American Conservatism In The Library Of America
The books published by the Library Of America offer an outstanding way to explore the breadth of American literary and cultural accomplishment, an important achievement in itself in troubled times. This recent volume, "American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition" fulfills the goals of the LOA and more in presenting a large anthology of conservative thought in the United States from the beginning of the 20th Century. Andrew Bacevich edited the volume and prepared the introduction. Bacevich, a highly respected scholar in his own right, served in the U.S. Army for twenty-three years and is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. Among his many books is "The Limits of Power" (2008), which became influential for its critique of the Iraq War. "The Limits of Power" makes use of the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian also included in this volume of writings on American conservatism.
This lengthy anthology makes for slow, dense reading. It shows the varied character of the intellectual part of American conservatism. The individual selections are sufficiently long to present a position as opposed to being mere snippets. Most of the selections show a great deal of breadth as opposed to focusing on a particular issue. Some of the essays are more specific, such as Joan Didion's "The Women's Movement", Andrew Sullivan's essay, "Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage", and Shelby Steele's "Affirmative Action: The Price of Preference."
Bacevich's Introduction stresses the difficulty of defining American conservatism. He sees conservatism as more of a mood and a critique of modernity than a particular ideology. His anthology collects "noteworthy examples of the American conservative critique prompted by the encroachments of modernity." Somewhat brusquely and probably too harshly, Bacevich excludes President Trump, most Republican members of Congress, and the popular right-wing media from his understanding of conservatism. He sees the need to "reclaim" conservatism as an "intellectual tradition" in part from what he sees as its current political debasement. Bacevich also excludes "neo-conservatism" from the American conservative tradition for reasons which to me are unclear. At the outset, Bacevich critiques conservatism for the positions it generally adopted on several large 20th Century issues: it opposed Federal intervention in the economy during the Great Depression, it opposed United States entry into WW II until the attack on Pearl Harbor, and, somewhat later, it took positions adverse to desegregation in the South. Still, Bacevich rightly resists over-simplification. Mistakes are not the within the sole purview of any political tradition. Bacevich's volume has the goal of showing that conservative intellectuals have a great deal to contribute to American thought and that the liberal tradition tended to ignore its insights to its detriment.
Broadly, conservatism encourages understanding and respecting tradition and the lessons of the past. Bacevich sees conservatism, in general, as involving a commitment to individual liberty, a belief in limited government and the rule of law, veneration for America's cultural inheritance, a reluctance to tamper with traditional social arrangements, a cautious respect for the free market, and a strong wariness of utopianism. The anthology includes several essays by writers not generally regarded as conservative but whose work tends to support certain conservative themes, including, among others Christopher Lasch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Walter Lippmann.
The anthology consists of five parts. The first, "First Principles: Three Responses", includes three essays by leaders of American conservatism in the mid-twentieth century on the nature of conservatism, all of which stress its non-ideological character. Russell Kirk's opening essay develops six conservative principles but warns that "they are to be taken as a rough catalog of the general assumptions of conservatives and not as a tidy system of doctrines for governing a state." William F. Buckley Jr's essay discusses the varied forms of conservatism within the context of his founding and editing the "National Review". Buckley points to various strands in conservatism while suggesting that "the symbiosis may yet be a general consensus on the proper balance between freedom, order, and tradition." The concluding essay by Frank Meyer works to reconcile the traditionalist and the libertarian elements in conservative thought, elements which are often seen as at odds.
The second and longest part of this anthology is titled "The Fundamentals: Tradition, Religion, Morality, and the Individual". This part includes the earliest work in the book, Henry Adams chapter on "The Dynamo and the Virgin from "The Education of Henry Adams" (1900). There also is an eloquent selection from the philosopher George Santayana on "Materialism and Idealism in American Life." The authors in this part that I particularly enjoyed include Zora Neale Hurston ("How it Feels to be a Colored Me"), Irving Babbitt, a once-well known figure who deserves to be more read, Whittaker Chambers, the historian Harry Jaffa, with reflections on Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Allan Bloom, and Christopher Lasch, in a chapter titled "The Soul of Man under Secularism."
The third part of the anthology, "Liberty and Power: The State and the Free Market consists of eight contributions on the nature of the state and on economics. Richard Weaver was an influential figure in the development of modern conservatism. He is represented by "The Great Stereopticon" from his 1948 book "Ideas have Consequences" which warns of the prevalence of shallow thinking in the daily media and of the dangers of ignoring history and philosophy. Other notable contributors to this part are Milton Friedman, Irving Kristol, and Patrick Deneen.
Regionalism and localism as a partial antidote to centralization are explored in the fourth part of the anthology, "The Ties that Bind: The Local and the Familiar". The sociologist Robert Nisbet's essay "The Loss of Community" discusses the importance of communitarianism to overcome the alienation and mechanization of much contemporary life. The three essays in this part by John Crowe Ransom, Eugene Genovese, and Wendell Berry, each explore the lessons that might be learned from agrarianism in the South.
The final part of this anthology, "The Exceptional Nation: America and the World" offers views on the nature of the United States and of its relationship to other nations. A variety of positions are offered most of which, with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt's "The Strenuous Life" counsel a degree of caution in the over-extension of the United States' overseas commitments. The contributors to this section include Henry Cabot Lodge, James Burnam, Robert Taft, Ronald Reagan, and Reinhold Niebuhr from his 1952 book, "The Irony of American History".
Many of the highly thoughtful essays in this volume may offer guidance to the United States in a difficult, divided time. The goal of the volume is less to convert readers to a form of conservatism and more to encourage reflection and the life of the mind in addressing critically important matters that sometimes tend to be slighted. As Bacevich states in his Introduction: "My firm conviction is this: to understand how the United States arrived at its present confused and divided straits -- and perhaps even to begin navigating back toward less troubled waters -- the American conservative tradition offers insights worth considering. I invite readers of this volume to consider that proposition." The Library of America and Bacevich deserve thanks for this volume and for their effort to revitalize consideration of conservative thought.