Intellectual Conservatism Cannot Save the Mainstream American Right

Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, has been busy. Of course, when you start this election year publishing a book about the troubles plaguing the American Conservative movement, it’s hard to stay silent. Dr. Hawley has been closely monitoring the presidential campaign and possible fallout from the Republican’s internal bickering…

By Dr. George Hawley

9780700621934As Donald Trump rampaged through the already fragile infrastructure of the American conservative movement, we saw justified panic on the mainstream right and Schadenfreude on the left. Superficially, at least, the Trump campaign seemed to undermine what little intellectual respectability the right possessed, returning us the days when Lionel Trilling could reasonably state that conservatives do not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” It makes sense that those laboring to foster and maintain a high-brow, literate conservatism would distance themselves from Trump’s brash, populist nationalism. Unfortunately for the #NeverTrump conservatives, the intellectual wing of the American conservative movement is simply not a plausible alternative to Trumpism.

donald-trump-supporter-yells-sieg-heil-nazi-salute-at-las-vegas-rallyConservatives are always quick to declare that “ideas have consequences” – a rallying cry taken from the title of Richard Weaver’s most important book. They argue that, although the left is a collection of interest groups expressing a litany of grievances, conservatism is based on principles. Conservatism officially rejects identity politics; as Ramesh Ponnuru once wrote in National Review, conservatives “hoist their ideas on flagpoles and see who salutes.”  Trump, in contrast, is a pure identity politics candidate, and one with little interest in abstract principles.

Progressives may roll their eyes at the suggestion that conservatives are deeply invested in political theory or that the conservative movement has a long history of rejecting identity politics. But intellectually serious conservatives do view political and economic theory as important, and they try to frame their arguments using universal principles rather than the language of interest-groups.

More so than liberals, conservatives are deeply concerned about their own movement’s intellectual pedigree. This has been true since Russell Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind. Scouring the internet, it is easy to find lists of sites explaining which books all conservatives should read. Conservatives believe reading books by the founding conservatives is more than important; it is indispensable. As conservatives shudder at Trump’s position at the top of the GOP ticket, they regularly declare that the conservative movement has lost its way, that is must return to its roots, to the conservatism of William F. Buckley and Frank Meyer and the other icons of the right. Just re-read back issues of National Review, the thinking goes; they will tell you what you need to know. Columnist Matt Lewis made an argument like this in his new book, Too Dumb to Fail.

When looking for a usable model for the American right, conservatives point to their own movement’s canon – those books written between the mid-1940s and the early 1960s. From The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek to The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater, a small number of books forged the heart of America’s post-war conservative political philosophy. For a discussion of the importance of these books and their authors, I recommend Michael Lee’s excellent work, Creating Conservatism. Among these books written by the founding fathers of conservatism, we can find flashes of genuine brilliance. Today’s conservatives are right to admire what was produced by Weaver, Kirk, Meyer, Hayek, Friedman, Burnham and the other journalists and scholars that created the intellectual foundation for the conservative movement.

Unfortunately for conservatives, the intellectual wing of the conservative movement is not actually an alternative to the populist nationalism represented by Donald Trump. Aside from a few stale talking points, these conservatives have little to offer 21st century America. The arguments made in the conservative classics are completely disconnected from contemporary problems and can provide little guidance for today’s policymakers. For all their virtues (and they had many), Russell Kirk, Whitaker Chambers, and Richard Weaver are now largely irrelevant. A policymaker formulating solutions to growing economic inequality, terrorism, a broken immigration system, and all the other salient issues of 2016 will find little guidance from the conservative canon.

Many of the most important works from the early conservative movement were focused almost single-mindedly on the Cold War or on the folly of planned economies. Yet those battles are over. On these issues, the conservatives won, and won decisively. The Soviet Union is not coming back, and the mainstream left has lost interest in state-directed economics. Conservatives can justifiably boast about this victory, but the conversation has since moved on. Contemporary conservatives that insist their future leaders understand the problems with central planning would be equivalent to 1887 Republicans demanding their leaders study the case against slavery. They are building up an arsenal for a battle that is already won.

The left is no longer fighting to nationalize industries; for the most part, the left is fighting to strengthen the social safety net and increase economic equity within a capitalist framework. The mainstream left made peace with free enterprise long ago. When the debate is framed in these terms, a strong knowledge of the errors of socialism is not particularly helpful. If the debate has transitioned from being about ownership of the means of production to questions about the role of government in guaranteeing some minimal level of economic welfare for all, certain aspects of the canon may actually be harmful to the conservative cause. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek actually expresses positive sentiments toward welfare policies, stating, for example, that “there is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom.”

Although conservatives could justifiably crow about the end of the Cold War, on other issues, the conservatives lost – and lost badly. Unfortunately, the conservative canon does not show a way forward after the left triumphs. Much of the conservative canon was written by authors that viewed the United States as a conservative country, arguing that diligent effort could keep it a conservative country. National Review promised in its first issue to “stand athwart history, yelling stop.” Yet history did not stop in 1955. On multiple issues, especially cultural issues, the left was victorious. If history came to a halt right now, it would simply calcify societal developments that conservatives opposed.

Conservatives love to point to Edmund Burke as their inspiration, especially Russell Kirk’s interpretation of Burke. Yet this brand of Burkeanism is similarly futile for conservatives in 2016 America. Many of the left’s most resounding victories on issues of culture and economics occurred a generation or more in the past. To an important degree, progressive egalitarianism, supported and promoted by a large central state, is now an American tradition. Reversing these liberal victories in any substantive way would require revolutionary changes at this point. Where does that leave the traditionalist working from a Burkean framework? According to Russell Kirk, “Conservatism is never more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation; and the impetuous Burke, of all men, did most to establish this principle.” This brand of conservatism can only lead to a society that moves like a ratchet in a more liberal direction. At most, it can slow the rate of change. Perhaps this is the ideal role for conservatism. But this kind of conservatism surely does not offering an inspiring vision. Who would sign up for such a movement?

It is true that the founding fathers of the post-war American conservative movement were deeper thinkers than the most prominent conservative voices of today. But even the most brilliant conservatives of the 1950s have few valuable insights for current activists and policymakers. This is not a criticism of their work; they were dealing with ephemeral issues of their day, and often discussed them cogently and persuasively. But the world is now very different.

Besides the end of the Cold War, 2016 differs from the 1950s in other important ways that undermine basic conservative assumptions. There may have been a time when big business and cultural traditionalists were natural allies; mainstream conservatism is largely dependent on such an alliance. Is there such alliance today, or even shared interests? Are there any cultural issues where traditionalists can count on support from major industries? The answer is clearly no.

For the most part, big business is not concerned with issues like gay marriage, affirmative action, and abortion. In fact, major corporations frequently align with liberals on these issues. Even corporations that are widely despised by progressives often align themselves with progressive social causes. Walmart, for example, played an important role in killing or weakening religious freedom laws that would have protected businesses that discriminated against the LGBT community. The recent examples of major corporations that fought for more traditional values on questions such as homosexuality and contraception – such as Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby – are notable precisely because they are so rare. If conservatism is based on a presumed alliance between cultural traditionalists and corporate America, and corporate America actively opposes the traditionalists, what does that say about conservatism?

Conservatives who think Buckley-style conservatism is a legitimate substitute for Trumpism are mistaken. Conservative intellectuals, those who know who Peter Viereck was and subscribe to Modern Age, have failed to generate real, practical solutions to today’s social and economic problems. Keeping the memory of the founding generation of conservatives alive may be a noble undertaking, but it will do nothing to create or sustain a contemporary political movement that both addresses important issues and has a chance at winning.

A few exceptions aside, conservatives stopped generating new ideas long ago, instead focusing on marketing old ones. Unfortunately, the movement is now showing its age. The claim that Trump is killing mainstream American conservatism is mistaken. Mainstream conservatism was already dying.