Did anticommunism fundamentally alter American conservatism?

Posted: October 5, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Politics

On Google Reader, Joel shared a post from the What’s Wrong with the World blog.  The author, Jeff Martin, considers a critique of William F. Buckley’s conservatism from the left and goes on to consider what American conservatism is conserving.  He believes that anti-communism tended to morph conservatism into an ideology competing with other ideologies, rather than a Burkean conservatism that seeks to conserve the full-orbed heritage of the past.  The post is long but worth reading.  Here is the conclusion:

Finally – conservatism, of the actually-existing American variety. Human errors are not unmediated issues from the nature of the species, but products of a wealth of contingencies, which make possible the errors of any epoch. Here, we must observe a sequence of beginnings. Conservatism, prior to the national traumas of the Great Depression, and the momentous years of the New Deal, when the power of business was supplanted, to some degree, by the power of the political, was – excerpting repulsive apologies for Social Darwinism and plutocrats, such as those of William Sumner – an elite, literary phenomenon, primarily articulated in opposition to the emerging mass culture. Strands of conservatism also deplored the centralizing tendencies of industrialism, and argued for the preservation of agrarian, human-scale societies. The New Deal, however, catalyzed a political revolution of sorts, and not just in Washington, but among rightists, who feared that transition from “the business of America being business” to the centrality of the political, and who likened that transition to unpleasant and sanguinary ideologies. That catalyst was insufficient, though, to establish a movement, at least not a movement capable of attaining and holding power, employing it to reshape the politico-economic order. And it is with this that, following the Second World War, and the emergence of the Soviet threat, we pick up the story of modern conservatism, to which Buckley was so integral. That conservatism fused the traditionalist strand hostile to mass culture, the strand skeptical of, or hostile towards the post-New Deal order, and anticommunism; operationally, the unifying passion was anticommunism, but much of the funding came from the second faction. This very fusion – fusionism? – led to an ideologization of conservatism, and a reshaping of the American ideology; the long, twilight struggle against communism saw conservatism slowly slouching into ideological modes of thought and definition, and witnessed the American order itself assuming some of the vices, of reductionism, dogmatism, and regimentation, of the Soviet system. Capitalism became an ideology, and more absurdly, an ideology supposed to be conservative, whereas capitalism is merely a different form, a more bearable form – of the Revolution. And then, communism imploded, from its own internal contradictions, its inherent impossibility, external pressures, and, I should say, because of the sanctity and courage of a Polish Pope; and with this implosion, the unifying passion of conservatism vanished. Conservatives, more so now than at any time in the past, cannot define what it is that they propose to conserve; what, that is to say, makes them conservative. As of this writing, what defines them is the fact of opposition.

What is American conservatism? Conservatives are still wrangling over that very question, engaging their political adversaries without a clear answer, and coasting on the legacy of their past, ever drifting.

The link in that paragraph is also a good read, arguing that conservatism’s opposition to communism and leftist anti-American critiques defined conservatism as the defender of corporate capitalism as the definition of economic freedom and American policies that set up the United States as the model for the world:

We might flesh out the argument by indicting the pointlessness of the old fusionism, which essentially invoked traditionalism in order to justify the corporate, managerial capitalism which has been its inveterate foe; but the character of contemporary conservatism will have to stand as the first count of the indictment. That conservatism has celebrated uncritically and reflexively the American economic system, and has regarded democratic capitalism as a universal template, souring on the administration which sought to export it by force of arms largely on account of its domestic bungling. And it has demonized critics as anti-American and unpatriotic, because they have had the temerity to view America as an historic, bounded nation – a nation we love not because she is the universal nation, but because she is ours.

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