This being the 60th anniversary of the founding of National Review, I’ve been thinking about the early days of the magazine and the conservative movement, our mission statement, and the debates that shaped the first period of the project launched by William F. Buckley Jr. et al. in 1955. I am a great admirer of President Eisenhower’s, but the fact is that this magazine and the wider conservative project were in many ways founded to counteract Eisenhower-ism. (That Eisenhower was held in relatively low regard by our founders in 1955 need not preclude our admiration in 2015; one of the things about being a conservative is that you learn that a great many things eventually look good in retrospect.) Buckley in a letter to Max Eastman said part of his plan was to “read Dwight Eisenhower out of the conservative movement” on the grounds that “our principles are round and Eisenhower is square.”
What I mean by “Eisenhower-ism” is the mode of political negotiation that ruled the immediate postwar order. What was that order like? Buckley and his crew very much had in mind Lionel Trilling’s 1950 declaration that in the United States there was no conservatism per se, only a series of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” (Trilling lived long enough to have second thoughts about what the Left in power eventually would become.) That being the case, National Review’s battle cry — Standing athwart history, yelling “Stop!” — was the most conservatives thought they could hope for. As a practical matter, this cultural reality meant that the way politics and policy worked was that within institutions from Congress to the universities a negotiation between liberal and liberal-ish interests arrived at a consensus, and conservatives endeavored to mitigate the damage. This has from time to time been mocked as “Yes, But” conservatism, or “Less of the Same” conservatism, but given the scope of the Left’s project from the close of the war through the 1970s, those yes-but and less-of-the-same victories turned out to have been important. Eisenhower was a yes-but guy: He had no interest in repealing the New Deal or in leading the United States in “covetously consolidating its premises,” as the National Review mission statement puts it. Eisenhower Republicans were mainly with Buckley in their suspicion of “radical social experimentation,” but they were driving a car in which they had access only to the brakes while the Left controlled the accelerator.
You may not have noticed, but that has changed.
Consider the immediate matter of the Syrian-refugee question. When Congress acts on that issue, the politics will work like this: Paul Ryan will consult with Republican leaders and Democratic leaders, but knowing that both prudence and public opinion are on his side, he will generate a compromise proposal that is founded on the conservative view of the matter. And it is almost certain that no matter what that looks like, conservatives will reject it. The House Freedom Caucus and other conservatives of that kidney already are complaining that the “pause” Ryan is considering, and the enhanced requirements that the DNI and the FBI and the DHS all sign off on whatever new screening protocols are developed, is insufficient. The conversation on talk radio and online suggests very strongly that the Right in Congress is positioning itself to be displeased with whatever it is that Ryan comes up with. Some of that is substance, and some of that is strategy.
Setting aside for the moment any analysis of whether the Right is justified in its inconsolability, this represents a different mode of negotiation from that which prevailed under Eisenhower-ism. Then, it was the Right trying to slow down the products of liberal consensus; today, it is the Right considering the products of conservative consensus and demanding further satisfaction. “We could agree to a little bit less than that” has been replaced by “You’re going to have to give us more than that.”
That is a fundamental shift. President Reagan, for all his popularity, never managed to invert the postwar political model in quite that way; it wasn’t until the 1994 insurgency led by Newt Gingrich, the Contract With America, and, most important, the three-round fight over welfare reform in which Bill Clinton eventually tapped out that this really became visible. Buckley was known to quote T. S. Eliot’s dictum that there are no lost causes because there are no won causes, and this is not, needless to say, representative of a permanent victory — only an upper hand. It is an upper hand that the Right sometimes uses irresponsibly, in no small part because of the way the new political dynamic interacts with the narrow political interests of certain elected officials and the commercial interests of certain media franchises, and it has led to the emergence of an unseemly strain of takfiri conservatism organized around the ritual denunciation of apostasy. (Which, strangely enough, has empowered the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, who if nominated would be the least conservative man to lead the Republican party since Thomas Dewey.) And Republicans are famously capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory — the united GOP government under George W. Bush laid the political groundwork for the Obama-Reid-Pelosi triumvirate whose short-lived shenanigans will take a generation to pay off.
But the real debate is within the Right. The Right has the ideas, the Left’s last two big ideas having been socialism and identity politics, the former already having run its miserable course and the latter now devouring itself on college campuses around the country in an orgy of mau-mauing that has even the likes of Jonathan Chait going all queasy. To the extent that the Left has a big idea remaining, it’s the embarrassing faux-pragmatism of the Ezra Klein school, i.e. shame-facedly denying the notion that it has any ideas at all. And for now, though it isn’t always obvious and the fruits of the fact have yet to be harvested, the Right has the upper hand, too.
So, standing athwart history yelling — what?
What to do with the moment’s advantage isn’t a simple question, but allow me to suggest that the very different outcomes of Gingrich vs. Clinton on the matter of welfare reform and Gingrich vs. Clinton on the matter of impeachment may offer some general guidance.