The American Dissent: A Decade of American Conservatism
Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York: 1966
Another look at conservative books from the past . . .
One of the first books to appear after the conservative debacle in the 1964 presidential election was Jeffery Hart's The American Dissent: A Decade of American Conservatism. Hart, a Dartmouth professor of literature and longtime editor at the National Review, reflects upon the experience of the conservative movement in the previous ten years—this first decade following the establishment of the National Review in 1965.
Hart does not attempt to explain what went wrong in the 1964 election or even articulate a coherent theory of conservatism. According to Hart, “I do not conceive of this book as a primer on Conservatism. None such exists, and for the best of reasons: it cannot be written.” Instead, he provides a summary of conservative thought on issues of the time as addressed by various writers in the pages of the National Review.
Hart opens with the oft quoted passage from Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination from 1950: “Nowadays, there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” Moreover, Trilling asserts that “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States”
Jefferey Hart fundamentally agrees. In his opening chapter titled, “The Emergence of Conservatism,” He invites his readers to imagine a student growing into adulthood in the 1940s as he or she passes through high school and college. Hart envisions that this student would experience exposure to nothing but a liberal perspective on the issues of the day. Hart suspects, however, that some questions might be lingering in the mind of his imaginary student. Although the student has been taught tolerance and respect for other cultures based upon innate equality, he cannot help wonder about the disparity of the conditions of life which exist for the people who live in those cultures. And although he has learned that our country exalts freedom of speech, he has learned also that somethings just aren't said--at least not in polite company. The lingering doubt or even skepticism of Hart's student may harbor doubts about the prevailing liberal orthodoxy but does not make a conservative. It does reveal, however, a mind open to other voices that challenge the liberal consensus. And it is these doubters to which the so-called “New Conservatism” appealed when it emerged in the post-WWII period. Hart briefly describes the familiar story of the emergence of the modern conservative movement.
Hart summarizes the observations of National Review writers in subsequent chapters devoted to Liberalism, the Negro Problem, the Protracted Conflict (with communism), and the Academy.
Liberalism has many spokesperson with diverse views, but conservative critics from the National Review recognize several unifying assumptions. First, liberals assume the basic goodness of humanity or that human nature is, in James Burnham's words, “changing and plastic.” Consequently, they conclude that such problems as poverty, ignorance, inequality, etc. result from lack of education or the victimization of people by means of the inadequacy of our economic and institutional arrangements. This latter conclusion creates the drive for reform. Second, liberals embark on their reforms with an unjustified optimism about success and little concern with unintended consequences. (For hope as a theme, see Arthur Schlesinger's The Politics of Hope and, more recently, Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope. In my own profession, some of us mistakenly used the word “hope” in conjunction with executing some process or corporate directive. The corporate suits on hand quickly remind us that “hope is not a strategy.”) And liberals assume that their ideology as the sole intellectual tradition endures as the ration, “vital center” (in Arthur Schlesinger's words) while the extreme left and right constitute “pathologies.” In contrast, conservatives maintain a healthy skepticism about the ease at which problems can be solved and a cognizance of the unanticipated consequences of change. Hart notes even at this publication date of 1966 the rise of skepticism within the left—doubts about the liberal project that the next decade led to the rise of the neoconservatives. He also predicts, however, that many liberals will jettison their remaining attachments to traditional Western culture and move more radically left.
The so-called “Negro Problem” (perhaps better spoken of as “Southern White” problem) presented a more challenging issue. The civil rights movement consisted of so many voices calling for so many divergent goals and courses of action that conservative writers at the National Review experienced difficulty forming a unified assessment. Most writers recognized the sordid history of relations between whites and blacks and the current injustice of Southern laws. Garry Wills observes that “the wrong done to the Negro . . . is so unmanageably large a debt that even those with the best will in the world try to evade the logarithmic ordeal of itemizing these accounts.” The magazine supported the movement, especially what it called the “social power” of boycotts. Even in so just a cause, however conservatives retained some of their skepticism of proposed reforms. First, they remind readers that many of the difficulties facing black Americans South and North derived from problem in the black community itself. Second, they express concern about the impact of federal power in securing equality on the rights of other Americans. Finally, they stongly object when civil rights advocates at home embraced more radical liberation movements abroad that operated outside the American tradition of liberalism.
Overseas, “The Protracted Conflict” with communism attracted expansive attention from the National Review. Indeed, anticommunism seemed to serve as the mortar that held together eclectic elements of the “New Conservatism.” The conservatives assert that American leftists feel something in common with the communists while we are in reality at war with them. Liberals fail to recognize the fundamental distinctions between the free world and the communists as articulated in the pages of the National Review. In addition, liberals habitually support “liberation movements” abroad when such movements subvert reactionary regimes. And they overlook acts of violence when done in the name of their future hopes or as payback for past oppressions. And no matter how many of these liberation movements turn out badly, liberals maintain their sunny optimism and eagerly lend their support to the next one.
In the shortest chapter, “The Academy,” Hart repeats the stock criticism about the liberal domination of American universities. He notes the increased prevalence of liberalism among graduate students. Rather than correlate liberal beliefs with educational level, Hart sees it as result of the longer exposure to liberalism that come from extended years in graduate schools.
Hart also explores the varieties of conservative thought encountered in the pages of the National Review. He quotes another conservative writer's division of conservatism into the economists, the romantics, the skeptics, the natural law theorists, and the neo-idealists. Sometimes these contrasting perspectives led to verbal clashes, the most well-known and heated between Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk. While polemical pyrotechnics between Meyer and Kirk heated up both the pages of the magazine and conservative book publishing, other disagreements led to quiet resignations, as when Mex Eastman left over the magazines overt Christian tone.
In his final chapter, “The Prospects before Us,” Hart congratulates the National Review for putting a new kind of conservatism on the map and for creating a “conservative establishment.” He devotes most of his attention, though, on his predicted liberal crack up. The difficult choices, writes Hart, will fragment the liberal consensus. The civil rights movement, the cold war with the Soviet Union, the hot war in Viet Nam, and other national challenges will force difficult choices. Anticipating the rise of the New Left and the neo-conservatives, Hart sees a liberal crack up of sorts. The conservative movement will be augmented by those liberals those cannot countenance a turn to the hard left. He envisions a thriving conservative movement that provides a distinct alternative to “the revolutionary left and a dissolving liberalism.” More important, this conservatism will be “in harmony with our traditions and with the best that is in our actual civilization.”