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Since 1933, indeed to some extent since 1913, however
bitterly many conservative Americans may
There is only an up or down: up to man's age-old
dream--the ultimate in individual freedom
It says more about the sorry state of the scholarship than about the quality of this particular book to say that it is one of the better overviews of modern American conservatism. Godfrey Hodgson is a British journalist who has covered American politics for many years after studying here in the 1950's. He maintains that though he started out as a conservative, he has moved leftwards, and now considers himself a Whig. He says that the main impetus for his shift was the realization, while covering the Civil Rights movement, that conservatism "acted as a shield for racism, class and money privilege, and sometimes tyranny." His motivation for writing this book was to try and untangle in his own mind how several seemingly contradictory strains of thought had come to be identified as conservative by the time of the twin victories of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan : "What puzzled me was the incoherent cocktail of ideas that were being melded together and offered under the marketing label 'conservative.'" Both his obsession with class and race, and his inability to understand how the various strands of conservatism can be reconciled, serve to weaken what might otherwise have been a fine book.
He starts well enough, providing a brief sketch of some of the ideas that had historically defined conservatism :
Conservative principles...sprang most of all from
instincts, and in particular from three : a suspicion
The conservative characteristically thinks other matters more important than politics.
But he quickly goes astray when he begins to argue that modern conservatism united two radically different and perhaps incompatible strands of thought, one "traditionalist and authoritarian", the other populist and individualistic. He argues that it was only possible to fuse these two ideologies because : "a third strand of conservatism, the angry anti-communism of the 1950s, overlapped the traditionalist-authoritarian and the libertarian-capitalist kinds of conservatism."
There's nothing revolutionary about this analysis. It is well understood that there are some points where pure libertarianism must come into some degree of conflict with a more religiously based conservatism. But what Hodgson fails to comprehend, as do most like-minded critics, is that most of these conflicts are really a function of the same unique set of circumstances that produced the anti-communist era also. Hodgson accurately describes the compromise that America arrived at in the second half of the twentieth century as conservatives not challenging the rise of the social-welfare state in exchange for liberals supporting the military-industrial conflict.
The result of this devil's deal was, of course, the creation of the $2 Trillion Federal government that we are saddled with today. It also helped to create something genuinely paradoxical, conservative internationalism, best represented by the neoconservatives and their literal and figurative heirs like William Kristol. This crowd, mainly motivated by a desire to preserve the State of Israel, is interventionist in foreign affairs to a degree that is virtually unheard of for conservatives. In addition, as Hodgson does an excellent job of demonstrating, traditionalist/religious conservatives find themselves in a situation where the government takes an enormous percentage of their wealth (as it does everyone else's) and interferes in practically every aspect of life. This has fostered an atmosphere where they are willing to advocate things like school choice and faith-based initiatives, in order to redirect tax money to religious organizations, when what they should really be doing is helping to dismantle government. This would both reduce the tax burden to the point where religious organizations were once again viable competitors in the delivery of social services and also get the government out of the business of regulating people's moral lives, often in direct contravention of the religious principles of the great majority of Americans. We are at what is hopefully the tail end of a lengthy aberrational period in American history, when the Depression, WWII and the Cold War combined to convince Americans to countenance an intrusive and authoritarian government, the likes of which we'd never seen before. It seems particularly foolhardy to judge the various strains of conservatism at this precise moment.
Instead, take a look at their historic roots and the tendencies they share. As Hodgson himself noted in the quote above, the essential characteristic of conservatives is that they believe politics (government) should be secondary to other more vital aspects of life. Give free market capitalists back a less regulated economy, and they'll be happy. Give supply siders back a tax code that takes a minimal percentage of national wealth and they'll be happy. Give libertarians back a minimalist government and they'll be happy. Give the religious back control over their children's schools and the ability to set community standards on moral issues (abortion, gay rights, etc.) and they'll be happy. What is it that all these groups have in common : their agendas require little more than a diminution of government power. It is this essential commonality that unites them in the long run. Hodgson's abject failure to understand this fundamental fact weakens the book badly.
This is a shame because his discussion of some of the ideas, authors, and leaders who helped mold modern conservatism are reasonably good. First he discusses four books which he refers to as the "Headwaters" of the conservative movement : Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Albert Jay Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, and Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. All are outstanding--Superfluous Man is particularly worth tracking down if you can. I do however think he should have included Whittaker Chamber's Witness in this group and I was disappointed that he never even mentioned such writers as Mickey Spillane and Eric Hoffer in the book.
He devotes a hefty amount of space to William F. Buckley, Jr., who is more responsible than any other single person for the forging of all of the various strains of conservatism into a coherent and relatively cohesive conservative movement. His treatment of Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign is reasonably good and he gives Milton Friedman the due he deserves as one of the key figures in the toppling of Keynsian economics.
Less well handled are the rise of the grass roots conservative organizations, which he seems to attribute to either implicit racism or explicit religiosity, or both. His eagerness to make racial animus the central issue in American political life is particularly curious. One assumes that he simply has the foreigner's usual fascination with the diversity of our society, and can't get past it. When he says that : "it is plain that national politics...are to a considerable extent about race," it's difficult to imagine what he's even talking about. Racism may still be a problem in America, but blacks are so completely under the thumb of the Democratic Party and the penalty one pays in the media for discussing any issue that even implicates race is so high, that race hardly enters into political dialogue at all. Republicans have nothing to gain by treating racial issues honestly and Democrats have no reason to bring up issues that they don't need to secure minority votes, but which might alienate majority voters, so the issues are seldom broached.
Bad enough that Hodgson's over emphasis and limited understanding of race leads him to impugn much of the conservative movement, what's worse is that by attributing much of the conservative revival to racism he utterly fails to consider the much more important role played by gender. Race was in fact a decisive factor for many years in the dominance of the South by the Democrats. The Republican Party had prosecuted the Civil War and, so Southerners felt, persecuted the vanquished during Reconstruction. In the aftermath of these events, it was the Democratic Party which became the staunch defender of Jim Crow and, not surprisingly, while most blacks were loyal to the party of Lincoln, whites in the South were known as Yellow Dog Democrats--that is they would have voted for a yellow dog if it appeared on the Democrat line on the ballot. Even that pillar of liberalism, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, never challenged the segregationist wing of his own party.
But this division of the two parties along racial lines was completely unnatural, having its origins only in historic grudges and alliances, rather than being based on political ideology. In particular, it made no sense for Southern males to vote against the party of personal freedom and for the party of big government. This contradiction came to a head when the Democrats under Johnson finally embraced the civil rights agenda and became the party that was willing, even eager, to use the powers of the central government to integrate all aspects of life and to provide special benefits (affirmative action, quotas, welfare, etc.) for those who had suffered discrimination in the past. This change allowed the two parties and the two sexes to gravitate toward their more natural, default positions--with Republicans as the party of men, Democrats of women. From this perspective it becomes clear that the resurgence of conservative politics was inevitable, once the deforming effect of segregationism was removed from the equation.
The book really falls apart though when Hodsgson gets to recent political history. Between trying to rehabilitate Jimmy Carter and minimize Ronald Reagan, he loses control of his narrative. Reagan proves especially vexing for him. Hodgson sets the reader's head spinning as he, on the one hand, credits Reagan with pressuring the Soviet Union into reform and makes it clear that Star Wars was the single most important factor in Gorbachev's determination that the USSR could no longer compete with the West, but on the other hand, suggests that Gorbachev's decision to reform had almost nothing to do with external events. Even more confusing, he is totally dismissive of American support for the Nicaraguan Contras and as proof that they were unnecessary cites the Sandinista decision to hold elections, which they were then soundly trounced in. This charitable view of Marxist regimes and their eagerness to embrace democracy is too silly to even warrant a response.
The most debilitating aspect of Hodgson's analysis of the Reagan years is a product of his devotion to egalitarianism. What he really objects to is the income inequality that was exacerbated during the Reagan recovery (a recovery which is, by the way, now in what ? Its 16th year ?). In a fit of utter obtuseness he complains that Reaganomics undid the "progress" that had been made over the previous decades in narrowing income gaps. Of course, he is blind to the fact that the reason Reagonomics was necessary in the first place was to get the economy going again after fifty years of New Deal/Great Society/Cold War programs, taxes , spending and regulation had ground it to a halt. He gives short shrift throughout the book to the idea, central to conservatism, that the only way governments can narrow these gaps is to place restrictions on the freedom of those at the top of the scale. But he never gives any indications of how it could be done otherwise. Nor does he come to grips with the notion, seemingly borne out by the experience of the twentieth century, that when government sets equality as its goal, the restrictions that it must place place on liberty lead to lower living standards for everyone, while when freedom is made the paramount concern, everyone benefits, even if those at the top benefit most. That this is the case is amply demonstrated by a simple thought experiment : ask yourself if you would rather have been an American at the bottom of the income scale in 1979, when you were closer to the top, but inflation, interest rates, and unemployment were all headed into double digits, or be there today, when, though you are nowhere near Bill Gates style of life, you can live better than the upper class in most other nations.
This then is a book which, though it takes conservatives ideas seriously, does not betray much understanding of them. Though it provides a thorough treatment of conservative history, it offers such a blindered analysis of even the most basic trends in that history, as to frustrate any reader unwilling to accept the implication that conservatism is little more that a racist defense of privilege and Christian fundamentalism. The book retains some value because there are so few comprehensive accounts of the events Hodgson details, but it should be read with a jaundiced eye. It's sort of like reading one of those British histories written by a sycophant to a regime that has assumed power under dubious circumstances and now has to discredit its predecessors. You know, the kind of propaganda pieces that portrayed Richard III as a hunchback or Anne Boleyn as having three breasts and six fingers. We still read those old histories because at least some of what's in them must be true and because they don't have any impartial competitors. Read this book the way you would those histories, skeptically whenever the narrative seems designed to serve the author's personal political purposes at the expense of his subject's reputations.
-Godfrey Hodgson Email : email@example.com
-EXCERPT : Chapter One of The Gentleman from New York : Daniel Patrick Moynihan by
-ESSAY : Dr Strangelove, we resume : JFK's military gambits and blunders led the US into an age
of doubt. Godfrey Hodgson wonders if the new President will learn to keep the peace (Independent uk,
20 January 2001)
-ESSAY : The call of a second Reagan : With his country-club values, George W Bush promises it
can be 'morning in America' again. It does not bode well for the rest of us (Independent uk, 05
-ESSAY : Class-bound America : Both of the leading American presidential contenders are
aristocratic Wasps (Godfrey Hodgson, December 2, 1999, The Guardian)
-ESSAY : The big boys : Harvard is even more wealthy and elitist than Oxford, whatever ministers
say (Godfrey Hodgson, June 3, 2000, The Guardian)
-ESSAY : The Republic : Yes, it might happen here (Godfrey Hodgson, December 15, 2000, The
-ESSAY : America's golden age : The Americans think new computers, new citizens and new
politics mark a new society (Godfrey Hodgson, Guardian, November 8, 1999)
-ESSAY : The Politics of American Health Care : What is it Costing You ? (Godfrey Hodgson, The
Atlantic, October 1973)
-REVIEW : The Three Roosevelts: the leaders who transformed America : Godfrey Hodgson traces the tales of the three rebellious Roosevelts (New Statesman)
-REVIEW : of WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR. Patron Saint of the Conservatives. By John B. Judis
(Godfrey Hodgson, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of ONE OF US Richard Nixon and the American Dream. By Tom Wicker (Godfrey
Hodgson, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of OUR COUNTRY : The Shaping of America From Roosevelt to Reagan. By
Michael Barone (Godfrey Hodgson, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of CLOAK & GOWN Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961. By Robin W. Winks
(Godfrey Hodgson, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE RISE OF THE COUNTER-ESTABLISHMENT From Conservative Ideology
to Political Power. By Sidney Blumenthal (Godfrey Hodgson, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of H.H.ASQUITH: LETTERS TO VENETIA STANLEY Edited by Michael and
Eleanor Brock (Godfrey Hodgson, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of EDWARD M. KENNEDY A Biography. By Adam Clymer (Godfrey Hodgson, NY
Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Name-Dropping From F.D.R. On. By John Kenneth Galbraith (Godfrey Hodgson,
NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE UNFINISHED PRESIDENCY Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White
House. By Douglas Brinkley (Godfrey Hodgson, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of ATTLEE By Kenneth Harris (Godfrey Hodgson, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of TONY CROSLAND By Susan Crosland (Godfrey Hodgson, NY Times Book
-REVIEW : of PRESIDENTIAL GREATNESS, by Marc Landy and Sidney M. Milkis, THE PRESIDENTIAL DIFFERENCE: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton, by Fred I. Greenstein, and POWER AND THE PRESIDENCY, Edited by Robert A. Wilson (Godfrey Hodgson, Wilson Quarterly)
-REVIEW : of Al Gore: a user's manual by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair (Godfrey
Hodgson / The Independent)
-REVIEW : of SECRECY: The American Experience. By Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Godfrey
Hodgson, Wilson Quarterly)
-INTERVIEW (AUDIO) : Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democratic Elder Statesman (Godfrey
Hodgson, WBUR The Connection, August 16, 2000)
-INTERVIEW (AUDIO) : Thought and Action: The Career of Senator Moynihan with Godfrey
Hodgson, Director, Reuter Foundation Programme, Green College, Oxford University (Woodrow
-OBIT : John V Lindsay : A liberal Republican mayor of New York whose glittering promise was
never fulfilled (Godfrey Hodgson, Guardian, December 21, 2000)
-ARCHIVES : "Godfrey Hodgson" (Guardian Unlimited uk)
-REVIEW : THE WORLD TURNED RIGHT SIDE UP A History of the Conservative Ascendancy
in America. By Godfrey Hodgson (Alan Ehrenhalt, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of The World Turned Right Side Up: A History of the Conservative Ascendancy in
America, by Godfrey Hodgson (Walter Olson, Reason)
-REVIEW : of THE GENTLEMAN FROM NEW YORK Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Biography.
By Godfrey Hodgson (Todd S. Purdum, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of The Gentleman from New York (PAUL MAGNUSSON , Business Week)
-REVIEW : of The Gentleman from New York (John J. Pitney Jr., Reason)
-REVIEW : of THE COLONEL : The Life and Wars of Henry Stimson, 1867-1950. By Godfrey
Hodgson (1990) (James Chace, NY Times Book Review)
-OBIT: Former Sen. Moynihan Has Died (Martin Weil, March 26, 2003, Washington Post)
-TRIBUTE: Daniel Patrick Moynihan: He was a singular politician and thinker. (MICHAEL BARONE, March 29, 2003, Wall Street Journal)
Pat Moynihan: neo-conservative but liberal in his appreciation of the arts (Online Opinion)
-ESSAY: Principles of Liberty (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, February 2, 2003, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of Meg Greenfield's Washington (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
-Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Retrospective : With News and Reviews From the Archives of The
New York Times
-The Moynihan Archives (WNYC Radio)
-ESSAY: CONNECTING THE DOTS: The paradoxes of intelligence reform (MALCOLM GLADWELL, 2003-03-10, The New Yorker)
-ESSAY : Daniel Patrick Moyniham: Icon from family of Indophiles retires : Man who helped repair bilateral ties at crucial time (India Abroad)
-PROFILE : Senator of Design (Metropolis, December 2000, Benjamin Forgey)
-REVIEW : of Secrecy by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (John J. Fialka, Washington Monthly)
-REVIEW: of SECRECY: The American Experience by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (John J. Fialka, Washington Monthly)