THE CONSERVATIVE REBELLION
By Richard Bishirjian
St. Augustine’s Press, $25, 176 pages
Many, many decades ago, in an article in Bill Buckley’s National Review, I argued that the tragedy of the American Civil War was that it never really ended, while the good thing about the American Revolution was that it ended before it began: We had a parting of ways with the mother country, a reshuffling of leadership elites, a formal encoding of governing principles and the launching of a proud new nation — all without the bloody, bitter revolutionary convulsions that have swept other countries at other times. You don’t have to be an American exceptionalist to appreciate how exceptionally good that result was, or to appreciate why many of the Founders and subsequent historians preferred the term “War for Independence” to “Revolutionary War.”
This concept is one of the many interesting themes pursued by Richard Bishirjian in “The Conservative Rebellion,” a slender but densely-packed and intensely-reasoned volume that is part intellectual memoir and part philosophical treatise, a book very much of its time but with a timeless message. To those unfamiliar with him, Dick Bishirjian is one of those indefatigable foot soldiers who — as both a scholar and a political activist — was present at the creation of the modern American conservative movement in 1964, and who has remained actively engaged as, among other things, a senatorial aide, an editor and publisher, and an educator, ever since.
“The Conservative Rebellion” is a distillation of both his personal political experience over the past half-century and an attempt to untangle the many and varied motives, ideals and philosophies that have shaped American conservatism from the days of the Founders up to the present. A key device in trying to make sense of it all, is Mr. Bishirjian’s dividing American political history into a series of ideological rebellions — starting with the War for Independence and recurring in response to later challenges to limited government and American values in crises like the Civil War, Wilsonian global interventionism, the rise of the New Deal/Great Society megastate, the Reagan Revolution (Mr. Bishirjian would probably prefer to think of it as the “Reagan Rebellion”), and the more recent mishmash that has seen a political role reversal of sorts, with the dominant wing of the Republican Party influenced by would-be global interventionists and “democracy builders” at the same time that many in the Democratic Party, from President Obama on down, seem to have developed foreign policy schizophrenia, ostentatiously drawing lines in the sand one minute, and then collapsing into pathetic passivity the next.
Mr. Bishirjian traces the current mess — and resultant reshaping and redefining of American conservatism that is going on even as I write this — to 1914: “Under President Woodrow Wilson and his ‘Idealist’ and ‘Progressive’ successors,” he writes, “the American regime was transformed into a government of no limits, a limitless regime pursuing possible realities — much celebrated in the revival of the myth of Camelot by the Kennedy family — as opposed to a government grounded in real possibilities. Wilsonian idealism introduced an era of permanent revolution in which America sought to revolutionize world politics.”
The result, Mr. Bishirjian asserts, has been a destructive trend “aimed at overcoming American traditions, traditional society and the remnants of Christianity … an aggressive idealism … that [has] sought not truth, but power to engage in revolutionary acts that would replace reality with another, ‘second reality,’ more to their pleasing.”
Thus, Mr. Bishirjian posits, “The Conservative Rebellion as we know it … is not a dumb reaction to more than a century of Wilsonian ‘Idealism’ culminating in the presidency of Barack Obama. It is the equivalent of an organism’s recovery from disease; a living community striving to recover the truth of the American political experience and our history … .”
Whether our societal immune system is strong enough to overcome the collectivist/interventionist virus that has ravaged the body politic for so long remains to be seen. And there are moments when the author seems to attach a bit too much importance to ivory tower theorists rather than addressing the realities of the political combat zone. As he himself concedes in evaluating the factors leading to American independence, “There was, frankly, much more going on before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord than the sound of the turning of pages of Locke’s Second Treatise.” But, taken in all, “The Conservative Rebellion” contributes important spiritual and philosophical breadth and depth to the current battle for the American soul.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.