American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition; Edited by Andrew J. Bacevich; Library of America; 663 pp., $29.95
A couple years after Russell Kirk’s death, I made a pilgrimage to his ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan. My buddy and I looked at a map and plotted our course. We didn’t have an address but we didn’t need one. Everybody up there knew who he was so we figured we’d just ask someone—anyone—for directions.
We stopped at a rundown gas station in town and asked the clerk how to get to Kirk’s house. “Don’t know ‘em,” he said. “He wrote all those books on conservatism,” my friend prodded. “I don’t know about that,” the man said. “But some dude wrote ghost stories and stuff. I guess he was kinda weird. He lived down the road a bit.”
We didn’t know it then but our visit was, in its own little way, a reclamation. Andrew Bacevich, editor of a new collection of conservative writings—well, mostly conservative anyway—commences his own act of reclamation with Kirk. The numerous threads of conservative thought in America precede the Sage of Mecosta, of course, but his formidable weaving in The Conservative Mind (1953) gave the lie to Lionel Trilling’s description of conservativism as consisting of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
Bacevich, a West Point graduate and retired Army officer, is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. He is writer-at-large for The American Conservative, but his views on war and foreign policy also make him a welcome contributor to left-wing publications including The Nation, The Baffler, and the London Review of Books, among others. Bacevich is a consistent critic of American military interventionism, that pernicious temptation which beguiles presidents and policy makers. He is well acquainted with its cost. He fought in Vietnam and, in 2007, lost his son in Iraq. Of this devastating loss, he said, “So our kinship is that we, he and I, had a knack for picking the wrong war in which to serve.”
One has only to skim the table of contents of his most recent book, an anthology of essays by prominent American political thinkers, to appreciate Bacevich’s emphasis on the anti-interventionist thread in conservative thought. The entire last section consists of selections thematically arranged under the heading, “The Exceptional Nation: America and the World.” Conservatives, of course, can be found on both sides of the debates surrounding America’s wars. It is no surprise to find James Burnham and Ronald Reagan here. But Reinhold Niebuhr? Charles Beard? Whatever the significance of their respective arguments regarding foreign policy—there is merit to be sure—neither could ever be taken for, or mistaken as, conservatives.
This leads, naturally, to a profoundly irritating and inconsistent aspect of Bacevich’s editorship. On the one hand, he disregards maintaining a conservative canon, on the other, he condemns some thinkers as outside the canon.
For example, in an introduction that adds very little to the anthology, Bacevich declares that he has “excluded altogether anyone associated with…neoconservatism.” Neocons, he argues, “were never genuinely conservative” and their ideas constituted “a heresy akin to antinomianism, its adherents declaring themselves unbound by the constraints to which others are obliged to attend.” Yet, tucked away in the middle of the book is a piece by the arch-neoconservative Irving Kristol, who Bacevich introduces as the “godfather of neoconservatism.”
It was Russell Kirk who viewed libertarians, not neocons, as having the least affinity with conservatives. Even the neocons, Kirk said, “may do battle for the Permanent Things.” This is an arguable point, of course, and Bacevich is free to pick a side. However, by including Kristol, Bacevich undermines his own argument and confuses the reader.
This is one example of what is galling about Bacevich’s selections. The inclusions of Walter Lippmann and Joan Didion, for whom conservatism was never more than a fashionable flirtation, is even more confusing. After banishing all neocons except Kristol from the fold, he includes some non-conservatives because “they articulated truths that resonate with the American conservative tradition.” Resonating with the tradition is not the same thing as reasoning from its first principles. It is simply poor judgment to ignore more formidable thinkers within the conservative tradition who both argue from principle and resonate with readers.
This is also the case when he acknowledges that “women and people of color are underrepresented” in his anthology. It is a regrettable fact, he says, that until recently most conservative thinkers have been white and male. Thus, he wisely includes excellent selections from Zora Neale Hurston, Glenn Loury, and Shelby Steele. But ignoring thinkers such as Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Mary Ann Glendon, Eva Brann, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese undermines his obligatory disclaimer.
In fairness, Bacevich’s aim was not to be comprehensive. His stated goal is “to assemble a representative sample of the best American conservative thought drawn across the modern era” with an emphasis on “quality of thought over name recognition.” But choosing the intellectually anemic Joan Didion over Glendon and Brann makes one question his judgment, depth of reading, or both.
Despite the book’s strange chronological starting point—Bacevich considers only 20th-century thinkers—the selections are wide-ranging: Willmoore Kendall, Robert Nisbet, John Crowe Ransom, Richard Weaver, Patrick Deneen, and Andrew Sullivan are all here. Most of the thinkers, if not the selections, will be familiar to conservative readers. For others, the essays provide a meaty education.
There is disagreement among these thinkers, of course, as the Kirkian rejection of a conservative ideology spared the burgeoning movement a rigid uniformity of thought. But this diversity of opinion is a testament to the dynamism of the conservative tradition. One need only look to leftist groupthink and cancel culture to see the boring—and dangerous—ends of ideology in America.
That makes it all the more curious why Bacevich should engage in that kind of thinking. “Donald Trump is not a conservative,” he declares. “Nor are the leaders of the Republican Party over which Trump presides.” The principles elucidated in his book are not, Bacevich claims, reflected by “megaphone-wielding House and Senate Republicans, or from outlets such as Fox News, AM talk radio, and right-wing websites.” And worse, he says, “allowing Trump, [Mitch] McConnell, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh et al. to present themselves as exemplary conservatives testifies to the pervasive corruption of contemporary American discourse.”
I think he has got it the other way around. The pervasive corruption of postmodern discourse can be attributed to the student revolutionaries of the 1960s and their deconstructionist professors. If the presence of Rush, Ingraham, and Hannity—no matter how detestable to Bacevich—testifies to anything, it is that popular political conservatism found a ready audience in America largely in response to liberal hegemony and ruinous radicalism. In any case, for all Bacevich’s talk about principles he is more concerned with personalities. This misses the point entirely.
The “conservative brand,” Bacevich claims, “has of late been badly tarnished and even degraded.” He clearly believes it is McConnell, Trump, and the talking heads of political conservatism in the media from whom American conservatism needs reclaiming or, as he might have said, rebranding. But this is ridiculous. Conservatism is neither a brand nor a political ideology. It is a disposition, a way of being in the world that, by necessity, manifests itself in politics. And the political arena—as we have seen most recently—is no place for ideological purity tests. “For the conservative,” Kirk said, “politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the ideal.”
Despite serious flaws, the book remains a fair introduction to 20th-century conservative thought. But one could just as easily pull Kirk’s The Conservative Mind off the shelf. Or, for greater breadth, one is better served by George H. Nash’s 1976 book, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, and his 2009 follow-up, Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism. For those who appreciate Bacevich’s emphasis on non-interventionism, the late Chronicles columnist Justin Raimondo’s Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (1993) remains necessary reading.
Much has been made recently of the fracturing of the American right; Lee Edwards in National Affairs has called for a “new fusionism,” Sohrab Ahmari in First Things advocated for a post-fusionist “new American right.” Conservatives have ever been an argumentative lot and political victories have done little to smooth things over.
This is no sign of weakness. The tension is dynamic and principled. It is ultimately born of a unifying creativity, one that finds its greatest expression in a lived conservatism. As Nash wrote, “Conservatism at its best is a meditation not simply on what to think but how to live.” It is meant neither to rule nor recede. Its highest aspirations direct man to what is beyond, to what is eternal.