The Ascendance of American Conservatism

Author: Alfred S. Regnery

Simon & Schuster, Inc, 2008

Alfred Regnery describes conservatism and its growth as a movement since 1945. In his final chapter, "We Are All Conservatives Now," he writes that by the end of the Reagan administration the conservative movement "had come a long way from those early, lonely days of the 1950s." By then, he writes, "few denied that conservatism had developed into one of the most potent political movements of the twentieth century."

Regnery describes the ups and downs of "the movement" following the Reagan administration. President George H.W. Bush, he writes, "squandered Reagan's inheritance," replacing Reagan appointees "with vanilla Republicans loyal to the Bush family rather than to conservative principle." Pat Buchanan took up the conservative cause in his run against Bush in 1992, and if Buchanan had any impact it was to accelerate the "culture wars." During the Clinton administration, "conservatives learned how to use their power effectively to attack Clinton's initiatives." The congressional election of 1994, writes Regnery, "was the greatest conservative victory since Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 ... Conservatives were for the first time in years, setting the agenda in Congress." Then it was down again. "... members of Congress, eaten up by their overwhelming desire to keep their jobs, and thinking they needed to move to the center to do so, abandoned their conservative principles." President George W. Bush talked like a conservative "while governing like a big-spending liberal."

Regnery hails the growing conservatism of the Supreme Court and describes the left as still dominant in the universities, "where a vast majority of faculty and administrative staff are decidedly left of center, left of the student body, and left of public opinion.

What is conservatism? Regnery writes that "... much of conservatism is a reaction to liberalism." He writes of Teddy Roosevelt setting the stage for much of President Wilson's accomplishments: "... big government, scientific administration, social reform, and government power to protect "the weak" against "the powerful." Among Wilson's "many questionable legacies were presidents Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt." President Herbert Hoover was inclined to rely "on the ability of the government to solve problems in America's culture and intellectual life." Writes Regnery:

Hoover had been elected in large part because of his reputation as the consummate planner and administrator. But he could not plan and administer the country out of the Depression. His interventionism, moreover, was abhorred by the business community.

Regnery praises Hoover for becoming "much more conservative" after his presidency.

Of Franklin Roosevelt, Regnery writes: "Communism, the epitome of leftism, was considered idealistic and benign ... Roosevelt had referred to Stalin as "Uncle Joe." Regnery writes:

Liberal intellectuals were fascinated with Communism because it represented the ultimate extension of their interest in the possibilities of government power.

Regnery writes of conservatives taking the lead "in proclaiming Communism as a threat to the foundation of our country and way of life." The decade from 1945 to 1955, he writes "was the span when the intellectual foundation for the coming conservative movement was laid; a foundation that would serve as bedrock for the enduring movement."

Reacting to Stalinist Russia and to Western tendencies toward socialism were Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, two Austrian immigrants who offered ideas regarding free enterprise. Regnery writes that Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, "taught that central planning and freedom were incompatible" and that "a planned, centralized economy would lead to collectivation and tyranny." Regnery describes von Mises as believing that all the good things that government could guarantee would be at the expense of individual freedom and private property, that any attempt to dilute capitalism would result in statism, centralized planning, and the erosion of individual liberty.

Contributing to the conservative movement, according to Regnery, were libertarians concerned with individualism, individual freedom and free enterprise. There were also traditionalists, who were interested in preserving what was left of Western civilization. And there were the anti-Communists. Communism, writes Regnery, "represented everything abhorrent to Western values: it was tyrannical, oppressive, socialistic, and atheistic."

A part of the conservative movement, according to Regnery, was James Burnham, a former Communist, professor of philosophy at New York University. Regnery describes Burnham's measured response to Communism:

The struggle between Communism and the West, between slavery and freedom, was inescapably a struggle to the death. Its material weakness not withstanding, the Soviet Union had the advantage of a focused foreign policy with definite goals, and the internationalist appeal of its doctrine. To counter this peril, Burnham believed, America must assume leadership of the non-Communist world, transforming itself into an empire if necessary, to ensure its influence. After consolidating its alliances, the United States should roll back Communist influence and control wherever it existed until it liberated the Soviet Union itself.

Regnery writes of the House Committee on un-American Activities contributing to the conservative cause. It gave rise to Whittaker Chambers, described by Regnery as "a great witness" for the committee and whose "massive bestseller, Witness ... was immediately acclaimed as one of the great autobiographies of the century. " Regnery:

Whittaker Chambers planted the intellectual moorings for American conservatives that would last into the twenty-first century.

Regnery adds to his list of heroes a professor of English at the University of Chicago, Richard Weaver. Regnery writes that Weaver's book, Ideas Have Consequences, published in 1948, "became one of the major works that gave birth to the postwar conservative movement." Regnery:

Weaver argued that every culture must have its roots in what he called a metaphysical dream of reality, or enchanted view of the world. Western civilization's metaphysical dream of reality, rooted in medieval Christendom, had turned into the nightmarish twentieth century because of the triumph of William of Ockham's doctrine of nominalism.

Weaver, according to Regnery, contributed to tying the conservative movement "to a very old philosophical and Christian tradition." Weaver was a Platonist and thought that Christianity in Europe in the Middle Ages had produced the ideal society. William of Ockham was a Franciscan monk who, in the 1300s, rebelled against Plato's abstractions while attempting to return Christianity to its origins in faith, and inadvertently he contributed to the rise of science.

Regnery writes of the contribution of Russell Kirk and his book, The Conservative Mind, published in 1953. Kirk was another follower of Plato. And Kirk thought character important. Central to character, claimed Kirk, was Christian love. What Kirk admired about Western Civilization was the character of its best people. He connected this superior character with Western culture. He was referring to white people. Segregation of the races dominated the United States and South Africa at this time, and Russell Kirk wrote articles defending segregation in America's South and in South Africa.

Then came another devout Christian, William F. Buckley Junior. His book, God and Man at Yale, appeared in October, 1951, and caused a sensation among conservatives. In his book, Buckley complained that Yale was undermining faith by presenting Christianity alongside other religions without touting Christianity's superiority – or as Regnery describes it, as a "religious tradition equal in validity to others, and implicitly equally invalid." Buckley also charged Yale with, in Regnery's words, "promoting socialism and collectivism."

Regnery writes of the conservative movement taking off in the 1950s. "Dwight Eisenhower's election in 1952 was no boon to conservatives," he writes. Eisenhower's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Senate majority leader Robert Taft, Regnery describes as having been "a real conservative." After Taft died, William Knowland of California replaced Taft as the Senate Majority Leader. Regnery describes Knowland as "a friend and ally of Joe McCarthy." According to Regnery:

Knowland was a tough and stubborn conservative, but because of his vehement opposition to several of Ike's policies, he was effectively frozen from contact with the president, isolated, and thus virtually powerless.

In response to Eisenhower Republicanism, Bill Buckley and others began the magazine National Review. And as a rival to Eisenhower Republicanism there was Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater described Eisenhower as a "dime store New Dealer." He criticized Eisenhower for his willingness to talk to Khrushchev, and he was opposed to big government.

In 1964, the Republicans nominated Goldwater for president. Not mentioned by Regnery was Goldwater saying in a campaign speech, on October 1 in Hammand Indiana, that he would liberate Eastern Europe, and that only victory can end Communism, suggesting violent confrontation as a solution to the Cold War.

Goldwater lost to Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964. U.S. forces intervened in Vietnam. Regnery describes Vietnam as "the liberals" war. He thinks the war should never have been fought, yet conservatives and his hero, Ronald Reagan, were adamant supporters of that involvement. Regnery:

Most conservatives agreed with Barry Goldwater that "we had two clear choices; either win the war in a relatively short time, say within a year, or pullout all our troops and come home." But many conservatives supported the war because they viewed it as part of the larger fight against Communism.

Regnery writes of conservatism's disdain for Johnson's War on Poverty. The premise behind the War on Poverty, Regnery writes, "was vintage liberalism." About poverty, Regnery mentions conservative sociologist Charles Murray, author of "The Bell Curve."

Charles Murray showed that poverty rates for blacks and whites remained the same between 1968 and 1980, in spite of massive welfare payments. Moreover, welfare payments created monetary incentives for poor pregnant women not to get married. The result was that many – eventually most – didn't, so their children were raised without fathers playing an active role in their lives.

Regnery describes liberals as having believed that,

The only way to remedy poverty and injustice was to redistribute the national income from rich to poor. Whereas conservatives accepted inequality as natural and human suffering as a consequence of original sin, liberals believed that since man was naturally good, if he did commit a wrong or failed, the fault must be with society.

Regnery writes of conservatives having been bitter about Nixon's detente with Communist powers, bitter about Henry Kissinger's "stale international order" and other Nixon moves, such as price controls.

Regnery describes the Warren Court as having "largely gutted" America's domestic security program – a result of the Warren Court extending some rights to leaders of the U.S. Communist Party. Regnery describes Senator Goldwater's dislike for the Warren Court and declaration that the Constitution should be "strictly construed." Referring to the Supreme Court as part of the federal government, Goldwater complained, according to Regnery, that "nothing in [the constitution] sanctioned federal intrusion into such matters as agriculture and education."

Conservatism grew in response to what Regnery describes as "the cultural and political revolution of the 1960s and 1970s," which, he adds, was "engineered by the Supreme Court." He describes President Carter's proposed regulation requiring private schools either to prove they were actively trying to integrate or lose their tax-exempt status. This, writes Regnery, ignited the religious right's involvement in "real politics." He adds that "Abortion, feminism, pornography, sexual deviancy, the banning of school prayer, and the breakdown of the family made it apparent that Christian values were everywhere under attack."

Regnery describes neo-conservatives as former leftists turned off by the "counter culture, black power, sexual revolution, student protests, and the emerging hatred for America." They "realized that their previous philosophic assumptions had been mistaken." Regnery accepts the neo-cons into his tent of conservatives. He quotes Bill Buckley:

The neoconservatives lent us a discipline that we weren't born with, in the matter of arranging arguments, absorbing social data, action on them, bringing non-ideological skepticism, empirical skepticism to some of the major enterprises of the liberals.

Meanwhile, speaking in support of Goldwater in 1964, Ronald Reagan had become a more noticed champion of conservatism. Reagan ran for governor of California, and then in 1980 he won the presidency. Regnery writes that the "conservative movement came of age with Ronald Reagan." Regnery:

Reagan took the movement's idea, communicated them to the American people in understandable terms, and applied them to practical politics ... Within the movement he pulled anti-Communists, libertarians, economic conservatives, traditionalists and the Christian right, and even neoconservatives into a powerful coalition.

But then Reagan did what Eisenhower tried to do and Goldwater did not want to do: get along with the Soviet "bosses."

Chapter headings:

 1. The Passing of a Conservative

 2. It Wasn't Always That Way

 3. Intellectual Underpinnings

 4. A Movement Takes Off

 5. Political Theory Becomes Real Politics

 6. The Worst of Times

 7. The Neocons, the New Right, and the Grassroots

 8. The Bargain of a Lifetime

 9. The Law, the Courts, and the Constitution

10. Intllectual Developments, 1960 to the Present

11. Ronald Reagan

12 Conservatives and Free Enterprise

13. Religion and American Conservatism

14. We Are All Conservatives Now

Additional Onsite Reading

Political Conservatives in the West

Copyright © 2008-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.