The Zombie Party
Sarah Palin isn’t the future of the Republican Party. But Charles Murray just might be.
It is the summer of 2008. I am watching the telecast of the Republican convention with a sinking feeling. Here is Mitt Romney. The former governor of Massachusetts (repeat: Massachusetts), and current quarter-billionaire (that’s “billion,” with a B), denounces “Eastern elites.” Excuse me? Then he says we need change “from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington”–as if George McGovern, not George W. Bush, had been president for eight years.
Here is Rudy Giuliani. The former mayor of New York City (repeat: New York City) sneers that Democrats are “cosmopolitan.” He paints the election as “we, the people” against “the media” and “Hollywood celebrities.” As if it were Barack Obama who had spent most of his life and career in New York and whose second wife (second of three, by the way) was a television personality and star of The Vagina Monologues.
The crowd eats it up. Me, I am a little stunned. Even a convention audience, I would have thought, could not be manipulated so obviously, so cheaply. Ah, but now Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee, takes her turn. Surely, I tell myself, the bad-cop, snarling Giuliani has set the stage for an optimistic, big-tent, Reaganesque “City on a Hill” speech.
But no: We get the pit bull with lipstick.
Palin is an unknown quantity, a neophyte in national politics. Yet Republicans who once might have wondered where a potential president stands on major issues now find it more than enough to know that she is a pro-life hockey mom who annoys liberals and can field dress a moose. It becomes evident, as they adulate her, that they regard her provinciality as being, in and of itself, a qualification for the presidency. As I watch, it dawns on me that the American conservative movement is not just down on its luck, it is zombiefied.
If conservatism is to get a new brain, it will need to know where it left its old one. Patrick Allitt’s new intellectual history of the American right, The Conservatives, makes an excellent starting place. “Where did American conservatism come from, what are its intellectual sources, and why is it internally divided? This book is dedicated to answering those questions,” begins Allitt, a historian at Emory University. The author strives “to keep the rhetorical temperature as low as possible and be descriptive rather than prescriptive.” No politics. No polemics. Just conservative theories and theoreticians, in chronological order, from John Adams to David Frum. Yawn.
Or so I thought when I first picked up the book. The more I read, however, the more impressed I became. The book’s self-imposed limitations turn out to be strengths. By keeping politics offstage (here is the entirety of Allitt’s account of the seminal 1980 election: “Conservatives felt exhilarated by Ronald Reagan’s election victory in 1980”), Allitt brings ideas into sharp focus and his sketches of people and philosophies more than make up in accuracy and concision what they lack in color. He frames controversies fairly, takes no cheap shots, cuts no corners. Amazingly, his own political views are undetectable. Accuracy, concision, disinterest: These are virtues we could use more of in modern academia.
His themes are stated early and amply supported. First, conservative ideas are old, but the conservative movement is new. “Before the 1950s there was no such thing as a conservative movement in the United States…Before the twentieth century, it was unusual for Americans to refer to themselves as conservatives, though many used the term as an adjective.”
Second, conservatives’ ideas have been all over the map. Mostly, in fact, they have been in tension with one another. The tension begins at the very beginning. Oddly, Allitt understates it by identifying early conservatism with the Federalists of the Founders’ era–Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Marshall–and counterposing it against what the Federalists regarded as Jeffersonians’ dangerously utopian egalitarianism. But it is to the Jeffersonians that modern conservatism owes many of its dominant tones: libertarian individualism, mistrust of big government, preference for localism, devotion to states’ rights. The Jeffersonians and the Federalists each carried a germinal strand of conservative DNA, and they loathed each other.
In the early decades of the 1800s, the gulf widened between the agrarian conservatism of the South, with its emphasis on small government and tradition, and the capitalist conservatism of the North, with its enthusiasm for modernization. “At times the two have appeared to be almost polar opposites,” notes Allitt. He identifies two Virginians, John Taylor and John Randolph, as “the most articulate early representatives of Southern conservatism. A lineage of conservatism involving states’ rights and small government can be traced from their speeches and writing through much of the next two centuries.” They were succeeded by John Calhoun of South Carolina, a titan of the era. Liberty, for the southern school, trumped equality, but tradition and hierarchy–emphatically including slavery–trumped both.
By contrast, the Northern school, whose leading avatars were Daniel Webster and Henry Clay (and later Abraham Lincoln, who called himself “an old-line Henry Clay Whig”), “favored nearly all the characteristics of modern capitalist development: division of labor, specialization, banking and credit, and government policies dedicated to economic growth, all in the context of moral restraint, the rule of law, and respect for tradition.” The Civil War, then, is best seen as “a conflict between two types of conservatism.” Southern conservatives fought to conserve the South’s distinctive society, its time-honored traditions; northern ones, to conserve an indivisible, democratic nation-state.
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