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Modern Tomes

Tuesday, July 1, 1997

A number of years ago, the writers Malcolm Cowley and Bernard Smith invited a group of American intellectuals to identify the nonfiction books of recent decades that had most impressed them and had to some extent influenced their thinking. The result was an intriguing volume entitled Books That Changed Our Minds. In it, 11 contributors analyzed such classics as The Education of Henry Adams and Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West.

The Cowley-Smith anthology came to mind recently when the editors of Policy Review asked me to compile a list of the most important and influential works advancing conservative ideas in the past 20 years. At first the task seemed simple, as obvious candidates sprang quickly to consciousness. Then it became more daunting, as the sheer scope of conservative literature since 1977 came into view. How to extract from this vast and specialized cornucopia a mere 10 or 15 titles? Moreover, many conservative books of the last two decades have been intellectually important and richly deserving of recognition but not, alas, as influential as they ought to be. Many other conservative writings in this period have been primarily of intramural significance-applauded inside the movement but unfortunately little noticed outside it.

How, then, should we navigate the rapids? It is here that the Cowley-Smith volume of years ago suggests a decisive criterion: Which writings of a conservative character in the past 20 years can be said to have changed minds? Which have discernably altered America's public conversation and (in some cases) its public policy?

What follows, then, is neither an exhaustive canon of recent conservative "great books" nor a mechanical compendium of bestsellers. It is, rather, a chronological list of 12 books, two articles, and two speeches that, at least as much as many others, have given the intellectual climate of our time a conservative cast.

"A World Split Apart"
Commencement address, Harvard University
(June 8, 1978)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, the acclaimed author and dissident came to the West a hero of the resistance to communist tyranny. The message he brought with him, however, was profoundly discomfiting to liberal and "pragmatic" Americans in the post-Vietnam era of détente. In an astonishing commencement address at Harvard, Solzhenitsyn decried the moral cowardice, flaccidity, materialistic self-indulgence, and misuses of freedom in the West and accused its ruling elites of a loss of "civic courage" in the face of communist evil.

How had this predicament come to pass? For Solzhenitsyn, it was nothing less than a civilizational catastrophe literally centuries in the making. At Harvard-the academic capital of secular, liberal modernity-he unabashedly traced the West's "present debility" to a defective worldview "born in the Renaissance" and unleashed politically by the Enlightenment: "the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness." Liberating "imperfect man" from "the moral heritage of Christian centuries," and proclaiming man's autonomy "from any higher force above him," "rationalistic humanism" had eventually produced, in the 20th century, a world scarred by materialistic decadence, "moral poverty," and spiritual deprivation. "Humanism that has lost its Christian heritage," he added, could not prevail against materialistic communism.

In his searing indictment of atheistic humanism, and in his call for fundamental spiritual renewal transcending the "ossified formulas of the Enlightenment," Solzhenitsyn expressed with remarkable force themes espoused by American conservatives from Whittaker Chambers to the Religious Right of today.

The Way the World Works (1978)
Jude Wanniski

Hailed by Irving Kristol as the "best economic primer since Adam Smith," this book introduced the world to the intellectual counterrevolution of the 1970s known as supply-side economics. Together with Arthur Laffer, Jack Kemp, Robert Bartley, and others, Wanniski articulated a growing assault on a vulnerable Keynesian orthodoxy and-in the process-converted much of the GOP to a new orthodoxy of its own, centered on economic growth and cuts in tax rates. Two decades later, tax cuts remain at the core of conservative Republicanism.

Breaking Ranks (1979)
Norman Podhoretz

If much of modern conservatism is a revolt against the 1930s and the New Deal, much of contemporary neoconservatism is a revolt against the 1960s. No one has explored the interior history of this decade more trenchantly than Norman Podhoretz in Breaking Ranks. The editor of Commentary from 1960 to 1995, Podhoretz believes that "clarity is courage," and in this memoir he tells the story of his journey from liberalism to radicalism to neoconservatism with a clarity that brought him contumely from former allies. By publicly defecting from the Left and critiquing it so effectively, Podhoretz undermined two widespread assumptions in left-of-center circles: the belief that history, in the long run, always favors "progressive" causes, and the belief that only liberalism and radicalism are respectable points of view. By destroying the automatic equation of liberalism with intelligence and of "progressivism" with progress, Podhoretz and his fellow neoconservatives made it impossible for the Left to condescend any longer to the Right. The terrain of public debate in America was transformed.

"Dictatorships and Double Standards"
(November 1979)
Jeane Kirkpatrick

When this seminal essay appeared, American foreign policy was floundering. Pro-American but authoritarian regimes in Nicaragua and Iran had just given way to anti-American and even more authoritarian ones-and all with the befuddled collaboration of the U.S. government. Fettered by an idealistic concern for human rights, the administration of Jimmy Carter seemed increasingly unable to differentiate friend from foe.

At this critical juncture in the Cold War, Kirkpatrick, a Georgetown professor and a registered Democrat, propounded two arguments that conservatives eagerly seized upon. Traditional, authoritarian autocracies, she asserted, are less repressive, less disruptive of the lives of the people, and less systemically evil than revolutionary regimes of the Left with their utopian and totalitarian ideologies. And traditional, authoritarian regimes are more "susceptible of liberalization" and eventual democratization than leftist ones led by Marxist revolutionaries.

Kirkpatrick's article led to her becoming the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration. (Ronald Reagan himself read and admired this essay.) Just as important, it provided American policymakers a powerful conceptual framework for making necessary distinctions between greater and lesser evils in their prosecution of the Cold War. This article helped to relieve what was threatening to become a paralyzing tension between realism and idealism in American foreign policy.

Free To Choose (1980)
Milton and Rose Friedman

In early 1980, as the nation's economy groaned under the burden of soaring inflation and unemployment, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman-America's most famous free-market economist-hosted a 10-part series on public television entitled Free To Choose. In the spring, he and his wife published a companion volume by the same name; it became the best-selling nonfiction book of the entire year. In it they explained with unrivaled lucidity their classical liberal philosophy of freedom and applied it to a host of policy issues.

At the end of Free To Choose, the authors ventured to declare that Americans were "waking up." "We are recognizing the dangers of an overgoverned society, coming to understand . . . that reliance on the freedom of people to control their own lives in accordance with their own values is the surest way to achieve the full potential of a great society." A few months later, Ronald Reagan was elected president. In Free To Choose, the Friedmans helped to catalyze the intellectual ferment that produced the "Reagan Revolution."

Wealth and Poverty (1981)
George Gilder

If Jude Wanniski was the most ardent propagandist for supply-side economics, writer George Gilder has been called its theologian. Appearing at the dawn of the Reagan era, Wealth and Poverty audaciously propelled the case for capitalism upward, out of the mundane sphere of taxation and public policy and onto the higher plane of morality and metaphysics. Where even some defenders of the free market had heretofore been willing to give but two cheers for capitalism, Gilder unashamedly gave three. His book was an ode to entrepreneurship as marvelously creative, basically altruistic, and veritably moral. "A successful economy depends on the proliferation of the rich," he asserted. Successful entrepreneurs were "the heroes of economic life."

Scorning the gloom-and-doom ideologies of the stagnant 1970s, he proclaimed: "Our greatest and only resource is the miracle of human creativity in a relation of openness to the divine." Here was a book worthy of Reagan's buoyant vision of America. By fearlessly extolling the moral promise of entrepreneurial capitalism, and by mounting a lively assault on the modern welfare state, Gilder not only authored an unusual and refreshing apologia for freedom and creativity. He also strengthened growing populistic sentiment on the Right against managerial elitists who presume to guide entire economies.

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982)
Michael Novak

By the early 1980s, it was increasingly plain that socialism in practice had failed and that capitalism had proven far more beneficial to the human race. And yet, despite its undeniable triumphs, wrote Michael Novak, not one theologian-Christian or Jewish-had ever evaluated the "theological significance" of this extraordinarily successful form of political economy.

In The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Novak-a Roman Catholic social theorist and historian-elucidated the spiritual and moral foundations of "democratic capitalism" as an interlocking unity embracing a market economy, a democratic polity, and a moral-cultural matrix animated by "ideals of liberty and justice for all." By examining democratic capitalism at the level of ideals and values, and by declaring its superiority to socialism at this level, Novak contributed powerfully to the intellectual rehabilitation of this system of social organization, particularly among Christian thinkers. His book became an antidote to that strange but fashionable brew of Christianity and Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s known as "liberation theology."

Reflections of a Neoconservative (1983)
Irving Kristol

In his introduction to this collection of essays, the longtime editor of the Public Interest observed that neoconservatism "aims to infuse American bourgeois orthodoxy with a new self-conscious intellectual vigor while dispelling the feverish mélange of gnostic humors that, for more than a century now, has suffused our political beliefs and has tended to convert them into political religions." In the past 20 years, no conservative or neoconservative has done more to carry out this mission. Much of Irving Kristol's work has occurred quietly, in his encouragement of the scholarship and institution-building that have powered the conservative cause. But much of his contribution has taken the form of incisive and influential essays published in the Wall Street Journal and various magazines. Reflections is an excellent collection of these pieces, mostly written in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This anthology should be supplemented by Kristol's Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (1995).

Address to the Natl. Assoc. of Evangelicals
(March 8, 1983)
Ronald Reagan

This was the unforgettable speech in which the president of the United States forthrightly labeled the Soviet Union an "evil empire." "The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one," Reagan went on; "at root, it is a test of moral will and faith." In prose that proved to be prophetic, he added: "I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written."

For American conservatives and for friends of freedom everywhere, Reagan's address was a bracing affirmation of truth, an ideological shot heard round the world. It is not too much to suggest that the conservative president's unapologetic verbal offensive against communism-of which this speech was a classic expression-was one of the catalytic agents that set the Soviet Union on the path to extinction.

Modern Times
(1983, rev. 1991)
Paul Johnson

No conservative's bookshelf should be without this provocative reinterpretation of 20th-century history emphasizing the staggering evil wrought by "the rise of moral relativism, the decline of moral responsibility, the repudiation of Judeo-Christian values," intellectual hubris, and the unconstrained, ideologically driven State. To those who believed that "an enlarged state could increase the sum total of human happiness," the British ex-socialist Johnson taught otherwise. In the 20th century, he said, the State "had proved itself an insatiable spender, an unrivaled waster," and "the greatest killer of all time." For conservatives of every persuasion-libertarian, traditionalist, anticommunist, neoconservative, and Religious Right-Johnson's volume provided an invaluable history lesson and counterweight to the deadly progressivist utopianism of our times.

The Naked Public Square (1984)
Richard John Neuhaus

In the decade or so before this book appeared, a startling political awakening of Protestant evangelicals and other religious conservatives occurred, to the consternation of many liberal Americans. Were not the Moral Majority and its allies, they thought, threats to democracy and tolerance? Although often sharply critical of the religious New Right, Richard John Neuhaus-himself a Christian cleric-was even more disturbed by a regnant ideology of militant secularism that was driving religion and religiously derived values from the nation's public life. If our "public square" remains thus denuded, he warned, democracy itself would be at risk. For the "naked public square" would not stay empty; the vacuum would be filled by false gods and tyrants much more intolerant (and intolerable) than traditional religion. A "public ethic" necessary for the survival of American democracy, Neuhaus contended, "cannot be reestablished unless it is informed by religiously grounded values." The "religious base of the democratic experiment" must be rearticulated.

The Naked Public Square remains a locus classicus for the argument that people of faith have a right and obligation to participate in public affairs-not only for their own sakes but for the health of our common polity. This book endures as a formidable obstacle to secularist triumphalism.

Losing Ground (1984)
Charles Murray

It was not enough for conservatives in the 1980s to preach the virtues of democratic capitalism and supply-side economics. They needed a credible empirical critique of the liberal politics of compassion. In 1984, Charles Murray delivered it. Deploying an array of statistical indices of social well-being, Murray documented an astounding pattern: From 1950 to the mid-1960s, the condition of America's poor (including blacks) gradually improved, only to deteriorate-often severely-after 1965. Indeed, the "number of people living in poverty," Murray reported, "stopped declining just as the public-assistance program budgets and the rate of increase in those budgets were highest."

Whence this staggering and unexpected reversal of the trendlines? Why did so many of America's poor become worse off in the 1970s than they had been in the early 1960s? Murray's answer was equally stunning: The War on Poverty-the crown jewel of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society-wrought devastating havoc on the poor. The War on Poverty-compassionate liberalism in action-"changed the rules of their world," encouraged behavior that was "destructive in the long term," and subsidized its own "irretrievable mistakes." "We tried to remove the barriers to escape from poverty," said Murray, "and inadvertently built a trap."

Murray's book was immediately and sometimes harshly criticized from the Left. But as a sophisticated social scientist who had done his homework, he could not be ignored. Losing Ground still stands as one of the most powerful indictments of liberal social policy ever written by a scholar on the Right.

"Dan Quayle Was Right"
Atlantic Monthly
(April 1993)
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

By the 1990s, alarming patterns of social deviancy and regression had begun to appear far beyond the poor and underclass. The structure of the family itself seemed to be disintegrating, and politicians were taking note. In a 1992 speech, Vice President Dan Quayle called for a renewed "public commitment" to "our Judeo-Christian values," including marriage, and added:

"It doesn't help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown-a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman-mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.'"

For his pains Quayle was scathingly berated, and the cause of "family values" was mocked. The actress who played Murphy Brown received an honorary degree at an Ivy League university. How surprising, then, that less than a year later an Atlantic Monthly article suggested boldly that Quayle was right. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead-not known as a conservative-assembled a panoply of data demonstrating what to conservatives seemed obvious: The widespread dissolution of intact, two-parent families had been harmful for millions of children. Once more the liberationist ethos of the 1960s stood indicted by its undeniable consequences. The "vast natural experiment in family life" in the past 25 years, said Whitehead, had yielded "the first generation in the nation's history to do worse psychologically, socially, and economically than its parents."

Whitehead's article-appearing, as it did, in a liberal magazine-undoubtedly did much to legitimate conservative perspectives on a central issue in the "culture wars." "Family values" now became everyone's concern. Of course, many on the Left seemed to prefer to talk about children and their "villages" (rather than parents) as the key elements in the social equation. Whitehead, however, stressed the importance of families, a more conservative formulation. Like many other articles by conservatively oriented analysts in the 1990s, her essay exemplified the growing validation by social-science research of traditional moral teachings: what Rudyard Kipling called "the gods of the copybook headings."

The Book of Virtues (1993)
William Bennett

If the social agenda of religious conservatives could be summed up in a phrase, it might be (to borrow from Gertrude Himmelfarb) "the re-moralization of society." But in the face of profound social disorientation, vulgar relativism and hedonism, and a "naked"-even hostile-"public square," how does one do this? In 1993, William Bennett resorted to an unconventional stratagem: He compiled a massive anthology of moral tales and poetry designed to teach children such virtues as self-discipline, responsibility, courage, perseverance, and honesty. By drawing primarily upon the classic wisdom of Western civilization, by writing openly of the need for "moral literacy," and by unflinchingly labeling his collection a book of virtues, Bennett set himself against the postmodernist and decadent sensibilities so prevalent in elite and popular culture. His anthology became a bestseller.

Bennett's venture is a useful reminder that conservative concerns encompass more than economics, political theory, and public policy. The preservation of a humane and civil society requires the constant replenishment of the moral and spiritual sources of our conduct. In this respect, conservatism is a private as well as a public philosophy.

The Vision of the Anointed (1995)
Thomas Sowell

In the past two decades, the conservative social scientist Thomas Sowell has produced a barrage of important books on race and ethnicity, political philosophy, and other subjects. Of these, the most wide-ranging, yet laserlike in its intensity, is The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis of Public Policy. In this withering polemic, Sowell lays bare the underlying assumptions and baneful consequences of "the prevailing vision of our time," a vision "dangerously close to sealing itself off from any discordant feedback from reality." It is the predominant vision of the American intelligentsia and its followers: a "self-anointed elite" that sees itself as morally and intellectually superior to the rest of us. Sowell deftly contrasts this elite's worldview-liberalism-with the "tragic vision" of conservatives. The "anointed," for example, quite literally consider reality to be "socially constructed" and therefore capable of being "deconstructed" and reconstructed at will. For them the world is "a very tidy place," where "human nature is readily changeable" and social problems can be "solved."

But Sowell does not stop here. Invoking a wealth of social-science data and other documentation, he concludes that in area after area of American life, the liberal vision of the anointed has brought about "social degeneration" and immense devastation since the 1960s. Ours has been an era, he says, of "self-inflicted wounds "inflicted by "supposedly 'thinking people' " who fancied themselves "wiser and nobler than the common herd." "Seldom," he finds, "have so few cost so much to so many." For a concise, morally impassioned, and relentless arraignment of contemporary liberalism in theory and practice, look no further than this book.

And Let's Not Forget . . .  

There are important books and there are influential books. And then there are indispensable books, like George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (first published in 1976 by Basic Books). Do you want to know the 40 or so scholars and writers who constituted the intellectual core of American conservatism in the post-World War II period? How their ideas of limited government, free enterprise, moral order, and anticommunism were first rejected, then accepted, and finally came to dominate American politics? How National Review senior editor Frank Meyer fashioned "fusionism"-his synthesis of the traditionalist and libertarian branches of conservatism? Or even what Russell Kirk initially intended to call his monumental work, The Conservative Mind? All this and much more is to be found in Nash's masterful book, which is part history, part biography, and always fair in its assessment of the impact of the diverse philosophers and popularizers of American conservatism. In an epilogue to the 1996 edition (published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute), biographer-historian Nash describes the conservative forces emerging over the last 20 years, or what he calls "the age of Reagan." Nash deftly sketches the emergence of the neoconservatives and the rise of the New Right, which evolved into the Religious Right. He recounts the remarkable multiplication of conservative journals, advocacy groups, and think tanks in Washington and across the country. He describes the growing conservative commitment to restoring civil society from the bottom up. His brilliant but necessarily brief overview of the current state of conservatism inspires this reaction: Get busy, Brother Nash. Conservatives need volume two of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. 

-Lee Edwards

Lee Edwards, a conservative historian and biographer, is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation

Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism
Richard Gid Powers

When Richard Powers began work on this book, he tells us, he believed that "anticommunism displayed America at its worst." Instead, "I came to see in anticommunism America at its best." From a liberal academic in the 1990s, these are unexpected words, and Not Without Honor is an unexpected book: a comprehensive, scholarly history of American anticommunism in which the contribution of many conservatives-including William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan-receives respectful, even sympathetic, treatment. 
Powers, to be sure, is severely critical of some manifestations of the anticommunist impulse. To the irritation of some on the Right, he differentiates sharply between those he deems "responsible anticommunists" (including Buckley, Norman Podhoretz, and the anticommunist Left) and those he disapprovingly labels "countersubversives": above all, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his fellow conspiracy-hunters. In his desire to rescue anticommunism from McCarthyism, Powers does not, perhaps, take full measure of what James Burnham called "the web of subversion" that existed in America in the early years of the Cold War. Still, in a climate of academic opinion long dominated by anti-anticommunist biases, Not Without Honor presents American resistance to communism as an essentially honorable and even noble cause. For conservatives-and for a balanced historical memory-this is a long step forward. 
Taken all together, these works remind us of how far conservatism has traveled since William F. Buckley Jr., in Up From Liberalism, mourned "the failure of the conservative demonstration." Since then, and with increasing power and frequency, conservatives have made their "demonstration" in the demanding arena of public debate. Of course, there is always more to do as the challenges multiply and as our age (in Whittaker Chambers's words) "finds its own language for an eternal meaning."