George Nash’s book is widely considered one of the great indispensable scholarly works on the formation of what we call conservatism in America. For many conservatives, it might be a surprise to learn that the term “conservative” really only came into existence post-1945, until then most people, including politicians, openly donned the title “liberal” (Democrats and Republicans alike). This is unsurprising to students of historico-philosophy, after all, the United States was born a nation of the liberal Enlightenment and embodied many of the values of so-called “classical” liberalism (many scholars, contrary to libertarian claims, have written extensively on why social liberalism emerged from classical liberalism as the natural evolution of liberalism into the new, urbanized, industrialized age).
Nash, likewise, traces the formation of the conservative movement in America from its antecedent roots in the scattered musings of former Jeffersonian liberals turned anti-Jacksonian reactionaries (Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun most importantly), but the heart of his book rests post-1945 with three major groups that emerged: the libertarians, traditionalist conservatives, and the slow drift of a contingent group of anti-communist liberals who became weary about the rise of the New Left (we call these former Democrats, liberals, and even in some cases anti-Stalinist socialists the “neoconservatives” today).
Nash argues that these three groups are not actually aligned with each other but merged together in a mutual alliance during the Cold War (this might explain why the “conservative” movement and the Republican Party has been slowly fracturing ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union between these three major groups). He first starts with the libertarians, who, as he notes, actually didn’t embrace any American philosophy but a European philosophy—Austrianism (Austrian economics and a mixed attitude towards the New Deal). These libertarians were displeased with the increasing social welfarism promoted in Europe, first by European conservatives, then by European liberals, and then by European social democrats. They flocked to the English-speaking world, which was always more liberal than the rest of Europe, but found themselves disappointed that Anglo-American liberals were building a welfare state of their own. The libertarians, Nash argues, were fighting a (losing) war to roll back the regulatory systems and policies of the New Deal.
He then moves to the traditionalists, whom we might call “social conservatives” today. These traditionalists are, unlike the libertarians and anti-communist liberals turned neoconservatives, actual conservatives (libertarians and the anti-communist liberals turned neoconservatives have very little in common with anything that historically has been considered conservative thinking). The traditionalists “rediscovered” religion in the wake of horrors of World War I and World War II. These traditionalists argued that man’s depraved nature, mixed with demagogic politics and the mass mobilization of society to achieve a literal “heaven on earth” caused the terror, destruction, and carnage of the twentieth century. Moreover, they revolted against the old Enlightenment liberal metanarrative of progress: reason, capitalism, industrialization, democratic politics, and science were all leading to happier, healthier, longer, and more peaceful lives. The traditionalists rejected all, “rediscovered religion”, and promoted “traditional values” to safeguard against the march to destruction, war, and totalitarianism. This is why social conservatives are obsessed with notions like the nuclear family, (institutional) religion, and “traditional” morality—these are the bulwarks against chaos, immorality, terror, and demagoguery that led to the totalitarian movements of fascism and communism, two world wars, and a naïve optimism that technology, rationality, and economic development can be substituted for “salvation” on earth.
Lastly, Nash deals with the anti-communist liberals, whom some might erroneously call conservatives today, but back in the 1940s and 1950s, were liberal-minded people. Most supported the New Deal, some even embraced Civil Rights and LBJ’s Great Society. These anti-communist liberals, long the bedrock of the modern Democratic Party starting with Woodrow Wilson, suddenly turned about-face in the wake of the Counter Cultural Revolution of the 1960s—which was not, as often promoted, a rebellion against conservative values as much as it was a rebellion against bourgeois values (liberal values: reason, capitalism—money—, anti-communist foreign policy, and internationalism). These anti-communist liberals where aghast when George McGovern, a favorite among the New Left “hippies” and “soft on communism” leftists captured the Democratic Party nomination (to prevent this from happening again, the Democrats established the “Super Delegate” system to prevent a leftwing candidate from ever being nominated again). These anti-communist liberals morphed into the neoconservatives, some remained Democrats until they died (like Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington State), many others however joined the Republican Party after Reagan was elected in 1980 on a hardline anti-communist position.
Nash also deals a lot of time with William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review, the magazine he established post-war to channel conservative thought. Buckley and the National Review editors carefully managed to bring all three groups into an alliance. Buckley and NR convinced the libertarians that the New Deal State was a necessary evil to defeat the Soviet Union, afterward, dismantling the New Deal State could commence (but only after victory in the Cold War). And the libertarians accepted this because the “big-government” welfare state of the New Deal was a better alternative than the totalitarian Stalinist system promoted by Moscow. NR also brought in social conservative views, many of the editors and writers (Buckley among them) were fairly religious individuals (not like the show-off Evangelicals of today) and they often wrote passionately and favorably about religion (while not “thumping a Bible” to make a point or two). The traditionalists, whom were actually favorable toward the New Deal for economic reasons (many came from rural and poor backgrounds), became convinced the Cold War was a cosmic theological drama between the forces of Christian religion (the United States and Western Europe) against the forces of Satanic communism and atheism (the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc). Lastly, NR provided an outlet for disgruntled anti-communist liberals about the “pro-communist/pro-Moscow” left making in-roads in the Democratic Party (in reality, more-or-less anti-war leftists protesting Vietnam moreover than having an affinity with the Soviet Union). It’s very obvious that Nash shares much sympathy for Buckley, “Fusionism” (the attempt to combine all these ‘conservative’ views together), and NR in his work. Thus, through Buckley, all three movements formed an alliance (even though they had their own divisions: the traditionalists were not pro-free market capitalist like the libertarians, whom didn’t really care about religion and “traditional” values like the traditionalists, whom were viewed as being silly reactionaries by the pro-New Deal anti-communist liberals) due to a mutual enemy found in the Soviet Union. [This mutual enemy is something American conservatives have desperately trying to replace ever since 1991 and have seemed to, more-or-less, gather around Islam as the new common enemy–just my opinion]
Nash eruditely shows how these three movements came into fruition after WWII, where they differed, how they became aligned (all were mutually allied against the Soviet Union in the Cold War), and highlights how this rag-tag collection of various movements and people became the “Movement Conservatives” who tried to establish some sense of a conservative tradition in an otherwise very liberal (in the Enlightenment sense) nation whose liberal traditions go back further than 1776, but all the way to the original settlers and colonists. Moreover Nash includes decent commentary on important political philosophers like Leo Strauss (who has been demonized by Ron Paul and his followers) and Willmore Kendall (a friend of Buckley and co-founder of NR) and their contributions to conservatism in America.
Nash has been criticized, however, for not mentioning much on the issue of race in the formation of conservative thought. Here, I have to agree with Nash. Racism is not a “conservative” phenomenon—although it is true that some conservatives do hold to xenophobic and racist views. Racism has historically been promoted by liberals, conservatives, socialists, communists, romantics, progressives, and everyone in between. It is equally true that liberals, conservatives, socialists, communists, romantics, progressives and everyone else in between have opposed racism and promoted civil rights—some more than others who wrongly get all the credit.
For anyone who considered himself, or herself, a conservative, this is a much needed work to understand why conservatism is actually a rather new movement in American history, and where conservatism in America draws its inspiration from. For those interested in an honest discussion, history, and evolution of conservatism in America (like I am), then this is also an important book to own rather than read some cheap anti-conservative dribble spewed by certain people in the media and larger American Academy. But here, I will take Nash to task.
Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement since 1945 mostly deals with conservatism after 1945, but I find it curious that he never deals with the issue of federalism and Alexander Hamilton like he does (albeit briefly) with Randolph or Calhoun (whom were chosen as the arbiters of a conservative tradition in America). Many historians and political scientists consider the Federalist Party of Hamilton, John Jay, John Adams, and George Washington (not a member, but very sympathetic toward) as the foundation for “conservatism” in America. (It is true that these men and Hamilton’s philosophy can also be viewed as having been liberal, after all, they were all Enlightenment men—but in comparison to Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton was “less liberal” and more pseudo-aristocratic therefore many have dubbed his movement “conservative” just to juxtapose against Jeffersonian liberalism.) I am of the view, with the majority of political philosophers and historians, that Hamilton and his philosophy of federalism (while not being conservatism in the same tradition of conservatism in Europe) is the closest reflection to a conservative tradition in America. While Nash highlights what we call “modern conservatism” coming into existence after 1945, I’m at a loss why he doesn’t at least deal spend a little time discussing why these Movement Conservatives passed Hamilton (and they passed Jefferson too, remember) in favor of Randolph and Calhoun. Having read Russell Kirk (whom Nash mentions a lot in this book), I have my own theories as to why Randolph and Calhoun have loomed large for modern conservatives at the expense of Hamilton (whom has now become a favorite of many liberals at the expense of the more liberal Thomas Jefferson—the great ironies and paradoxes of American culture!).
Nevertheless, Nash’s book is about as solid (and unbiased, even if Nash himself was /is a “Movement Conservative”) read on American conservatism as one can find. In the end, however, students of philosophy may find Nash’s work less than satisfying since he strays from conventional philosophical understandings of conservatism and lumps, in particular, two non-conservative philosophies (libertarianism and anti-communist liberalism) into the conservative mold with the traditionalists (who are conservative in every sense of the word). Students who really want to look at where “conservatism” comes from, however, need to include this on their reading list.
This review is taken from my Amazon review of George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.
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