When assembling an anthology of writings representative of a political persuasion, the challenge is to acknowledge the persuasion’s varieties without producing a concoction akin to sauerkraut ice cream, a jumble of incompatible ingredients. In American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition, Andrew J Bacevich, a scholarly soldier and writer, compiles a rich menu. So rich, however, that “conservatism” comes close to being a classification that no longer classifies.
The volume’s focus is confined to the 20th century, with its earliest selection from 1907, “The Education of Henry Adams,” wherein Adams recalled visiting “the great hall of dynamos” at a 1900 exposition of modern technologies. There he felt “his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of force totally new.” This illustrates Bacevich’s theory that “modern” American conservatism “emerged in reaction to modernity,” by which he means “machines, speed and radical change — taboos lifted, bonds loosened and, according to Max Weber, ‘the disenchantment of the world’”.
But American conservatism has always been bifurcated about modernity. Today it is especially so, because of capitalism and religion.
Nothing more strikingly distinguishes American from European conservatism than the former’s embrace of the restless individualism, perpetual churning and creative destruction of a market society. Many American conservatives are sanguine about the idea that under capitalism, “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away. … All that is solid melts into air.” Never mind that this is from The Communist Manifesto. Machines, speed and radical change are what American conservatism’s dominant strain promises, not what it fears.
Today, however, self-described “national conservatives,” convinced that “the thinking person’s Trumpism” is not an oxymoron, are struggling to infuse intellectual content into the simmering stew of economic nationalism, resentment of globalisation’s disruptions and nostalgia for the economy and communities of the 1950s. They can find among Mr Bacevich’s selections evidence that conservative anxiety about the cultural consequences of modernity has a distinguished American pedigree.
Mr Bacevich wisely chooses John Crowe Ransom and Richard Weaver to represent the “Southern Agrarians,” who took their stand against urbanism and, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, capitalism. Robert Nisbet is the best possible exemplar of conservatism’s communitarian dimension, which often, and increasingly, is wary of capitalism’s dynamism. A selection from Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987) expresses some conservatives’ recoil against a culture the coarseness of which must, they think, be related to a market society’s emancipation of appetites.
Regarding religion, Mr Bacevich has assembled excellent samples of conservative reflection about, and resistance to, the disenchantment of Americans’ world. He provides selections from Russell Kirk, Irving Babbitt, John Courtney Murray and Michael Novak. Whittaker Chambers’s foreword to his memoir Witness, in the form of “A Letter to My Children,” is characteristically overheated but includes the famous passage (Ronald Reagan recurred to it) in which he remembers gazing upon “the delicate convolutions” of his infant daughter’s ears: “Design presupposes God. I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.” His theology was dubious but his writing could be lyrical.
An essay by the Rev Richard John Neuhaus asks, “Can Atheists Be Good Citizens?” Neuhaus said no, which left this reviewer feeling rebuked — except that Neuhaus sank into fudge, concluding that his friend Sidney Hook, the philosopher, could not “really” have been an atheist (he really was) because he was a good citizen, so some sort of theism necessarily lurked in him.
Mr Bacevich has written trenchantly against what he considers this nation’s promiscuous foreign policy interventionism and the unconservative project of “nation building.” But his volume’s concluding section, “The Exceptional Nation: America and the World,” is strange. It begins with Theodore Roosevelt exhorting the nation to lead a strenuous life abroad. It is a fine specimen of Roosevelt’s exuberant nationalism, which was without a scintilla of conservative scepticism about the ability to project power abroad in order to impose benevolent designs on the recalcitrant realities of different cultures. Bacevich acknowledges the conservative tradition of foreign policy modesty with a 1951 speech by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, and with cautionary passages from Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.” But including a long sample of the progressive historian Charles Beard’s cranky isolationism from 1939 adds to this section’s incoherence.
One of Mr Bacevich’s longest selections is from Willmoore Kendall’s turgid semidefense of — a sort of “two cheers for” — McCarthyism. Bacevich makes room for this and for works from Frank Chodorov, John T Flynn and Murray Rothbard. You ask: Who? Exactly. But Mr Bacevich offers nothing from Calvin Coolidge’s luminous address on the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. Or from “The Moral Sense,” by James Q. Wilson, the pre-eminent social scientist of the last half of the previous century. Or from the Nobel laureate George Stigler, whose essay “The Intellectual and the Marketplace” would have leavened this book with something it lacks: Wittiness. (“Since intellectuals are not inexpensive, until the rise of the modern enterprise system, no society could afford many intellectuals. … We professors are much more beholden to Henry Ford than to the foundation which bears his name and spreads his assets.”)
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