Critical Reading on the Conservative Movement

4359309821_4f34bd6fa5_o

Below is a guest reading list from Maisie Allison, digital editorial director of The American Conservative.

***

Here is a (mostly critical) reading list for conservatives and others interested in a deeper consideration of conservatism, and how the post-movement right might draw creatively from older sources to chart a way forward. My former boss Andrew Sullivan’s rule of thumb: It gets worse before it gets better.

1. “Twilight of the Right: When Conservatism Became a Movement, It Lost Its Soul” (Alan Pell Crawford, American Conservative, February 2014)

Crawford remembers the lively emergence of the New Right in the 1950s and 1960s, and tracks its intellectual decline as the conservative movement calcified, propped up by Reagan-era political creeds and hucksterism.

“Every great cause … begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” The conservative movement underwent this transmogrification with blazing speed. Maybe it had been something admirable when Buckley, Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, and others, informed by such minds as Friedrich Hayek and Richard Weaver, were formulating a much needed response to the Great Society liberalism of the 1960s. But by the late 1970s, the organizations formed to translate this critique into politics were being hijacked by a posse of faux populists with only the most passing interest in the more humane, attractive, and civilizing features of conservatism.

 

2. “The First Conservative: How Peter Viereck Inspired and Lost a Movement” (Tom Reiss, The New Yorker, October 2005)

A great profile of Viereck, who launched conservatism as an intellectual force in the United States but had an aversion to activist thinking. He was taken aback by the Cold War fanaticism of McCarthy and even Bill Buckley, having “anticipated the radicalism of the George W. Bush Presidency before Bush had graduated from college.”

 

3. “Conservatism Is Dead” (Sam Tanenhaus, The New Republic, February 2009)

Tanenhaus narrates the “tumultuous history” of postwar conservatism in America. His conclusion:

What conservatives have yet to do is confront the large but inescapable truth that movement conservatism is exhausted and quite possibly dead. And yet they should, because the death of movement politics can only be a boon to the right, since it has been clear for some time the movement is profoundly and defiantly un-conservative—in its ideas, arguments, strategies, and above all its vision.

4. “When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?” (David Frum, New York Magazine, November 2011)

Frum, something of an apostate on the right, chronicles his own falling out with the movement and the larger “drying up of conservative creativity.”

In the aftershock of 2008, large numbers of Americans feel exploited and abused. Rather than workable solutions, my party is offering low taxes for the currently rich and high spending for the currently old … This isn’t conservatism; it’s a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation.

 

5. “Counterculture Conservatism: The Right Needs Less Ayn Rand, More Flannery O’Connor” (Andrew Bacevich, American Conservative, January 2013)

A reintroduction to the conservative temperament, and a framework for a fresh agenda: protecting the environment from human excess (“the central theme … should be to conserve”); exposing the excesses of American militarism (“the conservative position should promote modesty, realism, and self-sufficiency”); requiring government to live within its means; laying claim to the cause of raising children to become responsible adults (“the big problem here is not gay marriage”); and “preserving the independence of institutions that can check the untoward and ill-advised impulses of the state.”

Photo: Cornell University, Flickr

Get the Longreads Weekly Email

Sign up to receive the Top 5 Longreads of the week, delivered every Friday.