The 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.