Politics & Policy

The Right Book

Everything you ever really needed to know about conservatism but were afraid to ask.

We now have an encycopedia! American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia has arrived, courtesy of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and its editors, who include Bruce Frohnen, a former professor of mine, as it happens. I recently chatted with him some about the new resource.–Kathryn Lopez

Kathryn Jean Lopez: So, what is conservatism, according to the Encyclopedia?

Bruce Frohnen: Unfortunately, you aren’t going to get the answer in a phrase, or even a paragraph, even in an encyclopedia. Conservatism is too rich and deep an idea and disposition for that. What’s more, all the usual summations do apply, at least in part. A disposition to conserve. Pursuit of a life of virtue and ordered liberty. Love of order. Attachment to the Permanent Things. All these are true, but insufficient.

In very basic and general terms, a conservative is someone who understands that some things are simply true, and chief among these is that our limited reason and experience make it imperative that we look to the way our parents and grandparents did things in order to figure out how we should act; and that this is how you are most likely to do the right thing, and avoid making life unnecessarily difficult for yourself and everybody else.

More generally, and at the heart of the encyclopedia, you have to deal with the fact that there is conservatism, and there is the conservative movement. The first is a specific political philosophy with some pretty deep roots in Christianity, Western Civilization, and thinking on the importance of decentralized power and the ways in which tradition (concrete conduct), faith, and reason interact in each of us, and in the institutions that make up any tolerable society.

The conservative movement, of course, is a coalition of people, institutions, and philosophies, including traditionalists, libertarians, agrarians, neoconservatives, fusionists, and a dozen other smaller, more specifically intellectual groups. It was in part to help people sort out these groups that the encyclopedia (which includes entries on just about all of them) was put together.

Lopez: Who died and made you and your co-editors the god of who is and isn’t conservative–or at least worthy of the American Conservatism encyclopedia?

Frohnen: The flippant answer to that question would be “an awful lot of people had to die.” And in a sense it would be true. This encyclopedia became possible because we’ve now had a couple of generations of modern conservatives; the philosophy and the movement have been around long enough now that we can see what changes and what abides over time. Unfortunately, this means that most of the great, paradigm-forming conservative minds have passed from the scene.

One thing that has abided has been the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the educational and publishing outfit at the heart of the encyclopedia project. The encyclopedia began as an answer to The Encyclopedia of the American Left–a social science-y look at left-wing political movements. Gregory Wolfe was asked to edit an “Encyclopedia of the American Right.” He didn’t have the administrative infrastructure to finish that, and five years ago or so ISI asked me to come on board to rethink and finish up the project with their books editor, Jeremy Beer, and publisher, Jeff Nelson. ISI picked us, and we got a heck of a lot of input, not just from ISI staff, but also from an editorial advisory board that included conservative luminaries like historians George Nash, Forrest McDonald, and Eugene Genovese. I wouldn’t say any of us got to play god on this one.

Lopez: Besides, say, editors at National Review, who’s going to buy this book? Who is it useful for?

Frohnen: We put this book together with the intention of appealing to anyone at all interested in conservatism–and its intellectual and political elements in particular. It should be useful as a reference tool for anyone studying politics and/or philosophy and/or journalism–it’s cross-referenced and even has listings for further reading. It also should be a fun book to dip into for anyone interested in the world of politics and ideas. It also has a very pretty cover and a lot of really cool pictures inside, so people should feel free to get it as a gift or a coffee-table book. I guess my point is: Every human being in America, if not the world, should own at least one copy of this book.

Lopez: We really shouldn’t be having this interview, by the way. No entry for “K-Lo”? No entry for The Corner (yes, I know it gets a brief mention on page 563, but I want more)?

Frohnen: Apparently we didn’t get your check. But don’t be too upset. You can still get your bid in for the second, expanded edition.

Lopez: Seriously though, how did you’ all determine what made it in and what didn’t. And, even better WHO made it in and who didn’t?

Frohnen: Again, there was quite a bit of input from quite a few people. But the criteria themselves were arrived at with a good deal of care. As we revised the entries we already had, and re-thought the project, we decided on one central criterion: the topic must have been of substantial importance to the shaping of postwar American conservatism, taken as primarily an intellectual (rather than just a political or social) movement. As a result, while we included some politicians, journalists, foreign figures, and people from eras before 1945, we included them only according to how important they were to the development of postwar conservatism. Margaret Thatcher is the only non-American politician (besides Edmund Burke). Also, we didn’t include many young people–that’s the real reason you didn’t make it in, you’re just too darned young. And we didn’t include entries on most of the philosophical heavy hitters from before Burke’s time.

It was pretty much the same with institutions. Relatively new outfits generally didn’t make it into the encyclopedia because it’s simply too early to know how they will influence conservatism.

Lopez: There are no Crunchy Cons?!

Frohnen: No, no Crunchy Cons. But then, as members of what is basically a traditionalist movement, crunchies should have no problem waiting a generation or two before getting into the encyclopedia.

Lopez: What were a couple of entries particularly painful to cut? Enough so that you want NRO readers to feel your pain?

Frohnen: By far the most painful entries for the editors to cut were those on Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeff Nelson. Actually, I’ll show my egghead-ishness and say that the entry I argued for most, and that didn’t get in, was the one on David Hume. He was an important philosopher, a British Tory who did a great deal to advance skepticism and a kind of argument for limited government and cultural quietism. I thought it would be highly useful to have an entry on him as a means of explaining many of the prominent strains in conservatism–Hume clearly has been influential, but on non- or a-religious conservatives more concerned with peace and order than with virtue. But in American terms he’s a problematic figure–Burke called him a Tory by accident. If this were a more philosophical work, or a work on British conservatism, I would have won the argument. As it is, the decision to leave him out probably was the right one.

Lopez: What’s the most obscure entry you’ve got in there?

Frohnen: I wouldn’t want to call anyone or anything in the encyclopedia obscure. However. . . I would say that people probably will see some names and institutions they haven’t heard of before. Most of them, I think, will be journalists and journals from the first half of the twentieth century. Some of the journals didn’t last long and some of the journalists never reached a wide audience, so they aren’t noticed much now. But some–for instance the financial journalist Garrett Garet–helped galvanize libertarians and traditionalists in opposition to the New Deal. In fact, one of the great things about putting together this encyclopedia was the opportunity it provided of recovering and perhaps preserving important parts of conservatism’s own history.

Lopez: Any entries you had to fight to get in?

Frohnen: I actually had given up on getting an entry included on the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott–too English, too skeptical. But right near the end there was a change of heart at ISI, given Oakeshott’s tremendous influence on contemporary American conservative academics.

Lopez: Has anyone (besides me) complained yet?

Frohnen: Some entries slated for inclusion in the original “Encyclopedia of the American Right” didn’t make it into the final encyclopedia because of the change in focus. From a reference work on the politics of the right, including much on extremist movements and political science terms of art, it became a work on the postwar conservative intellectual movement. A couple of people were less than happy at having their entries dropped, and I’m sorry about that. I’m sure Jeremy Beer and Jeff Nelson have heard other complaints, but they haven’t been forwarded to me yet, thank goodness.

Lopez: There’s an entry for C. S. Lewis, but not J. R. R. Tolkien. Are you trying to start another war?

Frohnen: I’m a lover, not a fighter. Of course, Lewis and Tolkien both are critical to a full understanding of Christianity and its role in Western culture. But Tolkien’s work was in English literature, and in the writing of literature himself–literature that is not overtly political. Lewis, meanwhile, wrote a number of important works in Christian apologetics, and that work forced him into public discussions of the role of religion in public life. It was as an important figure who argued for the role of religion and religious authority in grounding any decent, humane society that Lewis is important to conservatism as such. There is no intended slight to Tolkien, a great favorite of mine and, I’m sure, the other editors.

Lopez: If you had a young conservative in front of you who you wanted to get something out of the encyclopedia but who you knew wouldn’t read the whole thing, what top-ten entries would you direct him to?

Frohnen: I think it would be important for him to read a few entries each on important ideas, people, and institutions. And I probably would point him toward more general entries because they would include cross-listed references to more specific entries he might want to turn to from there. Frankly, I’m not a “greatest hits” kind of guy, so my list would be intended to draw the reader into seeking out more entries than ten, rather than to pick out the “10 essential” entries. But I’d say start with the entries on conservatism and libertarianism, then move on to an important idea behind current debates, like “science and scientism.” Then some key people like Russell Kirk, Ludwig von Mises, and Bill Buckley, then someone crucial to understanding some events and arguments central to conservatism–perhaps Joseph McCarthy. On institutions I’d probably start on “media, conservative” and “foundations, conservative” for an overview of how the movement “works.” Top it off with an entry on an important but debated sub-movement like the New Urbanism, and you’ve got what I think would be a good introduction, but only an introduction.

Lopez: Isn’t it too bad you couldn’t get Whittaker Chambers to write the Ayn Rand entry?

Frohnen: I think Ayn Rand has suffered enough. Goodness knows Whittaker Chambers has.

Lopez: Actually…how the heck did you get Russell Kirk to write an entry? He died in 1994 and yet he is contributing the item on John Randolph. Did you hold a séance?

Frohnen: Kirk would have like that. But no, we didn’t hold séances, for Russell, or for M. E. Bradford, or for a number of other important figures whose work appears in the encyclopedia. “Fifteen years in the making” is what the cover material says, and it’s true. Sadly, those 15 years were ones during which we lost quite a few giants of the conservative movement. I feel very fortunate that we have some of their last words in the encyclopedia.

Lopez: Were you concerned about conflicts of interest among encyclopedia contributors? Were there any rules?

Frohnen: Some of the institutional entries in particular were troubling in this regard. At times, even in dealing with fairly important institutions, the only people we could find willing and possessed of the requisite knowledge to write entries were connected with the institution. At this point the editors took it as their task to make certain that there was no public relations work going on. Pretty much all of the authors were good about that. Where needed we trimmed rhetoric to keep the entries centered on the facts. It would have been in no one’s interest to turn entries into mere salesmanship. I believe we succeeded rather well, but the reviews will tell. On the other potential problem, of friends (or distinctly unfriendly people) writing entries on particular people, we had the same set of issues–and for the dead as well as the living. Here in addition to worrying about overly friendly entries we also had to avoid entries that were too hostile to the entry subject–that would have meant descending into polemics, which aren’t useful. We made a point of having a variety of different viewpoints represented, particularly where ideas were under review, but also to see that all entries were fair and honest. Our goal was a volume that would give readers enough material to judge for themselves what to make of particular ideas, institutions, and people.

Lopez: Were any entries written by liberals?

Frohnen: Sure, classical liberals, libertarians, Christian humanists. In addition, on a number of issues–whether technical or purely historical–we simply didn’t know what party the writer would vote for, if any. But most of the authors are or were some kind of conservative for the simple reason that they were the ones who knew the material.

Lopez: Can the publication of this encyclopedia get people to stop misusing “neoconservative” once and for all? How high are your impact hopes in general?

Frohnen: We already noted that the editors are not God, so I expect the term “neoconservative” to continue to be misused. My hopes don’t go so high as to settle much of anything once and for all. I do hope that the encyclopedia will pique more people’s interest in the intellectual and historical foundations of conservatism–whether conservatives themselves, people on the other side of the political fence, or people who don’t know where they fit in the political landscape. A little knowledge can be dangerous, but it also can lead some people to pursue more knowledge. And we certainly could use more knowledge in contemporary political debates.

Lopez: Does the encyclopedia explain, once and for all, what it means to immanentize the eschaton?

Frohnen: It’s in the entry on Eric Voegelin. And you’ll have to read the entry for yourself to judge whether it’s been explained once and for all. I certainly hope not.

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