The Mournful Nostalgia of the Conservative Intellectual Elite

Writing think pieces filled with a mournful nostalgia for the conservatism of yesteryear seems to be one of the core requirements of being a member of the conservative intellectual elite.

Though Yuval Levin has argued that a suffocating nostalgia was the foundation of Trump’s campaign, conservatives like Levin and others eager to write off Trump’s rise in this way have been less than willing to discuss their own, actually blinding, nostalgia. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye,” the Apostle Matthew once wrote, “but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”

Commentators pining for the years following William F. Buckley’s founding of National Review (without his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, of course) are now such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it hardly seems necessary to point out that what they really long for is a time when a few scions of the movement could purge certain groups deemed to be deplorable (even as Buckley kept back channels open with Robert Welch, the head of the John Birch Society) and a chance to deem themselves among today’s gatekeepers. They desire a simpler time when different coalitions on the Right were united against the Soviets abroad and attempted to counter the New Deal at home.

A recent column by Matthew Continetti, editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon, is yet another in a long line of pieces that traffic in such nostalgia.

In his sweeping review of the history of modern conservatism, Continetti discusses Buckley and James Burnham, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol. Barry Goldwater got crushed in 1964, which somehow led to Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1980 election. After Reagan’s exit from the national scene, there were some swells, but no sustained successes.

In 2016, movement conservatism was smashed by the speeding freight train known as Donald Trump and currently finds itself in utter disarray.

Continetti’s revisionist historiography, however, serves as a set of past triumphalist myths conservatives rehearse in order to cheer each other up. This narrative has the same function as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave: to make the observer mistake illusion for truth. They would prefer to look at the shadows that whisper Trump is the source of their political troubles because turning their heads toward the light that exposes conservatism’s inherent and long-standing political troubles is too painful to bear.

Asking whether movement conservatism might be getting something wrong, even in the face of so many on-going losses for the movement seems, somehow, preposterous?

The Real Reagan
Thankfully, not all observers of the political scene on the right have their eyes fixed on these shadows. For example in his new book, Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, Henry Olsen shows that Ronald Reagan won in 1980 largely by rejecting the kind of conservatism that Barry Goldwater and National Review had been trying to advance for decades.

To be sure, Reagan had much in common with and admired men like Goldwater and Buckley. He and Buckley were very good friends, despite their occasional public disagreements. And until Reagan ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1976, he and Goldwater were on friendly terms and frequently exchanged letters. (Goldwater castigated Reagan for splitting the Republican Party in his run against Gerald Ford in the primaries.)

But their ways were not his ways; their ideas were not Reagan’s. Neither, as it happens, were they the ideas of the American people who elected him twice, even as they overwhelmingly rejected Goldwater.

Rather than being a rigid ideologue who was concerned with “maximizing individual liberty” above all else, Reagan ran as a conservative who was comfortable using government to help achieve the common good—particularly on behalf of the average working people that he rightly considered to be the backbone of the country. As Olsen argues,

Reagan was against returning to the America before the New Deal. He was for interpreting Roosevelt’s legacy in a way that maximized freedom and minimized bureaucratic control and the direction of Americans’ lives. Reagan could be for these things because he was for addressing “the realities of everyday life,” not simply implementing an abstract theory.

Contra George Will’s famous quip that Goldwater actually won in 1964 and “it just took 16 years to count the votes,” Reagan spurned Goldwater’s libertarian conservatism and won two landslide elections.

Conservatives Need to Look in the Mirror
The Conservative Triumphalist Narrative™ also too easily serves as a way for current elites tacitly to absolve themselves of any blame for the current state of conservatism.

Continetti deplores the “[i]nfighting, dogmatism, cliché, conspiracy theories, animosity, confusion, and the absence of authority” that “characterize the present moment.” Unlike most conservatives, however, he is well aware that these various problems plagued conservatism a long time before Trump’s most recent presidential aspirations were made apparent.

In a piece late last year, Continetti contrasted Trump’s “Street corner conservatism” with the theoretical, Ivory Tower conservatism imbibed by conservative elites who inhabit the D.C. Beltway. These conservatives have too often forgotten about the concerns of the living, breathing people of this particular nation that their project was instituted to help secure. Continetti rightly points out that regarding immigration policy, “They prefer not to recognize—or, in some cases, they celebrate outright—the erosion of nationhood by lax enforcement of border controls and immigration policy.”

In contrast to Continetti, the bulk of elite movement conservatives haven’t demonstrated the slightest bit of introspection on what caused Trump’s rise, preferring instead to blame Fox News, A.M. talk radio, or anything else that does not implicate themselves. They prefer to keep blasting away at Trump for his defects, real or imagined, without any seeming consideration of what would happen to the country at large were he to fail.

With their disastrous record and inability to form a constituency outside of Conservatism, Inc., they continue to exhibit the kind of wishful thinking divorced from reality the British novelist Kingsley Amis hilariously skewered in his book, Lucky Jim.

In the words of another Brit, Theodore Dalrymple, conservatives have “considered the purity of their ideas to be more important than the actual consequences of their ideas. I know of no egotism more profound.”

A Return to Our Roots
As Donald Trump has shown, the only way to begin doing the hard work of returning the government to the people was to reject modern movement conservatism in toto. Any power conservatism now possesses is due to Trump, which is likely the chief reason he is the target of so much animosity from the Right.

Because of Trump’s habit of smashing through conventions of the both the Left and Right, there is quite an opportunity at the present moment for thinking anew about the conservative project. As the editors of American Greatness stated in their founding charter:

The soil of the conservative movement is exhausted. It needs fertilization, re-sowing, and diligent cultivation if it is to thrive again. And while we will always owe a debt to the giants of the movement who have gone before us, we cannot slavishly attempt to relive the politics of 40 years ago. 

Although understandable, paeans to the past are not going to get the job done. Instead, in order to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, we must do the hard work of re-focusing conservatism on the things it once knew but has largely forgotten.

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