Monday, September 13, 2010

A progressive's five best books on conservatism

Progressive author and political commentator E. J. Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, columnist for the Washington Post, professor at Georgetown University, and author of Why Americans Hate Politics and Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right.

Jonathan Rauch interviewed him about books on conservatism. One book on Dionne's list:
The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America by George H Nash

[Rauch]: Let’s talk about George Nash first. This is a book you’ve often said is seminal. Why?

[Dionne]: I think everyone on every side of politics should read George Nash’s book. I don’t think you can understand the rise of conservatism, the appeal of conservatism, conservative ideas or have a good sense of how they fit together unless you read George Nash. It may be the first serious look at that rise of postwar conservatism that anyone has written. It is written with the seriousness of a scholar and the accessibility of a journalistic account. He makes very clear who’s who, how Hayek fits in with Russell Kirk and how Russell Kirk fits in and debated with someone like Frank Meyer. Bill Buckley’s role is very important, I think, in the history of the right. He gives Buckley his due. You come away from Nash – even if you’re a liberal like I am or a social democrat, or whatever you want to call me – with a proper respect for this set of ideas and why the rise of the right was a kind of intellectual breakthrough.

Does Nash go back before World War II?

He starts his story in 1945, but you have to see the rise of these ideas and the right’s long-term sense of embattlement against the background of a dominant New Deal. When you think about the Roosevelt years, you really had the triumph of a kind of American-style, soft social democracy. Richard Hofstadter said the New Deal gave our politics a social democratic tinge. So people like Russell Kirk came to political awareness at a time when people such as him – and there were many others – felt fundamentally embattled within American society. The core assumptions of American society were New Deal liberal. Lionel Trilling wrote famously that the only serious ideas in America are liberal ideas. In one sense they were the dominant ideas, but reading Nash you realise that when Trilling wrote those words there was a vibrant intellectual movement trying to change those assumptions.

Does he see conservatism as a backlash movement?

He doesn’t see it as a backlash. Nash himself is a conservative so he writes from the inside, with respect. He sees it as embattled, which is different from a backlash. It’s not purely a reactive or reactionary movement, though it has a strong, reactive element…

It’s not just about revoking the New Deal.

Right, and indeed as we watch the development of neoconservatism later, one of the important changes and one of the reasons I put Peter Steinfels’s book on my list is that many conservatives had to be dragged into making their peace with the New Deal. But ultimately many of them did. Ronald Reagan ratified that when he abandoned efforts to privatise social security.

Some might argue that the Tea Party movement, which is 34 years after Nash, takes us back to a pre-Reagan backlash conservatism…

I do view the Tea Party movement as more akin to a backlash movement. I think that what we’ve seen is the rise of a staunchly, some might say harshly, anti-statist right when a certain side of liberalism is in power. You saw, and the Phillips-Fein book gets at this, a kind of backlash like this against the New Deal and you certainly saw a kind of angry conservatism rally against Bill Clinton. I don’t see the Tea Party movement as unique; I see it as much more in line with a lot of other movements on the right through our history. What makes it different is more access to means of communication. The right always had its own underground network – in the 60s books such as Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice not an Echo, and another book called None Dare Call it Conspiracy. These were seen as marginal books in mainstream politics, but they circulated in the millions among conservatives. What you have now is media, Fox News and all the blogs that give access to fairly extreme pronouncements and they bring those pronouncements into the mainstream. So the uniqueness of the Tea Party is only in the means of communication, not in what it’s conveying and not as an unusual historic phenomenon.
Read about the other books on E. J. Dionne's list.

--Marshal Zeringue