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"The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.”
A Review of Matthew Continetti’s The Right
Last April, Basic Books published The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism, by Matthew Continetti. With blurbs from leading conservative lights George Will, Rich Lowry, and Yuval Levin, The Right is a much-needed update to George Nash’s 1976 book, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Continetti is in the process of establishing himself as “the foremost contemporary chronicler of American conservatism,” according to Will – who would be one to know. And The Right will likely become a canonical text for understanding the history of American conservatism. It is an invaluable read for any conservative (or progressive) who wants to understand the context in which he or she operates and the evolution of the conservative tradition that has been passed down to this moment.
The book will prove especially useful for young people who are new to the movement, but it is also a good primer for many of their elders – some of whom seem to lack much historical awareness. Perhaps this is a failure of the American education system, or perhaps it is an outgrowth of the historical narcissism so common across the political spectrum today.
But in either case, The Right is a corrective for anyone in need of a history lesson – from members of the New Right who are unaware just how many times that label has been used in the past, to integralists unfamiliar with the debate between William F. Buckley Jr. and his brother-in-law Brent Bozell (founder of Triumph magazine), to center-right types who want to learn more about Russell Kirk or Irving Kristol or James Burnham.
Where to Start?
Tracing the roots of contemporary conservatism to an exact moment is always a fraught task, and there is some debate over the matter. Oftentimes, the 1955 founding of National Review is given as the birth of the movement, since that was when it took on a recognizable form. But clearly, conservative ideas existed before the 1950s.
Continetti begins in the 1920s, with the Americanism of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. The early chapters of the book move rapidly from topic to topic and from person to person. At times, they seem to lack a coherent narrative, but that is primarily because the American Right lacked any coherency at the time. Continetti does the hard work of exploring the jumbled and tangled roots of American conservatism, and the early chapters represent one of the best attempts by anyone to map the unmappable.
It is interesting to note that the epigraph of the book is an 1860 quotation from Abraham Lincoln, which sums up in so many ways the spirit of American conservatism – the “adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried,” and the preservation of the policy of the American Founders against the attacks of those who “are unanimous in rejecting and denouncing the old policy of the fathers.”
Continetti occasionally refers back to the nineteenth century at times, in order to show how elements of conservative principles existed before the twentieth century (albeit, sometimes in inchoate or chaotic form). Libertarianism and commitment to the free market, support for the rule of law, love of American culture, reverence for the American Founding, and reverence for the institutions of American life, were all present. But it took many decades before the American Right resolved itself into the form we know today.
In tracking the various opponents of the New Deal, the defenders of Americanism, the critics of FDR, and the progenitors of what would cohere into the Right, Continetti does a good job of demonstrating where the seeds for the recognizable movement of the 1950s were being planted in the ‘30s and ‘40s. But at times, he includes anecdotes and figures that seem out of place. About some – Father Charles Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, Huey Long, various Agrarians, and other dissidents – it isn’t altogether clear that they wouldn’t more easily fit into a book about the American Left.
While various communists and socialists who “saw the light,” and moved to the Right, play major roles in the book (including the original neoconservatives, especially Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz), those figures all actually did move right. They embraced free market capitalism (or at least anti-communism) and put aside their Marxist roots. It’s unclear that some of these other figures from the early chapters ever did.
Standing Athwart History
Once we get into the heart of the book, the narrative becomes stronger and more gripping. William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, James Burnham, Frank Meyer, Brent Bozell, Whittaker Chambers, and other icons jump out from the pages. Along with intellectual arguments and historical narrative, Continetti includes intriguing anecdotes about some of these men, including that a young Kirk wrote a letter to Albert J. Nock of The Freeman when Kirk was serving as a soldier during the Second World War. Later, politicians – especially Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan – come to figure prominently, but early on the conservative movement didn’t have any real political constituency.
In the spirit of professionalism, Continetti removes himself completely from the text, with the occasional exception of a necessary disclosure (ex., a parenthetical explaining that “this author” worked for The Weekly Standard). For instance, a reader could be forgiven for not knowing that Continetti is married to Irving Kristol’s granddaughter (Bill Kristol’s daughter).
He also generally avoids giving opinions or passing judgment (at least during the body of the book), and this extends to his inclusion of the occasional left-wing figure – which isn’t an endorsement of their politics or their personal views, but rather an attempt to diagram the cultural milieu of each decade he covers. It’s also a function of the simple fact that certain figures don’t fit neatly into one side or the other. His inclusion of George Wallace, for instance, is less about introducing a Democrat into the conservative canon, and more about demonstrating that populism and nativism had some appeal to certain elements that overlapped with the conservative movement. If anything, Continetti errs on the side of inclusion, and where other conservative writers spend much time and effort trying to define other right-wingers out of the movement, he takes an “all of the above” approach. As a historian, he is primarily interested with what happened and what the debates were, not with who was right or wrong.
It has been pointed out, most notably by Jonah Goldberg, that some of the sins Continetti documents in The Right (including nativism and racism) were never unique to the American Right, but were equally prevalent in the American Left. Neither side has a monopoly on skeletons in the closet.
Goldberg also points out that some ideological strains on the Right weren’t particular to the Right – that a similar tale could be told of the Left. For instance, isolationism was popular in corners of the American Right before the founding of paleoconservatism, but there’s a long tradition of leftist isolationism in America as well. Likewise, populism is more of an “American thing,” than it is a “conservative thing,” or a “progressive thing,” and it’s at least been as prevalent on the Left in American history as it has on the Right. Even nationalism isn’t simply a right-wing phenomenon.
Continetti might respond that he wrote a book called The Right, and not a book called The Left. But one could be forgiven for thinking that readers unfamiliar with American history (sadly, a cohort that might include all too many Americans) would miss that, and might make the mistake of believing that Continetti vindicates leftist arguments about conservatism, when he does nothing of the sort.
A Populist Revolt
Some readers may be surprised at the prominence that is at times given to nationalism and populism in the book (although great chunks are spent on fusionism and libertarianism and neoconservatism). If anything, Continetti is perhaps overcorrecting for his own background and perspective. But he’s also documenting the roots of what became paleoconservatism, and later gave rise to the candidacy of Donald Trump. While Continetti demonstrates that nationalism has always been an undercurrent in right-wing thought, he doesn’t make the mistake of believing it defines the American Right, any more than fusionism, or libertarianism, or business conservatism, or compassionate conservatism.
Unlike others who have attempted to trace the roots of Trumpism in the Right, Continetti fundamentally does not believe that “this was always baked in,” or that “conservatism was stained from the start.” In training a critical eye on the likes of Joe McCarthy and other demagogues, he doesn’t do so in order to discredit other figures in the movement (Buckley, Reagan, Goldwater, etc.). In exploring the role of conspiracies and groups like the John Birch Society, Continetti doesn’t make the case that the conservative mind is inherently conspiratorial or “authoritarian.”
Rather, he wrote The Right because he believed that there was something noble, and good, and worth preserving about the American Right. The conservative movement, despite “it’s present disagreeable and hesitant condition,” has throughout its history “risen up to defend the essential moderation of the American political system against liberal excess,” and “its defeats and setbacks have been temporary.” Continetti writes the history he does because he believes there is something worth remembering about American conservatism, which at its best is about patriotism – “reverence for the nation’s enabling documents,” and “regard for the American tradition of liberty those charters inaugurated.” He quotes George Will who wrote (in answer to the question, “What does American conservatism really conserve?”), “We seek to conserve the American Founding.”
Unlike many Never-Trumpers who turned their backs on conservatism, Continetti sees something worth salvaging in American conservatism – because he sees something worth salvaging in America.
The author moves a little quickly toward the end of the book, which is understandable. Readers will clearly be able to say much more about the coronavirus pandemic and the presidency of Donald Trump than he does – but he knows his current crop of readers are familiar with those events, having lived through them. And for future historians, the most valuable work of the book is contained in the previous four hundred pages, not the final ten. The events of 2020 are not history yet, not really. Later historians will be the ones to write that history.
Some Never-Trumpers will be disappointed that Continetti wasn’t forceful enough in condemning Donald Trump, or explicitly tell conservatives to, “Dump Trump.” But he does say that if the movement fails to divorce itself from Trump the man, while retaining a commitment to border security and hawkishness on China, it will flounder in “failure and incoherence.” It is clear that Continetti does not think the present moment is one that colors the Right in glory, and that he believes conservatives must move on from the pettiness of the current moment if we are to effectively check the excesses of progressivism while maintaining the tradition of liberty that is so central to the American project.
Meanwhile, some on the New Right will be disappointed that Continetti didn’t sound the death knell for fusionism or neoconservatism. Well, for any readers in that camp, what did you expect? Continetti is a fellow at AEI and he writes for Commentary (among other places). He wants to continue the tradition of American conservatism, not usurp it.
What Critics May Find Unsatisfying
Some who mistake Continetti’s historical scholarship for a work of prescriptive prediction will be disappointed with the lack of policy solutions and editorializing. Continetti is nothing if not a professional, and he keeps his distance throughout the work, never commenting on a particular stance and never offering anything other than neutrality. This is a history book, not an opinion newsletter.
Because The Right is a work of scholarship, those looking for an uproarious, unsanctimonious, no-holds-barred, culture war canonization, will have to look elsewhere. This is a book for anyone looking for a highly serious, at times dry, at times fascinating, blow-by-blow account of the history of the conservative movement for the past century.
Are there things that are left out? Even a four hundred- and fifteen-page book can’t chronicle every incident that occurred in conservatism in the past one hundred years. For instance, the infamous “End of Democracy” issue of First Things in 1996 doesn’t garner a mention, nor do some other internecine fights within the Right.
If anything, Continetti may also err on the side of not namechecking his friends too often. The reader may be able to name several prominent conservative intellectuals today who do not figure heavily in the book, although this may also be a function of the fact that the vast majority of the book takes place before 2010. Still, the book is as exhaustive as it can be, and the reader will learn much from even a cursory read.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the book for many readers is the opportunity to correct for one’s historical blind spot, or learn about the history of the moments just before and after one’s birth. For Millennials, this might be the 1990s or 1980s. For Zoomers, the 1990s and 2000s and even part of the 2010s. For Gen Xers, maybe the ‘60s.
And even for the years we remember personally, or the years we remember from history class, we may learn new information. Unless a reader has personally studied the history of the conservative movement, he or she is likely to be unaware of certain key debates and developments that took place alongside, or against the backdrop of, more familiar events.
At times towards the end of the book, the reader (at least one of a fusionist, or at least not a populist, persuasion) may feel saddened by the depths to which the Right has sunk, and the pettiness of our current moment. Continetti ends on a hopeful, but not optimistic, note. He suggests that if certain present trends continue, the conservative movement will flounder in irrelevance and failure.
But he also argues that if conservatives remember their patriotism, their love of liberty, and their reverence for America’s founding documents and institutions, they will be up to the “unending task” of checking the excesses of progressivism, preserving America – the idea and the nation – and defending liberty, tradition, and that which was (and remains) great about America. He calls upon conservatives to remember their own history, and to remember their task of preserving the American Founding.
“Why? Because the job of a conservative is to remember.”