The Far Right Stuff

Review of The Rise and Fall of Modern Conservatism, by David Farber (Princeton University Press, 2010)

This is a book to argue with.  For political junkies and arm-chair pundits, this is the sort of book that you toss down in the middle of a table with friends and fight over.  I mean that as a high compliment, since there are far too many books out there, narrowly argued and turgidly written, that leave one feeling flat rather than engaged.

Cover of The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History by David Farber
Cover of The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History by David Farber.

So here are the terms of the argument: Farber traces the modern conservative movement by presenting us with a set of six biographies.  He starts with Robert Taft, moves on to William Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Phyllis Schlafly, and Ronald Reagan before ending with George W. Bush, whose disastrous presidency Farber feels has brought this conservative movement to an end.  Farber sees the repudiation of modern conservatism not only in the election of Barack Obama in 2008 but in the fact that when he left office, Bush's approval ratings stood at 20%.

Farber wants to see a unity in modern conservatism, which he defines as "a disciplinary order generated by hostility to market restraints and fueled by religious faith, devotion to social order, and an individualized conception of political liberty" (p. 1). Beyond the personalities and battles over specific policies and programs, he argues, this is the central thread that held conservatism together.

Farber has worked hard – sometimes one can almost feel him bending over backwards – to be fair to his subjects and to their politics.  He gives credit where credit is due, and he avoids pulling the trigger when many fish-in-a-barrel moments present themselves.  This is a judicious, even-handed study that has studiously avoided the kind of polemical screed that many of its subjects resorted to.

One of the things that emerges from this group portrait is that as an intellectual movement, over the course of three quarters of a century, there is considerably less to conservatism than meets the eye.  Economically, conservatives – and this is why Farber starts the book with Robert Taft – offered little more than an updated free-market fundamentalism; socially, they clung to notions of family, tradition, and institutional obedience that were alternately nostalgic and retrograde.

Conservatism, as Farber looks back on it, was not a movement of Big Ideas.  While William Buckley has often been hailed as a movement "intellectual," in fact he was little more than a polemicist.  Nothing he wrote today stands as enduring or has anything more than artifactual value.  At his best he was clever; at his worst – as when offering tortured condemnations of white Southern violence while simultaneously defending the notions of "states' rights" – he was intellectually dishonest.  If he had been born in an earlier age, Buckley wouldn't have himself burned heretics at the stake, but he would have penned eloquent defenses of the practice.

Four other aspects of conservatism become clear when Farber juxtaposes these six figures.  First, these influential conservatives remind us just how much conservatism is a product of privilege and wealth, and its policies really just a protection of that privilege.  Of the six, only Ronald Reagan actually earned his money, and as Farber presents him here his move from New Deal liberal to staunch conservative tracked his rising income almost precisely.  When Robert Taft, campaigning in 1948, complained that "New Dealers" said "nothing of the necessity for hard work and sacrifice to reach [a higher standard of living]," this child of fabulous wealth apparently did so without irony.  There is nothing so edifying as being given up-by-your-bootstraps lectures by people who have had everything handed to them on a silver platter.  The best description I have come across of George Bush described him as a man born on third base who genuinely believes he hit a triple.  That might well serve as an epithet for all the conservatives in this book.

Second, Farber demonstrates how the questions of civil rights and race have been a central conundrum for conservatives since the 1940s.  Conservatives, they are quick to point out about themselves, are not racists, and Farber largely agrees.  At least once in each chapter he is at pains to say "---- was not a racist."  Perhaps the conservative protests too much? Over and over the principle of states' rights and restrained Federal authority seems only to come to a boil when African American civil rights are involved.  Goldwater infamously voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and in his book Conscience of a Conservative said that while he personally believed in civil rights, Southerners ought to be free to make their own choices, neatly ignoring all those black Southerners who still didn't have the right to vote.  Reagan opened his 1980 presidential campaign in Neshoba County Mississippi, the site of gruesome civil rights violence, and spoke of states' rights, never mentioning blacks who had been killed. And so it has gone.

Third, while we all recognize the close connection between political conservatives and the religious right, most of us generally think of the latter as Protestant fundamentalists.  Farber very helpfully forces us to reckon with the profound influence right-wing Catholicism has had on modern conservatism.  Buckley and Schlafly are the key figures in this book who project a particularly Catholic version of family life and institutional obedience onto the nation.  In this sense, Buckley, Schlafly and others began the rapprochement between conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants.  Farber might have also noted that one legacy of this influence is that the five-member hard-right majority on the Supreme Court right now are all conservative Catholics.

Finally, one can't help but conclude from this study that historian Richard Hofstadter, whom Farber admiringly references, was right years ago when he characterized conservatives as paranoid.  Repeatedly as Farber takes us through this history, conservatives resort to conspiracy theories, to half-truths, to out-right lies, to wild fantasies and to demagoguery.  Phyllis Schlafly, writing about the economy in her book A Choice Not an Echo, complained that "the Bilderburg group" controlled the world's economy.  In fact, she did echo a long tradition of right-wing conspiracy theorists, and foreshadowed some of the outrageous lies uttered more recently by Sarah Palin.  (Schlafly's ploy was, in fact, sheer cynicism.  She admitted to a friend that she knew the assertion wasn't true, but that "this is the sort of thing that our people lap up and love" p. 133).

Any book arranged the way Farber has constructed his invites questions about who wasn't included on this conservative dream team.  For my money, conspicuously missing are Joseph McCarthy, whose style of politics has become central to the conservative movement; Milton Friedman, the economist who made Gilded Age laissez-faire economics respectable again; and Richard Nixon, who more than any other figure of the second half of the twentieth century shaped the modern Republican party.

Those are my quibbles.  Gather your friends, open a few beers, and use this book to start some spirited fights of your own.