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.

They've burst your pretty balloon

And taken the moon away

It's time to wind up the masquerade

Just make your mind up

The piper must be paid

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

28 Responses

  1. Harry Colin says:

    At a dinner after a business conference many years ago, this very question of “How is Conservatism Defined?” was brought up in conversation. It didn’t take long for a consensus to form that the best way to understand conservatism was to read and nod approvingly at every issue of “The Weekly Standard.” I was asked if I read the publication, and replied that I was familiar with it, but preferred to call it “The Weekly American Standard.” I was hoping to get a laugh or two, but all I got was solemn looks of approval; sadly, not one got the toilet reference, so I was left to wander off to my hotel room, broken and depressed.

  2. William Shofner says:

    Well, Mr. Colin, don’t be broken or depressed. Conservatives flushed “The Weekly Standard” down the American Standard. Your reference one to the other was dead-on-spot. A match made in heaven….or the sewer. Now, if someone would just flush down an American Standard the co-founder of “The Weekly Standard” (and, sadly, my college classmate) Bill Kristol, there would be more joy in Mudville.

  3. Clyde Wilson says:

    I think you missed one element in the falsification of conservatism. Militant Catholic anti-Communism (Buckley/Bozell, etc.) replaced prudent American interest with a crusade.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Sorry, I missed nothing essential. Buckley was nominally Catholic, Bozell fanatically Catholic, but neither had the influence on foreign policy that the ex-Trotskyist Burnham had. The prudence of the Wisconsinite George Kennan, which should have been the guiding principle of foreign policy, was displaced not by zeal for a Catholic crusade but by the terror felt by ex-Marxists who dominated NR: Wili Schlamm, Burnham, Chambers, Ralph Toledano, many of whom, like WFB himself, had ties to the CIA.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I should note that I never said there was any authentic conservatism to falsify. The best American “conservatives” were pre-war liberals who were opposed to imperial wars–Mencken, Nock, John Flynn. There was never a movement that could be described as “conservative,” and never a coherent set of principles much less an ideology. I do not say that this was a bad thing, but the myth of the conservative movement and its betrayal by neoconservatives should be put to rest. NR was essentially neoconservative from the being, though its editors would mostly have given more than Irving Kristol’s two cheers for capitalism. In several long conversations with NR regular, Ernest van den Haag, who became a friend of mine, Ernest made that point to me.

    The trouble even with the conservatism of French counter-revolutionaries is that they defined themselves by what they opposed. Anglo-American “conservatism”, if it is accurate even to use such an expression, was so obviously a mythical ideology in a Marxian sense, that is, a set of ideas cobbled together to justify a regime, that it could never have any effect except, perhaps on occasion, to slow down the pace of revolution. Read Roger Scruton and then tell me what positive vision he had to inspire men and women to resist the revolution? In a nutshell, the best Anglo-American conservatives offered a skeptical response to revolution–in Scruton’s case, his thought was rooted in one of the intellectual architects of the revolution, Kant–but they always shied away from commitment, rather like the old bachelor who says he approves of marriage but has never found the right woman. I sympathize with them, but that sympathy does not obscure the fact of their complete failure. Eliot and Faulkner, to name only two writers, did vastly more to inspire a positive vision than all the conservative intellectuals who came after Burke.

  6. Clyde Wilson says:

    For a long time Southern Democrats were the conservative force in U.S. politics, although it was an unconscious and pessimistic attitude, not a defined conservatism.

  7. Steven Lakoff says:

    I thought Scruton’s attempt at an inspirational vision was a game of Make Believe. Let’s make believe that we are good believers in a good world that values the Good. He equated this with the ideas of his hero, Wagner. This makes sense on a deeper level as I can see this doomed attempt to form a counter revolutionary idea from Kantian philosophy, as a fast track to acting out a real life Gotterdammerung. A heroic last stand at best. A death wish at worst.

    On the other hand, playing Make Believe long enough might allow you to survive long enough to see the collapse of the revolutionary order. If you stand fully outside the circle of society, you are by definition, eccentric and have no hope of bringing about change. So maybe that is the “positive vision” you asked about.

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Steven Lakoff, excellent effort! My compliments, though I’d say, “death wish at the best,” since a dignified extinction is the best possible result from such a posture. I used to know a fair number of English journalists and writers on the right, and, while I enjoyed their company and their wit, I believe I made them uncomfortable. The one man I really wanted to meet was Enoch Powell, whom I published once, exchanged notes with, and once spoke with on the telephone, but he was rather old and too sick to see me the day it was possible for me. He was not only an astute reader of the times he lived in, but his deep knowledge of antiquity gave him a perspective denied such shallow liberals as Thatcher and company. Frank Johnson at the Spectator was an independent type, despite his successful career. He told me once that he did not regret flunking his exams and being sent to trade school, because, when he began to grow up, he had not been through the mental dry-cleaning process.

    Clyde Wilson is right and for the right reason. Southern Democrats were, for all their foibles and failings, doing their best to defend a way of life that they had inherited, albeit a good deal damaged by conquest and oppression. Over the years, I had met both senators Hollings and Thurmond, and knew well my old schoolmate Mendel Davis, godson to L Mendel Rivers, and my father knew Mendel Rivers. It was not so long ago that there were men like Sam Nunn, Hollings, and Thurmond in the Senate. Today, the best the Senate can show is the semi-Southern Democrat, Joe Manchin.

  9. Robert Reavis says:

    Every once a while there will be a politician or political figure who at least resembles the shadow of a man even in our time. Homer noticed the bar was pretty high when Andromache and Hector spoke for the last time in the Iliad. All the decent men I have known within conservative circles were men who lived mostly on the edges of political questions but who always loved something other than themselves. Even a fanatic like Achilles discovered something deeper in life than simply winning in the old King’s pleas for his son’s corpse. Mel Bradford and Fritz Wilhelmsen might have held different political views on occasion but in my conversations with the old Carlist sympathizer he could easily praise an old Southern Baptist democrat and highly recommended his
    Every man born of woman has their demons to fight and since the world is an old place and very stubborn towards passing fads and the sharp edges of an individual’s exuberance, I can forgive a lot of human faults and errors. Yet, men simply cannot give to others what they don’t posses. Call it the triumph of ignorance, the collapse of a moribund, culture, or the inevitable evolutionary progress toward the future but truth be told American conservatives haven’t conserved a damned thing worth having in years.

  10. theAlabamian says:

    Today’s “conservatism” is also directed in a way that our 19th century and early 20th century ancestors could not have guessed I don’t think. People who think themselves conservative today are so influenced by the big TV media that it is accepted as truth or good simply because it is marketed to look better than what democrats are doing at the time. Instead of maybe local papers possibly expressing the thoughts of a local populace everything seems dominated by the likes of the “USA Today Network”. Even with social media instead of getting anything organic it is so called conservatives taking up for politicians they like mostly on issues they never really chose or wanted. And when a politician does bring up issues that are actually in the people’s interest somehow the true victory never comes through and yet the people cannot break themselves from the Trump-Pelosi drama, silly FJB chanting, the idea that if we just keep Republicans in office we are ok. Unfortunately, conservatives don’t have a voice, or they don’t even know how to use it for themselves. They only repeat the voice of the television. And as Dr. Fleming’s article above says today’s “conservatives” have zero substance.

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    There are several difficulties implicit in the term “conservative.” Basically, it means that a thing or an idea or a person is of the type that tends to conserve some thing or some quality, as in “This air conditioner conserves energy.” The range of things that can be conserved runs the gamut from good to trivial to evil, e.g., from monogamous marriage to tuxedos at a wedding to female circumcision and human sacrifice. Mostly, what “Conservatives” think they are conserving are the relics of their childhood or their parents’ generation. The music of Glen Miller–or the Eagles; baking inedible cookies at Christmas, sitcoms with a funny foreign character who has trouble with English (Desi Arnez, Angel, Pepino). So one would measure the quality of a specific type of conservatism by the value of what it is attempting to preserve.

    I used to know a typical conservative, who professed to be an admirer of Sam Francis. He liked listening to Big Band music, watching “The Sound of Music,” and was forever declaiming against the conspiracy to destroy Christmas, by which he meant Charley Brown’s Christmas and special holiday programs starring people like Andy Williams, who had to hire actors to play his family. Contrast this with your typical redneck Confederate reenactor, who may be less than brilliant and have barely got out of high school but has a vision of a vanished society that was defended by brave men fighting in an honorable cause. He might be dumb enough to vote for Lindsey Graham or even Joe Biden, and he may tear up–as a friend of mine in SC did–whenever, in rewatching the wretched TV series on the War, the end was all too apparently near, but he had a lively vision of what his world had once been like, and this vision of the past permeated his present and shaped his principles and conduct.

    It is the difference between the baseball lover who memorizes statistics and collects old bubblegum cards and the baseball lover who goes out with his kids or joins a tavern league and plays ball.

  12. Michael Strenk says:

    I have long felt that the best of the Hippy Back-to the-Landers that I have met, those that survived the initial shock of their change of life, were far more fundamentally conservative than 99% of the self proclaimed conservatives that I have met over the years. They were struggling toward a more honest notion of family and community and more reasonable expectations of life than the society as a whole was moving toward. Many who started out on this path had their share of faults. Many tried to go from a 20th century urban or suburban existence with all the modcons to the toil and hardship of a 19th century life with none of the skills or upbringing necessary to be successful in the endeavor. Such often became broken and disillusioned with many deciding subsequently on a more hedonistic course. Wall St. and Silicon Valley filled up with these berserkers and their demon spawn. They also had great a tendency to look to exotic cultures and culturally destructive ideological models for their template, but we can see this among so-called conservatives as well, this being part of a general trend toward self hatred on the part of Westerners ever increasing from the time of the Enlightenment.

  13. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Back in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, I knew a fair number of the type you are describing, and even those on the far left had their heads straight on several important points, such as the significance of place and tradition, their sense of priorities that put a decent life above profits and progress, and even some of the folkies including Communists were really infatuated with their dream of the Middle Ages.

  14. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    What they lacked was the intellectual discipline and coherence required to see beyond the end of their noses, to understand if the men in grey flannel suits pursuing corporate greed were evil, then still more evil were the political leaders who spouted humanitarian slogans to justify their pursuit of power, that if the top brass in the military cynically played games with human lives to advance their own careers and the power of their organizations, the social work bureaucracy was infinitely more cynical, corrupt, and tyrannical.

  15. Robert Reavis says:

    I read a few criticisms of the those dreamers of the Middle Ages but they were like classicists I know who were an inch deep and a mile wide. The common type who teach the greatest even since the fall of Rome was the French Revolution. I don’t fault them for wanting to get along, appeal to the only audience they could attract, or land a job in the academy but they don’t know enough about the Middle Ages to say much of anything significant.

  16. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Should retire the term conservative, which has no meaning. Change is accelerating and little can be “conserved.” Nitpicking on who is not “truly conservative” is a waste of time. What should the future look like if we could establish, bring about, desired values and relationships? What are those values and relationships? How could that be accomplished?

    Surveys indicate that people were happier in the 1950s but we cannot go back to the 50s. Why were people happier then? What would be necessary to make people happier now? How could that be accomplished?

    I think it is possible that the mainstream media and the elite will start to support the majority who have turned against the progressive nonsense. Time for the pendulum to swing back to common sense.

  17. Vince Cornell says:

    Speaking as a non-intellectual type the only thing I can add to the conversation is that I always thought Desi Arnaz was funnier than Lucille Ball. And that I wish there had been a movie with both Mantan Moreland and Desi Arnaz in it so they could have an eye-bug-out competition.

    I’ve never read a single issue of National Review, but when I was younger politics didn’t interest me even a tiny little bit. I do like making inedible cookies for Christmas because that’s the tradition I associate with family, but at least I’m not trying “the latest and greatest” cookie recipe that’s trending on FaceBook.

    I think RINO is an even worse label than “Conservative” because most of the folks who I know who get labeled “RINO” are actually what I would pick as par exemplars of everything the Republican Party stands for.

    While I understand there are no political solutions to cultural problems, I do wonder what the best political path forward is from a practical perspective. With all of the corporate influence involved and Big Government seemingly at a zenith of power, it doesn’t seem like anything can be done other than attempts to stall, muck up, or frustrate different parts of the system. It doesn’t even seem realistic that any attempt to label anything as “other than conservative” in opposition to “liberal” would get any more traction than the typical 3rd party run (which is to say it would have zero impact on anything). The designated team names are “liberal” and “conservative” and the fact that they are the designated team names means those are the only allowable team names.

    Meanwhile I just wish so-called conservatives could stop obsessing over abortion and the Supreme Court long enough to care about something (ANYTHING) else. I think the average conservative would say “I’d gladly lose every single election if it’s because we’re fighting on behalf of babies” without understanding that locking into a course of action that guarantees one loses every single fight is not actually helping anyone except the people they think they’re fighting.

    Merry Christmas, everyone!

  18. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Mr. Van Sant asks the pertinent questions that I have been addressing for the past 20 years. I should add the caveat that the 1950s was far from being a Golden Age of human contentment. Most of the troubles we are experiencing these days existed, albeit in a less advanced form. Feminism was just getting its second wind, the politics of minority resentment was picking up steam, and the greatest vice of liberal capitalism, hedonist consumerism, was in full flower. Yes, I would gladly go back, but a time traveler from the present would be like Kevin McCarthy in “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, forever warning people about dangers they refused to believe in.

    When I used to discuss education reform with the so-called experts, I would point out that before WW I, Europe and North America had a system that accomplished the task of turning boys into men and of forming a common culture that reinforced moral and social norms. The products of that system were capable of critical thought and lucid expression. If we really want to “reform” education, we should go back to a time when it worked, and then make adjustments to suit it better to the world we happen to live in. The same reasoning can be applied to everything from sex and marriage to poetry to foreign policy.

  19. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dr Fleming- while you were addressing various issues, almost everything has declined over the past 20 years. Although the fifties were not perfect (and never were) they were better than now. If you could choose a location and time (space-time) where/when would you want to live?

  20. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, everything has declined precipitously, and most rapidly in the Reagan-Bush years, which should have been some sort of clue to conservatives, but it was not.

    It’s an excellent question because it forces the person being questioned to put his cards on the table. From one perspective, I am not fit to live in any other time but this, because in traveling even to the 1950’s, a period of which I have vivid memories, I would become an alien to my experience. Not to be an alien, in some other place and time, I should have to be another person than I am, so it would be like dying. I’ve tried to take this up, a bit, in my still unpublished tale–revised many times since I put up some first drafts on this site–of Anterus Smith.

    Having hedged my bets, and ignoring some of the obvious problems such as medical conditions, I could say that the times I have dreamed of living were Archaic Greece, before the Persian Wars. The Roman Empire in the time of the Antonines was the period Gibbon thought any sane person would choose, and that is certainly on my list, but so is Gibbon’s own time, the late 18th century either in England or the Southern colonies. I am also partial to the Midwest as described by Booth Tarkington, before WW I, preferably, and the same period in France would have been fun. Florence before the Medici would have been difficult in many ways, but exhilarating.

    Each of these little clusters of space and time has something special to offer. Tarkington’s Indiana had peace, stability, and a certain quiet charm, while Florence and Archaic Greece had intensity and brilliance. Unfortunately, I am so used to living in decay and decadence, I am not sure I could thrive in a healthy society.

  21. Vince Cornell says:

    “I’d never want to live in a time period that would have someone like me as an inhabitant.” – Groucho Marx (sort of)

  22. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Thanks for your response Dr Fleming. For me, growing up in Kenosha in the fifties and early sixties was a wonderful experience. I wish my two daughters could have had it. My wife and I tried to give them something like it when they were growing up.

    I am content to be living where I am right now because I have (transplanted) roots here in Maryland.

  23. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I agree with you completely. I enjoyed life in my teens and twenties and do my best to keep them in mind. I even listen to old radio shows–Johnny Dollar, Richard Diamond, Broadway is My Beat, and Dragnet–and watch old episodes of “What’s My Line.” In movies we hardly ever watch anything much later than 1965, unless it has been recommended by friends with good taste and judgment. We enjoyed the Michael Gabon Maigret series and are now watching the old films–superb–with Jean Gabin. We listen, during the Sacred Cocktail Hour, to George Shearing and Mel Torme, Oscar Peterson, Sinatra, and Johnny Mercer, or, to Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Roger Miller, and Buck Owens (to name only a few). And, when we listen to serious music, I prefer older pianists like Casadessus, Rubenstein, Michelangeli, and Wilhelm Kempff. Our son, who once had a date with Luja Wang, talked me into listening to her recording of a Rachmaninoff concerto and it was more than pretty good.

    Stepping back a generation or two refreshes our perspective and, paradoxically, instead of embittering us against the present “low dishonest decade” gives us the capacity for enjoying the good things that are still being done, though, sadly, the last great country song I can think of is George Jones’ “The King is Gone”.

  24. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Last night, I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter
    That looks like Elvis
    I soaked the label off a Flintstone Jelly Bean jar
    I cleared us off a place on that
    One little table that you left us
    And pulled me up a big ole piece of floor
    I pulled the head off Elvis
    Filled Fred up to his pelvis
    Yabba Dabba Doo, the King is gone
    And so are you–1U

  25. James D. says:

    Cheap bourbon whiskey and pearl snap shirts
    Are the two things that stay the same
    So when the world starts spinnin’ and your head hurts
    There’s a cheap bourbon whiskey and pearl snap shirt

    The shade tree mechanic is a dinosaur
    You can’t cuss, you can’t smoke, or spit on the floor
    Don’t hit on a woman ’cause she might sue
    You can’t buy beer in this state past two

  26. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Good song, James D., and thanks for reminding us there are some fine country music musicians who, alas, are not topping the charts!

  27. Michael Strenk says:

    We’ve been listening to a fair amount of New Zealand country (now a fully totalitarian country) and rockabilly the past few years.

    Little man must go
    You choke the business down
    A river thick and slow.

  28. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    One of my regrets is that I cannot play the guitar like Roy Clark. But I can still listen to and appreciate his music as well as enjoy his humor. Hee Haw.