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George Nash- The conservative intellectual movement in americaThe historiography of American conser­vatism (often rendered the “conservative movement”) remains immature. For decades, the academic historical establishment largely ignored American conservatives or dealt with them as a sort of fringe group, recurrent expressions of a pathology. Only after the surprising and enduring appeal of Ronald Reagan did most historians begin to take se­rious scholarly notice of self-proclaimed conserva­tives. Slowly, the histori­cal literature is growing richer. But for now, the story of conservatism in America, as told by the academics, is fractured and inconclusive.

While non-conservative historians slept, a small band of conservative scholars did an admirable job of telling the story of the creation and evolution of conservative ideas and, to a lesser extent, of conservative institutions. The best of these efforts came in 1976 with George H. Nash’s seminal book, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945. Significantly, Nash told the story of conservative intellectuals, and in the process he made influential decisions about the array of stars in the conservative constellation. In large measure, we continue today to define the contours of American conservatism based on whom Nash included or excluded in his work. Perhaps even more importantly, we have a sense of a common story, in spite of the great diver­sity Nash incorporated in his narrative. Nash’s story has become the starting point for all further American conser­vative histories.

But in the decades since Nash first published his landmark book—a book that is as important to the history of American con­servatism as the books Nash himself discussed—a political movement bearing the conservative label has rocked the political world. For over twenty years now, conservative writers have folded the familiar story crafted by Nash into a more dynamic and progressive history of political movements, institutions, and political actors. Whether Nash in­tended the word “movement” to stand for something so cohesive and partisan-politi­cal or not, more recent renditions of the story of American conservatism have tended to edit out the rich diversity, critical idiosyncrasies, and heated debates of American conservatism in order more readily to tell the story of a political movement that changed America.

The conservative political movement bears some striking similarities to Nash’s intellectual “movement.” The political movement began with a wide array of oppositional groups, each critical of various tendencies in American society at mid-century. These groups formed alliances and created institutions to express a more or less common front (National Review was the most important, and one that con­nected the political and intellectual move­ments in important ways). As a political impulse, striving to gain power and to change public policy, the political movement had to purge itself of groups and ideas that were liabilities, and its leaders had to organize institutions aimed at action. They had to articulate an evolving political mes­sage that might appeal to democratic majorities. With the electoral success of Ronald Reagan, the conservative political movement had a visible expression, and a simple and successful agenda. Subsequent histo­ries, written by conservatives for conservatives and attempting to account for conser­vative political success, would, as a result, be written tendentiously, seeing all things as pointing to Reagan.

The resulting story has the virtue of clarity—and the liability of ignoring or dis­torting a great deal of American history. The story runs something like this: In the beginning stood a few good men, crying nobly in the wilderness—men of contem­plation rather than action. Believing in the axiom, “ideas have consequences,” these men employed their pens in a philosophical cum political war against the forces of “liberalism,” “totalitarianism,” “collectivism,” and a few other isms. Their ideas found a small but highly motivated audience, who would in turn establish institutions to pro­mulgate their ideas. From this nexus of ideas, individuals, and institutions emerged a political movement that, out of necessity, blended an amalgam of apparently contra­dictory tendencies into a coherent ideology—an ideology that transformed Ameri­can politics in 1980 and has since become the dominant force in our political culture. Much of this story is true, as far as it goes.

But built into this story is a privileged language—the language of “practical poli­tics” that shaves off all complicating and non-political or even anti-political ideas and discovers, lo and behold, that a historical process has led to a set of simple political principles, the defenders of which are on the winning side of history. But even mundane policy goals like low taxes or high defense spending seem more noble when they can claim a philosophical pedigree. So it is im­portant that the story include the intellec­tual fathers who founded the movement and whose names are invoked regularly (but whose books are rarely read) to prove that the political program has “ideas” be­hind it—and to excuse the absence of any serious new thinking about ideas.

This partisan story contributes to our historical myopia. It is a story that justifies an ideology, and as such it is a Manichean story, with the forces of good pitted against the forces of evil. It consequently has no way of understanding the complexity of either side, of the wide-ranging intellectual fecundity of conservatives, of the significant and substantive critiques of non-conservatives. It has shut itself off from the speculative give-and-take of serious people in order to justify a political program and the simple, if anti-conservative, disposition to apply that program under all circumstances. If a political program is what you want, com­plexity is your enemy. But from the begin­ning, conservatism as a variegated intellec­tual and moral impulse (rather than a movement) stressed precisely the complex­ity and irreducible particularity of all human existence. This impulse cannot simply be collapsed into an ideology or a political program. To do so is to violate the nature of conservatism as understood by the very “fathers” endorsed by the story.

Insofar as American conservatives come to locate themselves within this narration of their past (and present), they perforce become defenders of a very narrow parti­san-political tradition, shorn of some of their most important intellectual and moral resources for responding meaningfully to the changing tides of history. It is not that this familiar “movement” story must be rejected out of hand, however. Rather, we need to reclaim the more capacious patrimony that this rendering of our past has so assiduously eclipsed.

A more adequate conservative history would likely begin by concentrating heavily on institutions. This is precisely what Lee Edwards does in his book, Educating for Liberty: The First Half-Century of the Inter-collegiate Studies Institute. It is hard to over-state the importance of this historical sub­ject in addressing the problems with cur­rent conservative historiography. Institu­tions provide historians helpful ways of tracing the associations, tensions, political compromises, and natural affinities in one or another part of a movement. One learns something about the diversity of beliefs in an otherwise “organized” group, as well as about how beliefs and commitments change as a result of the interaction of the individu­als inside institutions. Moreover, institu­tions always interact with a larger social, intellectual, and political context, making the study of conservative institutions a valuable opportunity to explore how thinkers and doers respond concretely to complex cultural and political challenges.

If the subject of Edwards’ study is of great significance, so also are the obstacles that he faced in telling this story. Educating for Liberty is an institutional history, commis­sioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Insti­tute to celebrate the institution’s fiftieth anniversary. Such a book is not the place for exploring in any depth disagreements, dis­cord, or failures. In addition, one might reasonably argue that ISI is, and has been for fifty years, the most important conser­vative institution to have resisted the overt politicization of American conservatism. Lee Edwards is a political historian, com­missioned to write a celebratory history, making it likely that the resulting volume would reinforce rather than challenge the dominant historical narrative. This is what Edwards does—but not without capturing in parts of his story the subterranean com­plexity of his subject.

We notice at once, for example, the original name of the organization: The Intercol­legiate Society of Individualists. It is an interesting concept—a society of individu­alists. The name was not without contro­versy in the 1950s, as Edwards notes, but it very helpfully reveals the confusing yet most important ideals of many conservatives in that early period. The word “individualist” had little of the idea of the abstracted self that the word today conjures. Rather, it was a dense concept suggesting an alterna­tive to the collectivism of socialism and communism, certainly, but also remaining open to the interaction between the individual and his society and culture that crafts a distinctive personality. Individualists, in this sense, belong to societies in ways they couldn’t possibly belong to states, any more than they could be wholly self-created.

By engaging this history, we can learn so much about the competing understanding of the human self found within conserva­tism and within ISI, about a struggle to understand human purposes in an age where traditional forms of living were be­ing shattered by collectivist ideologies and economic transformations. Edwards at­tempts to situate the original “individual­ism” of ISI amidst the well-known contro­versies between traditionalists and liber­tarians, suggesting at times that ISI has departed from an originally libertarian founding into more traditionalist waters. But further reflection might read “indi­vidualism” in light of mid-century concerns about “mass society,” about the ano­nymity of “the organization man,” which seemed to be the human type emerging in developed corporate capitalism. Such a reading would both qualify accounts of libertarianism at mid-century and also indicate that ISI has followed a line of authentic development of its founding impulse.

Beyond this clarification, a proper un­derstanding of the conservative usages of “individualism,” and of related concepts such as community, institution, society, etc., provides a rich engagement between normative claims about human nature and purpose and changing social, political, and cultural challenges to these ideals. A conservative today is much better equipped to think through policy choices, to try to weigh complex alternatives created by globalized capitalism, new forms of local rule, and changing social values, if he is equipped with the more nuanced understanding of individualism as defended by conservatives in an earlier context. Conservative histori­ans can serve contemporary conservatives well by reclaiming the intellectual com­plexity of early periods that allow for an understanding of both normative prin­ciples (universal claims) and their expressions in a specific cultural context (particular circumstances).

We notice, moreover, the stated pur­pose of ISI, for at least thirty years now: To educate for liberty. Clearly implied in this motto is the belief that human beings are not naturally capable of living well with liberty. Liberty (which is not quite the same thing as freedom) is a cultural inheritance that requires the cultivation of habits, cus­toms, and affections that together render individuals capable of ruling themselves and of enjoying the benefits of a free society. Among self-proclaimed “conservatives” of a political stripe, however, freedom is un­derstood as inalienable, as something sim­ply given, not cultivated. This apparent tension between ISI’s stated mission and the political ideology of the Republican Party is worthy of considerable analysis and discussion. These differences might be only matters of emphasis, or they may be more profoundly at odds.

The first part of Educating for Liberty follows closely the Nash-derived story of American conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s. Oddly—perhaps because little exists—Edwards draws very sparsely from archival material, and when he does get beyond public-access material he depends heavily on personal interviews. These interviews provide some of the most interesting passages of the book, but in no place does Edwards really challenge the memo­ries of his interviewees. The story that un­folds in the first several chapters offers a restatement of the public beliefs of the founders and supporters of ISI. Most con­spicuous in this context is a belief in a rather crude dualism between the friends and enemies of liberty. It is not so strange that ISI’s founders would espouse this dualism, but it is surprising, when looking back forty and fifty years, that the historian does not ex­amine more carefully these beliefs. Why were these men so given to making such claims and to suggesting that very different intellectual tendencies should be clumped together? There were, I suspect, good rea sons for them to make these claims at the time, just as there are good reasons why the historian should note the complexity that was necessarily missed by those who lived through this period. An institutional his­tory is an excellent place to offer these clari­fications, both explaining the historical actors as they understood themselves and critiquing their ideas in light of knowledge they could not have possessed at the time.

The second half of the book is far less structured, losing the clear narrative framework that the first half possesses. Possibly, these chap­ters were rushed so that the book would be available in time for ISI’s anniversary celebration. Edwards provides an expan­sive array of facts, details, and anecdotes in a more or less undigested manner. There is much to commend in this section as it pro­vides interesting and potentially valuable evidence of how participants in ISI have redefined its programs to remain faithful to its mission amidst changing political and cultural circumstances. The reader cap­tures a whiff of an underlying diversity and some internal controversy that Edwards is unwilling to examine directly. But this diversity and controversy makes ISI a much more interesting place. Quite clearly the most important institution of the intellectual right, ISI has not only tolerated a vari­ety of views, but has provided a most im­portant forum for the ongoing assessment of American conservatism, and of the chal­lenges to define and defend liberty in ever-changing contexts. No institution could perform this role without incorporating into itself a good measure of intellectual ferment.

Also in this second half, Edwards sup­plies tension-filled evidence about the pe­culiar challenges faced by a relatively non­political conservative institution in an age of conservative political ascendancy. Clearly, many of ISI’s leaders and its largest financial backers supported enthusiastically the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and yet ISI has flourished by providing a place where culture and ideas have mattered more than political agendas. The subject is a messy one and Edwards cannot quite sort it all out. He documents the many interconnections between ISI and political think tanks and government of­ficials. But he also notes, often with inter­views, the desire of many ISI leaders and staffers to maintain its “non-political, even romantic” character. Some ISI people, like Gregory Wolfe, seemed to grow weary with politics, and with a tendency of intellectu­als on the right to always be fighting against something. Insofar as these participants in ISI wished to engage in political conflict, they wanted to do so from a more cosmic perch, examining the roots of western civilization, which needed to be kept healthy in order to supply the nation with the intellec­tual and spiritual nourishment to preserve a stable political order—to say nothing of preserving the beauty and even the gran­deur of our civilization.

Likeall such institutions, changingtimes, changing personnel, and changing finan­cial demands and opportunities necessarily require a constant reassessment of purpose and direction. ISI has maintained, since the election of 1980, a strong emphasis on its deeper cultural purpose, but it has not escaped some fairly politicized involve­ments. Still, drawing especially from Edwards’ interviews, the reader is impressed by the extent to which this institution has remained true to its early mission (and is constantly educating new generations about that past) while struggling to sort out the proper form that mission should take in the 1990s and in the new century. There are new challenges after the creation of the Reagan paradigm, not the least of which is to determine for a rather large younger population what exactly the enduring principles of conservatism are and how these may require an unexpected new defense in an age of a politically ascendant right-of-center political party. Edwards’ book provides evidence of a lively intellectual effort at ISI to meet these challenges. ISI continues to provide the place where the antinomies of the right play against one another—perhaps the only place where this intellectual dialectic is encouraged.

One of the most fascinating themes of Edwards’ history is the way that ISI has invested in the longterm intellectual health of the nation. It has targeted college students with a myriad of programs and pub­lications, and it has provided, given its resources, staggering financial, intellectual, and moral support for each rising genera­tion of scholars. Edwards demonstrates wonderfully how the Richard M. Weaver Fellowships have nourished a host of conservative minds. The Weaver Fellows are a veritable Who’s Who of thinkers and doers on the right, and their great diversity illus­trates nicely the way that ISI fosters intellectual and moral gravitas while also fostering a healthy range of viewpoints around a core set of principles. ISI has become the most important, though far from most visible, institution of American conservatism be­cause it has been careful to use its resources to keep the great conversation of the West alive. This is the greatest act of conservation possible, to be guardians of our intellectual heritage at the most profound level, care­takers and cultivators of the future.

Educating for Liberty offers an important starting point to a rethinking of America’s conservative movement, as well as to a rethinking of that movement’s ideals in a new century. Edwards has provided a narrative that fits well with existing literature. The time has come to escape the dualisms of “us versus them” in order to understand the diversity on the right—and to begin the important but, I suspect, painful effort of rethinking the relationship between political conservatives and conservative scholars in an age when the right has triumphed politically but not intellectually. ISI is the best place to examine these issues and to act in helpful ways to create an intellectually healthy conservatism that might offer dis­tinct correctives to “movement conserva­tism.” As an institution wholly dependent on the philanthropy of others, however, it remains to be seen whether the leaders of ISI will be able to cultivate financial support for so self-critical an undertaking.

Conservatives need to gain some historical distance from the Reagan years in order to better assess what this political achieve­ment means for the long-term health of conservative ideals. After Reagan, we need to recognize that the history of American conservatism did not point ineluctably to this outcome—and that where the conser­vative compass points after Reagan is by no means self-evident. In its formative years, American conservatism possessed a grand if distressing diversity, the fruit of serious men grappling with the deepest problems of the age. By rediscovering this past, by gaining a better perspective on where we have come from and how such conserva­tism is an authentic expression of American culture, we are in a better position to look forward. Whither conservatism now? Are conservatives now “conserving” the Reagan Revolution? Or are there other tasks—tasks left undone and tasks that are now newly pressing because of our altered economic, social, political, and intellectual contexts? I doubt that there has ever been a time when conservatism has been in greater need of a reinvigorated conversation, a deeper engagement with its emerging cultural context, or a more critical exploration of its own past. Conservatism needs a rethinking grounded in its own dialectic of ideals and principles and yet oriented to new circumstances. This challenging task must begin with a revisioned history.

Books on this topic may be found in the Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review, Fall/Winter 2004.

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