Why Is There No Conservatism In The United States, Part Two


I recently asked why there isn’t conservatism in the United States and referred to the postwar American Right using the seemingly paradoxical phrase “radical conservatives.” After digging around a little bit yesterday, I came up with some intriguing connections to this train of thought.

In the first edition of National Review in 1955, William F. Buckley famously wrote that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it…”

You read this and it sounds like traditional conservatism. Looking backward, seeking to stop or at least slow down change. But in that same editorial Buckley said this:

Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.

I had not realized that as early as 1955 Buckley himself used the phrase “radical conservatives.” It’s not just the phrasing that is revealing. It’s the overt contempt for the moderate right, the disdain for the Eisenhower wing of the Republican Party. This is an insurgent outsider mentality.

A kind reader also sent me an October 1964 National Council of Churches document entirely devoted to sounding the alarm about “The Radical Right.” I need to peruse the document more, but some mainline Protestants were clearly alarmed by the new visibility of radical conservatism in the context of the Goldwater campaign.

I also came across the influential historian Richard Hofstadter’s thoughts on what he called radical “pseudo-conservatism.” In 1962, Hofstadter wrote:

The political character of this movement can be helpfully delineated by comparing it with true conservatism. The United States has not provided a receptive home for formal conservative thought or classically conservative modes of behavior. Lacking a formidable aristocratic tradition, this country has produced at best patricians rather than aristocrats, and the literature of American political experience shows how unhappy the patricians (for example, Henry Adams) have been in their American environment. Restless, mobile both geographically and socially, overwhelmingly middle-class in their aspirations, the American people have not given their loyalty to a national church or developed a traditionally oriented bar or clergy, or other institutions that have the character of national establishments. But it is revealing to observe the attitude of the extreme right wing toward those institutions that come closest here to reproducing the institutional apparatus of the aristocratic classes in other countries. Such conservative institutions as the better preparatory schools, the Ivy League colleges and universities, the Supreme Court, and the State Department–exactly those institutions that have been largely in the custodianship of the patrician or established elements in American society–have been the favorite objects of right-wing animosity.

So there you have it. I was actually just echoing Hofstadter and I didn’t know it. Well, I could have found myself in worse company. I’ll take it.

Why Isn’t There Conservatism in the United States?

William F. Buckley

In 1984, Eric Foner wrote an article asking, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” In that spirit, I present this deliberately provocative and messy think piece. I’ll be giving a lecture on the rise of modern American conservatism after World War Two to my U.S. history survey class later this month. If I framed the lecture in the terms below, would it work? Does this argument hold up at all? What is it missing? What are the most obvious counterarguments? I threw this together without looking at any primary or secondary sources so I cringe at all that I’m surely glossing over here. Is there something to be said for this?

My key argument today is that modern American conservatism arose as an insurgency from both the intellectual margins and the populist grassroots. During the dominance of the New Deal coalition from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, conservatism seemed to be pushed to the margins in American politics and elite culture. Now, to be sure, you might look at the 1950s and say, gosh, wasn’t the whole American mainstream conservative? But this question fails to understand how American politics and culture looked from the perspective of the conservative insurgents.

They sought a radical conservatism (and I use this seemingly paradoxical phrase deliberately) that would upend the moderate consensus in American life and usher in their vision of a society of localism, laissez faire economics, and social order. Thinking about the New Right as an insurgent and radical force helps us to think about how and why American conservatism became so distinctive. Often when we talk about conservatism in a broader global context, we might think of the conservatism of landed elites stretching back into a feudal past, the conservatism of certain European Catholic parties, the conservatism of a very class conscious British society.

The United States, for all sorts of reasons, did not have those conditions. So, just as historians have asked, why didn’t socialism ever take root in the U.S? We might dare to ask the question, why isn’t there conservatism in the United States? This is a deliberately provocative and simplified question, but it helps us to think about the paradox of radical conservatism, a “conservatism” that sought to not conserve and preserve as much as transform.

Because the New Right found itself blocked out of the mainstream of both major parties, it assumed the posture of political insurgency from a very early date. The nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was not a case of a conservative party choosing a conservative nominee. It was a shocking takeover of a moderate party by the insurgents. Modern American conservatism never lost that insurgent and radical quality, even after gaining power, and that has had profound consequences for American life.

The lecture would go on to discuss both populist conservative forces (especially women mobilizing at the grassroots) as well as intellectuals like Buckley and Hayek (yes, I know he wasn’t American!). One of the things I want to avoid is the conflation of conservatism with backlash and reaction. The New Right had goals it was fighting for, not just changes it was reacting against. I also think the framing of “radical conservatism” and “insurgency” could be helpful for setting up the very end of the semester when we talk about the contemporary radicalization of American politics and conservatism’s inability to govern.