dominated process of childbirth into a rather abstract scientific procedure dominated by men. I dropped him a polite note, explaining his error, and thanking him for actually reading something I had written rather than repeating the list of anathemas that previous neoconservative hatchetmen had drawn up. He responded with a friendly note in which he successfully deflected my irritation by praising extravagantly my prose style.
Brooks understands what his role is as a house conservative and has to say all the things the neoconservatives have been saying for decades. On the other hand, he does not share the neoconservative rage against all the things an old-fashioned American Christian holds sacred. In fact, I usually thing of him as rather a nice guy, good enough for the role he has chosen to play, but not a serious enemy.
His list of conservative heroes is interesting. Viereck, although a self-proclaimed conservative, was never one of the gang. Poet and man of letters, he (like George Will) had never shaken off his affection for FDR, whom he defended as a savior of the American order. Letwin, although originally from Chicago, was typical of neoliberals who propelled Mrs Thatcher in her limited retreat from Leftism. Kendall was pretty right-wing but also eccentric, and, sad to say, something of a Lockean. When I meet someone who admires or quotes Kendall, I start looking at my watch.
So far as I have been able to tell, from a limited reading of Brooks and from hearing him on NPR, he never strayed very far from Democratic Socialism. Mutual acquaintances have told me that Brooks frankly confessed that, finding the competition on the Left too serious, he chose to identify himself as a "conservative," a term whose meaning had been rotted out by neoconservative interpretation. About the time that Brooks was becoming a conservative journalist, Norman Podhoretz and Richard John Neuhaus had a correspondence about what to call the left-liberal Neuhaus, now that he was seeking to establish himself with conservative publications--and, especially, with conservative foundations. Neuhaus concluded by saying that they should just say "conservative" and understand that for them it meant a defense of liberal democracy. And to anticipate the question, yes, I have read the correspondence.
Rather few people have any idea about what conservatism is or was and how it evolved. I don't blame anyone for not caring, because it is not worth the effort. The movement that emerged at National Review, under the guidance of people like Willy Schlamm, was a sort of generic mix of anti-communist leftism and big business oriented classical liberalism. Buckley, by the way, had little to do with it, since he was dominated by men of greater intelligence and more forceful character: Frank Meyer, Schlamm, Kendall, Burnham, et al. Kirk and Nisbet had little influence on this, since their role at NR was window dressing. Nisbet was a serious political intellectual with profound insight into such subjects as authority and community, and Kirk, though not an intellectual of any kind, had broad literary interests that could hardly offend WFB's New York friends, who were almost all--as he himself remarked several times--on the left.
What people think of as NR conservatism is pretty much the thin gruel concocted by Frank Meyer, who called it "fusionism," meaning a combination of classical liberal economic and political views with a concern for social stability and the cultural traditions that made capitalism viable. It was all complete and utter nonsense, as I realized as soon as I began to study the matter. Fusionism was really Milton Friedman with a harpsichord obligato performed by Bill Buckley, who hired the hall for his performance.
There was never a question, when a conflict appeared between capitalism and, for want of a better word, tradition, capitalism always won. Poor Russell Kirk, who declined to play the role of figure-head editor, was caught in a bind, since, on the one hand, he certainly believed in free market economics, but, on a more serious level, he was an America Firster, who understood we had no business in Vietnam. Russell got rather feisty in old age, supporting Pat Buchanan and running afoul of the Podhoretzes and their allies, who, by the 1990's, were presiding over the ruins of the failed conservative movement.
American conservatism--and I might add--most British conservatism has always been a con job, a fabricator of political myths to shore up the status quo and its ruling class. Fusionism was only the silliest in a long line of attempts to explain away the ugly realities of history, from "The Glorious Revolution" to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It never won a single victory, unless you wish to consider Bill Bennet's declaration of victory in the war against drugs and his campaign to save public education as victories.
The great conservative political leaders of our time included an anti-Christian bigot (Goldwater), and two unrepentant New Dealers (Reagan and Gingrich). One might have thought the game was over, when conservatives cheered on George W. Bush. I well remember how some wealthy intelligent conservative Republicans told me I was wrong to be a pessimist, because there was this brilliant and dynamic governor of Texas, whom they were going to get elected as President.
If I may be permitted a reference to popular culture--the words are from the lyric by Betty Comden and Adoph Green performed wonderfully by Judy Holliday performance in "Bells are Ringing"--it is time for conservatives to sing:
The party's over.
It's time to call it a day.
And taken the moon away
It's time to wind up the masquerade
Just make your mind up
The piper must be paid