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Conservatism’s Historian

books and culture

Conservatism’s Historian

George H. Nash has chronicled the goals and ideals of the American Right for nearly 50 years. July 5, 2019
Arts and Culture
Politics and law

The conservative intellectual movement in America was forged in fierce dispute with its opponent to the left. Indeed, many of conservatism’s founding texts—Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences—were written as broadsides against the perceived leftward tendencies of a world in disarray. It is little wonder, then, that much of the commentary on conservatism has been polemical.

Nonetheless, the movement has also attracted the attention of sympathetic scholars. Foremost among them is George H. Nash, chronicler of the American Right’s ideas for nearly 50 years. Despite his own conservatism, however, Nash insists that he is not a cheerleader for the cause, only its historian. Nash sees his task as telling the story of American conservatives without inserting his preconceived notions or moral judgments into the narrative. “Objectivity,” Nash tells me, “is an ideal to be worked toward, to be aspired to, although I recognize that no one will ever achieve perfect objectivity.”

True to principle, Nash’s work avoids tilting the debate in favor of one form of conservatism over another. In his landmark history, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945, he gives a fair hearing to traditionalists and libertarians, neoconservatives and paleoconservatives alike, never intervening on behalf of the faction that he believes to possess the superior argument. Intra-conservative debates are presented with charity toward all sides.

Nash therefore favors a method of history that he admits to be rather old-fashioned. When discussing his historical work, he is averse to giving his opinion; indeed he prefers historical observation over theoretical speculation. He claims that his book, Reappraising the Right: The Past & Future of American Conservatism, is more polemical and opinionated than his other work, but most of its essays are exercises in historical investigation that are light on normative claims and heavy on descriptive ones. Nash does not lack opinions, of course, but it does take some effort to pry them out of him.

My prying yielded some fascinating answers, though, especially to the inevitable question: given Nash’s deep knowledge of all the schools of conservative thought, which does he find most persuasive?

“I would describe myself as a fusionist with a traditionalist tilt,” he says. To understand what he means, it is helpful to examine his view of how American conservatism is structured. By the 1990s, Nash argues, the movement had come to resemble a hand, with each digit representing a different branch of the broad conservative coalition. Here is how he describes the conservative movement in Reappraising the Right:

[Conservatism] is a coalition of five distinct parts: 1) libertarians apprehensive of the threat of overweening government and the welfare state to individual liberty and free-market capitalism; 2) “traditionalist” conservatives, appalled by the weakening of the ethical norms and institutional foundations of American society at the hands of secular, relativistic liberalism; 3) anti-communist cold warriors, convinced that America was increasingly imperiled by an evil empire seeking the conquest of the world; 4) neoconservatives—disillusioned men and women of the left who had been “mugged by reality” and were gravitating toward the conservative camp; and 5) the Religious Right, traumatized by the moral wreckage unleashed upon America by the courts and by the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s.

Fusionism was an attempt, led by Frank Meyer of National Review, to reconcile the first two branches. It succeeded, at least insofar as it managed to establish a basic conservative consensus that combined a defense of Judeo-Christian values, support for capitalism, and—something all conservatives could agree on—anti-Communism. Nash’s own brand of fusionism accepts capitalism and the individual liberty on which it is based: “Liberty,” he avers, “is a vital component of what conservatives need to defend.” But liberty is not enough, and traditionalism complements libertarianism in answering a question that Nash finds central: “What kind of life should you lead once you are given freedom?” By emphasizing the importance of religious customs and the pursuit of personal virtue, traditionalists captured Nash’s sympathies.

Born in 1945, George H. Nash was raised in western Massachusetts by a family of conservative Republican Yankees. From an early age he was fascinated by history, and his family helped nourish this fascination. Nash’s mother was a history major at Mount Holyoke College. When Nash was about 11, his grandfather gave him a ten-volume pictorial history of World War II, an encyclopedia that he remembers poring over with profound interest. He also recalls reading (and enjoying) Arthur Conan Doyle’s Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes just before entering high school. Nash likens history to detective work, so it is fitting that he has, at various times in his life, become engrossed in reading about both.

His love of history stuck with him. He majored in the subject at Amherst College and then completed his doctorate in American political and intellectual history at Harvard. Shortly after entering the academic job market, Nash received an inquiry from Herbert Hoover’s library, asking him if he would like to conduct archival research for a presidential biography. He had never dreamed of pursuing such a project, but he took the offer for reasons of both economic necessity (he needed to lock down a job) and intellectual interest (Hoover had ties to William F. Buckley and other conservative leaders). Before accepting the position, Nash told the association that the book could not be a hagiography; rather it had to be a work of required serious, detached scholarship. They accepted his condition, and Nash became Hoover’s biographer.

He enjoyed researching Hoover’s life, and he has since published multiple volumes and scholarly articles on the 31st president. Overall, Nash’s assessment is positive; he finds Hoover underrated as a statesman and thinker. Nash notes, for instance, that Hoover enjoyed an incredibly fruitful career as a businessman, secretary of commerce under Calvin Coolidge, and president.

Nash also emphasizes Hoover’s legacy of humanitarian work. In 1921, Vladimir Lenin’s embattled government in Russia requested food aid from the outside world. The Russian people faced starvation. In response, Hoover instituted a massive food-delivery program that fed more than 10 million people. It is almost certain that without Hoover’s aid many of these people would have died. The same goes for millions of others in Central Europe, where Hoover also orchestrated food-aid campaigns after World War I. “It was said by someone,” Nash solemnly reports, “and I would say it’s accurate, that Herbert Hoover saved more lives than any person who has ever lived.”

Nash also laments Hoover’s association with the Great Depression. A great deal of blame is placed on him; everybody knows about “Hoovervilles”—shantytowns built in the 1930s, so named in order to slight Hoover’s supposed incompetence. Nash sees a much more complex story behind the downturn: he cites historical research showing that the consequences of Hoover’s economic policies (such as the Smoot-Hawley tariff) may not have been as unambiguously bad as was once thought. In sum, Nash objects to reducing Hoover’s legacy to the Depression.

In his work on Hoover and in his scholarship more generally, Nash considers his job to be the “reduction of untruth,” in historian John Lukacs’s formulation. One such untruth, deeply irksome to Nash, is the notion that to be an intellectual means to be on the left. The idea has several corollaries: that conservatives are dull, that the phrase “conservative intellectual” is an oxymoron, that true brainpower is to be found only among progressives.

Nash frequently attacks the arrogance of these sorts of assumptions, and he evidently appreciates the efforts of Buckley and others to bring respectability to right-wing thought. In the penultimate page of his Conservative Intellectual Movement, for instance, Nash observes with satisfaction that by the era of George W. Bush, “no longer did the institutions of [progressivism] hold a near monopoly on the manufacture and distribution of prestige among intellectuals and related elites.” Serious thinkers could now declare themselves conservatives without reservation.

Leading academic and media institutions still lean left, of course, putting conservative intellectuals in an uncomfortable position. But Nash’s work suggests that they should take heart. Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, he points out, were Nobel laureates; Peter Viereck and Russell Kirk were winners of distinguished awards. And many think tanks today are populated by highly intelligent (and academically credentialed) conservatives.

In the summer before he entered college, Nash read Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences for the first time. Published in 1948, the book argued that Western civilization had entered a period of decline due to the adoption by the West’s elites of relativistic ideas. Weaver’s views left a lasting impression on Nash. He decided that it would be part of his work as an historian to uncover the mechanisms by which ideas influence behavior. Whereas some historians (especially Marxist ones) often contend that socioeconomic forces drive history, Nash counters: “It strikes me—and I deeply believe this—that it is the ideas we carry in our heads that really lead to various decisions about what we do.”

“Ideas,” Nash goes on, “are the images in our heads. They help us make sense of and interpret our experience.” To drive the point home, he recounts an episode from his days as a graduate student at Harvard. He and a few others had convened for dinner, and one of the students was a Communist. As the evening’s conversation unfolded, some of the students grew annoyed with the obstinacy of her political opinions. Eventually, someone decided to press her on Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks—“you know,” Nash says to me, “the middle-class peasants, the more prosperous peasants who were liquidated.”

Nash: “And she said—and I’ll never forget her words—‘they, the kulaks, never should have existed as a class.’”

Nash pauses. “That’s an idea!”

An ideology, in other words, moved this graduate student to sanction the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings. Hers was no isolated case, in Nash’s view. The twentieth century was deeply ideological: all sorts of movements committed crimes in the name of ideas. And these movements were often led by figures who were, Nash says, “in their own, perverted, perverse way, men of ideas.” Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Mao: all were theoreticians, writers, readers—mediocre ones, perhaps, but thinkers nevertheless.

“What is Marxism,” Nash asks, “but an interpretation of society and a program for its revolutionary reconfiguration?” And the idea of “National Socialism, Nazism, obviously had enormous and horrific consequences in the twentieth century. And the idea of Communism as implemented in Stalinist Russia and beyond led to tens and tens of millions of deaths in China, Cambodia, Cuba, and so forth.” Nash thus reformulates Weaver’s famous words: “[In the twentieth century] the state was captured by ideologues, and ideas were weapons, and they were weapons which resulted in the deaths of enormous numbers of people.”

Considering his insistence on the causal power of ideas, then, it is not surprising to see Nash, in Reappraising the Right, declare the “contest for [American] culture” the “final struggle” over which the battle between the Left and the Right is to be fought. Not control of the branches of government, not dominance in the world of business, not influence over the direction of public policy, but hegemony in the sphere of cultural production is for Nash the key fulcrum on which political struggle turns.

Nash’s observation came in the context of a broader argument he was making, namely that while conservatives are successful in national and state-level elections, they get decisively and repeatedly defeated in the settings where American culture is formed— universities, the media, the arts, and so forth. American society has become disturbingly split, with the Right in control of much of the state and the Left in control of the places where ideas are created. And so, Nash frets over whether

a nation so deeply divided in this way [can] govern itself effectively and continue to survive. How long can a society steeped in Western civilization flourish when powerful sectors of the society are moving in directions antithetical to, and ever more hostile to, that civilization’s spiritual, moral, and philosophic foundations? Can conservatives who proudly call themselves defenders of Western civilization hope to prevail much longer in the narrowly political arena if the underlying norms and worldview of that civilization cease to guide and inspire the populace?

For Nash, the fate of our society depends on what ideas win over the hearts and minds of the people. “The task of cultural renewal,” he concludes, “is more and more crucial if American civilization and its conservative guardians are to thrive.”

What should we make of the present state of conservative intellectuals, those putative guardians of America’s guiding principles? Donald Trump’s presidency has unsettled the movement and compelled many of its leading intellectuals to rethink their principles. Some have embraced a foreign-policy nationalism; others continue to prefer internationalism. Some remain committed to the doctrine of free-markets; others are skeptical of economic libertarianism. Some support Trump; others oppose him. Internecine squabbling is hardly new to the American Right, but the extent to which conservatives disagree among themselves today may be unprecedented. “In all my years as a historian of conservatism,” Nash wrote in 2016, “I have never observed as much dissension on the Right as there is at present. It is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.”

Nash argues that Trump has shattered the fusionist consensus within conservatism. On every front, Nash claims, Trump has challenged or subverted the conservative orthodoxy. He has abandoned the doctrine of free trade in favor of protectionism. He pays lip service to traditionalist concerns, and he pursues pro-life policies, but his past positions and personal conduct clash with social-conservative sensibilities. He has called into question the merits of the NATO alliance, sounding, when he does, like an isolationist. For Nash, Trump is in many ways an aberration from, rather than a fulfilment of, the ideas of the conservative intellectual movement.

Nash does not claim to have all the theoretical or ideological solutions to the problems facing conservatives, but he does offer a word of advice on how they could build a new consensus. Any return to first principles, he has written, must be undertaken with an eye toward what conservatives want at a fundamental level. He offers his view of what that is:

To put it in elementary terms we [conservatives] want to be free, we want to live virtuous and productive lives, and we want to be secure from threats beyond and within our borders. We want to live in a society that sustains and encourages these aspirations. Freedom, virtue, safety: goals reflected in the libertarian, traditionalist, and national security dimensions of the conservative movement. But to achieve these perennial goals, we must communicate in language that connects not only with our own coterie but with the great majority of the American people.

Though Nash does not say so, his suggestion implies that conservatives would do well to dig into his writings in their search for a post-Trump intellectual conservatism. To know what conservatism should want, its theoreticians should understand what it has wanted. There is no better place to look for such insight than Nash’s books.

Nash is proud that historians—most of them on the left—deem The Conservative Intellectual Movement a central book in the historiography of conservatism. And he says that his attempts at describing conservatism with some detachment have borne fruit: he considers it a high compliment whenever readers, especially non-conservatives, tell him that his work has helped explain the intricacies of the conservative mind.

“But anyway,” he tells me, shortly before we part, “I’m trying to point out that there is wisdom to be learned [in the conservative tradition], but I did not write The Conservative Intellectual Movement as a book of wisdom, you understand? It is a history of these people.” He adds that anyone, regardless of his politics, should learn about how conservatives fit into American history, “but there are also questions conservatives raise that are of enduring value to ask, whether or not you say at the end that you are a conservative. So, I would like to think my work contributes on that level.” Few would deny that it has.

Photo: Courtesy of Author

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