In a commentary this week Jonah Goldberg (whom I don’t mean to pick on again for moving out of his depth) addresses the history of American conservatism in the twentieth century, by focusing on two developments, the founding of National Review in 1955 and the role of William F. Buckley, Jr., in steering that magazine and the movement associated with it toward public acceptance. Such reflections seem timely in view of two recent events, the fiftieth anniversary of NR’s establishment and the celebration of the eightieth birthday of its founder, who in recent weeks has been acknowledged by the liberal church triumphant for having “grown” over the years and for having reformed his movement accordingly.
In Goldberg’s account American conservatism is the “youngest ideology on the block” and did not even exist until the mid-fifties, when its “Buckleyite core” took shape. What he shows, correctly in my opinion, is that postwar conservatism was an ideology that fused certain “traditional Anglo-American liberal” ideas with militant anti-Communism. This movement was open to other impulses, whether Southern Agrarian or European Catholic, providing those imports didn’t divert attention from the “ideal fixed on the compass.” According to Goldberg, that “ideal” was the fusionism devised as a hand-to-mouth alliance strategy for the Right by Frank S. Meyer. This label and its contents, both of which Meyer graciously provided, presented the American political tradition as a combination of the pursuit of virtue and the defense of minimal government. But this “fusionism” made an important exception in the lack of limits placed on the regime for a vigorous prosecution of the Cold War, which was uppermost in the minds of Meyer and of the movement he and Buckley helped launch. Goldberg does in fact make this last point, when he tells us that the Postwar Conservative Movement was a vehicle of Buckley’s anti-Communism and of his burning desire to rally the public around an anti-Communist crusade. This brings up the question of why Goldberg then devotes several paragraphs to liberal-conservative differences in Europe and then to the anti-New Deal Right. These are not the dividing lines or the groups that Goldberg is looking at in his discussion of Buckley and the neoconservatives.
Goldberg does suggest that there is a “tradition” out of which modern conservative “ideology” has sprung; moreover, that tradition rather than ideology goes back to the interwar period. He cites for example Albert Nock to illustrate that apparently still relevant tradition but never explains how Nock, a self-proclaimed Jeffersonian, foreshadows the conservative movement that is kept alive at National Review and Commentary. Would Norman Podhoretz, Bill Kristol, and other “conservative” leaders now in the public eye recognize themselves in the ideas of Nock—any more than in the attacks made by Edmund Burke against the “armed doctrine” of the French Revolution?
The closest Goldberg comes to an explanation about what has befallen the American Right, quite broadly understood, is when he mentions “the intellectual ruthlessness” shown by the Founder. Because Buckley has never lost sight of “the ideal fixed on the compass,” he “has been throwing friends and allies off the bus from time to time.” That is allegedly the way his movement has been able to deal with the kooks like Murray Rothbard, John T. Flynn, Ayn Rand, M.E. Bradford, and me. Beating up and expelling dissenters has been a necessary exercise lest conservatives lose sight of Buckley’s highest political “ideal,” which (are you ready for this?) is nothing else but “fusionism.” Buckley has been rough-housing dissenters on the right for the last fifty years, because, according to Goldberg, he’s been zealously pursuing a “fusionist” ideal that only students of the postwar conservative movement would even be aware had existed—and which operated mostly on now yellowed pages of the back issues of NR. Presumably this fusionism provides the key for Buckley’s alliances and enmities, which have sometimes looked to others like socially motivated opportunism. Thus Buckley intervened with President Reagan in 1981 against the appointment of Buckley’s longtime friend Bradford to the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in favor of the neocon candidate, Bill Bennett, whom Larry Vance has named the “bookie of virtue” (an incident positively recounted in Mark Gerson’s The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars), as a result of the fusionist compass that Buckley was then holding.
My point however is not to underscore the obvious, Buckley’s demonstrable social climbing, which has exacted a continuing moral price. It is only to cite Goldberg as confirmation for my view that the “movement” only reaches as far back as the mid-1950s, when it was fashioned whole cloth by Buckley and a few of his associates. These theoretical co-architects were those whom their editor-in-chief did not feel socially driven or have the time to throw off the bus. Unlike the Communist Party, this bit of improvising, called the “conservative movement,” did not have a serious intellectual tradition or a worldview to which it was bound. And though it attracted intellectual sojourners, this movement for the most part was a strategy for fighting Communism combined with a cult of personality. That it later fell into the hands of New York social democrats, who had given themselves a partial facelift, is not surprising. What the neocons swallowed up was thin gruel, and if it was necessary to make it thinner while accepting new direction from the left, very little of substance was thereby lost.
What I have learned since the first edition of The American Conservative Movement is the lack of reservation and dignity with which “movement conservatives” in the eighties fell to their knees before their ascending neocon masters. These exemplars of the authoritarian personality, who often worked for Beltway foundations and who would make East German Communist bureaucrats look, comparatively speaking, like courageous heroes, had no compunctions about reinventing themselves. Some of these recruits readily turned on their former friends who would not accept the needed change in the party line or who, like the luckless Professor Bradford, could not be given a place in the reconstructed pseudo-Right. In time that prostituted movement would become doubly indentured, to Midge, Norm, and Irving and their descendants and to the dinosaur Republican Party. By now “conservative” foundations and publications have to carry out a double responsibility, cheering for the Republican Party or vilifying their Democratic rivals for government patronage; while genuflecting before neoconservative icons, who have all the freshness of Egyptian mummies. The shortcoming of my relevant works on these matters is that they don’t do full justice to a ludicrous “movement,” which is a collection of careerists who have tried to differentiate themselves from their counterparts in the Democratic Party. This non-movement did not start out as much but has managed to deteriorate nonetheless, as an effective force against the Left that it is trying to please while offering “moderate” opposition. But looking at the bright side, Mr. Buckley has gone through life making socially acceptable friends. As for the others, he has thrown every one of them off the bus.