The poverty of theory

As the recent joke goes, the definition of a conservative is someone who argues about the definition of conservatism. In other words, conservatives can no longer be defined by a clear doctrine or policy programme. This might explain why the Republican Party had no policy platform in 2019 and why its congressional leadership will not release one for the 2022 midterm elections. And yet, many people in the United States still seem to care enough about conservatism to argue about what it means. Matthew Continetti is one of them, and his book extends the joke to more than 400 pages.

A fundamental problem with The Right is that the author simply attempts to cover too much time in too little space. His choice to begin in the 1920s is promising. Debates over a “return to normalcy” after the Progressive Era and Woodrow Wilson’s failedism do indeed seem more relevant today than Harry Truman’s international presidency, the conservative history genre’s typical starting point, but Continetti is unable to develop his line of thought. Racing through a century’s worth of events and biographies, his book more often reads like a series of Wikipedia entries than a coherent history. Added to this is the fact that Continetti mostly just recapitulates the standard – and often hackneyed – narratives of conservative lore: Dwight Eisenhower is moderate, Joseph McCarthy irresponsible; Barry Goldwater is principled, William F. Buckley Jr. witty; Richard Nixon is clever, Ronald Reagan sunny.

One possible exception is Continetti’s treatment of populism. The book’s four-paragraph profiles of Huey Long and similar figures cannot begin to say anything interesting about individual populists. But by tracing the arc of right-wing populism over time, Continetti does reveal something about conservative elites’ complicated attitudes towards it, and how they have tried to steer it. From McCarthy to the John Birch Society, Nixon to Reagan, conservatives can be seen alternately courting – even stoking – and then recoiling from populist movements. In 2009, Continetti himself wrote an entire book, The Persecution of Sarah Palin, defending the “unpolished” Republican vice-presidential candidate and the brand of populism she seemed to inspire. After Donald Trump, Continetti is more speculative about right-wing populism, but he also suggests that conservatism cannot really be viable without it. It is, he argues, a complex relationship that goes beyond cynical politicking – though such motivations are hardly absent.

To square the circle, Continetti favors a version of Trumpism without Trump, arguing for “secure borders and national sovereignty, an emphasis on the condition of working people without college degrees, a tough stance toward China, and a reluctance toward humanitarian intervention abroad.” An unasked question The Right should have attempted to answer, however, is why these positions had to be “forced upon the [conservative] movement”, in Continetti’s words, and why a more serious, disciplined politician failed to take them up.

Continetti’s exclusive focus on ideological disputes is an insurmountable weakness. Rick Perlstein’s superior histories of conservatism – Before the Storm (2001), Nixonland (2008), The Invisible Bridge (2014), Reaganland (2020), which cover forty years in four lengthy volumes – discuss the key donor constituencies and business lobbies that have shaped the movement. The Right, on the other hand, gives little thought to the practical considerations of building and funding a political coalition. Yet these material factors significantly influenced what conservatism became. They help to explain how, for example, a foreign import such as Friedrich Hayek, who explicitly disavowed conservatism, came to occupy a central place in the American conservative canon, while many deep-seated conservatives less enthusiastic about the free market were sidelined or ignored . Moreover, a history that looked beyond knowledge would better grasp the mutations that conservative policy has undergone since its Reagan-era heyday, and provide an understanding of its successes and failures. Continetti is aware of some of these issues, but he does not sufficiently appreciate them. In this respect, the shortcomings of his survey reflect those of the conservative movement as a whole.

For example, Continetti points out the difference between the foreign policy realism of the first generation of neoconservatives, in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the Wilsonian moralism of the second, in the early years of the twenty-first. He notes that Irving Kristol criticized (in an article for the New York Times in 1983, he advocated for US withdrawal), believed that post-communist Russia should still be treated as a great power, and was sceptical of global democracy (which he dismissed as “empty of substance” and “full of presumption!”) . But although Continetti venerates this neoconservative patriarch, he follows the second generation of neocons in claiming that the American public simply lacked the “patience” to see Iraq and other misadventures through to success. The failure of democracy promotion involved much more than the loss of a domestic political debate, however. US forces occupy Afghanistan for nearly twenty years, only for the Taliban to retake power almost immediately following their withdrawal. The fact is that the incompetence and corruption introduced by the American occupation bred its own resistance; “patience” was actually counterproductive. Reagan, by contrast, avoided lengthy ground wars involving US troops but invested heavily in defense technology, laying the foundation for US military superiority. George W. Bush’s costly, failed occupations not only inflicted direct liability and hardships on Afghanistan and Iraq as well as on US military families, mostly from working-class communities also facing economic decline, but contributed to the global loss of US prestige and squandered America’s unpolar hegemony in the space of a generation.

Continetti also entirely ignores the diminishing returns achieved by Reaganite domestic policies amid changing economic circumstances. Even leaving aside Reagan’s deviations from free market orthodoxy, such as his “voluntary restraint agreements” on imports, conservatives, including Continetti, have shown remarkably little curiosity about why Reagan’s “supply-side” reforms worked, while subsequent efforts along similar lines have failed . From George W. Bush to Trump, conservatives have been unable to grasp or even to investigate a now obvious reality: in the financialized economy that eventually grew out of neoliberal policy, tax cuts have been more likely to fuel asset inflation price than to drive investment , growth and productivity gains.

This lack of pragmatism generals a central conceit of The Right and a fixture of the conservative self-image. For Continetti, the principal task of conservatism is “to save liberalism from weakness, woolly-headedness, and radicalism”. But what his book actually demonstrates is that modern American conservatism is profoundly unsuited to this purpose. There are, after all, easier ways to arrive at moderate, pragmatic liberalism than through the writings of Russell Kirk or Ludwig von Mises.

Contra Continetti, the essence of modern American conservatism is not moderate liberalism. Yet neither is it anti-liberalism, as critics sometimes allege. Instead, American conservatism is, in determining ways, an alternative form of radical liberalism, in some America’s most radical variant. Its radicalism pushes in the direction of individualism and idealism rather than collectivism and materialism. But this “conservatism” is ideological, not pragmatic; it seeks revolution, not preservation. Initially including a surprising number of disaffected communists among its leadership, American conservatism eventually became a haphazard union of neoliberals and “neoconservatives” (or, less alliteratively, though more precisely, an extreme cadre of liberal interventionists). It sought to destroy the New Deal order at home and to replace political and communal relations with global market mechanisms; it promoted maximalist campaigns to defeat the Soviet Union and then to impose liberal democracy around the world. One can argue that these approaches were not always wrong, but they were never really moderate.

To be sure, the conservative coalition has always included “social conservatives.” And, while the neoliberals and interventionists are liberal but not moderate, most social conservatives desire a kind of moderation (in the pace of cultural change), but they are not especially liberal (and some are fairly called reactionary). Intermediate, as Continetti accurately observes, their intellectual leaders have always preferred abstract theorizing to practical policy, and they never developed sufficiently comprehensive or concrete agendas. Instead, they generally adopted the often radical economic and foreign policy doctrines of their coalition partners in exchange for occasional “religious freedom” legislation and court appointments, lip-service to cultural resentments, and scraps of funding for “great books” seminars. (This topic alone should be the subject of at least one volume in the future.)

The true lesson of Continetti’s scattershot history is that what this motley coalition (and others like it) holds together is not the development of any coherent political theory or policy programme, but the construction of an identity. The conservative identity is based on alienation from mainstream liberalism, yet the contradictory directions and sources of that alienation cannot be explored too deeply or the whole project will collapse. Hence conservatism’s perpetually fraught relationship with populism.

Conservatives are typically harsh critics of “identity studies.” But they seem to have an endless appetite for “conservatism studies”, of which The Right is one example. Indeed, it is possible to debate whether American conservatism even exists – in the sense of forming a whole greater than the sum of its parts – outside of conservative identity studies. Continetti himself acknowledges this fragility when he pleads: “To some, this history will look like a chronicle of incoherence and failure. But there really is such a thing as American conservatism.” Yes, alas, there is. But it is not what Matthew Continetti thinks it is, and anyone seeking a politics free from “weakness, woolly-headedness, and radicalism” would be better off without it.

Julius Krein is the editor of American Affairs

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