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The best books on The Appeal of Conservatism

recommended by E J Dionne

The Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at Brookings questions what has happened to the intellectual humility that led to the growth of American Conservatism

E J Dionne

E J Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, columnist for The Washington Post, professor at Georgetown University, and author of Why Americans Hate Politics and Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right.

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E J Dionne

E J Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, columnist for The Washington Post, professor at Georgetown University, and author of Why Americans Hate Politics and Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right.

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Let’s talk about George Nash first. This is a book you’ve often said is seminal. Why?

I think everyone on every side of politics should read George Nash’s book. I don’t think you can understand the rise of conservatism, the appeal of conservatism, conservative ideas or have a good sense of how they fit together unless you read George Nash. It may be the first serious look at that rise of postwar conservatism that anyone has written. It is written with the seriousness of a scholar and the accessibility of a journalistic account. He makes very clear who’s who, how Hayek fits in with Russell Kirk and how Russell Kirk fits in and debated with someone like Frank Meyer. Bill Buckley’s role is very important, I think, in the history of the right. He gives Buckley his due. You come away from Nash – even if you’re a liberal like I am or a social democrat, or whatever you want to call me – with a proper respect for this set of ideas and why the rise of the right was a kind of intellectual breakthrough.

Does Nash go back before World War II?

He starts his story in 1945, but you have to see the rise of these ideas and the right’s long-term sense of embattlement against the background of a dominant New Deal. When you think about the Roosevelt years, you really had the triumph of a kind of American-style, soft social democracy. Richard Hofstadter said the New Deal gave our politics a social democratic tinge. So people like Russell Kirk came to political awareness at a time when people such as him – and there were many others – felt fundamentally embattled within American society. The core assumptions of American society were New Deal liberal. Lionel Trilling wrote famously that the only serious ideas in America are liberal ideas. In one sense they were the dominant ideas, but reading Nash you realise that when Trilling wrote those words there was a vibrant intellectual movement trying to change those assumptions.

Does he see conservatism as a backlash movement?

He doesn’t see it as a backlash. Nash himself is a conservative so he writes from the inside, with respect. He sees it as embattled, which is different from a backlash. It’s not purely a reactive or reactionary movement, though it has a strong, reactive element…

It’s not just about revoking the New Deal.

Right, and indeed as we watch the development of neoconservatism later, one of the important changes and one of the reasons I put Peter Steinfels’s book on my list is that many conservatives had to be dragged into making their peace with the New Deal. But ultimately many of them did. Ronald Reagan ratified that when he abandoned efforts to privatise social security.

Some might argue that the Tea Party movement, which is 34 years after Nash, takes us back to a pre-Reagan backlash conservatism…

I do view the Tea Party movement as more akin to a backlash movement. I think that what we’ve seen is the rise of a staunchly, some might say harshly, anti-statist right when a certain side of liberalism is in power. You saw, and the Phillips-Fein book gets at this, a kind of backlash like this against the New Deal and you certainly saw a kind of angry conservatism rally against Bill Clinton. I don’t see the Tea Party movement as unique; I see it as much more in line with a lot of other movements on the right through our history. What makes it different is more access to means of communication. The right always had its own underground network – in the 60s books such as Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice not an Echo, and another book called None Dare Call it Conspiracy. These were seen as marginal books in mainstream politics, but they circulated in the millions among conservatives. What you have now is media, Fox News and all the blogs that give access to fairly extreme pronouncements and they bring those pronouncements into the mainstream. So the uniqueness of the Tea Party is only in the means of communication, not in what it’s conveying and not as an unusual historic phenomenon.

Nash is a classic, it’s fair to say. You have two books on your list that are more obscure and both are about the interaction between business and conservatism. The first is from 1951, by Robert Green McCloskey, American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise 1865-1910. What do we have to learn from a book about the Age of Enterprise?

I put these books on this list partly as a provocation because I realise that most of the folks picking conservative books are inside the conservative movement. Since I’m not, I thought I would pick two provocative books.

And the provocation is what?

The provocation is that conservatives often like to paint themselves as populists – when in fact much of their strongest support, financially certainly, comes from business people, often big business people, often business people resisting social reform, resisting trade union organisation. I think both these books make that clear. I found McCloskey very enlightening when I read him back in the 1990s because he offers real insight into two areas that I think are very important in understanding conservatism. One is the rise of social Darwinism. He talks a lot about William Graham Sumner. I always like to argue to my liberal friends that they ought to have a lot more sympathy for William Jennings Bryan than they do from simply watching Inherit the Wind about the Scopes trial – the reasons why Bryan resisted Darwin that went beyond a fundamentalist critique of science. Social Darwinism was, and still remains, in my view, a pernicious doctrine that saw the competition among classes as leading to the rise to the top of the worthiest people. It’s essentially a doctrine that preaches the futility of social reform – far better to let this often vicious struggle be carried out because, in the end, it strengthens societies. I never like to toss around the word fascist because it is over-used but I think that fascists did make use of some of these ideas later on to rationalise systems that democratic conservatives themselves would reject. I think that social Darwinism is important in our history and McCloskey gets at that. The other important area is the role of a very conservative Supreme Court in our history. He talks about Judge Stephen Field and I think in the debates we are about to have over what I see as increasingly activist courts, it is very useful, again – whatever side you are going to be on in these debates – to revisit the conservative activism in the courts in the Gilded Age.

Stephen J Field was on the Supreme Court 1863 to 1897 and was a results-oriented champion of laissez-faire policies and property rights against all-comers, which is much more than social Darwinism.

I agree. In fact, I think the religious right is helpful to us collectively because I think the religious right does resist social Darwinism. I mean, I disagree with them in their view of evolution and the science curriculum but I think that their very Christian sense of compassion turns them off to any idea of social Darwinism and I think that’s a positive good.

It’s interesting that one of McCloskey’s subjects – the others being Sumner and Stephen Field – is Andrew Carnegie, who was famous for saying that wealth ought to be used philanthropically, that a man should not die rich. 

Right. Andrew Carnegie was a promoter of the self-made person and he did do wonderful things. There is a public library in my hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts that is one of those Carnegie libraries that carries the famous inscription on the top that he put on many of his other libraries – The People’s University. Again, it’s one of the reasons I recommended Nash first, despite my sometimes embattled relationship in my column with conservatism: I have a lot of respect for conservative ideas and I think that those conservatives who did take their social obligation seriously did a lot of good for the country. Another book I might have put on this list was William F Buckley’s book Gratitude, which is a wonderful book on the importance of service. I think that there are many varieties of conservatism and what Buckley says about the obligation of gratitude partly does come from his Catholic Christian roots. I think it’s an orientation toward life that ends up being a fundamentally generous orientation. Which is why I always try and teach my children – never judge people by their politics if you happen to disagree with them.

Your other book on the interaction of business and conservatism is by Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands. Why Kim Phillips-Fein from 2009, a very recent book?

Academia, and in particular academic history, almost out of necessity runs a little behind where things are. What you’re seeing now is a flourishing of academic scholarship on American conservatism. There are a lot of young scholars and often they are people of the left – Kim Phillips-Fein is a person on the left and often the perspectives are critical and yet they are also respectful. Another book that might have gone on this list is Rick Perlstein’s book on the Goldwater campaign. Rick comes at this as a person on the left but writes with real understanding and respect about the Goldwater movement. Kim Phillips-Fein represents a large number of these scholars. What I found particularly interesting about this book is for us to understand that ideas have consequences, but monetary support for ideas has consequences too. She traces much of the support for ideas that have now become common currency on the right; the spreading of the ideas of people like Hayek or von Mises came from business people ardently opposed to the New Deal. She talks about the founding of American Enterprise Institute, which is certainly a very important event in the history of modern conservatism. In good left-of- centre fashion she lifts the veil a little bit and says, ‘Wait a minute – these ideas didn’t just gain traction because they were great ideas on their own.’ Lots of people came to them because they had the support of very influential people who had good reason to be opposed to the New Deal.

Does she or do you see this as nefarious or something to celebrate?

Well, I certainly don’t see it as something to celebrate because I disagree with the impact that the rise of some of these ideas has. Nefarious is a strong word, we are a free country and people can promote the ideas that they want. But I do think it’s helpful to demystify the process a little bit and I think she does that very usefully.

My friends at the Cato Institute never tire of complaining that, sure, there’s a lot of business money but most of it is on the wrong side – it’s not interested in smaller government; it’s interested in using government in the interest of business.

There are many different varieties of business money and there are many different postures that business takes in politics. First of all, some business folks made peace with the New Deal – some business folks were actually progressives and believed that the survival of capitalism depended on social reform. Some business folks just try to use their money to get whatever benefits and money they can out of government in a way that has very little relationship with principle. Once you’ve said all of that, there have also been business people who were opposed to unionisation, who favoured low taxes, who wanted to repeal inheritance taxes and, you know, without the Koch family, a very wealthy oil family, the Cato Institute wouldn’t exist. I wrote about that in my book Why Americans Hate Politics. I have a rather respectful chapter on libertarians but I also talk about the importance of the Kochs pushing these ideas to the fore. So I don’t think our friends at Cato lack for financing.

People forget that Barry Goldwater back at his peak was not just ferociously anti-communist, he was ferociously anti-union. That issue, which has virtually disappeared today, was at the core of conservatism in the 50s and 60s. 

It’s still very important to conservatives. They have done all in their power to prevent the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, known on the right as card check, to make it easier to organise unions. They care a whole lot about who gets appointed to the National Labor Relations Board.

You do hear a fair amount about teachers’ unions.

Right, so now the attack is directed mostly at public employees because that’s the one sector where unions still have power. There are arguments about that that relate to policy; I’m not dismissing that. Nonetheless, that is the one sector where unions are still powerful. Unionisation in the private sector is now down to about seven per cent, and in the mid-50s 35 per cent of Americans belonged to a trade union. This long conservative campaign against unions has had a lot of success. There are other factors but they have been successful in their objective.

I was surprised to see the Peter Steinfels book, 

The Neoconservatives

, is out of print. It was published in 1980 and I think it was the first book on neo-conservatives. Some people say it is the best, though there have been three or four since then – James Mann, Jacob Heilbrunn, Justin Vaisse…

Gary Dorrien also had another good book on neo-cons.

Is neo-conservatism something genuinely different and why choose the first book instead of one of the more recent essays?

I will confess right at the outset that Peter Steinfels is a friend and one of my favourite people in the world.

That’s a good reason.

Though it’s also the case that it’s important to take a look at a book about neoconservatism written long before the Iraq War. Justin Vaisse’s new book, which I was fortunate enough to do an event for here at Brookings, is an excellent look at neoconservatism as well. Reading Peter, though, you understand that neoconservatives were not initially primarily about foreign policy – let alone starting a war to throw Saddam Hussein out of power. Neoconservatives were originally dissident liberals. People who started out on the left and over time developed doubts about the impact of liberal social policy. The Public Interest magazine, a great magazine that I was very devoted to until the day it died a few years back, started out as a friendly critique of liberalism, talking about the limits of social policy, Nathan Glazer’s book title. But it still had in mind that social policy and social reform was useful. Public interest, after all, is a classically progressive term, the notion that a public interest exists is, in some sense, an American progressive idea. People like Moynihan, Glazer, Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol were such important American intellectuals and Irving Kristol, in particular, was, to use the popular term about him, the godfather of so many different conservative strains and organisations that I think it’s very important to go back to that beginning and realise that they were dissenting liberals. I think neoconservatives gave conservatism one of their most powerful concepts which is the law of unintended consequences. It was used as a battering ram against all kinds of liberal programmes, saying, ‘Yes, you intended to do good but look at what in fact this programme actually did.’ In the run-up to the Iraq War I was on a panel on a TV show with Bill Kristol and I looked at him and I said, ‘You know, one of the things you neocons taught me most was about the law of unintended consequences. I can’t help but think about that in relationship to this war that we are about to start’. I think liberals do have an obligation to think about the law of unintended consequences, they do have an obligation to take a look not just at the intentions of their programmes but at the effects of their programmes. So, because there was a kind of purity about original neoconservatism, untainted by the very divisive debates since, I thought Peter’s book was very useful to put on a list like this.

You know Bill Kristol was recently here at Brookings and said that neoconservatism is just conservatism. The distinction has lost its usefulness. Do you agree?

I’ve argued that neoconservatism is dead because I see it as existing in this nether-world between the left and the right and that neoconservatives are essentially split. Some returned to liberalism – Daniel Patrick Moynihan is a good example of that, Daniel Bell is another. Other neocons really became full-fledged conservatives. I think at the end of his life it was fair to say Irving Kristol, even though he probably continued to call himself a neocon, was a conservative. Norman Podhoretz is a conservative and the whole successor generation like Bill are full-fledged conservatives.

There’s a book that’s different from all the others here and I’m delighted to see it. Buckley is one of the few authors who gets mentioned by repeated panellists in our conservative series. This is his only novel on our Five Books list. It’s called the The Redhunter: A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy. It was published in 1999; I was surprised to see that it too was out of print – a good deal of Buckley must be out of print since he wrote so much. Buckley, of course, is an indispensable name in conservatism, but why a novel?

Well, two things. One, I love William F Buckley Jr as a human being and as a presence in our public life. I was at a tribute once to Buckley and I said if I could be five per cent as effective on behalf of my own ideas as Buckley was on behalf of his, I would consider my life an enormous success. There was something about his open spirit that just appealed to me very much. You get the spirit of Buckley in some ways better in his fiction, and he wrote a lot of fiction. I was debating which novels to put on the list – he had a wonderful series based on a CIA agent called Blackford Oakes, a wonderful name for a CIA agent. The first one, I think, was called Saving the Queen. I have read religiously every Buckley spy novel as it came out. Spy novels would have been good to put on the list as a reflection of the cold war Buckley. The reason I put the McCarthy book on the list is because Buckley came to public attention first, of course, with his book God and Man at Yale, but also with his robust defense of McCarthy in the 1950s. He and his brother-in-law, Brent Bozell, wrote a book called McCarthy and His Enemies, which was a favourable view of Joe McCarthy. This book is interesting because 45 years later, in novel form, is Buckley kind of coming to terms with his old view of McCarthy. You see his sympathy for McCarthy and his anti-communism, but he also gives you a sense of McCarthy’s flaws. If you’re a Buckley-phile, it’s fun to read this novel and think about the journey Buckley himself went through and it’s also just a great way to get a Buckley-eye on the 1950s and what the 1950s were like. I’m sorry this novel is out of print. I hope great organisations like this can bring books back into print.

What distinguishes Buckley to me – and Reagan by the way – from a lot of other conservatives is that certain quality of good humour about it all. A certain quality that at some level we are all still human beings and that we can afford to be amiable even while we are ideological. I sometimes wonder what Buckley would have made of the Tea Party movement with some of its ferocious anti-government rhetoric. 

I doubt he would be an enormous fan of Sarah Palin, though you could occasionally imagine him sticking up for her for fun. There is that side of Buckley where he not only had a sense of what conservatism was, but what it ought not to be. But the other part of him was that he did maintain cordial relationships, often argumentative relationships, with a lot of people on the left. I think on the back of one of his novels he had the good sense of humour to put a John Kenneth Galbraith quote that said something like, ‘I am so pleased that Bill Buckley has turned to the art of fiction where his talents have always lain’, or something like that.

Firing Line is a TV show whose format I wish we could bring back. What is so intriguing about Firing Line is that Buckley would invite someone he profoundly disagreed with and debate with him or her, usually respectfully. There were some lefties – Al Lowenstein, for example, the former congressman and anti-war activist, was somebody Buckley admired very much. Lowenstein was on the show a lot and Buckley liked to argue with him. He liked to argue with Michael Harrington, the socialist. He loved to argue with John Kenneth Galbraith. It’s an approach to argument we’ve lost. What you have so often now on so-called argument shows is simply parallel assertions, competing sound-bites. That’s different from argument where, as Christopher Lasch put it, you have to enter imaginatively into the ideas of your opponents if only to refute them – but in the process you put your own views at risk. Buckley believed in that kind of argument and we need more of that.

Interview by Jonathan Rauch

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