Five Recent Books About Conservatism
Alan Wolfe's new book "The Future of Liberalism" attempts to define the underlying spirit of liberalism in U.S. politics. Book World's reviewer, Ron Rosenbaum, summarized the argument:
A true liberal, Wolfe contends, is pragmatic, sober, skeptical and emotionally detached. Both the political right and far left, in contrast, are romantic at heart; they impulsively rush into military adventures and domestic crusades. . . . Wolfe cites the Civil War as an example of these different temperaments: The liberal North was "frugal, businesslike, impersonal, . . . rational," while the conservative South was "impetuous, chivalric, glory-seeking, evangelical, . . . romantic."
Now, that may be an accurate portrait of a liberal, as seen by a liberal -- a good summation of the liberal self-image. But I doubt that many conservatives would recognize themselves in it. How many conservatives would agree that their movement is, by its very nature, impulsive, impetuous, glory-seeking, etc?
I can think, however, of several up-to-date books about conservatism that paint a picture many conservatives would recognize, just as many liberals would see themselves in Wolfe's portrait. I'm not thinking of purely rah-rah, cheerleading books. Some of the titles on my list contain scathing assessments or challenge conservative dogma. But they aren't purely caricatures. They're on the list because they're both tough-minded and fair. I recommend them because I think both liberals and conservatives can learn from them.
Reclaiming Conservatism, by Mickey Edwards.
A longtime Republican congressman from Oklahoma and former chairman of the American Conservative Union, Edwards is a fervent conservative, but he thinks the movement has gone way off course. "If Barry Goldwater initiated the conservative revolution," he writes, "George W. Bush may have ended it." Edwards proposes a return to what he sees as genuine conservative ideals -- including respect for the Constitution and individual liberty ("freedom and only freedom," in Goldwater's words). That means, among other things, giving up attempts to enforce traditional social behavior. Pursuing the culture wars over lifestyle differences, he says, has "turn[ed] modern American conservatism on its head."
They Knew They Were Right, by Jacob Heilbrunn.
A blend of modern U.S. history and political philosophy, this book untangles the social networks and intellectual battles on the left that ultimately gave rise to the movement on the right known as the Neocons. Heilbrunn, a former writer for the National Review, demystifies the big thinkers venerated by many neocons, such as Leo Straus and Albert Wohlstetter.
The Big Con, by Jon Chait.
Of all the books on my list, this is the one that engages in the most sneering. For that reason, I hesitated to include it. But it makes a cogent argument that supply-side economics is a) crackpot economics and b) has hijacked Republican economic orthodoxy for a few decades now, turning ever-deeper tax cuts into a fetish that no elected Republican official can reject without risking defeat. This, Chait argues, has been a huge disservice to traditional fiscal conservatives, who used to worry a lot more about inflation, deficits and runaway spending than about lowering taxes, particularly on the richest segment of the population.
Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein.
The author previously wrote a biography of Barry Goldwater that both conservatives and liberals praised. In Nixonland, he traces much of the divisiveness of recent U.S. politics to the Nixon era, arguing that Nixon deliberately inflamed (and rode to power on the back of) the fear and resentment that mainstream America felt toward the youth counterculture of the 1960s. He reflects the unease of the Nixon's "silent majority" with considerable sympathy.
White Protestant Nation, by Allan J. Lichtman.
A professor at American University, Lichtman presents a thorough, evenhanded history of the rise of the conservative movement from the 1920s to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. He covers all the key events and factors (from McCarthyism to Vietnam and Roe v. Wade) but contends that the modern right formed principally out of concern that pluralistic, cosmopolitan forces threatened America's white Protestant identity and values. By his account, private enterprise and the Christian right are the true, central pillars of U.S. conservatism.
OK, have at it. What do you think is the best recent book on American conservatism?
-- Alan Cooperman
By Alan Cooperman |
April 2, 2009; 10:33 AM ET
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