When I was in Texas I met Carl T. Bogus, law prof. and author of Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism [amazon]. He and I turned out to have something in common: affection for Clinton Rossiter’s forgotten Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion [amazon]. I was trying to baffle someone else at the conference, saying ‘Look, the thing you think conservatism should be is the thing the conservatives made a point of writing off in the 1950’s. You’re a neo-Rossiterian.’ Carl’s ears pricked up. We hit it right off.
When I got home I bought and read Bogus’s Buckley book. I liked it, and it filled in some blanks for me, history-wise. Going back and reading the reviews, I see TNR’s reviewer thought Bogus didn’t much improve on John Judis’ earlier Buckley book. I can’t say. Haven’t read it. (But Judis is a good writer so probably his book is good.) But the reviewer does grant that one area in which Bogus really distinguishes himself is in handling the dead and forgotten ‘new conservatives’ - Rossiter, Viereck and Nisbet, in particular. (Kirk was another, but not one who has been forgotten.)
The most interesting passages in Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism chronicle the new conservatives of the 1950s—Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossitter, Peter Viereck, and Robert Nisbet — when they might still have become the leading voices of twentieth-century American conservatism. Theirs was a conservatism of high culture, moderation, and communal aspiration, skeptical of the market and anchored in the writings of Edmund Burke. In 2009, when Sam Tanenhaus declared American conservatism dead, in the pages of this magazine and then in his book The Death of Conservatism, it was the death of Burkean conservatism he had in mind, and George W. Bush was the killer. For Bogus, this death occurred much earlier, with Buckley the eager undertaker, pushing some new conservatives away from National Review. Others, such as Russell Kirk, he labored to co-opt and thereby to neutralize. “Today the new conservatism is forgotten,” Bogus writes. “Even most of the intellectuals in the conservative movement itself are unaware that this struggle [between Buckley and the new conservatives] took place.”
Yep, nobody remembers Rossiter. Except then David Brooks goes and writes a column, just two days ago, recollecting how when he was a lad at National Review, in 1984, what Bogus calls ‘new conservatism’ was still half the story.
On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. These were people that anybody following contemporary Republican politics would be familiar with. They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace. But there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.
I’m more convinced by Bogus’ version of the story:
Even as it raged, few people were aware of the battle between Buckleyism and the new conservatism. It was inside baseball, something only the players themselves understood. Buckley, however, fully appreciated the significance of his victory. In 1963, he observed that the followers of Clinton Rossiter and Peter Viereck had been successfully sidelined. They were, he wrote with obvious satisfaction, “bound to enter the ranks of eccentricity.” Today the new conservatism is forgotten. Even most of the intellectuals in the conservative movement itself are unaware that this struggle ever took place. Why did Buckleyism prevail? How did Buckley pull it off? Why was the struggle so short and decisive? The answer has little to do with the competing ideas themselves. The answer has to do with leadership. It is ironic that the new conservatives—notwithstanding their philosophical emphasis on community over individualism—were loners. Despite the commonalities of their views, Kirk, Viereck, Rossiter, and Nisbet never united to collectively promote the Burkean vision. It is doubly ironic that William F. Buckley Jr. was exactly the opposite; he was philosophically an individualist but built a community at and through National Review. (Kindle Locations 2740-2752).
As Bogus says, this was already inside baseball in 1963. 1963 was a long time ago. So probably this is interesting mostly to historians of the conservative movement. But one enduringly relevant lesson is this: liberals, and the likes of David Brooks, often complain that conservatives have recently lost their way, turning radical. Oh, for the good old days when William F. Buckley could be counted on to write the crazies - the John Birch Society, and Ayn Rand - out of the movement, for the sake of preserving some modicum of sanity. I’m not sure how well this sort of concern trolling really works, in practice. Not well, I think. (Everyone finds it annoying, not persuasive, to be concern trolled.) But, in any case, it’s historically misleading. The truth is that William F. Buckley wrote Rand out of the movement because she was an atheist, not because she was nuts. The trouble with the Birchers wasn’t that they were off the reservation but that they were perilously close to being on it. What
Jack Robert Welch believed wasn’t so different from what Buckley believed, but Buckley had the knack for saying it in a way that allowed, at the very least, for delicacy concerning more paranoid aspects and implications. Bogus:
Although these two men were only a few notches apart on an ideological spectrum, they were separated by the stark line of rationality. Welch had crossed over into an alternative universe in which the communists were so clever and powerful that the most likely explanation for almost any event was that the communists had secretly engineered it. Buckley realized this, and Welch realized how Buckley perceived him. (Kindle Locations 3588-3591)
The line was even more delicate than that, because National Review didn’t necessarily want to write off the possibility of invoking that alternate universe, around the edges, for rhetorical effect. And they sure didn’t want to tell the people who were living in the alternate universe that this is what they were doing.
The editors at National Review were in a bind. They knew that some backers and readers were members of the society, but they did not know how many. Buckley and his team were in the dark about just how grave a wound they might inflict upon the magazine by denouncing Welch and his society. Moreover, Buckley was also discovering that even within his inner circle not everyone was as repulsed by Welch’s conspiracy theories as was he. While Bill Rusher conceded that Welch was peddling nonsense, he thought that many Birchers accepted Welch’s theories as more figurative than literal — a poetic cry of distress about the grave state of affairs. Rusher also thought that Buckley was jealous that Welch, rather than National Review, was leading a successful conservative membership organization, and that, in fact, this was upsetting Buckley more than was Birch doctrine. Frank Meyer argued that National Review had to disassociate itself from the John Birch Society, but he thought it should be done in a way to give as little offense as possible to society members. (Kindle Locations 3738-3746).
Welch was peddling a version of the 47% line. We are approaching a tipping point! The trick, as we have seen in recent days, is to be non-specific about what you mean when you say something like that, so you don’t come off as vicious or certifiable. Buckley was basically worried, not that Welch was a nut, but that Welch would make it harder for National Review to keep saying things it was already saying and not sound nutty - since something similar sounded awfully nutty, in the unvarnished Welch version.
Buckley’s final battle against the Birchers was analogous to contemporary conservatives who, in the end, explicitly distanced themselves from the Birthers, but didn’t go further to denounce the spirit of Birtherism. That is to say: not that much has changed. What liberals are hoping for, when they hearken back to the good old days, is not some of that good old Buckley non-craziness but something more like what Clinton Rossiter and Peter Viereck offered. But Buckley had the good sense to kill that off decades ago, since it was at odds with the spirit of the conservatism he wanted to champion.
I was going to conclude this post by quoting some choice bits from Rossiter’s conservatism book. He’s a fine stylist and genuinely fun to read. Much more entertaining than dull old Russell Kirk. But it looks like I managed to leave my copy at the office. Maybe I’ll post some Rossiter passages later. (Rossiter is actually better known for The American Presidency [amazon]. I should probably get around to reading that.)
I’ll just sign off by reiterating my recommendation of Bogus’ book as the best history I know, where the forgotten ‘new conservatives’ are concerned. (This is a niche market, I realize.) He’s good for filling in the blanks regarding Buckley, if that’s what you want. I think Bogus is right that Buckley really did make modern conservatism, so a good biography of Buckley ends up being good general history.