THE PLANK APRIL 29, 2008
It's high time Americans start learning about the conservative movement. For whatever reason, we can identify feminists, Islamists, environmentalists, abolitionists--but very few of us know that conservatism, a coherent ideological movement, even exists. For example, when you open up the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition and look up "progressivism," you get:
In U.S. history, a broadly based reform movement that reached its height early in the 20th cent.
Yet when you look up conservatism, there is no mention of the conservative movement:
In politics, the desire to maintain, or conserve, the existing order. ... By the 20th cent. Conservatism was being redirected by erstwhile liberal manufacturing and professional groups who had achieved many of their political aims and had become more concerned with preserving them from attack by groups not so favored.
No mention of the American political and intellectual movement that has a distinctive philosophy, infrastructure, and policy preferences--and whose thirty-year ascendance (after twenty years in the wilderness) has been one of the defining events of the late 20th century.
As Sean Wilentz notes in this week's issue of TNR, the conservative era has been longer than the eras of "either Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Jackson, longer than the Gilded Age or the Progressive Era, and as long as the period of liberal reform that stretched from the rise of the New Deal to the demise of the Great Society." Yet we don't learn about it in high schools, and seldom--if ever--in college history courses.
This puts the American left--and indeed, the American public--at a disadvantage, because it leads fair-minded people to assume conservatives are basically just people with bowties or people who like guns (or both)--rather than a serious, rather militant ideological movement to be understood and reckoned with.
This is partially the result of inertia. High school history books, for example, are often loathe to discuss contemporary issues. (Although my twin sisters' 10th grade textbooks certainly mentioned neoconservatism.)
It's also partially the result of ingrained liberal perceptions. Most liberal thought arose in opposition to entrenched business and political interests, so it's easy to assume modern conservatism is simply another manifestation of the same.
Finally, it's Russell Kirk's fault. His book, The Conservative Mind, tries to establish a genealogy for modern conservatism that stretches back to Edmund Burke and T.S. Eliot--much in the way that the Mormon Church posthumously insists Shakespeare was indeed a Mormon. This gives off the misimpression that modern conservatism is simply a cautious cast of mind, no different from the conservatism of Burke or Eliot.
Yet American conservatism actually has nothing to do with Burke, other than drawing street cred off his deceased personage. The conservative movement began with William F. Buckley, Frank Meyer, and Russell Kirk himself during the 1950s, in a magazine called National Review--and it was revolutionary, bombastic, and eager to overhaul American society, not Burkean. Unfortunately, whenever anyone does try to read up about the conservative movement, he is inevitably handed Kirk's book--along, perhaps, with a copy of Patrick Buchanan's A Republic, Not An Empire, or something similarly misleading--and hustled off to learn nothing about his intended subject.
It's a pathetic state of affairs. In political matters, an uneducated citizenry is as good as defenseless--and on this issue, it would seem that Americans are, and continue to remain, uneducated.
Update: Some commenters are asking for a recommended basic text. George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement In America Since 1945 is the authoritative one.