As historian Joshua Tait reminds us, the meaning of the term “conservatism” has been a contested one in the United States. In his recent piece at The Bulwark he compares a circle of writers in the 1940s and early 1950s known as the New Conservatives with the brand of conservatism associated with William F. Buckley and The National Review.
Here is a taste of his piece:
The New Conservative project failed for many reasons while Buckleyite movement conservatism has become a major force. The New Conservatives themselves split politically. Many returned to a form of political quietism, leaving conservatism to the right-wingers. Others threw their lot in with the Buckleyite right and journals like National Review and especially Modern Age. Rossiter presciently suggested the largest divide as the New Conservatives disintegrated was whether they were most concerned about the “Pseudo-Conservatism” of the right or the “purposeful progressivism of the Left.”
Beyond this breakdown, the New Conservatives were primarily scattered academics. They lacked the right’s movement mentality. They had no journal or magazine to publish their manifestos or thrash out ideas. Unlike the Buckleyite right, whose intellectual leaders were professional writers who lived off political controversy, most of the New Conservatives were usually academics who turned back to the academic scholarship they had never really left. Nor did the New Conservatives have a political figurehead like Goldwater or later Reagan. As noted above, some backed Eisenhower, many preferred Adlai Stevenson and later John F. Kennedy, and some turned to Goldwater, splitting the New Conservatives’ political enthusiasm.
By contrast, the Buckleyites were conscious movement builders who tapped pre-existing right-wing networks dating back at least to the 1930s for funds and personnel. Buckley, his publisher Henry Regnery, and one of his early acolytes M. Stanton Evans were all second-generation right-wing leaders. (Buckley and Regnery’s wealthy fathers were donors to the Republican right, particularly in isolationist circles; Evans’s father Medford Evans was an academic philosopher who wrote for right-wing journals.) Even if they had not always called themselves conservatives, the Republican right had a ready base and infrastructure that the Buckleyite conservatives could build on.
In this sense, the New Conservatives’ effort to turn “conservatism” into a philosophy of the center ran against common usage. When Buckleyites claimed “conservatism” for the Republican right, it comported with how the press already covered them. The New York Times already described politicians as liberals and conservatives. It was only a short step to accept that conservatism was the philosophy of the right.
Meanwhile, the New Conservatives struggled to differentiate themselves from contemporary liberals. As skeptical, socially conservative Cold Warriors with a secularized conception of original sin, they fit almost too neatly into midcentury categories of liberalism. For many liberals sympathetic to the New Conservatism, there was simply no need to speak of the taboo conservatism when Cold War liberalism sufficed. (Indeed, the emergence of neoconservatives from the Cold War liberal milieu shows how close these groups were.)
The New Conservatives went altogether gently into the good night. But the New Conservative moment transformed the political vocabulary of the United States by legitimating “conservatism” as an explicit and conscious political ideology. To some extent, modern conservatism lives on the capital of the New Conservatives who established key tropes of modern conservatism. The New Conservatives advanced a critique of liberals as materialist and shallow. They developed an interpretation of the American past that reimagined the United States as a bastion of cultural and political conservatism rather than a decisively liberal nation. And they put forth the idea that conservatism was a coherent, realistic, and sophisticated worldview.
Read the entire piece here.