Democracy Journal | Summer 2009
Review of The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History, by Patrick Allitt • Yale University Press • 2009 • 336 pages • $35
IT IS the summer of 2008. I am watching the telecast of the Republican convention with a sinking feeling. Here is Mitt Romney. The former governor of Massachusetts (repeat: Massachusetts), and current quarter-billionaire (that’s "billion," with a B), denounces "Eastern elites." Excuse me? Then he says we need change "from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington"–as if George McGovern, not George W. Bush, had been president for eight years.
Here is Rudy Giuliani. The former mayor of New York City (repeat: New York City) sneers that Democrats are "cosmopolitan." He paints the election as "we, the people" against "the media" and "Hollywood celebrities." As if it were Barack Obama who had spent most of his life and career in New York and whose second wife (second of three, by the way) was a television personality and star of The Vagina Monologues.
The crowd eats it up. Me, I am a little stunned. Even a convention audience, I would have thought, could not be manipulated so obviously, so cheaply. Ah, but now Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee, takes her turn. Surely, I tell myself, the bad-cop, snarling Giuliani has set the stage for an optimistic, big-tent, Reaganesque "City on a Hill" speech.
But no: We get the pit bull with lipstick.
Palin is an unknown quantity, a neophyte in national politics. Yet Republicans who once might have wondered where a potential president stands on major issues now find it more than enough to know that she is a pro-life hockey mom who annoys liberals and can field dress a moose. It becomes evident, as they adulate her, that they regard her provinciality as being, in and of itself, a qualification for the presidency. As I watch, it dawns on me that the American conservative movement is not just down on its luck, it is zombiefied.
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IF CONSERVATISM is to get a new brain, it will need to know where it left its old one. Patrick Allitt’s new intellectual history of the American right, The Conservatives, makes an excellent starting place. "Where did American conservatism come from, what are its intellectual sources, and why is it internally divided? This book is dedicated to answering those questions," begins Allitt, a historian at Emory University. The author strives "to keep the rhetorical temperature as low as possible and be descriptive rather than prescriptive." No politics. No polemics. Just conservative theories and theoreticians, in chronological order, from John Adams to David Frum. Yawn.
Or so I thought when I first picked up the book. The more I read, however, the more impressed I became. The book’s self-imposed limitations turn out to be strengths. By keeping politics offstage (here is the entirety of Allitt’s account of the seminal 1980 election: "Conservatives felt exhilarated by Ronald Reagan’s election victory in 1980"), Allitt brings ideas into sharp focus, and his sketches of people and philosophies more than make up in accuracy and concision what they lack in color. He frames controversies fairly, takes no cheap shots, cuts no corners. Amazingly, his own political views are undetectable. Accuracy, concision, disinterest: These are virtues we could use more of in modern academia.
His themes are stated early and amply supported. First, conservative ideas are old, but the conservative movement is new. "Before the 1950s there was no such thing as a conservative movement in the United States…Before the twentieth century, it was unusual for Americans to refer to themselves as conservatives, though many used the term as an adjective."
Second, conservatives’ ideas have been all over the map. Mostly, in fact, they have been in tension with one another. The tension begins at the very beginning. Oddly, Allitt understates it by identifying early conservatism with the Federalists of the Founders’ era–Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Marshall–and counterposing it against what the Federalists regarded as Jeffersonians’ dangerously utopian egalitarianism. But it is to the Jeffersonians that modern conservatism owes many of its dominant tones: libertarian individualism, mistrust of big government, preference for localism, devotion to states’ rights. The Jeffersonians and the Federalists each carried a germinal strand of conservative DNA, and they loathed each other.
In the early decades of the 1800s, the gulf widened between the agrarian conservatism of the South, with its emphasis on small government and tradition, and the capitalist conservatism of the North, with its enthusiasm for modernization. "At times the two have appeared to be almost polar opposites," notes Allitt. He identifies two Virginians, John Taylor and John Randolph, as "the most articulate early representatives of Southern conservatism. A lineage of conservatism involving states’ rights and small government can be traced from their speeches and writing through much of the next two centuries." They were succeeded by John Calhoun of South Carolina, a titan of the era. Liberty, for the southern school, trumped equality, but tradition and hierarchy–emphatically including slavery–trumped both.
By contrast, the Northern school, whose leading avatars were Daniel Webster and Henry Clay (and later Abraham Lincoln, who called himself "an old-line Henry Clay Whig"), "favored nearly all the characteristics of modern capitalist development: division of labor, specialization, banking and credit, and government policies dedicated to economic growth, all in the context of moral restraint, the rule of law, and respect for tradition." The Civil War, then, is best seen as "a conflict between two types of conservatism." Southern conservatives fought to conserve the South’s distinctive society, its time-honored traditions; northern ones, to conserve an indivisible, democratic nation-state.
After the war, conservatives split further, variously emphasizing laissez-faire capitalism, virtuecratic reformism, social traditionalism, and muscular nationalism. With a few prominent exceptions (Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, H.L. Mencken), the people who carried on these debates are obscure or unknown today. Allitt’s catalog of forgotten figures–Brooks Adams, Irving Babbitt, Ralph Adams Cram, Albert Jay Nock, Charles Eliot Norton, and so on–makes for dull reading, if worthy history. It also, however, throws into dramatic relief the sudden and astonishing vigor with which, after World War II, conservatism knitted itself into a movement and burst forth as a political force.
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THIS happened in an interval short enough to have been encompassed by the careers of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley. Allitt consigns Reagan (and Barry Goldwater) to the offstage realm of politics, though in fact Reagan was as much an ideological leader as a political one; but Buckley and his National Review circle get a whole section, for it is they who led the way in fusing traditionalism, libertarianism, and anticommunism.
Buckley emerges here as equal parts journalist, publicist, and ideologist, not a great thinker but a superb synthesizer at a time when powerful new conservative voices–Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk–could as easily have made war with one another as common cause. "Quick to exploit new possibilities, talented as a conciliator among argumentative factions," Buckley understood that conservatism could harbor a multitude of ideas, provided that it cleaved to a unifying mission, which he formulated this way in 1959: "bring down the thing called liberalism, which is powerful but decadent; and salvage a thing called conservatism, which is weak but viable."
In that magical era, all kinds of contradictions dissolved. Millionaires turned populist, traditionalists embraced free markets, individualists embraced nationalism, fiscal conservatives endorsed deficit spending, urbane neocons glorified small-town values, capitalists joined forces with Christians, and conservatives styled themselves revolutionaries.
What really needs explaining, then, is not why the conservative movement is falling apart, but why it ever held together. Allitt, being apolitical, does not delve much into that question, but he does emphasize, rightly, the centrality of the cold war. Capitalists, Christians, and libertarians all faced an existential enemy in Soviet threat: "All were energized by fear of communism." It took socialism, ironically, to make conservatism cohere.
Also, conservatism fit its times as never before. Traditionalists and religious conservatives were right to be alarmed by the increasing incidence of divorce, fatherlessness, and family breakdown. Free-marketers were right to warn that inflation, overregulation, and punitive tax rates stifled economic vigor. Neoconservatives were right to see weakness, in the face of both crime at home and aggression abroad, as provocative and destabilizing.
And then, of course, the cold war ended. "Conservatives rejoiced," writes Allitt, "but the vanquishing of their great foe presented dilemmas as well as delights. After all, anticommunism had been the glue that held their movement together, and it now seemed possible that the many varieties of American conservatives, no longer sharing a common fear of the great Soviet bear, might follow different paths into the future."
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GEORGE W. BUSH’S presidency exposed conservatism’s fissures, and here and there it widened them, but it did not cause them. Time had moved on; conservatives had not. Reaganism had rendered itself obsolete by cutting tax rates, whipping inflation, tripling the incarceration rate, and rebuilding American confidence and strength. Conservatives in the 2000s seemed bereft of answers to newer challenges–climate change, health care, non-state enemies–and often appeared uncomfortable discussing them.
We know what happens when movements or parties continue to stagger forward after running out of ideas: They become zombies. Zombie parties are a recurrent feature of electoral democracies. Unable to articulate any coherent or workable governing philosophy, they mindlessly jab at cultural hot buttons, mechanically repeat hardwired tropes ("cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes"), nurse tribal resentments, ostracize independent thinkers. Above all, they feel positively proud of their doggedness. You can’t talk them out of it. Think of the Republicans in the FDR years, the Democrats in the Reagan years, the British Labour Party in the Thatcher period, and the British Conservative Party in the Blair period. Think of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party for most of the past half-century, or France’s Socialists today. To get a new brain, zombie parties usually need to spend years out of power or wait until a new generation rises to leadership.
"The refusal of so many of my fellow conservatives in the United States to adapt their thinking to facts and realities does not demonstrate their adherence to principle," David Frum recently wrote in Canada’s National Post. "It demonstrates a frivolous indifference to the responsibilities of political leadership." But Frum will tell you that his admonitions fall on deaf ears. "These days," he writes, "the question I hear most from political comrades is: ‘What the hell happened to you?’ " There are smart, modern people in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. But the movement is in no mood to listen to them.
For a few years, movement conservatism will be able to subsist on recycled Reagan and opposition to Barack Obama’s liberalism. It will be dominated by its noisiest and most zealous elements: for example, by Palinism, the aggressive provincialism on display at the 2008 Republican convention. (Sarah Palin, it should be said, is herself a victim of Palinism; in a healthier party she would have blossomed into a more thoughtful politician.) Eventually, however, the movement will come to understand the need for a rethink. We will know its brainwaves are stirring when conservatives–mainstream ones, not just a few oddballs–begin to reconsider three self-defeating myths which today hold the movement prisoner.
One is that tax cuts make government smaller. This idea has had the great political merit of uniting supply-siders who never saw a tax cut they didn’t like, libertarians who want to shrink the government, and fiscal traditionalists who oppose deficits. But the past several decades have disproved it. When tax cuts increase deficits (that is, when they are not balanced by spending cuts), they reduce government’s apparent cost. They put government on sale, so to speak. When something goes on sale, people want more of it, and government is no exception. Instead of reducing the supply of government, unbalanced tax-cutting has increased the demand for it.
A second myth misunderstands Reagan, reducing him to a far less subtle figure than he was. An admirer of FDR and the New Deal, he had no interest in dismantling the welfare state. He never tried to do that. He raised taxes as both governor and president, and in 1983 he shored up Social Security, thus demonstrating, as he proclaimed, "for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Social Security." True, he preferred a smaller government to a larger one, but his governing priority was to reduce the burden of government, and he understood that the most realistic way to do that was by limiting (not reversing) government’s growth while expanding the economy. Restrain the numerator, yes, but focus primarily on increasing the denominator.
Reagan was a conservative, all right: He sought to conserve the welfare state by making it sustainable and by expanding the zone of liberty around and beneath it. He largely succeeded. It was this achievement, not some non-existent assault on the New Deal or Great Society, that won Republicans the allegiance of millions of former Democratic voters.
Alas, a subsequent generation of conservatives, like the Apostles of the New Testament, never really grasped the master’s teachings. They accepted Reagan’s rhetoric at face value and imagined that what the public wanted was smaller government. That was the third myth. There is not a scintilla of evidence that voters, when presented with real trade-offs instead of merely with slogans, want government to shrink. Not even most conservative voters want that. Nor has any conservative, Reagan included, succeeded in chopping back the government’s size.
Sooner or later, American conservatism is going to have to make its peace with big government, as America’s Democrats and Britain’s Labour eventually made their peace with market capitalism. Sooner or later, conservatism will have to stop trying to relitigate the New Deal and the Great Society. And sooner or later it will do so, if only because it will have no alternative.
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‘‘SURRENDER? Never! You’re suggesting we ‘modernize’ by capitulating. No. We will fight for what we believe. Even if you’re right, it’s better to die in the trenches than to become me-too liberals." Such is conservatives’ retort. But they assume that there is no, excuse the expression, third way. In my own travels along the ideological byways of Washington, I have come across two visionary conservatives who, working separately, suggest paths out of the woods. Two, of course, is not many; but it is infinitely more than zero.
One of them is Bruce Bartlett. An architect of supply-side economics in the 1970s, when he worked on Capitol Hill for then-Representative Jack Kemp, and subsequently an official in George H.W. Bush’s Treasury, Bartlett has gone into dissent. When the ostensibly conservative administration of George W. Bush massively expanded Medicare in 2003, Bartlett concluded that the jig was up. No sentient conservative could defend the proposition that government was going to get smaller. Rather, with the Baby Boom retirement surge about to begin, government’s growth was inevitable. The task for conservatives, he says, is to do what Reagan did a generation before: Stabilize the welfare state and get it off the economy’s back.
This means restraining the growth of entitlements and other spending. It also means, like it or not, increasing tax revenues. The question is how. Liberals, Bartlett posits, will try to finance the Baby Boom retirement, and other spending increases, by soaking the rich–cranking up tax rates to punitive levels. The result will be to suffocate the economy and crater the income tax, which can barely cope with the economic and political demands it already faces.
Bartlett argues that the smart conservative alternative is not to insist on no new taxes ever, but to champion a value-added tax (a VAT), which taxes consumption and allows very few loopholes. It is flat (or flat-ish), economically efficient, and difficult for lobbyists and politicians to game. Establishing a VAT would finance higher government spending, and that is not conservatives’ first choice. But we live in a second-choice world, and some spending growth is inevitable. Today’s tax system is so complex and perverse and inefficient (it punishes saving and investment, for heaven’s sake!) that a VAT could raise more revenues while strengthening the economy. Reagan–the real Reagan, not the caricature–would smile.
A second thinker, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, is even bolder. His book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State was overlooked unjustly but understandably, since what it proposed ain’t gonna happen, at least not any time soon. Yet Murray’s thought experiments have on occasion proved prescient, notably when he reimagined welfare in the 1980s.
Murray, like Bartlett, accepts the enduring reality of big government. "The American government will continue to spend a huge amount of money on income transfers," he writes. But he does not accept that government’s size and intrusiveness are the same thing. Today’s countless federal programs come attached to numberless strings, requirements, and regulations. From agricultural subsidies to zoological grants, they distort incentives, micromanage lives, and narrow the space for autonomy and responsibility.
A generation ago, Milton Friedman proposed a negative income tax: basically a guaranteed annual income to replace a complicated welter of anti-poverty programs. "Busybody government would diminish," writes Allitt; "families would have what they needed most: money." Murray extends and develops Friedman’s insight, proposing to cash out more or less all federal transfer programs. In their stead, starting at age 21, every non-incarcerated American would get an annual grant of $10,000.
Murray concedes that his plan would increase government spending, at least in the short run. But merely counting dollars misses the point. Success at shrinking government is best defined as maximizing freedom, not minimizing spending. A government that just wrote checks, as Social Security does, could be larger than today’s in terms of money while being less burdensome to liberty.
In quite different ways, Bartlett and Murray are proposing, in effect, to reconceptualize conservatism. Like Reagan, they would have it concentrate less on shrinking the government, more on expanding the social and economic space around the government. If you can’t tear down the dam, widen the river.
And the movement’s response to Bartlett and Murray? Hostility and indifference, in that order. Conservatives are not ready to concede that making government "small enough to drown in a bathtub," as the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has put it, is an obstructive fantasy.
At the moment, Bartlett and Murray are nothing more than a couple of green shoots poking through the permafrost. Perhaps they will flourish, perhaps not. Their larger significance, however, is that they exist at all. They hint at new conservatisms out there, some waiting to be born, some already dimly visible. We know from Allitt’s book that American conservatism, like American capitalism, has for two centuries managed to renew itself. And we know from late-night movies that humans with brains ultimately beat back zombies, even if it takes until the last reel.