The Strange History of American Conservatism

Jonathan Rauch has reviewed Bill Kristol’s son-in-law’s new book about the history of American conservatism in the New York Times.

New York Times:

“Or so it seemed. We did not then know that Reagan’s triumph was also a culmination. The Cold War’s end dissolved the conservative coalition’s glue, Buckley’s sparkling generation receded, Kristol’s journal closed, Rush Limbaugh ascended. George W. Bush’s efforts to frame an activist, idealistic conservatism never took hold. Cheered on by the inflammatory rhetoric of conservative media and confrontation entrepreneurs like Newt Gingrich, the base steered straight for the abyss of pessimism, authoritarianism, nativism and grievance that Buckley and Reagan had labored so hard to escape. …

So here we are. The work of two conservative generations lies in rubble. “What began as an elite-driven defense of the classical liberal principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States ended up, in the first quarter of the 21st century, as a furious reaction against elites of all stripes,” Continetti writes. “Many on the right embraced a cult of personality and illiberal tropes. The danger was that the alienation from and antagonism toward American culture and society expressed by many on the right could turn into a general opposition to the constitutional order.” Some of us would say this is a fact, not a danger.

Continetti believes that de-Trumpifying the G.O.P. is not sufficient to restore constitutional conservatism, but it is necessary. “Untangling the Republican Party and conservative movement from Donald Trump won’t be easy,” he says. “But a conservatism anchored to Trump the man will face insurmountable obstacles in attaining policy coherence, government competence and intellectual credibility.”

Post-Trump, can conservatism reassemble and reinvent itself as it did once before, 70 years ago? We’ll see. On the strength of this authoritative and entertaining book, I hope Continetti will be around to write the next volume.”

Rauch makes it sound like Joe Biden is FDR, liberalism is ascendant, the “mainstream” has established a hegemonic consensus over American culture and the GOP is facing another 50 years in the wilderness. The party appears to be doing fine to me though without Bill Kristol & Co.

Paul Gottfried has written a funny and accurate review of the book called “The View from the Cocoon.”

American Greatness:

“Sometimes one begins a book with such low expectations that one is delighted to find the printed material is not quite as bad as what one expected. This is precisely my impression of Matthew Continetti’s much touted monograph, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. As someone who holds the honor of being Bill Kristol’s son-in-law (and who holds his father-in-law’s vacated place at Fox News), and a prominent NeverTrumper to boot, Continetti is hardly an unbiased interpreter of conservatism. A revealing passage from his book tells us clearly where on the ideological divide he stands: “The one hundred years war for the Right is to conceive of it as a battle between the forces of extremism and the conservatives who understood that mainstream acceptance of their ideas was the prerequisite for electoral success and lasting reform.” 

As the world’s most notorious critic of misused political taxonomies, I shall allow myself to quibble about Continetti’s eccentric use of the term “Right.” For him and his well-connected friends, the designation mostly serves as a synonym for “Republican.” There are two groups on his telling, both located in the GOP, that are fighting to be the true face of the Right, but only one passes muster as “non-extreme.” This is where I start to part ways. Today, I would argue, the populist Right is the true American Right because it alone is fighting the cultural Left and its allies in the deep state, media, and educational establishment. I have no idea what makes its neocon and Republican establishment adversaries any kind of Right, since on most domestic social issues and certainly on foreign policy, this group happily cooperates with leftist power elites. …”

I have no plans to read the book.

I understand it is mostly Matthew Continetti whining about the demise of mainstream conservatism in the Trump era. I don’t look back fondly on the Bush-McCain-Romney years.

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  1. American conservatism just means the liberalism of five years ago. The US is an intrinsically liberal entity. Real conservatism would be medieval Catholicism and absolute monarchy.

  2. The word conservative gets thrown around a lot, and gets mis used constantly. Washington wanting to start a war every fifteen or twenty years, this isn’t conservative. This is a police state mindset. The U.S. government has kept troops in Korea for right at 70 years, the people running things couldn’t have found anything better to do with the millions or billions that was spent than this? How about spending it on roads, bridges or schools, how about building a high speed rail system? If the federal government has to spend money, why not spend it in the United States.

    Why can’t South Korea defend itself? It’s a reasonably prosperous country. Why keep troops in Germany 20 years after the cold war ended?

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