Politics & Policy

The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Then and Now

(Jerry Coli/Dreamstime)
Forty years after The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, its author reflects on conservatism’s turbulent past and problematic present.

EDITORS’ NOTE: This article is adapted from remarks delivered by the author at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Leadership Retreat in Phoenix, Ariz., on April 9, 2016, and at a conference held at the Hauenstein Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., on April 16, 2016.

A few years ago, the New York Times’s technology columnist, David Pogue, listed the five stages of grieving when you lose your computer files: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Moving to Amish Country. It sounds like a fair description of the mood gripping many American conservatives today.

Have conservatives lost their “computer files”? Reacting to our current political upheaval, many observers think so. But before we can assess conservatism’s present predicament, we need to understand how the present came to be. I propose to do this through the lens of the intellectual history of American conservatism after the Second World War, when the conservative community as we know it took form.

Modern American conservatism is not, and has never been, monolithic. It is a coalition with many points of origin and diverse tendencies that are not always easy to reconcile.

At the close of World War II, no articulate, coordinated conservative intellectual force existed in the United States. There were, at most, scattered voices of protest. Some of them were profoundly pessimistic about the future of their country and convinced that they were an isolated remnant on the wrong side of history. History, in fact, seemed to be what the Left was making. The Left — liberals, socialists, even Communists — appeared to be in complete control of the 20th century.

In the aftermath of the war, there was not one right-wing renaissance but three, each reacting in a different way to challenges from the Left. The first of these groupings consisted of classical liberals and libertarians, resisting the threat of the ever-expanding collectivist state to individual liberty. Convinced in the 1940s that post–New Deal America was rapidly drifting toward central planning and socialism — along what Friedrich Hayek famously called “the road to serfdom” — these intellectuals offered a powerful defense of free-market economics. They helped to make the old verities defensible again after the long nightmare of the Great Depression, which many people had seen as a failure of capitalism.

After World War II, there was not one right-wing renaissance but three, each reacting in a different way to challenges from the Left.

Concurrently, and independently of the classical liberals, a second school of anti-modern-liberal thought emerged in America: the so-called “traditionalism” of such writers as Richard Weaver, Peter Viereck, and Russell Kirk. Appalled by totalitarianism, total war, and the development of secular, rootless mass society during the 1930s and 1940s, the traditionalists (as they came to be called) urged a return to traditional religious and ethical absolutes and a rejection of the moral relativism that in their view had corroded Western civilization and produced an intolerable vacuum filled by demonic ideologies on the march. More European-oriented and historically minded, on the whole, than the classical liberals, and less interested in economics, the traditionalist conservatives extolled the wisdom of such thinkers as Edmund Burke and called for a revival of religious orthodoxy, classical natural-law teaching, and communitarian institutions mediating between the solitary citizen and the powerful state. Why did they advocate this? In order, they said, to reclaim and civilize the spiritual wasteland created by secular liberalism and by the false gods it had permitted to enter the gates.

From Russell Kirk’s monumental tome The Conservative Mind (1953), the traditionalists acquired something more: an intellectual genealogy and intellectual respectability. After Kirk’s book appeared, no longer could contemporary conservatives be dismissed, as John Stuart Mill had dismissed Britain’s Conservatives a century before, as “the stupid party.” Indeed, without Kirk’s fortifying book, the conservative intellectual community of the past three generations might never have acquired its identity and its name.

Third, there appeared in the 1940s and 1950s, at the onset of the Cold War, a militant, evangelistic anti-Communism, shaped by a number of ex-Communists and other ex-radicals of the 1930s, including the iconic Whittaker Chambers. These men and women formerly of the far Left, with their allies, brought to the postwar American Right a profound conviction — that America and the West were engaged in a titanic struggle with an implacable adversary, Communism — that sought nothing less than the conquest of the world.

Each of these emerging components of the conservative revival shared a deep antipathy to 20th-century liberalism. To the libertarians, modern liberalism — the liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt and his successors — was the ideology of the ever-aggrandizing, bureaucratic welfare state, which would, if unchecked, become a collectivist, totalitarian state, destroying individual liberty and the private sphere of life. To the traditionalists, modern liberalism was an inherently corrosive philosophy that was eating away like an acid not only at our liberties but also at the moral and religious foundations of a healthy, traditional society, thereby creating a vast spiritual vacuum into which totalitarianism could enter. To the Cold War anti-Communists, modern liberalism or progressivism — rationalistic, relativistic, secular, anti-traditional, and quasi-socialist — was by its very nature incapable of vigorously resisting an enemy on its left. Liberalism to them was part of the Left and could not effectively repulse a foe with which it shared so many underlying assumptions. As the conservative Cold War strategist James Burnham eventually and trenchantly put it, liberalism was essentially a means for reconciling the West to its own destruction. Liberalism, he said, was the ideology of Western suicide.

In the 1950s and early 1960s the three independent wings of the conservative revolt against the Left began to coalesce around National Review, founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955. Apart from his extraordinary talents as a writer and public intellectual, Buckley personified each impulse in the evolving coalition. He was at once a traditional Christian, a defender of free-market economics, and a fervent anti-Communist.

Buckley personified each impulse in the evolving coalition. He was at once a traditional Christian, a defender of free-market economics, and a fervent anti-Communist.

As this consolidation began to occur, however, a severe challenge arose to the conservative identity: a growing and permanent tension between the libertarians and the traditionalists. To the libertarians, the highest good in society was individual liberty, the emancipation of the autonomous self from external (especially governmental) restraint. To the traditionalists (who tended to be more religiously oriented than most libertarians), the highest social good was not unqualified freedom but ordered freedom, grounded in community and resting on the cultivation of virtue in the individual soul. Such cultivation, argued the traditionalists, did not arise spontaneously. It needed the reinforcement of mediating institutions (such as schools, churches, and synagogues) and, at times, of the government itself.

Not surprisingly, this conflict of visions generated a tremendous controversy on the American Right in the early 1960s, as conservative intellectuals attempted to sort out their first principles. The argument became known as the freedom-versus-virtue debate. It fell to a former Communist and chief ideologist at National Review, Frank Meyer, to formulate a middle way, which became known as fusionism. In brief, Meyer argued that the overriding purpose of government was to protect and promote individual liberty, but the supreme purpose of the free individual should be to pursue a life of virtue, unfettered by and unaided by the State.

As a purely theoretical construct, Meyer’s fusionism did not convince all his critics, then or later. But as a formula for political action and as an insight into the actual character of American conservatism, his project was a considerable success. He taught libertarian and traditionalist purists that they needed one another and that American conservatism must not become doctrinaire. It must stand neither for dogmatic anti-statism, at one extreme, nor for moral authoritarianism, at the other, but for a society in which people are simultaneously free to choose and desirous of choosing the path of virtue.

In arriving at this modus vivendi, the architects of fusionism were aided immensely by the third element in the growing coalition: anti-Communism, a viewpoint that nearly everyone could share. The presence in the world of a dangerous external enemy — the Soviet Union, the mortal foe of liberty and virtue, of freedom and faith — was a crucial, unifying cement for the nascent conservative movement.

Politically, the postwar American Right as I have described it found its first national expression in the presidential campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964. It was not long after that election that a new impulse appeared on the intellectual scene, one destined to become the fourth component of the conservative coalition. I refer to the phenomenon known as neoconservatism. Irving Kristol’s definition conveys its original essence: “A neoconservative,” he said, “is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” And maybe you have heard the definition of a neoliberal: a liberal who has been mugged by reality but refuses to press charges. In any case, one of the salient developments of the late 1960s and 1970s was the intellectual journey of various liberals and social democrats toward conservative positions and affiliations. By the early 1980s many of them were participating in the Reagan Revolution.

Meanwhile another development — one destined to have enormous political consequences — began to take shape in the late 1970s: the grassroots “great awakening” of what came to be known as the Religious Right, or (more recently) social conservatives. Convinced that American society was in a state of vertiginous moral decline, and that what they called secular humanism — in other words, modern liberalism — was the fundamental cause and agent of this decay, the Religious Right exhorted its hitherto politically quiescent followers to enter the public arena in defense of their traditional moral code and way of life. The political landscape, especially in the Republican party, was transformed.

By the end of President Ronald Reagan’s second term in 1989, the American Right had grown to encompass five distinct impulses: libertarianism, traditionalism, anti-Communism, neoconservatism, and the Religious Right. And just as Buckley had done for conservatives a generation before, Reagan in the 1980s performed an emblematic and ecumenical function — a fusionist function, giving each faction a seat at the table and a sense of having arrived.

Yet even as conservatives in the 1980s gradually escaped the wilderness for the promised land inside the Beltway, the world they wished to conquer was changing in ways that threatened their newfound power. Ask yourselves this question: What has been the most historically significant date in our lifetimes? September 11, 2001? Perhaps. But surely the other such date was November 9, 1989, the night the Berlin Wall came down.

Since 1989, since the downfall of Communism in Europe and the end of what Ronald Reagan called the “evil empire,” one of the hallmarks of conservative history has been the reappearance of factional strains in the grand alliance. One source of rancor has been the ongoing dispute between the neoconservatives and their noninterventionist critics over post–Cold War foreign policy. Another fault line divides many libertarians and social conservatives over such issues as the legalization of drugs and same-sex marriage.

Aside from these built-in philosophical tensions, two fundamental facts of political life explain the recrudescence of these intramural debates in recent years. The first is what I call the “perils of prosperity.” Since 1980, prosperity has come to conservatism, and with it a multitude of niche markets and specialization on a thousand fronts. But with prosperity has also come sibling rivalry, tribalism, and a weakening of what I call “movement consciousness.” The “vast right-wing conspiracy” (as Hillary Clinton has called it) has grown too large for any single institution or magazine, like National Review in its early days, to serve as the movement’s gatekeeper and general staff. No longer does American conservatism have a commanding, ecumenical figure like Buckley or Reagan.

Underlying these centrifugal impulses is a phenomenon that did not exist 25 years ago: what Charles Krauthammer recently called the “hyperdemocracy” of social media. In the ever-expanding universe of cyberspace, no one can be an effective gatekeeper because there are no gates.

The second fundamental fact of political life that explains the renewal of friction on the Right was the stunning end of the Cold War. Inevitably, the question then arose: Could a movement so identified with anti-Communism survive the disappearance of the Communist adversary in the Kremlin? Without a common external foe, it has become easier for former allies on the Right to succumb to the bane of all coalitions: the sectarian temptation. It is an indulgence made much easier by the advent of the Internet.

Could a movement so identified with anti-Communism survive the disappearance of the Communist adversary in the Kremlin?

The conservative intellectual movement, of course, did not vanish in the 1990s. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that unyielding anti-Communism supplied much of the glue in the post-1945 conservative coalition and that the demise of Communism in Europe weakened the fusionist imperative for American conservatives.

One of the earliest signs of this was the rise in the 1980s and early 1990s of a militant group of conservative traditionalists who took the label “paleoconservatives.” Initially, paleoconservatism was a response to the growing prominence within conservative ranks of the erstwhile liberals and social democrats known as neoconservatives. To angry paleocons, led by Patrick Buchanan among others, the neocons were “interlopers” who, despite their recent movement to the right, remained at heart secular, crusading Wilsonians and believers in the welfare state. In other words, the paleos argued, not true conservatives at all.

As the Cold War faded, paleoconservatism introduced a discordant note into the conservative conversation. Fiercely and defiantly “nationalist” (rather than “internationalist”), skeptical of “global democracy” and post–Cold War entanglements overseas, fearful of the impact of Third World immigration on America’s historically Europe-centered culture, and openly critical of the doctrine of global free trade, paleoconservatism increasingly resembled much of the American Right before 1945 — before, that is, the onset of the Cold War. When Buchanan campaigned for president in 1992 under the pre–Pearl Harbor isolationist slogan of “America First,” the symbolism seemed deliberate and complete.

Despite the initial furor surrounding the paleoconservatives, they have remained a relatively small faction within the conservative community. Still, as the post–Cold War epoch settled in during the 1990s, they were not alone among conservatives in searching for new sources of unity — a new fusionism, as it were, for a new era. Thus in recent years we have heard about “compassionate conservatism,” “reform conservatism,” and “constitutional conservatism,” among other formulations.

 American conservatism, then, as I have described it in this essay, is fundamentally a coalition. And, like all coalitions, it contains within itself the potential for splintering — never more so, perhaps, than right now.

Like all coalitions, conservatism contains within itself the potential for splintering — never more so, perhaps, than right now.

For as the Cold War and its familiar polarities continue to recede from public memory, new trends and conflicts are filling the vacuum. Consider this datum: More people are now on the move in the world than at any time in the history of the human race, and more and more of them are making America their destination. The number of international students, for instance, attending American colleges and universities now exceeds a million per year — more than triple what it was in 1980. More than 800,000 of these students are from China. In addition, the United States is now admitting a million immigrants into permanent, legal residence every year — more than any other nation in the world.

This unprecedented, worldwide intermingling not just of goods and services but of peoples and cultures is accelerating, with consequences we have scarcely begun to fathom. Among them: the rise in recent years of a post-national, even anti-national, sensibility among our progressive elites and young people steeped in multiculturalism. For conservative believers in American exceptionalism, it is a disconcerting development.

This brings us to the phenomenon of the hour: insurgent populism on the Left and the Right. In its simplest terms, populism — defined as the revolt by ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites — has long existed in American politics. In its most familiar form, populism has been left-wing in its ideology, targeting bankers, wealthy capitalists, and corporations as villains — “millionaires and billionaires,” in Bernie Sanders’s parlance.

But populism in America has sometimes taken a conservative form as well. In the 1970s and 1980s it did so under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, who brilliantly articulated a populistic, libertarian aversion to meddlesome and unaccountable government. If left-wing populism has traditionally aimed its fire at Big Money, the corporate elite entrenched on Wall Street, right-wing populism of the Reaganite and tea-party variety has focused its wrath on Big Government — the progressive public-sector elite ensconced in Washington.

Until a few months ago, it appeared to me that the election of 2016 might become a showdown between these two competing forms of populism in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008. Victory, I thought, would go to whichever party better explained the causes of the Great Recession of 2008 and the years of malaise that followed. What I did not foresee before last summer was the volcanic eruption in 2015 of a new and even angrier brand of populism, a hybrid that I will call Trumpism.

Politically, Trumpism’s antecedents may be found in the presidential campaigns of Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan in the 1990s. Intellectually, Trumpism bears a striking resemblance to the anti-interventionist, anti-globalist, immigration-restrictionist, America First worldview propounded by various paleoconservatives during the 1990s and ever since. It is no accident that Buchanan, for example, is overjoyed by Donald Trump’s candidacy. Instead of venting anger exclusively at left-wing elites, as conservative populism in its Reaganite and tea-party variants has done, the Trumpist brand of populism is simultaneously assailing conservative elites, including the Buckley-Reagan conservative intellectual movement that I described earlier. In particular, Trumpism is deliberately breaking with the conservative internationalism of the Cold War era and with the pro-free-trade, supply-side-economics orthodoxy that has dominated Republican policymaking since 1980.

So what manner of “rough beast” is this, “its hour come round at last”? Speaking analytically, I believe we are witnessing in an inchoate form the birth of a political phenomenon never before seen in this country: an ideologically muddled, “nationalist-populist” major party combining both left-wing and right-wing elements. In its fundamental outlook and public-policy concerns, it is somewhat akin to the National Front in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party in Great Britain, the Alternative for Germany party, and similar protest movements in Europe. Most of these insurgent parties are conventionally labeled right-wing, but some of them are noticeably statist and welfare-statist in their economics — as is Trumpism in certain respects. Nearly all of them are responding to persistent economic stagnation, massively disruptive global migration patterns, and terrorist fanatics with global designs and lethal capabilities. In Europe as well as America, the natives are restless — and for much the same reasons.

Trumpism and its European analogues are also being driven by something else: a deepening conviction that the governing elites have neither the competence nor the will to make things better. When Donald Trump burst onto the political scene last summer, many observers noticed that one source of his instant appeal was his brash transgression of the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. The more he transgressed them, the more his popularity seemed to grow, particularly among those who lack a college education.

What was happening here? The rise of Trumpism in the past year has laid bare a potentially dangerous chasm in our politics: not so much between the traditional Left and Right but rather (as someone has put it) between those above and those below on the socio-economic scale. In Donald Trump, many of those “below” have found a voice for their outrage at what they consider to be the cluelessness and condescension of their “betters.”

In the last year, these tensions have flared into an ideological civil war on the right. As the debate has unfolded, many conservative intellectuals have attempted to accommodate what they see as the legitimate grievances expressed by Trump’s supporters. But conservatives diverge profoundly in their appraisal of the phenomenon itself and of the man who has become its champion. To conservatives in the “Never Trump” movement, who have vowed never to vote for him under any circumstances, Trump is an ignoramus and carnival barker at best, and a bullying proto-Fascist at worst. To many on the other side of the Great Divide, it is not Trump but an allegedly decadent and intransigent conservative “establishment” that is the threat, and they are attacking it savagely. Joining the effort to radically reconfigure conservatism on nationalist-populist lines is an array of aggressive dissenters called the “alternative right” or “alt-right,” many of whom openly espouse white nationalism and white-identity politics.

It is a remarkable development, one that has now led to what can only be described as a struggle for the mind and soul of American conservatism. In these stormy circumstances, it would be foolish to prophesy the outcome. Suffice it to say that in all my years as a historian of conservatism, I have never observed as much dissension on the Right as there is at present.

Now, some may see in this cacophony a sign of vitality, and perhaps it will turn out to be so. But conservatives, more than ever, need minds as well as voices. In this season of discontent, it might be useful for conservatives to step back for a moment and ask a simple question: What do conservatives want? What should they want? Perhaps by getting back to basics, conservative intellectuals can restore some clarity and direction to the debate.

What do today’s conservatives want? To put it in elementary terms, I would say that they want what nearly all conservatives since 1945 have wanted: They want to be free, they want to live virtuous and meaningful lives, and they want to be secure from threats both beyond and within our borders. They want to live in a society whose government respects and encourages these aspirations while otherwise leaving people alone. Freedom, virtue, and safety: goals reflected in the libertarian, traditionalist, and national-security dimensions of the conservative movement as it has developed over the past 70 years. In other words, there is at least a little fusionism in nearly all of us. It might be something to build on.


For three generations now, conservatives have committed themselves to defending the intellectual and spiritual foundations of Western civilization: the resources needed for a free and humane existence. Conservatives know that we all start out in life as “rough beasts” who need to be educated for liberty if we are to secure its blessings. Elections come and go, but this larger work goes on.

However events unfold politically in the coming turbulent months, let conservatives remember their heritage and rededicate themselves to their mission.

— George H. Nash is the author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976). Copyright © 2016 by George H. Nash.

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