Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Three figures, being the sixth part of American Conservatism

Part one here.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Five.

Now where were we?  Ah yes.  I alluded to a famous actor who would go on to lead a conservative revolution, but two men paved the way for Reagan.  

In the 1950’s conservatism was, to put it mildly, in disarray.  Though Eisenhower had been elected president, anyone thinking that he would roll back the New Deal would have been gravely disappointed.  Though Ike was a great president – second perhaps only to Reagan in the 20th century – his refusal to repeal many of the New Deal programs entrenched them.  McCarthy was having his day in the sun, but he probably did much more to discredit conservatism than advance it (though he was by no means a conservative himself).  

But one man emerged to lead a revolution.  William F. Buckley made a splash with his hard hitting indictment of higher education in God and Man at Yale.  He decried the irreligious atmosphere that had been established at this celebrated university, and he observed how the school had abandoned its traditional role in guiding the philosophic and religious developments of its young men.  It had swallowed collectivist economics wholesale, and in turn it spurred the death of individualism.  

Then, in 1955, he launched a magazine called National Review.  It was and remains the center of the conservative movement.  It brought together disparate elements of the right, and gave conservatism the intellectual heft it sorely lacked.  Most importantly, Buckley and NR rejected the extremist element of the right.  John Birchers were not welcome at his magazine.  

Jonah Goldberg has much more on Buckley and his importance in the conservative revolution.  

The second important figure to emerge was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.  He suffered one of the greatest defeats in presidential electoral history, but his feisty brand of libertarian-conservatism had made its impact felt within the Republican Party.  He developed a platform which decried the growth of the state, and called for a reawakening of the individualist spirit.
And then there was Reagan.  I don’t believe I need to go into too much detail about Reagan.  But there are many things about this man that go deeply unappreciated.  First of all, this was no lazy thinker.  Reagan gave much thought to the issues of the day, and he articulately presented his ideas in a way that reached the general populace.  As Rush Limbaugh has said, Reagan not only advocated a certain policy agenda, he continuously advanced the conservative cause every chance he could.  He went beyond the policy minutiae to expound a deeply conservative philosophy.

Also of note, his sunny optimism was a marked detour from the traditional conservative pessimism.  Conservatives have always been deeply suspicious of human nature, but Reagan confidently asserted his beliefs, and he made us to think that we were all capable of achieving so much.  Sometimes his optimism makes him from dark political realities, but in the end he got all the big things right.  He knew that Eastern European communism was in the wane, and he understood what was needed to bring it to its knees.  He believed that if government got out of the way, the American entrepreneurial spirit would benefit the average Joe far more than any governmental program.  And he never stopped reminding the American people of America’s greatness.

What all three of these great figures have in common is their celebration of the individual spirit.  They understood that government served a purpose, but one that was far less ambitious than reformers believed it to be.  In a century when the state took on an overly ambitious role, these men realized that government could not achieve all the things that the wild-eyed dreamers thought it could.  They sought to stop the incessant tide of collectivism and restore the individual ethic that had marked this country’s formation.  

In some ways all three were deeply unconservative, for to fight the establishment as much as they did can hardly be categorized as conservative action.  And yet their brand of conservatism marked a return to the original conception of the American polity as envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

Yet, as profound an impact as they all have had, conservatism remains in a state of flux, and it is so because of the very nature of the ideology.  It is not an ideology in the normal sense in that there is no programmatic philosophy.  Indeed conservatism has been said to be the negation of ideology.  

Regardless of the terminology, it is true that success has bred some level of contentment, and contentment is a dangerous frame of mind.  But contentment alone does not explain some of the seeming disarray.  For though Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan all celebrated individualism, not all conservatives are in agreement about what precisely that entails.  Moreover, there remain fundamental disagreements over the nature of government, natural law, human nature, and a whole variety of natures.   Hopefully the next post will bring all these issues into focus.


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