Conservatism, Old and New
September 24, 2002
I used to be what is called a
movement conservative a participant in the
American conservative movement that emerged after World War II. It was
opposed to both Communism and New Deal liberalism. Its first political
leader was Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, and its journalistic voice
was William F. Buckley Jr., editor of National Review.
Goldwater is long gone
he turned out to be a lot less conservative than his admirers had
believed and Buckley is semi-retired. I wrote for National
Review from 1972 to 1993 and, though Bill Buckley is as charming
as they come, I watched with dismay as his magazine became more and
more remote from the principles I understood to be central to American
conservatism. Today, under a new generation of conservatives, if you can
call them that, I can hardly bear to read it.
Just what are
todays conservatives trying to conserve? The older conservatives
had thoughtful conceptions of the nature of politics, constitutional order,
Western civilization. They included original thinkers and deeply cultured
men like James Burnham, Whitaker Chambers, Willmoore Kendall, Robert
Nisbet, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, Thomas Molnar, and
many others who are now largely forgotten, especially by those who have
replaced them. Its hard to imagine them fitting into todays
conservative movement or writing for todays National Review.
conservatives didnt always agree with each other; far from it.
They had fiery debates over first principles. The trouble with the new
conservatives is that they always agree with each other. They equate
conservatism with militarism. They are apologists for American military
power and the Bush administration. Theyve made their peace with
the New Deal and the welfare-warfare state, and theyve become
hard to distinguish from neoconservatives, who have pretty much become
the bellwethers of the movement.
principles? Constitutional law? Limited government? Christian
civilization? Forget it. The causes that animated the old conservatives
have faded into the distant past. At least the Cold War had a purpose; the
wars favored by the young conservatives are aimed only at American
empire, no matter what the cost. Theyve never seen a war they
didnt like not that any of them have any experience of war,
unlike their distinguished forebears.
The tone of the new
conservatism is facile and crass, because its concerned only with
power for its own sake. Absent is the note of reflection that led men like
Burnham, Kendall, and Kirk to write books about the political thought of
Machiavelli, Locke, and Burke books that are still worth reading,
and which made their reputations before there was a conservative
movement to join. It was Buckleys achievement to gather so many
fascinating individualists under his banner, some of whom disputed each
others right to be there. Sometimes he had to be a referee as well
as an editor. It took all his considerable tact.
Buckley founded his
magazine in 1955 out of dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, which,
in the Eisenhower years, had become fatally compromised. In its quest for
political victory, the party had chosen the popular but vacuous World War
II hero over the conservative hero, Senator Robert Taft. In 1952 Buckley
had realized that if Eisenhower defeated Taft for the GOP presidential
nomination, conservative principles would be all but banished from
But today the magazine
is even less conservative than Eisenhower was. It has forgotten its own
origins, what someone has called the divine discontent of
its early years. And the entire conservative movement has followed suit.
The few remaining strict conservatives have been driven to the margins.
Yet the older
conservatism isnt quite a lost cause. It may be about to raise its
voice again in Patrick Buchanans new magazine The
American Conservative, due to appear this month. [Website
editors note: The first issue appeared very shortly after this
column was written.] Buchanan is one of the few conservatives who have
refused to surrender their heritage to the neoconservatives, for which
they have tried (with generous help from Buckley and National
Review) to purge him from the movement.
It tells you a lot about
America today that Buchanan has made enemies in the movement by
reviving the slogan America first. Hes against war
with Iraq not because he isnt patriotic, but because he is
far too patriotic, in fact, to be a movement conservative.
Hes fighting for the America he still remembers, and loves.