Connoisseurs of the history of American conservatism will recall that Russell Kirk first proposed to Henry Regnery that his book ultimately titled The Conservative Mind be called, instead, The Conservative Rout. Consult your own feelings about today’s world, dear reader, and reflect with the wise author of Ecclesiastes that truly there is no new thing under the sun.
If Kirk could feel, circa 1953, smack-dab in the middle of the Ozzie and Harriet era, that conservatives had been routed, what should we who live in the disastrous year of 2020 call what has happened to them? The word massacre strikes one as far too sunny. Obliterated, perhaps? Annihilated? I suppose canceled might be the most temporally appropriate term.
Since late May, when America’s center-right institutions, already having proven themselves all but useless during the coronavirus pandemic, could not bring themselves to publicly condemn mob violence, cultural Maoism, and incipient revolution, the nation’s conservatives have been anxiously calling, texting, and emailing one another to ask: what the hell just happened? And where do we go from here?
To both questions, but especially the latter, compelling answers have been hard to come by. It’s not hard to understand why. Kirk may have thought conservatives had it hard in the early 1950s, faced as they were with a new and powerful military-industrial complex, unprecedented economic and political centralization, and an increasingly pervasive mass culture. But—such has been the success of their movement—70 years later conservatives are not only saddled with feckless center-right institutions. They are still faced with all the problems of the 1950s plus the overt and thoroughgoing hostility of, let’s see, the media, the education establishment (at all levels, public and private), the entertainment industry, big business, big technology, big philanthropy, and virtually every professional association, and even, to a large extent, professional sports, the military, and the police.
In the face of such a Washington Generals-esque record of success, one naturally opens Andrew Bacevich’s new Library of America volume, American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition, with something less than a heart brimming with hope. Is it probable that the conservative intellectual tradition has the resources we need to mount what Daniel McCarthy has rightly referred to in these pages as a counter-revolution? Is there anything useful in conservatism’s past? Hasn’t conservatism failed?