September 14, 2009


Taking the Right Seriously: Conservatism is a tradition, not a pathology (Mark Lilla, 9/11/09, The Chronicle Review)

It's not even clear that the faculty members involved have figured out what terms like "right wing" and "conservative" might mean. The Web-site blurb introducing the center describes anti-Communism as the "transcendent" issue for the right for most of the 20th century, and says that since the end of the cold war, right-wing groups have "spun on to the political stage with centripetal energy," whatever that means. This statement does not inspire confidence. In fact, the right-wing political parties in Europe have much older pedigrees, going back to the 19th-century counterrevolution. So do American and British conservatism, which came onto the political scene at least a century before 1989. In his recent book, The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History (Yale University Press), Patrick Allitt, a professor of history at Emory University, explores the full range of conservative concerns: states' rights, religion, the corruptions of urban life, immigration, the League of Nations, mass democracy, creationism, the New Deal, free markets, race, and so on.

It is a convenient left-wing dodge to reduce 20th-century American conservatism to cold-war politics, since it implies that conservative ideas are embedded in a world that no longer exists and never should have. In fact, in the 1930s American conservatives were far more obsessed with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his domestic legacy than with Joseph Stalin, and looked askance at all foreign entanglements, including the Second World War. The anti-Communist cause was first conceived by cold-war liberals, not by conservatives.

And what of the Berkeley center's mission to encourage and nurture "comparative scholarship on right-wing movements both in the U.S. and abroad during the 20th and 21st centuries"? That could be a good thing. For instance, it would be useful to know something about the affinities between European right-wingers like Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front in France, and David Duke, the American white supremacist and anti-Semite now living, as it happens, in Austria. But mainstream American conservatism, which pretty much is all there is to the American right, shares nothing meaningful with those protofascist figures. Our conservatives accept the legitimacy of constitutional self-government, even when they hate the legislation and court decisions resulting from it; they play by the rules. The same cannot be said of the European right, which has always been suspicious of parliamentary politics. One wonders whether "comparative study" in the Berkeley context presumes a continuous slippery slope running from conservatism down to violent far-right movements. It's a little like the Hoover Institution announcing a study "comparing" the Red Brigades with, say, Adlai Stevenson.

But beggars can't be choosers. The unfortunate fact is that American academics have until recently shown little curiosity about conservative ideas, even though those ideas have utterly transformed American (and British) politics over the past 30 years. A look at the online catalogs of our major universities confirms this: plenty of courses on identity politics and postcolonialism, nary a one on conservative political thought. Professors are expected to understand the subtle differences among gay, lesbian, and transgender studies, but I would wager that few can distinguish between the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute, three think tanks that have a greater impact on Washington politics than the entire Ivy League.

Why is that? The former left-wing firebrand David Horowitz, whom the professors do know, has a simple answer: There is a concerted effort to keep conservative Ph.D.'s out of jobs, to deny tenure to those who get through, and to ignore conservative books and ideas. It is an old answer, dating back to the 1970s, when neoconservatives began writing about the "adversary culture" of intellectuals. Horowitz is an annoying man, and what's most annoying about him is that … he has a point.

Even the crazies at the town-hall meetings this summer were generally followers of Lyndon Larouche--a Democrat--not conservatives.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 14, 2009 9:07 AM
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