ELEPHANTS ON PARADE: Conservatism in Modern America

Tuesday, October 3, 2000

For the last half of the twentieth century, the conservative movement in the United States was defined by two prominent doctrines: first, containment of the Soviet Union, and second, an effort to roll back the expansion of the federal government that began with the New Deal. With the first adversary out of existence, and the second in retreat, what does American conservatism stand for today? We look back to the roots of the conservative movement, its guiding principles and its leading proponents, including William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan. We look to the future of American conservatism: Will it remain a unified movement or will internal tensions break it apart?

Recorded on Tuesday, October 3, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, Whither the Conservative Movement in America. Throughout much of the twentieth century, conservatives in America were animated by two concerns. Concern number one: Attempting to thwart the impulse toward bigger and bigger government, an impulse that went all the way back to the 1930's and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. By the end of the twentieth century, it would be argued conservatives had done pretty well on this count. Even a democratic, Bill Clinton, no friend of conservatives, found himself compelled to admit and I quote, "The era of big government is over." Concern number two: standing up to the Soviet Union, the entity behind the Berlin Wall of which this is a chunk. Here again, by the end of the twentieth century, conservatives had done pretty well. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and two years later, in 1991, the Soviet Union itself officially went out of existence. No more Soviet Union. Even democrats such as Bill Clinton embracing a limited government agenda. All that leads to this question: What does conservatism stand for today?

With us today, two guests. David Kennedy is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian at Stanford University. Sam Tanenhaus is a journalist who writes for the New York Times, for Vanity Fair and is at work on a new biography of one of conservatism's most important figures, William F. Buckley, Jr.

Title: Elephants on Parade

Peter Robinson: According to all the polling data, Americans who identify themselves as conservative outnumber Americans who identify themselves as liberal by a margin of better than three to two. David, when Americans identify themselves as conservative, what do they mean by that?

David Kennedy: Lord only knows. They don't vote that way. At least they haven't been voting that way in presidential elections in recent years. So I--I don't--I don't know what the content of that would be.

Peter Robinson: You have no idea what they mean?

David Kennedy: Well…

Peter Robinson: You want to take a stab at it?

David Kennedy: Liberal has become a dirty word in--in our political lexicon last generation so maybe people are identifying themselves as anything other than that. It could mean any number of things.

Peter Robinson: Sam, have you got an inkling of what they might mean?

Sam Tanenhaus: Actually I think David is right. I think that the word liberal has become so demonized that it's no longer just a tag that one would apply to himself.

Peter Robinson: We--we want to return to conservatism of the moment but first let's establish the historical background. The year is 1955. Two important ideological events take place. Louis Hartz publishes The Liberal Tradition in America arguing that America has essentially only a liberal political tradition. And William F. Buckley, Jr. founds National Review magazine giving impetus to what could be seen as the modern American conservative movement. David, what did Louis Hartz have in mind by saying that America had essentially only a liberal political tradition?

David Kennedy: Well that's a--quite a highfalutin book as you know. And Hartz' basic argument was that the--the tradition that comes down from John Locke of honoring individual property rights but also honoring the sanctity of the social contract and everybody's right to participate in it, was the only political tradition that this country had ever known. Both in--through experience, the experience of the colonial revolutionary era and through defined doctrine which…

Peter Robinson: So we have…

David Kennedy: …have (?) in the founding documents.

Peter Robinson: …no monarchical parties, no aristocratic party but, at the same time, we also don't have the radical parties of the late 1880's in Europe…

David Kennedy: That's right.

Peter Robinson: …the Proletarian party, no communism…

David Kennedy: The--the key historical point in Hartz' argument was that this country unique among all modern nations essentially had never had a futile period in its history. So it never developed the deep class divisions and antagonisms, institutions that characterized virtually all other advanced industrial societies.

Peter Robinson: So in the United States, the fight between conservatives and liberals is a family spat?

David Kennedy: That would be Hartz' argument, yes.

Peter Robinson: And it--would it be your argument as well? Is that an accurate understanding?

David Kennedy: No actually I--I…

Peter Robinson: No?

David Kennedy: …would take a--a different initiating date than yours, 1955.

Peter Robinson: All right.

David Kennedy: Take 1789. I mean, it might be true that--that conservative temperament is an historical constant but what we know is modern conservatism as classic expression, is first formulated in response to the French Revolution and it's formulated especially by Edmond Burke who's the father of all conservatism, modern conservatism. His--Burke's basic argument was that societies must be allowed to evolve organically in an evolutionary way and they can't have abstract doctrines imposed upon them in the name of equity or justice or whatever. That the--you just can't tamper with this natural mechanism of society.

Peter Robinson: So he places tradition at the center of political life? That would be moral tradition, the political traditions that simply arise organically over time. The long, slow development of British Common Law, the British Constitution as opposed to the radical movement of--in--in France during the French Revolution. Why did Burke support the American Revolution?

David Kennedy: Because he thought it grew organically out of the circumstances of American life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That--that was an easy one for him. But the great--the great fear of historic conservatism is social disorder. You might say the great antagonism historically between conservatives and their adversaries is the--the party of order on the one hand and the party of equality or equity on the other. Those are the issues of the French Revolution.

Sam Tanenhaus: And another name that should be tossed into this and we all know and have talked about him is Lionel Trilling whose book, Liberal Imagination was published in 1950 and also maintained that there was no real liberal--conservative tradition in America, only a liberal tradition. But he meant something a little different I think.

Peter Robinson: What did he--draw the distinction between Hartz and Trilling.

Sam Tanenhaus: I think his idea of liberalism was based more on the politics of the 1930's. The New Deal and the support that it had in much of the culture and then the radical…

Peter Robinson: Let's get back to the 1950's and the importance of William F. Buckley, Jr.

Title: The Right Side of the Tracks

Peter Robinson: What's new about Bill Buckley and his form of conservatism?

Sam Tanenhaus: Well several things. What's interesting to know, first of all, is he said that his magazine wanted to stand for history yelling stop! And right there, we see a con--contradiction with out understanding of Burkean conservatism. That is, he doesn't care if change comes out of the organic membrane of the culture. There are these permanent institutions and ideas that he wants to maintain, he and his colleagues really at any price. I think that really what Bill Buckley was reacting to was communism, global communism. And there's an interesting movement there.

Peter Robinson: That was more in an--of an animating impulse in Buckley's and the New Deal. You think?

Sam Tanenhaus: Well he saw them as related. The conservatives of his--of his generation, remember many of them were ex communists. Almost all of Bill's early allies and colleagues at National Review had been radicals of one kind or another. Bill was one of the very few wh9o hadn't been. But they tended to equate the com--mild social democracy of the New Deal with Soviet Communism. They saw them as allied in a kind of moral way and in their political premises.

David Kennedy: Sam mentioned another matter here which is Lionel Trilling's said 1950 book, The Liberal Imagination. Trilling was a critique of the liberal tradition from within it.

Peter Robinson: Right.

David Kennedy: He--he considered himself a liberal but wanted to point out his defects. But the--he--he undertook that critique of--Trilling did in the early '50's because he assumed as did so many pundits and intellectuals today that the liberal tradition in America as Hartz' book tells us was absolutely dominant. It was the regnant philosophy which had no real adversaries. So this--this is why, I think, the founding of the National Review becomes so important, because it's an early effort to try to reestablish an authentic voice of American conservatism which had really gone into deep eclipse after the triumphs of the New Deal.

Peter Robinson: So it was in a dead end and Buckley finds a way out of the dead end?

David Kennedy: Well he's groping for one…

Sam Tanenhaus: That's right. As far as Buckley goes, an important ingredient of his conservatism which legitimized it, several things did, one was that he wasn't internationalist. Conservatives had opposed America's involvement in the Second World War. And that set a difficult precedent for conservatives afterward because now there were anti-communists. And if you opposed intervening in World War II initially to stop Hitler, how do you justify now any kind of action against Stalin? This is one of the dilemmas conservatives faced. And Buckley solved it with a kind of internationalism and cosmopolitanism. That is, he was going to be internationalist. He wasn't going to be like his father who had been a famous isolationist, an America Firster in the--the pre-war era. Buckley brought that to it and he also brought a cosmopolitanism of temperament and mood and style. Buckley is multi-lingual. All the early stars of National Review, James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, Whittaker Chambers, spoke and read several languages. They were humanists. They were deeply versed in the literary tradition.

Peter Robinson: It was impossible to dismiss them as troglodytes. They simply new too much, were too sophisticated and therefore had a new kind of appeal for intellectuals.

Sam Tanenhaus: You'd be amazed or maybe not, at how many conservatives say they--they had no idea there was such a thing as a conservative intellectual until they heard Bill Buckley in Firing Line.

David Kennedy: Do you think it's important to--to lay a little more emphasis on the fact that Buckley in National Review, when they began are so preoccupied with foreign policy. It's as if, in a sense, they give up or subordinate the issue of domestic policy precisely because the New Deal has…

Peter Robinson: They dealt with the New Deal by simply ignoring it, at least in the early phases.

David Kennedy: The foreign policy was an area where there was more room for argument, where you could stake out a position. And a hard line on foreign policy, cold warriorship becomes a defining element of modern conservatism and the question therefore asks itself, what happens when the cold war ends and this puller of modern conservatism is essentially removed.

Peter Robinson: Next topic, how the conservatives captured the Republican party in the 1960's.

Title: A Phoenix Rising

Peter Robinson: Goldwater loses to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 in a landslide. Why didn't that end the conservative movement in America as a political force?

Sam Tanenhaus: Because, to begin with, they had captured the Republican party. This was the wing of the Republican party that had been defeated time and time again. Dewey had defeated it in 1948 and Eisenhower did again in '52 and '56. And really Nixon had. Nixon had come out more really the center of the party. So with Goldwater's nomination, I think Gold--that is actually more important than his defeat.

Peter Robinson: So that--and that's the importance of Barry Goldwater. He moves the conservative movement into a political structure capturing the republican party.

Sam Tanenhaus: Remember too the states that Goldwater won in '64.

Peter Robinson: He won some states?

Sam Tanenhaus: He won the same ones Strom Thurmond did in 1948.

David Kennedy: The Dixie (?) states plus Arizona.

Peter Robinson: Plus Arizona.

Sam Tanenhaus: That--that's right. So what that…

Peter Robinson: And the significance of that is?

Sam Tanenhaus: Well that there was a backlash vote in the south that reacted to and objected to the civil rights movement. And Goldwater famously, some think cynically said, we'll go where the ducks are. When you're duck hunting, you go where the votes are and they saw that there was some…

Peter Robinson: But to be fair to him, he saw the civil rights legislation of the '60's as an infringement on states' rights.

Sam Tanenhaus: Barry Goldwater was not an ounce of racism in him and that's very important. The party, however, aligned itself ar--around, at least in the deep south, this reaction to civil rights. And David, as far as domestic policy went in National Review, that was the one issue where they did speak loudly. They opposed the civil rights move--they--the civil rights movement and the--the supreme court's decision in 1954 to eliminate Jim Crow. Bill Buckley and his colleagues at National Review took the states' rights position that this was an unfair infringement by the central government. And so they began to build a base among voters that had not really been accessible to the republican party before.

Peter Robinson: And it worked brilliantly. How many states did he carry? Six, seven, eight, something like that?

David Kennedy: Well the George Wallace vote becomes a--a very critical swing vote after the 1960's and it's part of what forms the more solid basis of the Reagan coalition is that he incorporates a lot of that…

Peter Robinson: Give us the meaning of Ronald Reagan. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

David Kennedy: Well the so-called Reagan democrats are, in large numbers, former George Wallace voters. They're blue collar ethnic voters who were part of the historic New Deal Coalition who begin to get uneasy with the--the--you might say, the New Deal of Social Compact particularly as it begins to incorporate more conspicuously racial elements into it, the civil rights movement becomes prominent. Those votes--votes go up for grabs. George Wallace gets them for a while. Nixon gets them temporarily but can't really hold them. Reagan really grasps them and holds them and that's what forms the solid republican majorities of the '80's.

Peter Robinson: We come now to the presidency of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Title: Dutch Treats

Peter Robinson: Here's my question about Ronald Reagan. He wins big in 1980. He wins hugely in 1984. He has shown how a conservative candidate can put together a winning coalition. The question is this, does he actually move the country closer to his ideals? Is this a more conservative country in terms of thought and--and what is politically viable after Ronald Reagan or did he simply stitch together one more ad hoc coalition?

David Kennedy: Well that coalition has proved to be fairly--something more than ad hoc. It's been electorally consistent I think. Reagan, in my judgment or the Reagan elements in the republican party deliberately set out to politicize and to republicanize certain constituencies that had either not voted at all, just hadn't been very political, or certainly hadn't been safely republicans. Fundamentalist Christians, the--the--the--the so-called moral majority and so on. Politicized the (?) issues like school prayer and abortion and so on which, prior to the early '70's, really mid '70's, were not hot button issues. They became so and they--they became so to the benefit of Ronald Reagan.

Peter Robinson: The Supreme Court had a little something to do with politicizing abortion…

David Kennedy: Sure, sure.

Peter Robinson: All right. Fine.

David Kennedy: Then it was there to be further politicized. But the Reagan republicanism is based--was based strongly on the so-called social issues. And it was devoted to the idea that government had an obligation and a right to intervene in certain social questions to make sure that people voted correctly, to ban abortion, to allow school prayer and so on, so forth. These are odd precepts when you think of the historic tradition of Burkean or European more traditional conservatism where it--in that point-of-view, society is to be left to its own devices entirely.

Peter Robinson: And I assert that there's no contradiction there whatsoever because on abortion, once you grant--you may disagree about this point and I'm not asking you to argue it but once you grant that the fetus is human or human enough to be worthy of the protection of the law, there's no contradiction at all. It simply follows that the--the fetus is--is--deserves protection of the law. And on school prayer, from the conservative point-of-view, that's not an intervention at all. It's simply rolling back, getting the courts out of the schoolroom and for getting--permitting the organic arrangements of the community to have--have their place. That is to say, I'm challenging you. I don't see the--there's anything illogical or contradictory.

David Kennedy: I think it reveals a deeper contradiction in modern American conservatism that is on the one--in the one hand it embraces the greatest engine of social change known to history which is free market capitalism. And, on the other hand, it is regretful of and indeed wants to use state power to intervene to check changes in the cho--social realm that are, in the first instance, induced by the great engine of free market capitalism.

Peter Robinson: And now to the conservative movement at the present moment.

Title: Neo-Contradictions

Peter Robinson: Ronald Reagan, God bless him, the great conservative conqueror is long gone from the scene. The Soviet Union which brings national review into being in 1955 goes out of existence on Christmas day, 1991. The economy which conservatives fought--that was one of the great rallying points during the Reagan years, scale back government, cut taxes. The economy has been booming. So whither the conservative movement in America, in these circumstances?

Sam Tanenhaus: Well it's a good question. What happens when you win? This is a problem of neo-conservative based, is they won.

Peter Robinson: Tell me about neo-conservatives. You better define…

Sam Tanenhaus: Well neo-conservatives were a group of ex liberals or ex socialists in some case who were turned off by the excesses of the 1960's and saw the liberalism that they had supported, that Kennedy-Johnson era liberalism, being undermined and attacked from the left and so deserted the ranks of liberalism and found common cause with conservatives like Ronald Reagan.

Peter Robinson: So neo-conservative means former liberal?

Sam Tanenhaus: In essence, yeah, it does. And it either means a former liberal who wants to reform liberalism or one who's just turned his back on it and thinks that the welfare state itself is really the--the--the root problem and that all the supposed gains of liberalism might actually…

Peter Robinson: Does neo-conservatism remain a distinctive movement or position within the larger conservative spectrum?

Sam Tanenhaus: Well it's harder to define than it once was and it's more marginal than it once was partly because of the demise of the Soviet Union. That was really the--the glue that held the right together. That was also part of Ronald Reagan's strength. Something people forget about Reagan was that he was attractive to neo-liberals. That is, to ex liberals in part because he was…

Peter Robinson: He was one, yes.

Sam Tanenhaus: …an ex-liberal.

Peter Robinson: Right. He was a New Deal…

Sam Tanenhaus: And so he spoke the language similar.

David Kennedy: It's easy to vote republican if you're a democrat. He says I've done it for years.

Sam Tanenhaus: That--that's exactly right.

David Kennedy: Right.

Sam Tanenhaus: And--and--and I think David, by the way, has given us a good analysis in his last remarks as to why most people don't call themselves liberal anymore, because liberal really means permissiveness I think. And Hillary Clinton is not a liberal when it comes to the content of Hollywood films. I mean, there was Tipper Gore and when you talk to the typical person about his or her views, they're thinking often is not about social issues. Are they liberal about schools? No, they want more content. They--they want more serious instruction in the classroom. Are they liberal about Hollywood? No, they want less sex and violence in the movies. But these are people who might be latter day New Dealers but, on those questions, liberalism is something they want to keep away from.

Peter Robinson: Now what about this point that David made, this tension between championing the free market but, at the same time, if you're at all--if you have any Burkean strains left within you of wanting to place some emphasis on tradition and on the institutions that have arisen over time, then you run into the problem that Shoupeter(?) pointed out which is that capitalism is constantly undermining the old order, constantly working against tradition. What does a conservative do about that?

Sam Tanenhaus: Well that's why Whittaker Chambers said to Bill Buckley, I'm not a conservative. I'm a man of the right. Because capitalism…

Peter Robinson: Whittaker Chambers was?

Sam Tanenhaus: Whittaker Chambers was the famous ex-communist whose testimony sent Alger Hiss to prison because both had been spies together in the Soviet underground in the 1930's. And Chambers later became really a fountainhead of the modern conservative movement. He was…

Peter Robinson: And now back to that quotation? He said to Bill Buckley?

Sam Tanenhaus: I am not a conservative. I'm a man of the right.

Peter Robinson: By which he meant?

Sam Tanenhaus: By which he meant that he embraced the cultural contradictions of capitalism. That capitalism is an engine for change and for disruption in a culture. And that to be a true conservative was to have questions about that but capitalism…

Peter Robinson: Last question, will modern American conservatism be an enduring movement?

Title: Also Rands

Peter Robinson: Have we hammered out then, in this country, a distinctively American form of conservatism that's durable? That is to say, not really particularly Burkean in that it insists on tradition and supporting organic institutions but much more free market, much more--much closer to libertarianism?

David Kennedy: Libertar--I think you just said the magic word. I think libertarianism is the defining characteristic of modern day American conservatism. But, you know, there's another phrase comes out of the '50's and I'm--if I--my memory serves me correctly it was penned by another conservative historian, Clinton Rosater(?), political scientist. And he talked about something called the great intellectual train robbery of American political history which happens, in his estimate, sometime in the nineteenth century when the classic antagonism between the conservative emphasis on order and the liberal emphasis on equality got transmuted somehow or other and the conservative--chief conservative claim became not order but energy. The conservatives were more interested in energizing society, liberating energy to make the economy grow. This would--this would be the most simple way to think of it. So…

Peter Robinson: So that would be Teddy Roosevelt and the kind of…

David Kennedy: Yes.

Peter Robinson: …vigor as a--as a stand in itself.

David Kennedy: Well in laisse faire would have been the best word…

Peter Robinson: All right.

David Kennedy: Free--let her rip. Let--let the free market capitalist system go and it will work wonders. But that--but something very important happened at that juncture, it seems to me, that modern conservatism embraced, quite paradoxically, as you put it earlier, the greatest engine of change in modern history which is the whole project of free market capitalism. It is a, in its very nature, a transformative mechanism at work in society that shreds all the traditional institutions and ways of life that are the historic basis of traditional conservatism.

Peter Robinson: That's distinctively American, durable.

David Kennedy: Well by this point, I'm not sure how distinctly American it is but I think this is the country where it happens first. And if the old antagonism is between the conservative emphasis on order and the liberal emphasis is on quality, the modern antagonism is between the conservative emphasis on energy or entrepreneurship and a liberal emphasis on equality or equity.

Peter Robinson: I keep asking you if it's durable because this is television and we now have to move to our last question. I'm…

David Kennedy: It can't be durable because this tension between change and--and tradition is built into the nature of the modern historical project.

Peter Robinson: As we said at the beginning of the show, conservatives--self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identifi--identified liberals by a margin of about three to two. Twenty years from now, quarter of a century from now, what will that ratio be?

David Kennedy: Oh I--I repeat, Lord only knows.

Peter Robinson: Lord only knows.

David Kennedy: I do think there--there has grown up in this society and in others that have been subjected to the kind of pace of economic and social change that we've induced here, there's grown up an appetite for tradition. It expresses itself in all kinds of things. I mean, not to be…

Peter Robinson: School prayer even?

David Kennedy: …to flip about it, it expresses itself in institutions like, what's it called? Restoration hardware? That we--we--we have a nostalgia for an older way of life because we recognize that there's nothing stable about the one we're now inhabiting. If that's the foundation for kind of a neo genuine Burkean, neo-conservative movement, maybe so.

Peter Robinson: Do you have any prediction for the conservative movement in America tens years from now, twenty years from now?

Sam Tanenhaus: Well, it'll be interesting to see if the terms stay the same. I'm not sure they will because of this libertarian element that we've brought up. That's the wild card in all of this. I think for…

Peter Robinson: So there's a certain--a dynamism even in American politics? I mean, in Europe, you can trace conservatism back centuries and in this country, we're not even sure whether the terms will stay the same over the next couple of decades.

Sam Tanenhaus: Marx was wrong about a lot but he wasn't wrong about a dialectical process in history which, of course, he didn't invent. But still he was right to see it working. We do have competing forces and that's how our history moves forward. And the future of any movement will be with the next generation. And I--from what I've seen, what I've observed as a journalist really more than a historian, is there is considerable attraction for the young in the libertarian, free market enterprise mainly because they identify with the internet and the Silicon Valley and that's why one of the more interesting discussions or debates in American politics now, American political theory, is how the '60's and the '80's really seemed to mirror one another or even fit together as decades that reflected changes that go hand-in-hand in American culture. That in the 1960's we saw the birth of the counter-culture and popular culture as something that diversified and spread throughout the society. In the '80's, we saw a similarly kind of energizing, as David says, economy and those two fit together a lot better than anyone would have thought they did.

Peter Robinson: And because it's television alas, we have to end with the provocative notion that the sexual revolution and the Reagan revolution are somehow bookends.

Sam, David, thank you very much.

Sam Tanenhaus: Thank you.

David Kennedy: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: Conservatism today, it has lost two of the enemies that once gave it a sense of purpose and direction. The Soviet Union, out of existence. Big government, well, even liberals are saying that the era of big government is over. And as our guests suggested, conservatism now finds itself facing the inherent contradictions of capitalism. And yet, conservatism remains a vital force in American politics. Since we shot the show just a couple of days ago, a new poll indicates that the number of Americans who consider themselves conservative is actually up.

I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.