When Is a Conservative Not a Conservative?

Some of the most intriguing personal stories of American conservatism tell of standout leaders who have switched from left to right over the years.  Of liberals, leftists, and radicals who had been “mugged by reality.”  It has been all too easy to make jokes about this tradition.

Q: What do you call a liberal with a daughter?  A: A Social Conservative.

Or, Q: What do you call a liberal with a mortgage? A: A Financial Conservative.

As Winston Churchill supposedly put it, “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart.  Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”

In the pages of National Affairs historian Jonathan Bronitsky has offered a new vision of the long process of ideological conversion among some of the twentieth century’s most prominent side-switchers.

Of course, America has a long history of leaders changing from youthful leftism to mature conservatism.  Back in the nineteenth century, for instance, Tom Watson of Georgia started his career as an advocate of bi-racial populism and ended it as a bitter rabble-rousing racist.  William Jennings Bryan got famous as the voice of the little man and ended his career as the voice of the Bible.

In the twentieth century, too, casual students of conservatism have grown accustomed to the story that a group of New York Lefties switched over to conservatism due to the excesses of “The Sixties.”  Intellectual leaders such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, the story goes, emerged from the intellectual contradictions of Trotskyism to create and embrace an energetic and engaging “neo-conservatism.”

In the cases of Irving Kristol and his historian spouse Gertrude Himmelfarb, Bronitsky argues that the love affair with Edmund Burke’s thoughtful conservatism went back much further.  As Bronitsky puts it,

Scholars routinely break down the intellectual conservatism that emerged in post-war America into three groups. First, there were “traditional” conservatives like Russell Kirk, John Crowe Ransom, and T. S. Eliot. They invoked Edmund Burke and his anti-radical appeal to tradition. Second, there were “New Conservatives” — as they were called in the post-war years — like William F. Buckley, Jr., Richard Weaver, and Peter Viereck. They looked to Burke as well as to Adam Smith with his moral justification for market economics. And third, there were libertarians like Robert Nozick, Albert Jay Nock, and Murray Rothbard. They admired Smith in addition to Friedrich Hayek with his contention that communism and fascism were merely opposite sides of the same totalitarian coin. Though the first generation of neoconservatives interacted with these three groups, they operated at a distance — or at least most intellectual historians have repeatedly insisted they did — preferring change over custom, reason over revelation, dogma over philosophy, and, thus, celebrating thinkers far removed from classical liberals like Smith, Hayek, and, particularly, Burke.

Bronitsky argues that this standard story does not work for Himmelfarb and Kristol the elder.  In their cases, the love affair with Burke and the tenets of conservatism went back decades, to the 1940s.

For those of us who struggle to make sense of the complicated kaleidoscope of American conservatism, this intellectual creation story matters.  What did it mean for Kristol and Himmelfarb to dance with the conservative devil as far back as the 1940s?  More intriguing, what did “conservatism” promise intellectually that “liberalism” had failed to produce?  How did “conservatism” solve the intellectual problems that Trotskyism could not?



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  1. Not sure how much Bryan fits the paradigm. I would guess he saw himself as a populist to the end.

    An interesting recent example of this is Marvin Olasky, a youthful communist who now runs the conservative evangelical magazine, World, and is famous for formulating “compassionate conservatism.”

  2. Good the see your name here Daniel. Be sure to let us know if you are ever in this neck of the woods. doug


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