- - Tuesday, February 21, 2012


By Geoffrey Kabaservice
Oxford University Press, $29.95, 482 pages

In his autobiography, English man of letters G.K. Chesterton not only recounted the story of his own life, he also assessed the lives of his many friends and acquaintances in Edwardian-era London. At one point Chesterton, a champion of Christian orthodoxy, described his dear friend H.G. Wells, a lifelong skeptic, as a man who “was so often nearly right, that his movements irritated me like the sight of somebody’s hat being perpetually washed up by the sea and never touching the shore.”

“Rule and Ruin” is cut from the same cloth. It is written by a remarkably well-read and knowledgeable scholar who often loses sight of the trees for the forest, getting many things right while leaving a few key things unsaid.

In this history of Republican politics and American history since the 1950s, Mr. Kabaservice describes in detail “the GOP’s slow and painful transformation … into an organization entirely dominated by ideological conservatives.” But why is this transformation “slow and painful,” unless the author views conservatism as the equivalent of some sort of debilitating disease within American politics and culture?

Furthermore, if conservatism is indeed the negation of ideology, as conservative giant Russell Kirk repeatedly claimed, then the “ideological conservatism” so plainly loathed by Mr. Kabaservice must be something other than the reverential view of life held by those who tend to be guided by the wisdom of their ancestors rather than by abstract speculation.

It is something different indeed. For while there truly have been a great number of scoundrels who have called themselves conservative from roughly 1945 till today, not all have been rotters. This distinction is not at all clear to the author of “Rule and Ruin.” During the course of his book - so largely accurate in many areas, though somewhat selective in the filtering of facts - Mr. Kabaservice indicates that he holds to an ill-defined idea of conservatism as a militaristic, nativist, tight-fisted “ideology” that is embraced by very bad people.

His view of conservatives corresponds roughly to that of the Earth’s people in a 1950s science-fiction movie about space invaders: the creatures are out there, they’re not nice, they mean us harm and we normal people just wish they’d go away.

The author is too knowledgeable and possesses too much sense to hold up the Democratic Party as a contrasting model of moderation and restraint, knowing that the nation’s oldest political party long ago departed from the limited government ideas of the party espoused by Thomas Jefferson. He holds his peace on that score, but applies the tar brush to every Republican who crowds under the tent flaps of conservatism as a force for destructiveness. The conservatives portrayed by Mr. Kabaservice are little short of a rampaging mob brandishing torches, pitchforks and (most dangerously) ballots. Some of these individuals known personally by this reviewer are unrecognizable: the eloquent William A. Rusher, for one, is depicted as a raging nut - something he never was.

Against the confounded conservatives, in diminishing numbers, stand the “moderates,” who merely want to split the difference between liberals and conservatives, offering up the New Society Lite, with modest (but ever-rising) tax increases and modest (but ever-tightening) regulation. The moderates Mr. Kabaservice describes - former New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, former Delaware Gov. Mike Castle, and others - are portrayed throughout “Rule and Ruin” as voices of elevated political diplomacy and high-minded civic virtue. Life and politics are seldom so neatly divided, except within the cozy confines of the faculty lounge.

“The Founding Fathers,” the author warns in his conclusion, “steeped in classical history and morality, feared that American might fall as the Roman Republic had if it failed to guard against the corrosive forces of corruption, petty interests and the unrestrained zeal of faction. George Washington called upon his fellow citizens to show ‘mutual forbearance’ and follow ‘a middle course.’ America’s very survival as a republic may depend on its ability to maintain a political system that can balance the nation’s massive needs and its great but finite resources, represent all of its people, and reflect what the first Republican president called ‘the better angels of our nature.’ “

These are sound words which form a remarkably conservative statement, if by “middle course” we understand Washington to have meant a prudent course steered between the Scylla of political extremism and the Charybdis of indifference. In the same way that it is possible to be all in favor of individuality while being against the social atomism of individualism, so is it possible to be in favor of prudent political decisions and behavior while steering clear of merely drifting with the tide toward statism under the mantle of a falsely named “moderation.”

“Rule or Ruin” offers a stark warning against extremism and the dangers of political imbalance while failing to distinguish the peril of falsely yelling “wolf!” amid a world in which wolves really do lurk.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” (Madison Books, 1999).

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