In 1950, literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in The Liberal Imagination (PDF) the following about conservatism, which he viewed as being virtually extinct following the Second World War:
In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas, but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.
It’s probably the most frequently cited quotation from a liberal among conservatives, because it did, in 1950, offer a practical assessment for the state of conservatism in the United States. The twin struggles of the Great Depression and the war led to a triumph of what Russell Kirk called “Rooseveltian liberalism,” which sought to use the power of the government to address economic problems. With the defeat of Nazism and Japanese imperialism, and entering the long Cold War with the Soviet Union, Americans placed great faith in the ability of their government to solve basic problems.
Indeed, the experience of conservatism since the Second World War has largely been that of accepting liberalism’s underlying propositions. “Conservatism,” then, came to be more of reaction to the excesses of liberalism—a tapping of the brakes, not a full stop or reversal—rather than a cogent philosophical and social system on its own.
While that’s a controversial statement with many exceptions—there remained many conservatives, like Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who continued to resist Rooseveltian liberalism—consider that the first Republican President since 1932, Dwight Eisenhower, accepted much of the New Deal, and left it virtually intact. His signature achievement as president, other than ending the Korean War, was to champion the construction of the Interstate Highway System. That was a worthy undertaking, to be sure, but the legacy of a major Republican president was to spend millions, rather than rolling back the interventionist state.
Since then, conservatism has gone through a number of permutations, many of which I’ll cover throughout my History of Conservative Thought course this summer. My point here, however, is that conservatism, strictly speaking, cannot exist in the dominant framework of modern liberalism.
I’m not rejecting the tenants of classical liberalism—equality before God, the possession of God-given natural rights, the freedom of association—per se. But conservatism is an empirical, rather than a rationalistic, endeavor. Indeed, Russell Kirk argued that conservatism is not an ideology, as such, but the result of millennia of human experience.
Or, as Ted McAllister writes in “Toward a Conservatism of Experience” for RealClearPolicy, “Conservatism is an inheritance, not an ideology.” He continues:
American conservatism emerged out of our experiences as a self-governing people who love their inherited liberties rather than abstract rights; whose laws have historically emerged out of our norms rather than a specious theory of justice; whose gift for creating and protecting political freedom (the freedom to govern ourselves, our communities, our associations) has served as the primary obstacle to the relentless drive toward an egalitarian administrative state.
McAllister’s essay—which is really a book review of Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed—makes a compelling case for a conservatism based not on metaphysical abstractions but on the “discovery, articulation, and defense of a reality we experience and of affections formed long before we needed to defend them.” McAllister argues that conservatism had to adopt a more universal, ideological paradigm during the Cold War to face the major existential threat of international communism, but should return the localized, particularized forms of organic social arrangements America enjoyed prior to 1945.
Part and parcel to this restoration is a rejection of democracy’s excesses. McAllister writes that “democratic culture overindulges a love of equality and abstract moral truths,” that it encourages a leveling of all people into bland masses and, paradoxically, hyper-atomistic individuals. In such a culture, perverse individualism separates Americans from their communities and their heritage. Instead, our churches, schools, social clubs, and other institutions have fallen prey to progressive ideologues, rather than serving as the glue that binds society together.
There’s a lot to chew on in McAllister’s review. Permit me one more extended quotation:
American conservatism is rooted in inheritance, in the rough guidance of experience over abstract idealism, and in the protection of the pluralism found in voluntary association and in self-governing communities. This is why something profoundly American is lost when conservatives embrace abstraction and universal slogans in their struggle with either liberalism or progressivism….
Suffice it to say that today we lack a strong and traditionally conservative intellectual — and specifically academic — class. The easiest measure of this weakness is found in both the number and the intellectual range of conservative academics. Of particular importance here is the dearth of conservatives in the humanities. Indeed, the number of conservative scholars devoted to such studies as philology, literature, theology, philosophy, and history as well as themes such as imagination, beauty, and truth, has dwindled both in raw numbers and as a percentage of conservative academics. Of course, outside the academy, there are journals and institutions that engage the moral, literary, historical imagination, which offer some reason for hope. But the overall trend on the Right has been toward intellectual work geared toward contemporary and immediate concerns — more about power than about beauty.
In essence, McAllister argues that, while we often appeal to abstractions in our never-ending battle against progressivism, we adopt their rationalist framework by doing so, albeit out of necessity and expediency. That said, our focus on the immediacy of political power has led conservatism to sacrifice culture—a key reason, I would argue, as to why progressives are so dominant there.
McAllister overstates the problem slightly—just look at New Criterion to see “conservative scholars devoted to… themes such as imagination, beauty, and truth”—but the Left certainly dominates our culture.
At this point, though, I wonder how we can get back the old conservatism. It’s a worthy goal, but it seems unlikely in an age in which progressive and postmodern dogma reign supreme. The extent to which the progressive frame infects conservatism—even down to our mental processes—is disheartening, and explains the capitulatory approach of once-great conservative publications like National Review, which can barely contain its eagerness to run and apologize to Leftists for challenging them.
In the long-run, though, conservatism’s foundation—its groundedness—in objective reality, as opposed to rationalist abstractions, will allow it to prevail in all its beautiful, localized, variegated permutations. That “long-run” just might take a very long while to arrive.