In “Asteroid City,” directorial control competes with the free play that gives life to cinema.
How the Humanities Could Have Saved Conservatism
The title of this article cries out for explanation. Who says that American conservatism needed saving? And what is meant by “conservatism” and “the humanities”?
The American conservatism to which the title refers is much the same as what has been so described in numerous studies in the last half-century.
The movement started to take shape in the decade after the Second World War. The early 1950s saw the publication of a number of consequential books, notably Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind in 1953. Others were by Robert Nisbet, Peter Viereck, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss. Strauss’s Natural Right and History (1953) had a marked anti-historical, anti-Burkean bias but influenced the conservative movement because of its elitism and a moral philosophy seemingly similar to ancient Greek philosophy.
Another major figure who deeply affected the movement was the economist and social thinker Friedrich von Hayek. He had already published The Road to Serfdom during the war. Hayek was a classical liberal but stressed what social order, including a free economy, owes to historically evolved habits and beliefs, which connected him at least tenuously to a conservative such as Edmund Burke.
Postwar conservatism would, however, from the beginning also be strongly affected by classical liberalism of a more ahistorical, rationalistic type, often called libertarianism. The extent of that influence was but one indication that the emerging movement was prone to intellectual messiness and even incoherence.
More than any of the above, William F. Buckley and his National Review, started in 1955, gave the conservative movement its characteristic profile. Buckley and his followers opposed “the Leviathan State.” They were strongly anti-communist. They advocated limited government but favored a strong defense. They championed the American Constitution, free-market economics, and fiscal discipline. These objectives were vaguely associated with “saving Western civilization.” Although the movement invoked major thinkers, what most attracted its interest was practical politics.
Buckley and National Review tried, among other things, to create an alliance between supporters of laissez-faire capitalism and supporters of traditional religion, notably Roman Catholicism. The ex-communist senior editor Frank S. Meyer together with other contributors to the magazine famously attempted a “fusion” between classical liberalism and traditional moral-spiritual belief. Though philosophically rickety, “fusionism” provided ideological glue for a political alliance. It was this general intellectual orientation that gave the conservative movement its distinctive form.
National Review spearheaded the attempt to get Barry Goldwater nominated as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. Movement conservative historians have seen this effort as paving the way for Ronald Reagan, whose victories they called “the triumph of conservatism.”
This article will argue that the movement that is supposed to have triumphed actually failed where it counted the most.
The rough political consensus that held the movement together could not conceal deep intellectual fissures. The desire to build a political coalition trumped intellectual rigor. Ultimately incompatible elements of thought were artificially connected, as in “fusionism” and in the intellectual twists of National Review senior editor Willmoore Kendall, who combined admiration for the Framers of the Constitution with a fondness for their virtual opposite, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
From the beginning, the dubious emphasis on politics and the readiness to fudge central philosophical issues made some conservative thinkers uneasy. Russell Kirk and Peter Viereck are cases in point.
Kirk agreed to write a column for National Review but would not let his name be affixed to the masthead of the magazine. He knew that Buckley had priorities different from his. Kirk put emphasis on matters of culture, religion, mind, and imagination as being primary in shaping society. Peter Viereck had a very similar outlook. Both men had been deeply influenced by the Harvard professor Irving Babbitt, the chief figure in the so-called New Humanism, who had died in 1933.
Kirk’s and Viereck’s differences with Buckley went beyond the question of emphasis to specific political-intellectual disagreements. Kirk sharply dissented from Buckley’s readiness in his 1951 book God and Man at Yale to rescind academic freedom in order to root out atheism and socialism among faculty at his own alma mater and elsewhere. Kirk was more generally critical of libertarians, whom he attacked, rather sweepingly, as “utilitarians” and “chirping sectaries.” Viereck called Buckley a “Manchester liberal” and criticized his close association with Senator Joseph McCarthy and the right wing of the Republican Party. Viereck seemed at times to curry favor with the same progressive establishment that Buckley criticized.
These dissonances are not mentioned in order to assess their validity, but only to illustrate that Kirk and Viereck were uncomfortable with the Buckleyite notion of conservatism. What is of special interest here is a general and fundamental disagreement between them and Buckley and his followers that bears directly on the failure of the conservative movement.
Especially in the early days of the movement, Kirk was widely celebrated as the father of American postwar conservatism, yet few who so regarded him fully grasped what he had to say about the importance of the seemingly non-practical and intangible human activities that constitute “the culture,” to use a single term for the varied life of spirit, mind, and imagination.
The thesis of this article, in brief, is that, unlike Kirk, Viereck, and some other thinkers, most movement conservatives never really understood what most fundamentally governs human conduct. They felt that they should respect Kirk’s discussion of “humane” subjects such as literature, history, and philosophy, but they never quite comprehended the great power of “the culture” to shape human beings. One result of this shortcoming was an exaggerated view of the importance of politics and a truncated view of politics itself.
The conservative movement failed, first of all, by its own standards. For all of its well-financed opposition to big government, it could not stop the growth of the Leviathan State. For all of its talk of defending the Constitution and the rule of law, it was unable to avert their sharp decline. It could not head off the creation of the national-security and surveillance state that today routinely violates traditional American liberties. It was not able to stop the politicization of the judiciary and the criminalization of political opponents. For all of its theoretical commitment to fiscal discipline, it could not stop the enormous growth of the national debt. As for its support of a strong defense, Jacobin ideologues and oligarchic interests rather easily transformed this impulse into hawkish imperialism.
Talk in the 1980s of the “triumph” of conservatism revealed a glaring lack of understanding of what ultimately moves a society. While movement conservatives celebrated victory, the American mind and imagination continued to move in a different direction. The counterculture and New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s had seemed to fade, but they were but particular manifestations of a cultural radicalism that had long affected the Western world and that continued to fester. Given the trends in the academy and the arts, new waves of this radicalism were easily foreseeable. The surprise and disorientation of movement conservatives when wokeness and cancel culture burst on the scene confirmed their limited grasp of what sets a society’s direction and signals its health or illness.
Now what is meant by “the humanities”? The term is rather flexible. In academia it refers to the study of all those human activities that can be explored “from within.” What human beings have done, created, or claimed can to some considerable extent be recaptured and assessed by others. It is possible to form an intimate relationship with what others have wrought.
The study of the humanities ranges very widely, from wars and suffering to efforts to elevate the human condition. Religion, the arts, architecture, and philosophy, for example, are explored in an interactive manner that is not possible in the natural sciences. The latter subject matter can be approached only “from without,” abstractly and mechanically, by experimentally testing hypotheses. In the natural sciences, there can be no experiential intimacy with phenomena.
Students in the humanities try to make the work of others their own, not in the sense of simply accepting it or copying it, which is impossible, but in the sense of letting it expand, enrich, and challenge their own experience. What they study commands their attention as commentary on the human condition. The subject matter has a familiarity and interiority that is not possible in biology or quantum physics.
Mathematics and the natural sciences do not examine the distinctively human sphere of creativity and freedom, but, in a special sense, even they belong among the humanities, namely, as human activities whose nature can be explored. Studying what it is that humans do when they reason abstractly or experiment is a part of epistemology, which is a branch of the most encompassing and systematic of the humanities—that is, philosophy.
Until fairly recently, the humanities were focused on human achievements that many generations had found to be instructive concerning our own humanity. A kind of canon had evolved over the centuries regarding where to look for wisdom, truth, and beauty. Western civilization was defined by a view of the basic terms of human existence and of how to live and not to live. This consensus was not univocal or static. It emerged through disputes and critical scrutiny.
Academics in the humanities study life, but to be human is to participate, more or less, in its great bustling multifariousness—in morality, religion, customs, law, philosophy, drama, fiction, painting, music, theater, film, and entertainment—not on special occasions chiefly but as it permeates daily life. To be human is to breathe the air of the culture. Under its influence we experience and interpret whatever happens.
That movie we saw, that teacher we admired, that sermon we heard, that novel that stayed with us, that music we love—they have affected our sensibilities and deepest hopes and fears. They color our apprehension of reality, for good or ill. Having entered our innermost selves, they continue to echo in consciousness.
While there is inevitably an element of uniqueness in how individual human beings view the world, the currents that predominate within the culture to which they belong tend to pull them into the same tastes and perspectives, the same general sensibility and outlook. Those who are able to influence the culture and hence our sense of reality together wield enormous power. Yet it is power that American movement conservatives vastly underestimated.
That humans are thinking, reasoning beings goes without saying. What is much less well understood is that there is a more basic, more encompassing awareness of life that forms the background for and accompanies everything that we think and do. What most fundamentally holds our world together is a consciousness that owes little to deliberate critical intelligence.
That basic consciousness is all-embracing but pre-conceptual, pre-logical, pre-definitional. It is an intuitive, imaginative whole within which all particular phenomena occur and receive their significance. Reasoning in the stricter meaning of the word takes place within this pre-rational apprehension of reality and derives from it its notion of what is and is not important.
Many thinkers have influenced this writer’s understanding of this primary unifying power in consciousness, most especially Irving Babbitt and Benedetto Croce—to whom this writer was guided by his Swedish philosophical mentor Folke Leander (1910–1981)—but also Edmund Burke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They and modern aesthetics in general have demonstrated the synthetic and creative role of the imagination.
We often reserve the term “imagination” for acts of artistic creativity, the sort of thing that novelists, composers, and painters use. We may call great artists imaginative masterminds. But our most fundamental, if less concentrated and intense, consciousness of reality is also a form of the imagination. The human world is not some external reality into which we are fitted geographically. That world is the intuited whole within which we live. It is colored and structured by our imaginative proclivities, which reflect in large measure the biases of other human beings, including artists, whom we have admitted into our heart of hearts.
Although the intuited world is to some considerable extent beyond our control, the cumulative effect of a person’s interactions with “the culture” is profound. People from different cultural backgrounds experience the world differently. Their experience is affected not least by the imaginative masterminds who have made them see reality through their eyes. It is impossible to imagine what the world might have felt and looked like to people in the Western world without Homer, Sophocles, the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach, Rousseau, Goethe, Kant, Hegel, and Beethoven.
It was these influences that shaped Western elites and that were transmitted by them to the broad masses in simplified, watered-down versions. Countless cultural influences turned Western human beings into what they became. Today, a much different imagination, specifically woke and cancel culture, is trying to undo this heritage.
The point here is not that the world becomes whatever human beings wish it to be. They can imagine anything they want, but the real world, the one in which we act practically and encounter obstacles, mercilessly punishes attempts to evade basic facts of the human condition. The point is that such wisdom and nobility as any civilization achieves, or such decadence and horror that it produces, are fostered first and foremost by means of imagination.
To bring up this difficult topic of epistemology is bound to dishearten many readers, but without giving some idea of the meaning and role of the imagination it is not possible to explain why conservative neglect of the culture has been such a serious weakness. By capturing the imagination, the culture enters the innermost selves of individuals and shapes their conduct. The quality of imagination that predominates in a culture, including the humanities, sets the pulse of society. Whatever that quality, good or bad, it tangibly affects practice, such as political and economic activity. Look, for example, at today’s woke corporations and politicians.
That rationality is a part of what constitutes human life is not in dispute. Rationality generates its own critical, conceptual grasp of reality. At its most ambitious, systematic, and careful, reason produces philosophy. Yet philosophy too is oriented by the pre-conceptual consciousness that is already organizing and directing our attention. Great power lies in the hands of those who are able to affect the perceptions, dreams, and fears that permeate a people’s imagination.
It is common to claim that some particular human drive is the basic propellant of life. Greed, sex, or a desire for power come immediately to mind. This way of understanding our humanity is reductionistic in that it neglects the complexity of human consciousness. Nothing in a human consciousness is simple and straightforward, certainly not money, sex, or power. Everything being connected to everything else, all cravings have layers and shades. All motives are mixed.
Unless the imagination has made a desire concrete and vivid, it does not attract our interest; it is not a desire in the first place. Only that which promises some excitement, however trivial, can move us. “Money,” “sex,” or “power” are single words for a very wide range of complex imagined possibilities—for example, money as the means to social respect or advancement, sex as involving beauty and enchanting circumstances, power as a source of deference from others. Desire enters human consciousness only as some kind of beguiling possibility. Without the always-active human imagination, desire would be inert, powerless to engage us. D. H. Lawrence was right: we live by what we thrill to. In order for something to thrill us, the imagination must have made it poignant and striking.
Artistic works capture our attention because of their high aesthetic quality, but they can have vastly different moral-spiritual content. Using a phrase from Edmund Burke, Babbitt called the truly great works of art “moral imagination.” They combine aesthetic value with depth of vision. But there are works of art that, precisely because of their aesthetic quality, pull individuals and societies into warped, degrading views of the world.
Babbitt explained how a certain romantic form of the imagination turned classical and Christian civilization inside out by radically redirecting its attention. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the great pioneer. He replaced the traditional Western view of morality and religion with a morality of the heart. Babbitt called this state of the imagination “sentimental humanitarianism.”
The new virtue rejected the Christian notion of original sin and the need for character to restrain man’s lower nature. Virtue would no longer be a form of the active will but an imaginative condition, self-congratulatory and tear-dripping warm feelings for those who suffer.
Man was good by nature but had been imprisoned by traditional civilization. The old idea that man needs the help of family, community, customs, and institutions to restrain his lower impulses was for Rousseau perverse. For life to become the experience of deep togetherness that his imagination envisioned, traditional civilization had to be discarded, root and branch. Mankind would be liberated. Rousseau was the first great proponent of cancel culture, the founder of what this writer calls liberationism.
It has never been clearer that Babbitt’s diagnosis of what most ails modern Western society gets to the heart of the matter. It is sentimental humanitarianism that more than anything else has undermined the classical and Christian heritage. This pseudo-spiritual way of imagining human existence makes it possible to be a moral hero in your own eyes without having to undergo any exacting rigors to improve yourself. All that is required to receive high marks for virtue is to emote in favor of disadvantaged groups and entertain benevolent-sounding plans for transforming society and the world.
Sentimental humanitarianism ridiculously boosts the self-regard of the bearer. Virtue-signaling has for a very long time been the preferred morality of modern Western elites. It is today ubiquitous in the general population. Over a century ago Babbitt identified, explained, and exposed this moral posturing, but, with few exceptions, movement conservatives never caught on to the depth, brilliance, and far-reaching importance of Babbitt’s analysis.
This writer has put much effort into demonstrating that willfulness routinely colors our picture of the world. It does so by making the imagination its accomplice. The imagination projects onto consciousness a self-serving sense of what life is like. We let pleasing imagination flood our mind so that we see what we want to see, whether that is a dark or rosy view of existence. Different persons become attached to different pictures of the world. In this way, reason itself becomes to a large extent reasoning toward preconceived conclusions. Rarely, if ever, is reason the kind of independent impartial power that rationalists take it to be. To think that the way we view the world is unaffected by self-serving desire is an illusion.
Self-flattering sentimental humanitarianism has profoundly influenced modern Western elites. Their imaginative habits have turned the world into a place where morally heroic persons—they themselves—fight injustice. Their notion of virtue is not a call to self and others to limit personal moral failings. By ignoring humanity’s darker side and the need for character formation, their moral posturing in practice unleashes that darker side, producing greed, crime, sexual promiscuity, deteriorating families, drug abuse, financial irresponsibility—in short, social disintegration.
Our impulse to cover up unpleasant truths, especially about ourselves, makes genuine open-mindedness hard to achieve. Only to the extent that we manage to rein in our willfulness do we become decently unbiased and receptive to truth. Paradoxical though it sounds to rationalists, truth presupposes honesty, which is another way of saying moral character. A central objective of traditional Western civilization was to restrain the self-serving ego. The imagination was tethered to a realistic assessment of self and humanity and the dangers to which human beings are prone. For example, the ancient Greeks warned against hubris, and the Christians warned against pride. What Burke and Babbitt call the moral imagination tempers and defuses self-indulgent imagination.
But the imagination always threatens to cast off checks. Modern idealism—the dream of a world of perfect freedom and wonderful community—was tailor-made to release man from the old responsibility to work on the self. Under the influence of some version of liberationism, modern human beings have been strongly prone to ignore the need for controlling the darker side of their own humanity and instead to dream pretentiously of a better world. One result has been several horrendously costly and cruel revolutions, all intended to rid humanity of traditional civilization.
The Jacobin French Revolution of 1789 set the pattern. The twentieth century saw the Russian revolution of 1917 and the Nazi revolution, which Hermann Rauschning called the “revolution of nihilism.” China had the Maoist revolution. Today woke and cancel culture manifest the same liberationist impulse, mixing idealism and criminality.
The similarities among these revolutions are striking. Woke and cancel culture today are eerily reminiscent of the Chinese cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Assaults on authority figures, criticism and self-criticism, speech codes, and destruction of old monuments are supposed to usher in a glorious future.
The power of the imagination should be obvious from the historical record. Especially in the longer run, it is the culture that moves society. Only at their peril do politicians act against the deepest hopes and fears of a people. When they succeed in making major change the ground has usually been prepared by new desires emerging within the culture.
Many who consider themselves hard-nosed realists think of power as the ability to coerce others. Some think it a profound truth to say that what sets government apart is its monopoly on violence. This monopoly is what makes the state potentially dangerous. To regard the misuse of coercive power as the greatest threat to human well-being is to ignore what made tyrannical government possible in the first place. In America, the evolution of culture would have to have undermined constitutionalism and made possible the election of politicians prone to tyrannical conduct.
Over time, a perverse, decadent culture can do far greater damage to human lives than particular acts of coercive government. The culture has more far-reaching, penetrating, and lasting influence. We can observe in today’s Western world the results of a precipitous decline of the culture and its terrible human cost. The bad actions of politicians are chiefly the consequences of what happened in the culture long ago. A belief that government, autonomously pursuing bad policies, is the chief source of social disintegration betrays a truncated, simplistic understanding of political power and of what most profoundly shapes human beings.
The conservative intellectual resurgence in America after the Second World War evinced an impressive creativity and variety of expressions that ranged from theory and history to law, sociology, and economics. That Russell Kirk was long seen as the father of postwar American conservatism made it plausible to expect that this conservatism would understand what a revival of Western and American civilization most required. Kirk and Peter Viereck, who had come to prominence even before Kirk, were closely aligned in their understanding of human nature and society. Both understood that the heartbeat of a society is set by its culture.
During the war Viereck had published a groundbreaking study of Nazism that traced its origins to distinct, perverse cultural developments. Viereck himself later regretted the youthful philosophical immaturity of the book, but it was a groundbreaking application of Babbitt’s emphasis on the imaginative origins of social decline. Kirk and Viereck had political differences but agreed that reviving Western civilization and heading off the Leviathan State would require penetrating criticism of the deeper cultural trends that had caused the disasters of the twentieth century. The culture also had to be redirected through a creative traditionalism that brought the best of the past to bear on the present. Babbitt’s influence on both men had been profound. Viereck, who was a major poet as well as a cultural thinker, went even further than Kirk in explaining the meaning and central role of the imagination.
American conservatism might have been expected to devote great energy and resources to redirecting the culture, including the academic study of it. But this possibility came up against a formidable obstacle, the back side of a generally admirable American trait, that of pragmatism. American pragmatism has been a salutary check on frivolous, abstract speculation, including unrealistic political ideas, but it has long had a destructive aspect: a disinterest in supposedly non-practical matters that borders on the philistine. One of its effects was to make postwar conservatives believe that politics, not mind and imagination, held the key to social change.
The Buckleyite preoccupation with winning elections implied that ideas and the arts played at best a merely supportive or subordinate role. Putting the humanities and rigorous discourse in the back seat, the conservative movement became an intellectually muddled, even contradictory and self-destructive, political alliance.
Admirers of Kirk extolled the “moral imagination,” but even among them there was no strong interest in philosophically elucidating just what the imagination is and how it shapes our view of the world. In the movement as a whole, art and ideas were deemed interesting but mostly to the extent that they advanced a predetermined political agenda.
Though Kirk was often cited, many leading movement conservatives had a rather condescending view of him. He was “too literary” and “historical”—too far removed from practical realities. That Kirk might know far more than they about what moves a society in the long run seemed to them far-fetched. Was it not obvious that changing the course of America required electoral victories and policy think tanks?
The conservative movement did have several go-to serious thinkers who influenced its evolution. Two, who were refugees from Germany, Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, were particularly admired. Not surprisingly, they were both chiefly political thinkers. Irving Babbitt in the generation before them had all-important insights that they lacked, but the movement did not really heed him except at the margins and indirectly through Kirk, Viereck, George Panichas, and other admirers. It probably contributed to the neglect of Babbitt that he had been formally a professor of comparative literature and that his political thought was closely bound up with topics of literature, aesthetics, ethics, and general culture.
An important aspect of the insufficient attention paid to matters of mind and imagination was that American intellectual conservatism did not draw on, or itself develop, a mature philosophical culture. Though often eminently insightful, leading conservative thinkers favored high-level but largely essayistic writing. This put much of their work within reach of the more educated general public but left key ideas vague. Admirers outside of the movement might have given greater philosophical precision to or supplemented their work, but, partly because of the lower form of pragmatism, American intellectual life does not spontaneously gravitate in the direction of advanced philosophy.
It has been quite common for conservative writers to scoff at German philosophy as represented by the likes of Kant and Hegel, yet what seemed to many conservatives to be pretentious obfuscation was fully intelligible, though certainly not above criticism. Conservative discussion of philosophy tended to become vague and, at times, provincial. Because there was no strong intellectual dynamic favoring arbiters with rigorous philosophical standards, it fell to media celebrities, writers of snappy articles, and magazine editors to make or break reputations.
It was a basic lack of philosophical discernment that made the conservative movement eventually accept as gatekeepers and arbiters “neoconservative” public intellectuals who used some conservative-sounding language but belonged to the progressive establishment. Contrary to the belief of many movement conservatives, neglect of philosophy is no mere academic matter but can have immediate and drastic practical consequences.
There is one philosophical issue in particular that should have been central to a movement calling itself conservative but that was rather badly fumbled by American conservatism—the issue of the historical consciousness.
Very simply put, this is the consciousness that the present owes greatly to the past. Otherwise put, the past is in the present. Humans are historical beings. Edmund Burke drew attention to the fact that present goods were made possible by ancestors. He warned against conceited rationalists who thought they knew better than the accumulated wisdom of the human race as reflected in long-standing views of what is conducive to or destructive of a good life.
Kirk and others admirably conveyed the Burkean frame of mind, but they and their admirers did so without going deeply into how precisely the conservative emphasis on history and tradition enhances our grasp of life’s ultimate meaning. Demonstrating just how the historical consciousness deepens and strengthens our understanding of universal values is philosophically demanding, and it was tempting to think that as long as you had intuited the connection, greater philosophical clarity was not really necessary.
Paradoxically, Voegelin and Strauss, though lionized by the conservative movement, opposed Burke’s central idea of a close connection between history and transcendent values. The two men resisted the development of the historical consciousness that gave rise to modern conservatism. Attached as Voegelin was to an ahistorical Platonizing notion of radical transcendence, he ignored Burke and disdained Hegel. Dismissing the latter as “egophanic,” Voegelin was not predisposed to exploring what in Hegel’s mixture of extravagance and profundity might be valid.
Strauss, for his part, was explicitly and pointedly anti-Burkean and anti-historical. His lengthy, sharp, and very strained critique of Burke in Natural Right and History seems to have been intended to warn American intellectuals not to heed a thinker who, considering the overlap between Burke’s thinking and that of the Framers, might have appealed to them.
Voegelin and Strauss did of course have strengths in other areas, but in the context of this article, which stresses why American conservatism failed, what stands out is their strong prejudice against the possibility that history might be a guide to universal values. The two thinkers steered conservative-leaning American intellectuals away from the historical consciousness and the need to learn from history. That Strauss’s explicitly ahistorical, abstract notion of natural right and general anti-historicism found wide acceptance in a movement calling itself conservative is particularly strong evidence of the movement’s shaky philosophical foundations.
The conservatism of Kirk and Viereck, decisively influenced by Burke and Babbitt, stressed the importance of respecting and trying to revivify the Western cultural heritage, most especially its moral-spiritual core, on the Burkean assumption that the wisdom of the human race orients us to life’s higher meaning. Strauss and his disciples taught young movement conservatives the virtual opposite: that respecting tradition, “the ancestral,” and convention was incompatible with respecting philosophy and natural right.
Reason and natural right were, Straussians asserted, purely ahistorical, abstract. To cultivate an historical inheritance disconnects us from reason and universality. Yet many self-proclaimed conservatives adopted this notion, thinking that they were aligning themselves with Plato or Thomas Aquinas. Those who were Roman Catholics created within themselves a deep tension between two factors that Catholicism had for many centuries connected—reason and tradition.
Straussian radical anti-historicism actually brought conservatives closer to abstract modern universalism of the Enlightenment variety, which extends from John Locke to the ideological universalism of the neoconservatives.
To say that American postwar movement conservatism failed because it was philosophically deficient and had the wrong priorities is not to deny that it was up against very high odds. Powerful trends within Western civilization had long eroded its moral-spiritual foundations. Liberationist idealism and Enlightenment rationalism had long had the initiative. In America, the progressive era and the so-called Red Decade—the 1930s—had been recent manifestations of powerful cultural trends.
In the early twentieth century, Babbitt had unmasked these trends. He had exposed their moral-spiritual core and indicated the necessary remedy, which was incisive criticism of current illusions and a moral-spiritual awakening in which sound imagination had to play a central role. But the postwar conservative movement was fascinated by politics.
The task that conservatives faced after the Second World War may have been too formidable. Perhaps the old Western civilization had already been too badly damaged for any basic recovery to be possible. Be that as it may, American movement conservatism proved not very alert to what was most needed. If it had absorbed the thought of Babbitt and like-minded thinkers, it should have recognized that America’s culture—as embodied in families, schools, churches, universities, the theater, movies, the arts, the media, publishing houses, and the entertainment industry—wielded a decisive influence. But most self-described conservatives had a not very subtle understanding of power.
While the American mind, imagination, and moral character kept deteriorating, conservatives devoted huge amounts of money and energy to supposedly practical projects that had only limited influence on the long-range direction of society. Had American conservatism poured its best efforts into exposing and counteracting the deeper sources of America’s decline, a different sense of priorities, including efforts to develop an advanced philosophical culture, might have reversed America’s precipitous cultural decline and the consequent social and political disintegration.
It may be objected that, precisely because of America’s already deteriorated condition, it was not realistic to expect many people to devote time or resources to a protracted, onerous march through the culture. Whatever the case, a misdirected pragmatism left the humanities and the general culture, and hence the future, largely to the radicals.
The emphasis in this article has been on the deficiencies of American movement conservatism that predisposed it to fail. Yet nothing could be further from the purpose here than to belittle the intellectual achievements of American postwar conservatism more broadly understood. Some of its accomplishments were truly impressive and have enduring value. Much of the best of what it achieved has yet to be properly appreciated and appropriated. One of the reasons why it is painful to examine the shortcomings that undermined movement conservatism is awareness of the opportunities that it missed or thwarted.
In the last several years, revolutionary sentiment emanating from the universities and the arts has erupted in social and political unrest, even in open rebellion against civil authority, and it has belatedly dawned on conservative movement types that, yes, it does seem that a decaying culture has something to do with America’s deepening problems. Today growing popular resentment against radical establishment culture may block some of the most appalling liberationist attacks on traditional society, but movement conservatism, because of its prolonged inattention to the deeper sources of social illness or health, is not well prepared to assess and counteract the threat.
Emergency political measures seem necessary, but to believe that they might make up for decades of neglect in the areas in which the future is formed would be another example of the failures that have hampered American movement conservatism. Addressing our precarious historical situation calls for creative imagination, but imagination that is not acutely alert to the depth of our problems and to the limits of politics can do as much harm as good. Whether American movement conservatism is capable of changing its accustomed way of looking at the world is an open question.
None of what has been argued here has been intended to dispute the importance of politics. This writer has devoted an academic career to study of that subject. But no adequate understanding of politics or any other part of life is possible without understanding what ultimately moves human beings. Rough-hewn assumptions about the nature of power continue to stand in the way of a truly realistic notion of politics.
Claes G. Ryn is emeritus professor of politics and distinguished senior scholar at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. He is the author, most recently, of The Failure of American Conservatism and the Road Not Taken.
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