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Navigating the Wild Stream of Conservative Thought, Part I

Updated: Feb 8, 2019

National Review touts itself as a magazine that has defined the conservative movement since it was founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955. It might raise some hackles in the editorial offices and among readers of the publication to suggest that it represents the conservative wing of the mainstream media, but it would not be too far out of line. The magazine is treated with due regard and respect as a member of the fraternity by such diligently mainstream institutions as National Public Radio and the PBS NewsHour, where it is not unusual for editor Rich Lowry, senior editors Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru, and executive editor Reihan Salam to be invited to weigh in on topics under discussion in their capacity as representatives of the conservative persuasion.

I check in on National Review several times a week to get a feel for contemporary conservatism. If there is a main stream of conservative thinking that might offer critiques of leftist doctrine worth considering, this seems to be a good place to look for it. What I find is on the whole less than impressive. To be fair, the offerings at PBS and NPR, not to mention the likes of The Nation and Mother Jones, can also leave something to be desired. Even so, I find them to be better sources for commentary and analysis that is provocative rather than merely provoking. Maybe this is a reflection of my own slant. I have thought of myself as a man of the left for about as long as I have thought of such things, dating back to the 1960s when I was in my teens, although these days I find myself at odds with a good bit of what passes for progressive gospel in some quarters. By the standards of my fair city, Portland, Oregon, I may be little better than a damn centrist.

Two recent essays by regular contributors to National Review are illustrative of a brand of rhetoric and reasoning where points well taken, fairly conventional wisdom, and decent critique and commentary are commingled indiscriminately with wild hyperbole, generalization, and windbaggery pulled from thin air or elsewhere. Victor Davis Hanson writes with a veneer of dispassionate scholarship, while Kevin D. Williamson is given to provocations that may be a cut above what comes from Milo Yiannopoulos but not by much. He is prone to go off on Ezra Klein, Elizabeth Warren, Jon Stewart, Beto O'Rourke, and other bêtes noires as if channeling the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson under the influence of an unholy mix of illicit pharmaceuticals and grain alcohol.

Hanson and Williamson come with credentials that give reason to hope for better from them. Hanson is an emeritus professor of classics at the University of California, Fresno, distinguished fellow in history at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution, a nationally syndicated columnist, and author and editor of twenty-four books. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review and has been director of journalism and communication programs at George Mason University's Institute for Humane Studies and an adjunct professor at The King's College.

Hanson takes up the theme of a divided America in The Issues That Tore Us Apart, published on election day. He begins with a comparison of the present to our defining moment of national discord. Slavery "blew up America" in 1861 after 85 years when it seemed that the country "could eventually phase out the horrific institution and do so largely peacefully" because by that time the division over slavery was magnified by an array of cultural and economic differences between North and South. Prominent among them, as Hanson acknowledges, was the self-interest of a Southern plantation class that had grown rich and solely dependent on cotton and by extension slavery. He is not downplaying the role of slavery but rather is placing it within a broader context that bears resemblance to the present, where the traditional liberal-conservative and Democratic-Republican divides are intensified by an array of differences addressed under familiar headings of globalization, clustering, the erosion of consensus on immigration, deterioration of racial relations, and the end of the post-1945 world order.

This much is unexceptional. Any number of commentators from across the ideological spectrum might make similar observations. It is a fair starting point. We part ways when Hanson treats his themes with oversimplification worthy of a sophomore's term paper or an ancient blogger's rant but not up to snuff for a serious critique. Stereotype, caricature, and sweeping generalization distort more than they illumine. Perhaps he addresses the subject with greater rigor elsewhere.

There are two Americas, distinct, divided. The left and right coasts are the domain of wealthy elites and the poor drawn by generous welfare programs. Between the two coasts lies the virtuous heartland of small-government, low-tax, pro-business states more welcoming to the middle classes. Policies and forces unleashed by globalism have worked to the immense benefit of the elites on the coasts while wreaking havoc on the lives of ordinary Americans elsewhere. The tech oligarchs of AGFAM (Apple-Google-Facebook-Amazon-Microsoft) and the rest of their tribe have accumulated unprecedented wealth, while traditional America has suffered as industries "based on muscular labor" and "things America could make...if international trade was fair and government was a partner rather than indifferent or hostile" have been outsourced. More than a whiff of American anti-intellectualism may be detected in the distinction, made repeatedly, between liberal elites who toil in the groves of academia, the media, the financial sector, entertainment, and tech and ordinary Americans who earn their livelihoods by means of muscular labor. We all know which is the more noble way of life and which is the realm of chicanery, profiteering, licentious conduct, and depravity.

The coastal elites are hypocritical, hyper-wealthy, self-described beautiful and smart people, liberals and social-justice warriors who pursue a radical progressive agenda at odds with religion, the constitution, and pretty much everything else that once made America great. They are cultural snobs who look with disdain and contempt on their fellow citizens, the deplorables, crazies, and wacko birds who constitute Trump's base in a red-state interior that is stagnant culturally and economically. It hardly needs to be noted that Hanson and Trump's red cadres make no secret of their comparable disdain and contempt for those hypocritical elitists. This kind of thing is hardly new. Some of it is rooted in a traditional American anti-intellectualism that goes back to the colonial era. References to effete intellectuals and nattering nabobs of negativism and more colorful barbs were commonplace in my youth. And, yes, there was analogous rhetorical excess from the left. No doubt I engaged in some of it myself, though I prefer to repress memory of it.

The country's social and political divide falls more along the lines of urban/rural (with suburbs in flux amid some shifting from red toward blue) than the more conventional shorthand delineation of coastal/interior adopted by Hanson. For example, Oregon is blue thanks largely to the liberal corridor running from Portland south through Salem and Eugene. Broad swathes of rural Oregon are quite red. This is not atypical. Take dark-red Texas and the Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke. O'Rourke made the election a contest while carrying just thirty-two of the state's 254 counties. Those thirty-two counties are in urban areas and are the largest by population. O'Rourke lost because he got absolutely stomped in rural counties where Cruz racked up 70, 80, or 85 percent of the vote. For further analysis on this topic, I refer you to Michael Tomasky's fine essay in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (The Midterms: So Close, So Far Apart, December 20, 2018).

Americans like to think of the founding fathers with a reverence bordering on idolatry that is as one-dimensional as blockheaded contemporary dismissals of them as a homogenous cast of racist, sexist, imperialist, patriarchal, and otherwise distasteful old white men. They were a contentious bunch who held a mess of conflicting views. We rightly reject some of those views on the basis of values and principles of freedom, equality, and justice espoused by men who sometimes failed to live up to them or to think through their implications. They came by it honest, as my grandmother used to say. Their colonial forebears, and ours, were an unruly lot that boasted a fair share of debt dodgers, fanatics, zealots, slave traffickers and owners, bootleggers, tax avoiders, scofflaws, and other disreputable sorts.

From our imperfect ancestors we inherited shared ideals on whose basis we try, however imperfectly, to hold ourselves and our nation to account. These ideals and values animate the "affluent" progressivism Hanson decries. They can be maddeningly vague and semichoherent. Hotheads and fanatics reason from them to absolutist conclusions held with unwavering conviction. I like to think that these puritans of the left make up only a small faction. They do not speak for all of us.

Many of the progressive persuasion are far from affluent. We have to deal with fallout from a voracious tech industry that threatens to price us out of neighborhoods and cities where we live and work. It is fatuous to suggest, as Hanson does, that we all go in for "private prep schools, expansive and largely apartheid gated neighborhoods, designer cars, apprentices, and vacations." Inclusion of vacations is this laundry list of put-downs strikes me as odd. Maybe vacations are for effete intellectuals who lack the inner resources and character that go with the manly, muscular labor that alone is deserving of respect.

Some of the sharpest, harshest critics of the tech and financial oligarchs are to be found in the progressive ranks. It is liberals and progressives who advocate public policy and government regulation to rein in the excesses, abuses, and undue influence of those who have profited most from the global economy. We look in vain to American conservatism for anything more than a bow to the altar of laissez-nous faire. Tax cuts, deregulation, and nostalgia for an idyllic past when eternal verities were a common currency are the sum of their remedy for any and all ills that afflict the body politic.

Other issues get the same slapdash treatment. You would not suspect from reading Hanson that radical green activists are only one faction, and not a dominant faction, among those committed to conservation. Taking the scientific consensus on global warming seriously is not tantamount to fundamentalist religious doctrine. There are indeed comrades on the left who view contested social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, gun control, and identity politics as "all-or-nothing litmus tests of not just ideological but moral purity," as do their counterparts in the conservative camp. These issues are contested because they are not reducible to simple dichotomies of right or wrong. We do not always have the luxury of choosing between good and evil. Our moral choices must often be between evils. This is why these choices are difficult, and people of good will can come to conflicting conclusions. Addressing these differences requires give and take, mutual empathy, good faith, qualities that do not always come readily to us all too human humans. Glossing over or outright ignoring their complexities gets us no further than the all-or-nothing litmus tests with which Hanson rightly takes issue.

He is no better on immigration. Is he trying to normalize the current occupant of the White House when he asserts that "the professed views of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Harry Reid before 2009 about illegal immigration were identical to those of Donald Trump in 2018"? Once again, there are elements of truth in the broad, sweeping generalization that there is some consensus about securing the border, ensuring immigration is legal, and finding some fair accommodation for illegal aliens who have been in the US for years, worked, paid taxes, and have no arrest record. Ignored is the record of a president whose rhetoric demonizes individuals seeking refuge in this country. Ignored is a regime that has implemented policies narrowing the parameters within which asylum may be claimed, imposed obstacles designed to make the process for seeking asylum as miserable as possible, routinely separated children from their parents, created internment camps that do not meet minimal standards for health, safety, and rights of detainees, and routinely violated US law, international standards, and basic principles of human decency.

The deterioration of racial relations and the implosion of the post-1945 world order are presented in similar fashion. Hanson gets us nowhere with this kind of thing:

Increasingly, half the country views its history and institutions as inspirational, despite prior flaws and shortcomings, and therefore deserving of reverence and continuance. The other half sees American history and tradition as a pathology that requires rejection or radical transformation.

This is cartoon-level analysis. There is no denying that some benighted individuals do speak of American history and tradition as a pathology that requires rejection or radical transformation, just as others, equally benighted, take umbrage at anything more than token admission of flaws and shortcomings. There is another perspective that more than a few of us might share. Aspects of our history and institutions that are inspirational and deserving of respect and continuance can be found side by side with other things that are more than just flaws and shortcomings. They are deep wrongs that cast a dark shadow over past and present alike. We draw on the best in our history and traditions when we look on past wrongs with unflinching eyes and accept the moral obligation to remedy their consequences that remain with us.

Who could disagree with the conclusion that the ties that bind us have waned? I too am disturbed by the state of an educational system that in too many ways seems to have gone off the rails, questions about the integrity of elections, and the challenges of integration and assimilation into a common culture that is enriched by the diverse heritages that make it up. One of those waning ties, says Hanson, was "an expansive economy that makes our innate desire to become well-off far more important than vestigial tribalism." It seems not to occur to him that desire to become well-off might be problematic when it is indulged without limit in rapacious, materialistic pursuit of more, more, more. Examination of just what it means to live a good life, in the tradition of Aristotle, might be in order.

Hanson signs off with the modest counsel that in the absence of common ground "perhaps we can at least for now privately retreat to the old Hippocratic adage of 'first, do no harm' to one another." This may indeed be the best hope we can hold for the present. What is the likelihood, though, that there is any broad consensus as to what it might mean in concrete terms to put the adage into practice? Why would this be any less a matter of contention than other issues that divide us?

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