The words “conservative” and “conservation” are similar; surely their meanings overlap. They do, says the English philosopher Roger Scruton, and conservatives need to think more seriously about conservation than they have hitherto. To be a conservative is to value the cultural and political traditions we have inherited from the past, to hold them in trust, and to pass them along undiminished to our descendants. To be a conservationist is to value our ecological heritage and to pass it along undiminished to our descendants. By this telling, environmentalism ought not to have a leftish slant at all.
When a political movement changes labels, that usually means its adherents are unelectable. Take the Democrats in 2004. When the presidential candidacy of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a liberal protégé of the state’s senior senator, Ted Kennedy, went down in flames, their party almost immediately switched from the buzzword “liberal” to “Progressive.” Not only was this changing the subject, it was reaching for the latter term’s historically bipartisan connotations. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson had been adapting himself to a doctrine first put into circulation in national politics by a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt. The initiators of the change in emphasis, Democratic consultants Paul…
At the height of the Iran Contra scandal in Washington, “Saturday Night Live” had a funny skit about Ronald Reagan. It showed the President’s folksy, out-to-lunch personality to be a façade. Behind closed doors, he was a worker bee, driving younger staff members to exhaustion. Liberals could only entertain such a possibility fictionally. To them, Reagan was a lazy leader, “sleepwalking through history.”
Liberal avoidance of such a possibility tracked back to Dwight David Eisenhower’s 1953-1961 administration. To the liberals of that era, he was a disconnected President, more interested in his golf game than in leading the nation. Worse, he lacked political courage, specifically with regard to halting a rampaging Joe McCarthy.
There are a couple of questions that I have often been asked but to which I still have found no satisfactory answer. The first relates to history: What use is it?
Moral outrage, when it is not fatuous, is politically potent. Vivid examples of politicians and commentators in full-throated, red-faced attacks against malignant motives and vicious political acts come easily to mind for all but the most apolitical. In some cases these outbursts are reactions against assaults on how things are or have been—on the decent order of things as inherited. But any honest observer must acknowledge that the more successful production of moral outrage has issued from those seeking fundamental transformation.
Rick Perlstein’s reputation rests upon his award-winning first book from 2001, Before the Storm, about the crushing defeat of conservative icon Barry Goldwater in his 1964 run against President Johnson, and the conservative movement born in that defeat.
A frank left-winger who got his start at the Nation, Lingua Franca, and Mother Jones, Perlstein nevertheless was, Orwell-like, harder on his own side than on his opponent’s. Although taking swipes at Goldwater for denouncing federal intrusions into the business world when his family’s fortune was gained with government help, Perlstein depicted the Republican as much more admirable overall than President Johnson. (As an example, Goldwater ran a clean campaign whereas LBJ brought out the heavy lumber, authorizing CIA agent Howard Hunt to violate the Agency’s domestic charter and bug Goldwater’s campaign headquarters.) Perlstein saw it all and was so fair-minded, with a slight bias toward the Right, that it was hard to detect any agenda in that book.
The same cannot be said of his latest, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.
Books reviewed in this essay:
The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, by Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).
The Crusade Years, 1933-1955: Herbert Hoover’s Lost Memoir of the New Deal Era and Its Aftermath, ed., George H. Nash (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).
New power emerges out of confusion—and ours is a confused age. No dominant historical narrative supplies us with a common story, and without a common story we belong neither to each other nor to shared ideals. When a people are unscripted by history, the past becomes raw material, to be processed via key moral and political vocabulary by those who would willfully impose “new modes and orders,” to quote Machiavelli.
Disordered times produce the search for order and the desire to impose order. Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport are in the former category. Their book The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism seeks to revise our historical understanding of the rise and development of American conservatism by tracing it to Herbert Hoover.
Herbert Hoover's legacy is perhaps forever linked with the failure of the American economy under his presidency after the stock market crash of 1929 and his ensuing defeat by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the election of 1932. Further adding to his difficulties is the charge that he was progressive-lite in his policies before and after the Great Depression. The proper foundation, it follows, for advocates of a renewed conservative focus is Calvin Coolidge, a President who cut budgets and taxes. This discussion with Hoover scholar George Nash begs to differ. Nash, who previously appeared on Liberty Law Talk to discuss the…
Marriage and parenting may be disappearing in large parts of sophisticated Europe and Japan, but not so much among our high achievers. It’s true that our elitists don’t think that marriage is required for sexual enjoyment or even to validate romantic love. They’re accepting of same-sex marriage to avoid being judgmental or hateful. Marriage equality is part of “multicultural diversity.” And so it’s an issue about which it’s no longer possible for decent people to have diverse opinions.
Our meritocracy based on productivity embraces diverse lifestyles, and nobody believes that women were born to be anything but free and equal individuals just like men. And so parenthood and marriage have to be freely chosen, allegedly part of that mysterious power that one has to define one’s personal identity. Except when it comes to the responsible imperatives of personal productivity, the talk of our successful sophisticates often seems stuck in the Sixties. But not so much their behavior.
Economic inequality in the country is rapidly increasing. But our libertarians are right that inequality, by itself, hardly undermines the case for liberty.
A free country is a place where everyone is getting better off, although some, because of their hard work and natural gifts, more than others. Libertarians always point to the progress of technology as benefitting us all. Everyone is living longer, or at least everyone responsible enough to attend to what we can all know about avoiding the risk factors that imperil our health. In our march toward indefinite longevity and even the Singularity—the moment in time when machines are smarter than humans— it might be reasonable to hope that few will be left behind. And almost everyone benefits from the constant improvement and plummeting cost of the “screen”—from the smart phone to the tablet and laptop to the huge flat-screened TV.