The battle for American conservatism

An anti-abortion group heads towards a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York City last February © Mark Peterson/Redux/eyevine

As American conservatives and American liberals gird again for hostilities over abortion, where does the worldly, liberal-minded conservative find shelter? Who will even listen to a conservatism that shuns dogma, avoids zeal and speaks instead — a gendered word is unavoidable in the context — for tempered statesmanship?

A worldly, liberal-minded conservatism has always felt something of an ideal, indeed a Utopia, especially in the US. Yet it is a serious and enduring part of the American rightwing tradition. The trouble is that in either of its chief recent variants, Burkean virtue or neoconservative “realism”, it has never been more than a part. Call as they may for moderation and deference to authority, grown-up conservatives find themselves forever at war with immoderate conservatives claiming that, no, it is they who hold the true faith.

Given conservatives’ taste for conflict, it is good to have two books that take civil warfare for their default. Matthew Continetti’s The Right is a rich and detailed survey from the 1920s to now. Edward Miller’s A Conspiratorial Life chronicles the extraordinary character and career of Robert Welch (1899-1985), founder of the hard-right John Birch Society and thorn of conventional Republicanism.

Continetti’s history is big-picture, Miller’s biography a close shot. Yet each offers a good angle from which to appraise the fractured state of American conservatism. Continetti’s preferred kind is moderate, liberal-minded and mainstream. He would not count Welch a conservative. For Miller, try as the “responsible right” did to expel him, Welch belongs in the tent.

Neither author tarries with nice questions of whether “the right” and “conservatism” mean the same or different things, which may cause some readers to wince. Yet the authors are right here, the wincers wrong. You don’t win labels in politics by verbal fiat or clever parsing. You fight for them. The label “conservative” isn’t here a classroom topic but a prize in a contest, which Continetti and Miller both understand.

Continetti skilfully blends four-yearly battles for Republicanism with intellectual debates about the aims and nature of conservatism at little magazines, law schools and Washington think-tanks. The party contests set globalist Eisenhower versus Americanist Taft, liberal Rockefeller versus anti-liberal Goldwater, same-as-before Ford versus radical Reagan, a forgotten Beltway motley versus “I speak for the people” Trump.

After Eisenhower, the Republican winner was reliably more to the right than the loser. Continetti has no deep explanation for that rightward drift, although factors cited include government overstretch, liberal licence and cultural disquiet. Underplayed is the Republican turn southward after 1960 to win white Democrats dismayed by civil rights.

As a Washington think-tanker and veteran of the now defunct neoconservative Weekly Standard, Continetti writes from the inside on lively recent debates in which neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, free-market liberals and Catholic conservatives, have each claimed the true faith.

Their intellectual world, rich in higher degrees and professorships, is far from that of Robert Welch, who showed how far a paranoiac imagination, omnivorous reading and doggedness can take you when undeflected by mockery. For Miller, who teaches at Northwestern University, Welch was indeed odd but, politically, not atypical. He was a Southern-born chocolate-fudge manufacturer whose fringe-right John Birch Society — named after an American missionary-spy killed in China in 1945 — irked, harried and embarrassed Republicans for decades after its founding in 1958.

Black and white photograph of more than five people carrying placards with slogans including ‘Don’t be a Welcher on civil liberties’
Protesters outside an event attended by Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society © Getty Images

Welch tried for years to convince fellow Republicans that Eisenhower was a Communist. He thought civil rights, welfare and government regulation were a Soviet-backed conspiracy. When Time called Birchers “a goose step away from the formation of goon squads”, it was saying in Timese what many people thought.

The John Birch Society was often in debt and secretive about the size of its membership probably because it was smaller than a noisy voice suggested. Birchism survived on money from rich conservatives such as Nelson Bunker Hunt and Fred Koch, father to two of the present right’s most munificent angels. Welch’s stands — against civil rights, women’s rights and a liberal state’s silence on morals and religion — were stands other conservatives took and continue to take. The trouble was how Welch took them. Everything wrong with America came in the end from Moscow.

To conservative notables such as William Buckley, editor of the National Review, Welch was a liability. Buckley thought liberals, not Russians, were undermining America. He failed to demolish Welch because, to his chagrin, Welch belonged in the tent. In an “Epilogue”, Miller traces the afterlife of Welch’s “accusatory conservatism” in the Tea Party, the Truther movement and Trumpism. Wary of prediction, he ends with a warning against the corrosive effect of conspiracy thinking.

Continetti ends, by contrast, with a plea for a tidied-up, front-parlour conservatism — one, that is, committed to mainstream “moderation”, against “extremism” to its right and left, including “liberal excess”.

That sounds reasonable enough, but two problems linger. Nor are they unique to the American right. What, for one, is “extremism”? Distance from moderation and good sense or distance from the mainstream? Those are not the same. Trump, Brexitism and Le Pen are none of them great examples of moderation or good sense. All are now mainstream and currently dominate conservatism.

Second, the conservatism Continetti favours is modern-minded, respectful of tradition, heedful of business, attentive to social need and at home in democratic politics. That is a distant prospect but not on its face unreachable. A start down the road would be for thoughtful conservatives to stop blaming liberals for society’s ills and turn to them instead as equally bewildered allies who might yet, if they are lucky, patch up a broken centre. That said, the renewal of ethico-cultural warfare over abortion is hardly the best moment to offer liberal conservatives peace-seeking counsel. Theirs, for now, is a lonely spot.

The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism by Matthew Continetti, Basic Books, $32/£19.51, 496 pages

A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society and the Revolution of American Conservatism by Edward H Miller, University of Chicago, $30/£24, 456 pages

Edmund Fawcett is the author of Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition (Princeton)

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