(This review will appear in the March 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.)p> strong> Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism br> By Alfred S. Regnery br> (Threshold/Simon & Schuster, 448 pages, $26) /strong> /p>
SOMEWHERE BACK IN THE LATE 1950s, it was common to hear liberals sigh that they wished — they really did — that they could find some serious conservatives to argue with. Now, however, when they have an abundant supply of intellectual adversaries, liberals have decided that perhaps they’d rather not talk at all. This explains the relentless and determined campaign against Fox News, the plan to shut off talk radio with the misnamed “Fairness Doctrine,” the ideological litmus test imposed on aspiring academics at our universities (and attempts to prevent conservative speakers from appearing on campus), even the efforts of bookstore clerks to hide or (even in one widely reported case) to destroy conservative books rather than to display them for potential customers.
Let no one fool themselves: 50 years ago liberals were not a great deal more tolerant of debate than they are today. What has changed has been their own mindset; in the interim they have lost the abundant self-confidence that was once their hallmark. And no wonder — by now most of their ideas have actually been tried and found wanting. Even worse, they have lost the intellectual initiative and much of the popular support upon which they thought they could count. The American left (“progressive” or “liberal,” depending on how one styles it) has retreated to a reduced perimeter consisting of ethnic grievance mongers (though not all minorities, nor all of every minority), public sector unions, the faculty and administration of our universities, and a declining, indeed (happily) disappearing print media. It is still a formidable bulwark but probably not sufficient to advance much beyond its provincial boundaries.
Half the story of how this happened has been told in a multitude of new books, most notably Mark Stricherz’s Why the Democrats Are Blue or Herman Cain’s They Think You’re Stupid: Why Democrats Lost Your Vote and What Republicans Must Do to Keep It. Now comes Alfred Regnery, publisher of this journal and scion of a distinguished conservative family, to provide the other half of the story — the rise of the right as an intellectual and political force in the United States. The result is a vast tour d’horizon that will be familiar in individual parts to many conservative voters, readers, and political activists, but manages to collapse a huge number of insights and fresh information into a single, comprehensive volume.
Upstream is not, however, just a history of the conservative movement. It is also a contribution to the political history of the United States in the 20th century. Although I find myself in accord with most of Regnery’s interpretations, some of them would be regarded as idiosyncratic even by people who consider themselves conservative. He frankly regrets American entry into the First World War, which he sees as having established the circumstances that led to the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of Adolf Hitler. He objects to domestic institutions like the income tax, direct election of senators, and many innovations of the Progressive movement (in which he locates the origins of vote-buying through redistributionist policies). He takes many Republican icons to task — most notably Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower — for veering too far from their stated philosophies. (Hoover, he explains, really became a spokesman for conservative ideas once he left the White House.) He reminds us that the Nixon administration — whose unlovely fruits included an embrace of the Brezhnev Doctrine, wage and price controls, creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, and minority set-asides — was (not surprisingly) devoid of any movement conservatives; indeed, many of the latter didn’t even want their president reelected in 1972. (“It was not that people liked Nixon — nobody ever liked Nixon,” he writes in one of his more lapidary phrases, “but that they were appalled by McGovern.”) The one movement conservative who managed to be elected to the White House, Ronald Reagan, was (not surprisingly, in Regnery’s view) the most successful.
THE CENTRAL THEME of this book is that though the United States is a center-right society, for most of the past century conservative political thinkers have historically faced an uphill battle to participate fully in American political discourse; hence the title. To be sure, conservative intellectuals have always been with us — Albert J. Nock, Irving Babbitt, Friedrich Hayek, James Burnham, Russell Kirk, and Richard Weaver, and if one plumbs deeper into American history there is Alexander Hamilton, John C. Calhoun, Henry and Brooks Adams, even Henry James. But in the late 1940s and 1950s, Regnery explains, there was no such thing as a conservative intellectual movement. Rather, conservatives were “an odd group of intellectuals and politicos who would appear to have nothing in common except for their hatred of Communism and FDR: libertarians, or as they called themselves, classical liberals, a few wealthy businessmen, some Midwestern isolationists, traditionalist Catholics, a college professor here or there.”
This last point is important. Though the academy was not then the hothouse of ideological correctness that it is today, it was not particularly a welcoming place. For example, despite his groundbreaking (and enduringly best-selling) The Road to Serfdom (1944), Friedrich Hayek was never granted a chair in economics at the University of Chicago (he was invited to sit on something called the Committee on Social Thought), and even then only when a wealthy benefactor agreed to pay his salary. Except for Regnery’s father there were practically no conservative book publishers; when Knopf (somewhat surprisingly) accepted Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind they insisted that the author pare it down to a quarter of its original length. There were few conservative journals and no conservative think tanks.
Lacking a transmission belt to the wider political community, conservative ideas languished (and also to some extent flourished) in isolated archipelagos scattered across the society. Their emergence to mainstream influence took place over several decades, the most outstanding markers of which were the founding in 1955 of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, the emergence of Barry Goldwater as a national political figure (and presidential candidate), Buckley’s own campaign for mayor of New York in 1965 (quite possibly the first time — and very probably the last — when the city’s fundamental problems were seriously discussed by at least one candidate), Ronald Reagan’s election as governor of California, the accession of former Democrats (“neo-conservatives”) through the Committee on the Present Danger, and finally, the decision of evangelical Christians to actively participate in electoral politics.
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