A wide-ranging and clear-eyed examination of the history of American conservatism

Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Barry Goldwater were together at a dinner honoring Goldwater in 1965. Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Barry Goldwater were together at a dinner honoring Goldwater in 1965. (Phoenix Gazette/File 1965)
By Mickey Edwards
July 12, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

For more than half a century, historians, sociologists, journalists, psychologists, political scientists, and philosophers have studied, probed, analyzed, pondered, attacked, lauded, and attempted to explain that force that is American political conservatism. Sometimes this avalanche of books, articles, and op-eds has veered weirdly into the realms of psychobabble (once a group of left-leaning psychiatrists, without ever meeting or talking to him, diagnosed conservative Senator Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for president, as a megalomaniac); at other times books focused on relatively minor pieces of the conservative mosaic, creating straw men against whom they proceeded to rail. Occasionally, conservative insiders have attempted to put their own spin on defining what conservatism is, or at least what it once was.

Now comes Patrick Allitt. The accepted norm in academia is for praise of conservatism to be left to the practitioners while others, more “objective,’’ more “scholarly,’’ denounce conservatives as morally and intellectually inferior. That’s the game and them’s the rules. Allitt, a highly regarded history professor at Emory University, clearly did not get the playbook. He neither praises nor denounces; he merely describes. And while his new book, “The Conservatives,’’ is not what one might call lively, it is rich in detail and insight. George Nash, himself the author of a four-volume history of conservatism that has occupied a place on my shelves for decades, describes Allitt’s book as “perceptive, rigorously balanced, and richly panoramic,’’ and he’s right. It may, in fact, be a bit too panoramic. It starts not with Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush but with John Adams’s philosophical disagreements with Diderot, Rousseau, and the Marquis de Condorcet. And it scarcely skips over a name or a thought or a book or a year on the way from there to here.

This is not all bad. Allitt has long studied conservative politics. He is a Brit who came to this country well after the rise of modern conservatism had already begun; he is absorbed by it (it’s not his first book on the topic), but he’s not invested in it. Thus the book’s main benefit: One learns a lot without being either lectured at or pandered to.

But the book isn’t perfect. For one thing, because Allitt sees conservatism not as a coherent set of principles but as a particular kind of approach to the world, an “outlook’’ rather than a philosophy (and there’s a lot of truth in that analysis) he tends to find almost anybody and anything to be an example of conservatism. Both sides in the Civil War, for example. The Federalists and the anti-Federalists. He is so even-handed that he picks pieces of a broad conservative approach to the world and identifies them in all sides of everything. As a history, it’s fascinating, but it makes one wonder, then, what’s the sense in trying to write it all down.

Here’s an example, following pages in which Washington, Adams, and Hamilton, leading Federalists, were described as exemplars of early conservatism:

“The South of the early Republic was dominated by Jeffersonian Republicans, the Federalists’ great rival, though many of them were also profoundly conservative. Their conservatism was different from that of Hamilton, Adams, Ames, Otis, and Marshall, however, just as Southern conservatism has been distinct from its Northern counterpart throughout much of American history. At times the two have appeared to be almost polar opposites.’’

Indeed. Allitt writes that “American conservatism . . . has often been reactive, responding to perceived political and intellectual challenges. As the challenges and threats changed, so did the nature of the conservative response.’’ Which does help one understand why more recent conservatives denounced Big Government before Sept. 11, 2001 and embraced wiretapping and government secrecy afterward. If one sees conservatism as a mindset - cautious, prudent, skeptical - rather than an ideology, a lot of its contradictions are explained. But there are also some fairly strong uniting principles: constitutional constraints on the size and scope of government, a military sufficient to protect, a tax structure that leaves as much as possible in the hands of earners. Allitt deals with these matters along the way by citing various “conservative’’ writers. But, still, the concept of guiding principles in the relationship between state and citizen remains very much a side issue.

The other big hole in the book flows directly from the fact that Allitt is, in fact, a quite good academic. As such, he is fascinated by theory and ideas. But the result, in print, is many good pages of exposition on writers and philosophers and virtually none on the practical application of their ideas in the world of politics. Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater are mentioned, almost in passing, but the real emphasis is on Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Edmund Burke, Calvin Colton, Rufus Choate (who?, you’re wondering).

As a guide to contemporary political “conservatism,’’ Allitt’s book isn’t quite as satisfying as one might hope but as an insight into the cautious mind, the nonutopian, “see the world as it is,’’ don’t rock the boat impulse that so often shapes the political process and determines who will be elected and what policies they are likely to pursue, it’s helpful. There may already be scads of books on conservatism, but this one is a good addition for those who, like myself, are puzzled by how “the conservative mind’’ (in Russell Kirk’s phrase) somehow manages to find consistency as it bounces back and forth between contradictory positions.

Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman, now teaches at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of “Reclaiming Conservatism.’’

THE CONSERVATIVES: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History

By Patrick Allitt

Yale University, 325 pp., $35

Latest Entertainment Twitters

Get breaking entertainment news, gossip, and the latest from Boston Globe critics and A&E staff.