Thursday, October 27, 2005

What is a "Conservative"...or is it "conservative"?

The New Yorker recently devoted a piece (not available on line, but here is a snippet) on the little-known historian and poet Peter Viereck in which the author, Tom Reiss, lauded Viereck as the forgotten founder of the modern American conservative movement.
Viereck became a historian, specializing in modern Russia, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. But, in a series of books published during the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties (which have recently been reissued by Transaction), he continued to develop his political philosophy. He gave the conservative movement its name and, as the historian George Nash, the author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, says, he "helped make conservatism a respectable word." Moreover, Viereck’s belief that the United States could be a moderating influence, confronting the forces that threaten freedom and democracy without succumbing to liberal optimism, became a central tenet of conservative thought and, with the arrival of neoconservatives in positions of power in Washington, beginning in the nineteen-eighties, of American foreign policy.

Yet Viereck never became a rallying figure. Conservatism remained largely an intellectual movement during its first several decades, from the late nineteen-forties to the late nineteen-seventies—a loose affiliation of scholars and writers who had little more in common than a hatred of liberalism and Communism, which they increasingly saw as indistinguishable. Even in this context, Viereck was an anomaly, insisting on a moral distinction between the moderate and the totalitarian left, and, as conservatives began to attain political influence, denouncing what he perceived as the movement’s demagogic tendencies.
While largely concurring with these points, John J. Miller provides a different angle. Miller also alludes to Nash's comments:
"This was the book which, more than any other of the early postwar era, created the new conservatism as a self-conscious intellectual force," wrote George H. Nash in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. "It was this book which boldly used the word 'conservatism' in its title — the first such book after 1945. At least as much as any of his contemporaries, Peter Viereck popularized the term 'conservative' and gave the nascent movement its label."

And so conservatism's naming rights arguably belong to him. Viereck never actually joined the movement, however. When conservatives rallied around Robert A. Taft for president in 1952, in a kind of proto-Goldwater endeavor, Viereck opposed them. He even compared Taft to Robespierre. Two years later, he condemned Joe McCarthy. Then he supported Adlai Stevenson for president. He bought into the liberal academic view espoused by Richard Hofstadter and others that political conservatism was a neurotic form of status anxiety. He spoke of "Midwest hick-Protestant revenge against [the] condescending East" with "the resentment of lower-middle-class Celtic South Boston against Harvard." In 1956, Frank S. Meyer had this to say in National Review: "Viereck is not the first, nor will he be the last, to succeed in passing off his unexceptionably Liberal sentiments as conservatism."

. . . The fundamental weakness of Viereck's conservatism, however, was its disdain of capitalism. In this sense, his brand of conservatism was more aristocratically European than dynamically American. Although Viereck was a strong critic of Communism, he personally preferred a mixed economy to free markets. He once equated "anti-statism" with "plutocracy," and believed the New Deal was worth preserving. Although the early conservatives were an eclectic bunch, their views on capitalism were broadly libertarian and specifically opposed to the New Deal. Viereck may have given conservatism its name, but his achievement was largely semantic. The job of actually defining conservatism fell to the likes of Russell Kirk and Frank Meyer, who quickly eclipsed Viereck.
Miller also believes that the real goal of The New Yorker piece is to put down both William Buckley and President Bush. Thus, some of Miller's skepticism concerning the piece could be attributed to institutional loyalty in the case of the former and political loyalty in the case of the latter. The New Republic's Franklin Foer agrees with many of Miller's points, but thinks that Reiss lauds Viereck for a different, if time-worn, reason:
John J. Miller, however, raises important objections to the New Yorker piece over at National Review Online. Namely, does Viereck really deserve the centrality that the New Yorker accords him? Beyond that, in setting up Buckley as Viereck's foil, the piece neglects Buckley's periodic campaigns against the John Birchers and the lunatic right. Miller accuses the New Yorker of inflating Viereck and caricaturing Buckley to score ideological points. I'm pretty sure that's not the case. More likely, the magazine built up Viereck's importance to justify devoting so many words to him. And, let's face it, every magazine writer has committed this sin before.
I think Foer has a point, but it also seems more than a "happy accident" that boosting Viereck results in disparaging the contributions of Buckley.

Johah Goldberg provides a good--if a bit too National Review-centric--synopsis of how there is a difference between the historical, small "c" conservatism and modern, big "C" conservatism, which, ironically, is really derived from liberalism.
“Before the reformation,” wrote Lord Hugh Cecil, “it is impossible to distinguish conservatism in politics, not because there was none, but because there was nothing else.” While lacking in totalitarian technology, European monarchs had a surfeit of totalitarian metaphysics. Everybody believed that the state was there to impose a religious worldview on the whole of society. Dissenters from that worldview didn’t like it. The horrific fights between Catholics and Protestants — not to mention the Inquisition, the expulsions of Jews from various lands, etc — raged for more than a century until finally a few tired folks declared, “let’s call a draw!” And the compromises inherent to that draw came to be called liberalism. Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Montesquieu, and the gang crafted this neat theory which said the state is formed to protect the interests of individuals. Our rights to life and property exist prior to the state’s right to exist. If the state violates the former it abdicates its claim to the latter.
Finally, some compare the ideals of the contemporary American conservative movement and the ideals of those who are identified as historical conservatives and claim the former can't truly call themselves conservative. Modern "conservatism" is an apellation attached to a contemporary political movement whereas the historical use of "conservatism" was indicative of a class of people who had a vested interest in the status quo. To claim the former are not "real" conservatives because they don't seem to fall in line with the historical conception of conservatism is to play a semantical game.

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