- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005


Edited by Peter Berkowitz

Hoover, $15, 167 pages, paper


American conservatism is having its midlife crisis. More than five decades have passed since the 1953 publication of Russell Kirk’s landmark “The Conservative Mind” and the founding of National Review two years later, and the wear is perhaps beginning to show.

Conservatism is split as it has not been since its heady teen years, when right-wingers of every stripe, from neo-monarchists to devotees of Ayn Rand, jostled for position. Issues such as immigration, global capitalism, stem cell research, and the war in Iraq are forcing old alliances to be reevaluated and new ones to form.

The stress is taking its toll: The Public Interest, the influential journal that helped spread neoconservative ideas in the 1970s and 1980s, is closing down, and The National Interest is in upheaval. While other publications, such as The American Conservative, have sprung to life, none can be said to represent the entirety of conservative opinion.

This intellectual disarray has occurred, paradoxically, as conservatism enjoyed a political resurgence. After the 2004 presidential election, conservatives, broadly understood, found themselves in the political majority. This new prominence capped a quarter-century of increasing conservative dominance since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, and has even reached, as the Manhattan Institute’s Brian Anderson has written, students on traditionally liberal college campuses.

But it has also shifted conservatism’s place in American political and social culture. Long used to acting as rebels against what they perceived to be a decadent liberalism, in many parts of the country conservatives now are the establishment. The next few years may be crucial to determining whether conservatism can articulate a compelling vision for the nation.

This new collection from the Hoover Institution, which is a companion to a similar volume on progressive thought, outlines elements of that vision by presenting essays on the three most prominent schools of conservative thought: traditionalist conservatism, libertarianism, and neoconservatism. These schools are often thought to be at odds. As Peter Berkowitz explains in his introduction, while most conservatives agree that conservatism “means commitment to conserving moral and political goods that are in danger of being lost or degraded,” exactly which goods and which dangers remains largely a matter of dispute.

Traditionalist conservatives have been accused by libertarians and neoconservatives of holding a futile nostalgia, traditionalists and neoconservatives disdain libertarians because they risk becoming moral libertines, and both traditionalists and libertarians have criticized neoconservatives for a variety of faults, most recently over foreign policy. Common ground seems unlikely, though in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the most brilliant conservatives, the ex-Communist Frank Meyer, attempted a “fusion” between the traditionalists and libertarians, with only mixed success.

The essays on traditionalism do not answer Mr. Berkowitz’ precise question, but they try to explain what adherence to tradition might mean in America. After all, America is in some ways the most modern of nations; how could it be hospitable to defenders of the moral traditions of Western culture from the wrecking ball of modernity?

As Joseph Bottom states flatly, “[t]here is no conservatism in America and never has been.” Therefore, he argues, conservatism in America can only conserve a nation that itself is a part of the modern world. Mark Henrie takes issue with that conclusion, noting that in fact traditionalists are closer in their opinions to the average American than either libertarians or neoconservatives.

In any event the equation of America with modernity is not the whole story, as the nation owes as much to traditional Christianity as to the principles of the Enlightenment. Henrie locates the source of traditionalism not in devotion to some hopeless premodern utopia, but rather in a sense of lament for the fragile goods of the world, and suggests conservatism is just now, two centuries after its birth following the French Revolution, proposing a political theory to match its moral and social principles.

Neoconservatism and libertarianism have never been as popular as traditionalism, but nevertheless have been extremely influential. Tod Lindberg, in his provocative essay on “Neoconservatism’s Liberal Legacy,” argues for a neoconservatism that is the “conservation of liberalism.” In particular, he draws out the connections between neoconservatism and a “universal liberalism” embodying the appropriate balance of freedom and equality that has been the fruits of the American experiment.

The essays on libertarianism, by Randy Barnett and Richard Epstein, lay out the contemporary case for a political society based on liberty, allowing private institutions and individuals to live out different conceptions of the good life with minimal state involvement.

For a half-century, conservatives have debated alternatives to liberalism. In light of the unique challenges facing conservatism, this collection usefully continues the debate.

Gerald J. Russello is writing a book on the thought of Russell Kirk.

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