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Upward and Onward

(This review will appear in the March 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.)

Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism
By Alfred S. Regnery
(Threshold/Simon & Schuster, 448 pages, $26)

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.

To be sure, these things did not just happen; some of them, like Buckley’s journalism and Goldwater’s candidacy, were the product of conscious decisions by courageous, principled, and imaginative people. But conservatives were also fortunate in their adversaries. Misreading their victories in the elections of 1964 and 1976, liberal Democrats proceeded to generate their own antibodies through policies that drove millions of working-class and middle-class people from their coalition, most notably through their solicitude for criminals (particularly violent criminals), their addiction to racial preferences and social engineering (busing), not to mention their profligate use of other people’s money for programs whose only beneficiaries were a new class of bureaucrats, civil servants, and racial “power brokers.” The liberal agenda reached something of an apogee (or nadir, depending on one’s point of view) in the Carter years, when Americans were instructed to overcome their “inordinate fear of Communism” and to apologize for their own history at home and abroad. As Kevin Phillips was to put it, “the world of Manhattan, Harvard and Beverly Hills was being exported to Calhoun County, Alabama, and Calhoun County did not like it.” Neither — and this is really the point — did a lot of the venues in the United States where Democrats had been winning elections since at least 1930.

Left-wing intellectuals and self-styled “progressives” are still not quite clear about what happened to them. How could these people (Dwight Macdonald called them “scrambled eggheads” writing for the “intellectually underprivileged”) possibly be serious competitors in the battle of ideas, much less elect politicians who subscribed to them? It must be due, they thought (and many still think), to money from obscure (and obscurantist) sources like the proverbial Texas oil tycoon.* It must be the money, they thought. What else could it be? The truth is that although some conservative donors and foundations did exist even in the darkest days of the movement, and they continue to exist today, they have never had a fraction of the resources liberals have long enjoyed. A perhaps surprising number of wealthy families have chosen to avoid conservative causes for fear of being “controversial.”**

Regnery has his facts and figures at hand. “The five largest conservative foundations’ total assets are less than the money the five largest left-wing foundations gave away in one year.” The twelve largest “progressive” foundations have combined assets of $11 billion as against $1.7 billion for the handful of conservative foundations that fund organizations like the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation. Speaking of think tanks, Regnery points out that liberal ones spent six times what their conservative counterparts dispersed in 2002. The real difference is not money — far from it. Rather, conservatives use their resources more efficiency and intelligently. They take ideas seriously, and what perhaps gives them a crucial advantage over their adversaries, they take their opponents’ ideas seriously too.

IN A BOOK of this sort, which covers a vast range of phenomena, any reader is bound to have some quibbles. I feel that Regnery does not give sufficient importance to (though he certainly mentions) the valiant, principled, and successful efforts in the late 1950s by people like William F. Buckley Jr. to purge the movement of anti-Semites and loony conspiracists, most notably the crazies attracted to the John Birch Society. He also glides a bit too quickly over what liberals love to call the “Red Scare.” To put it bluntly, he does not share the view of many contemporary conservatives (or at least, neoconservatives) that Joseph McCarthy’s scatter-shot efforts to clean out the State Department were often counterproductive. It was not that there were no Communists in government — as recent works by historians like Ronald Radosh, Edward Herman, Allen Weinstein, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes demonstrate, they were all too common and often in very high places. Rather, McCarthy’s particular style — lobbing careless and sometimes unsubstantiated accusations into our political space — allowed far too many people who were actually guilty to style themselves as innocent victims of a new “ism.” (For example, while the late Owen Lattimore was most assuredly a Communist or a fellow-traveler, he was not — as McCarthy at first claimed — an agent of Soviet espionage, as the senator himself was later forced to admit.)***

Regnery ends his book with a chapter entitled “We Are All Conservatives Now.” Going into the 2008 election, one might question his optimism. Certainly insofar as the Republican Party is concerned, there is no new Ronald Reagan, no matter how much individual candidates claim to be carrying forward his torch. Moreover, old divisions between libertarians and movement conservatives have (for the moment at least) apparently created an opening through which two rather improbable Democratic candidates seemed poised to walk. The very fact that the only difference between Senators Clinton and Obama is which of their government run “health care” plans is better, not to mention that both have plans to appoint the same kind of liberal judges (perhaps indeed the very same people) suggests that many of the battles fought in the 1960s and 1970s will probably have to be fought again. The difference between then and now — it is a point Regnery drives home at the end of his book — is that from the point of view of institutions and outlets, the right is far better positioned to enter the lists. Given the current prospects, it had better be.

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