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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Conservatism's history

With hopes of getting some insight into conservatism's future, I’ve read review copies of two new books about its past. The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution, by Gregory L. Schneider, is a solid, concise overview of conservatism over the course of the 20th century, written from a generally sympathetic perspective. Schneider, a historian at Emporia State University in Kansas, emphasizes the protean nature of conservatism—how it’s often reinvented itself and found new issues and approaches, while still being recognizably conservative.

A particular theme of Schneider’s is that conservatives after World War II embraced populism and mass democracy, contrary to the Old Right’s cloistered elitism and deep pessimism. I’m not one to praise everything about modern conservatism (particularly its talk-radio populism) but a modernization away from America First and Albert Jay’s Nock’s “remnant” was much needed.

The second book is Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan, by Kim Phillips-Fein, a historian at NYU. This focuses on business support for conservatism, and Phillips-Fein is a basically unsympathetic observer of business conservatives such as DuPont’s Jasper Crane and GE’s Lemuel Boulware. But these free-market ideologues seem like a breath of fresh air compared to today’s corporate leaders, often found lining up for government bailouts.

Phillips-Fein notes that conservatives in the 1970s were instrumental in getting companies to be more politically active, but it would have been interesting to point out (which she doesn’t) that much subsequent lobbying was put to non-free-market ends. Still, her view of conservatism at least is not conspiracist (as the title might suggest) or dismissive (many left-liberals don’t seem to have read, let alone written, a book about conservatism).

Both books are worthwhile. Schneider’s deepens one’s appreciation that conservatives have been through tough times and internal divisions before, emerging with new ideas and energy. Phillips-Fein’s reminds one that some very talented people worked against the odds to make conservatism successful over past decades, even if she is not among their admirers.

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