Sometimes one begins a book with such low expectations that one is delighted to find the printed material is not quite as bad as what one expected. This is precisely my impression of Matthew Continetti’s much touted monograph, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. As someone who holds the honor of being Bill Kristol’s son-in-law (and who holds his father-in-law’s vacated place at Fox News), and a prominent NeverTrumper to boot, Continetti is hardly an unbiased interpreter of conservatism. A revealing passage from his book tells us clearly where on the ideological divide he stands: “The one hundred years war for the Right is to conceive of it as a battle between the forces of extremism and the conservatives who understood that mainstream acceptance of their ideas was the prerequisite for electoral success and lasting reform.”
As the world’s most notorious critic of misused political taxonomies, I shall allow myself to quibble about Continetti’s eccentric use of the term “Right.” For him and his well-connected friends, the designation mostly serves as a synonym for “Republican.” There are two groups on his telling, both located in the GOP, that are fighting to be the true face of the Right, but only one passes muster as “non-extreme.” This is where I start to part ways. Today, I would argue, the populist Right is the true American Right because it alone is fighting the cultural Left and its allies in the deep state, media, and educational establishment. I have no idea what makes its neocon and Republican establishment adversaries any kind of Right, since on most domestic social issues and certainly on foreign policy, this group happily cooperates with leftist power elites.
In explaining how the current populist Right came along, Continetti stresses the divisive character of the Iraq War and the failure of the George W. Bush Administration to carry along all self-identified conservatives. That prolonged struggle “delegitimized the conservative movement in the eyes of populist independents, conservative Democrats, and disaffected voters crucial to past GOP victories.” This observation is entirely correct. Bush’s invasion unleashed acrimonious debate at home, and a populist Right was able to consolidate itself by standing in opposition to a course of action heavily endorsed by neoconservative journalists and policy advisers. But cultural and moral issues, often intertwined with economic ones, soon became the sustaining themes of the populist revival, which has taken cultural wars and the plight of the working class more seriously than neocons and establishment Republicans have done.
There are two problems with Continetti’s attempt to trace back present divisions to earlier events. One, he is mostly repeating what has already been said, perhaps ad nauseam. As the author of surveys on American conservatism, I found nothing in his book that indicated original insights or original research. Two, Continetti cannot seem to subdue his unbounded enthusiasm for one side of his divided Right, namely, the neocons and the conservative establishment they influenced. Therefore, those with sharply different views become the predictable fall guys. Continetti laces into Joe McCarthy and his defenders, but before he did, he might have read M. Stanton Evans’ heavily documented account of the objects of McCarthy’s investigation. Evans’ work demonstrates that however deplorable his methods (and they were), many of McCarthy’s targets merited investigation. Too often, Continetti simply repeats conventional views about subjects that he should have explored more deeply.
Although I think the late Senator Robert A. Taft sometimes went too far in his noninterventionism, he was not the cardboard cutout isolationist Continetti depicts. In a Senate resolution of October 2000, Taft was named one of the seven greatest U.S. senators of all time. He was first in his law class at Yale and a courageous dissenter, whom JFK (or his ghostwriter) properly celebrates in Profiles in Courage. If Continetti had taken time to read James T. Patterson’s comprehensive biography of Taft, published in 1972, he would have discovered that Taft’s positions on American intervention in Europe before World War II and during the Cold War were far more nuanced than Continetti would have us believe. It pays to keep in mind that Taft and his father, who had been president from 1909 to 1913, were active interventionists during World War I, and like others of his generation, Robert believed that the American public had been gulled into a bloody European war that resulted in a harsh treaty against the defeated side. Rightly or wrongly, they carried that attitude with them into the period before the U.S. formally entered World War II. To his credit and unlike others in both parties, Taft had warned against chumminess with the Soviet government despite a shared interest in defeating Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, his admonitions went largely unheeded.
Finally, there is something painfully provincial in how Continetti treats the Southern Agrarians as a shabby foil to his neoconservative mentors. Norman Podhoretz’s discovery in the 1970s that the Left was hostile to Jewish and Israeli interests was for Continetti an epiphany that led the conservative movement to its later glory. This neocon revelation paved the way for expanding the conservative pantheon to include, inter alia, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and, eventually, Continetti’s father-in-law. By contrast, the Southern Agrarians, an association that Southern conservatives reveled in, are relegated to eternal perdition. Agrarian littérateurs were supposedly primitive bigots, who eventually “fell into sinkholes of nostalgia, pessimism, and fecklessness.”
One has to wonder what kind of Beltway cocoon Continetti inhabits. You don’t have to read Louis D. Rubin’s multiple studies of the Agrarians to realize they were among America’s leading literary figures for several generations. Their disciples taught not only at Vanderbilt and Sewanee but graced the English department at Yale, when I was there in the 1960s, and many other prestigious Northern universities. Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, and Donald Davidson were all literary celebrities in postwar America, while Brooks and Ransom are generally admired as the founders of the New Criticism (along with William Wimsatt, a colleague of Brooks’ at Yale) and were distinguished literary theorists with roots in the Southern Agrarian tradition.
The resounding manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, which Agrarian authors published in 1930, is a lament for the loss of rural America and a critique of an industrialized, urbanized society. It is not, pace Continetti, a defense of racism. Not all of those who have identified with that tradition, moreover, have been politically on the Right. Eugene Genovese praised the Agrarians while a Marxist, and both Brooks and Warren were outspoken opponents of racial segregation. Continetti may have belittled the Agrarians without knowing exactly who they were. All he may know in this regard is that prominent critics of the neocons (like the late M.E. Bradford) identified themselves as latter-day Agrarians, and so this group must therefore be unsavory.
On the plus side, this book is clearly and forcefully written and engages a topic that interests me profoundly.