The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Defining the essence of American conservatism (and excluding Trump)

Andrew J. Bacevich writes that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republican leaders are not true conservatives: They “seem to adhere to no worldview worthy of the name.” In “American Conservatism,” he and other writers explain their movement’s ideals. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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The concept of American conservatism has come to mean so many divergent things that Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor emeritus at Boston University and the editor of this new and valuable collection, offers some disclaimers on his second page. “Donald Trump is not a conservative,” Bacevich observes. “Nor are the leaders of the Republican party over which Trump presides. Prominent GOP figures such as Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell seem to adhere to no worldview worthy of the name. As for the provocateurs who inhabit the sprawling universe of rightwing media, their principal motive is not to promote genuine conservative values but to rabble-rouse and line their own pockets. Indeed, allowing Trump, McConnell, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh et al. to present themselves as exemplary conservatives testifies to the pervasive corruption of contemporary American political discourse.”

The emphasis in this volume is on the stated ideals of conservatism, which Bacevich defines as a movement that arose specifically to challenge the perceived radicalism and modernity of the 20th century. Among the qualities he ascribes to conservatives are “a commitment to individual liberty, tempered by the conviction that true freedom entails more than simply an absence of restraint; a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility and the rule of law; veneration for our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of stewardship for Creation; a reluctance to discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements; respect for the market as the generator of wealth combined with a wariness of the market’s corrosive impact on human values; a deep suspicion of utopian promises, rooted in an appreciation of the recalcitrance of history and humankind’s recurring susceptibility to hubris.”

Most readers will agree with at least some of these concerns — to clear and tend a garden, for example, can be seen as a profoundly “conservative” act. And Bacevich acknowledges that his chosen authors frequently disagree with one another “much as do progressives, not to mention Marxists, socialists, fascists, anarchists, libertarians and distributists. Intellectuals tend to be a quarrelsome lot.” But Bacevich is not looking for agreement — this is neither an evangelistic credo nor a sort of “Conservatism for Dummies.” Rather, it is a collection of diverse thinkers generally inclined toward the causes of order and tradition, and the best articles have a solidity that can seem a bracing tonic for the present chaos.

The book begins with the two Americans who, more than any others, defined the movement in the 1950s: Russell Kirk, the author of “The Conservative Mind,” and William F. Buckley Jr., the founding editor of National Review. It is rewarding to read a 1963 speech by Buckley, “Toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism,” that was written before he became one of the world’s busiest men, turning out columns, television programs, novels and public appearances every week to diminishing effect. Here he is at his most thoughtful and eloquent, choosing every word precisely, in attacking what he saw as two menacing forces — the dry anti-spiritual “objectivism” of Ayn Rand and the overwrought anti-communism of the John Birch Society.

Buckley had a fine eye for talent, and National Review nurtured the early careers of Garry Wills, John Leonard, Arlene Croce and Joan Didion, most of whom eventually scattered in other directions but maintained their aristocratic prose. Only the last writer is represented here, in a citric examination of “The Women’s Movement” from 1972. Zora Neale Hurston has a place in the collection; her “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” is a short, gracious account of the author’s childhood in an all-black Florida town. Henry Cabot Lodge, senator from Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also makes an appearance. His devastation of the League of Nations in a Senate speech in 1919 is an example of slashing Boston Brahmin autocracy that one admires from a wary distance.

While there are recent pieces by Andrew Sullivan (“Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage”) and Shelby Steele (“Affirmative Action: The Price of Preference”), Bacevich excludes the group known as the “neo-conservatives,” whom he views as heretical. He makes an exception for the man often credited as the godfather of the movement, Irving Kristol.

Every writer gets only one spot, and I am sorry that Bacevich has chosen to represent Whittaker Chambers by the “Foreword in the Form of a Letter to My Children” from his massive memoir, “Witness.” It has the same Manichaean bent that we find in the later Solzhenitsyn, the sense that one must be either a revolutionist or a believer in a divine entity — a shock to those of us who have gone through life cheerfully without opting for either camp. An essay by Richard John Neuhaus follows a torturous path to its flabbergasting final sentence: “That is why, I reluctantly conclude, atheists cannot be good citizens.”

There isn’t a great deal of humor in the book — no H.L. Mencken, Tom Wolfe or P.J. O’Rourke, all of whom managed to be very funny while espousing their own idiosyncratic conservatisms. Yet Bacevich himself has a certain playfulness. I particularly enjoyed his capsule biography of the brilliant and disorganized Willmoore Kendall. The editor notes that he was “a peripatetic and prickly political theorist who made enemies more easily than friends.”

“Kendall earned tenure at Yale, which then offered him several years’ salary just to go away,” Bacevich observes.

It should be noted that many of the authors here — Chambers, James Burnham and Eugene Genovese, among others — began as communists of one sort or another before losing faith and redirecting their fire. Similarly, when the era of Trump is history, it might be remembered that many of the 45th president’s most precise and destructive critics — William Kristol, Jennifer Rubin and David Frum, among others — had made their names as neo-conservatives. But that will be the subject of another book.

Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition

Edited by Andrew J. Bacevich

Library of America.
642 pp. $29.95