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The end of a cycle

I just finished reading The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, by George H. Nash. It’s out now in a new 30th anniversary edition, although the text hasn’t changed much if at all since 1976 except for the addition of an epilogue.

The book covers the familiar ground. The postwar conservative movement was initially an alliance among traditionalists concerned with restraint and culture, libertarians concerned with freedom and economics, and anti-communists whose views gave all such concerns a sense of apocalyptic urgency. The whole thing held together reasonably well, at least at the policy level, because in America tradition has always had a big place for freedom and freedom for tradition, and besides, there were the commies to worry about.

In the ’60s and ’70s the mostly intellectual movement Nash describes began to gain political punch by picking up liberals and moderate leftists worried about the failure of social programs and the increasing radicalism of the Left, and gained practical electoral support from ordinary people outraged by those same things as their effects filtered down into daily life.

The result, which Nash outlines in the post-1976 epilogue, was the American conservative movement we’ve had from the ’70s to the present: a few traditionalist intellectuals in the background for high-minded worrying, many more libertarians to provide energy, clarity and specific proposals, populists and religious rightists to give voting power, the neocons to establish connections to various centers of power, and politicians, careerists and opportunists attracted to a movement they thought they could ride somewhere.

As time went on the movement followed the usual shift in emphasis from quality to quantity: from the traditionalist, libertarian and anti-totalitarian ideas that got it started to the forces that gave it the means to exercise power: politic and well-connected neoconservatives, spokesmen and operatives who could influence and mobilize masses of religious and populist voters, and those simply interested in power as such. GWB’s big government borderless “conservatism” brought that process to a conclusion: no conservative principle at all, just power, political management, and scraps of liberal and conservative ideology made up into banners. At this point, with the failure of the Bush administration, the whole thing seems to have come to an end. It seems that those who want to resist the reign of quantity and the managerial state, and work toward a better way of life, need to start again from basics. We are back in 1945.

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