By the 1950s, the classical form of liberalism that we call conservatism -- enshrined in the Constitution and prevalent through the 1920s presidency of Calvin Coolidge -- was clearly moribund. Conservative notions about capitalism, free markets, and limited government had been indicted by Hoover's Great Depression and sentenced to death by Roosevelt's New Deal.
Even Eisenhower's presidency, and the Republicans' brief control of Congress, seemed no great break in the Left's triumphal march. The Supreme Court was increasingly viewing the Constitution as an obstacle to get around, a mild socialism seemed ascendant in America and Great Britain, and various Marxisms appeared on the rise throughout the rest of the world.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the socialist revolution. The Communist regimes in Eastern Europe disappeared. The plans of Roosevelt and Truman, Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson, sputtered and ran aground. The American public ceased to believe wholeheartedly in the ability of big government to care for its citizens from cradle to grave. A movement that hardly existed in 1950 has managed to elect presidents and Congresses, prime ministers and parliaments. And it has managed as well to construct something that looks like a coherent conservative philosophy for modern times.
Afraid that the victors are being short-changed in the history books, Lee Edwards, former aide and biographer of Barry Goldwater, has written The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America, a new chronicle of the conservative movement over the last half century. And afraid the organization and man-power that brought about victory have also been forgotten, Gregory L. Schneider has added Cadres for Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Right.
Presenting a blow-by-blow account of the major political events since 1946, Edwards pins his narrative to four towering figures: Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich. If this technique leaves the impression that conservatism owes some of its success to its cults of personality, that may not be entirely wrong. After World War II, conservatism, Edwards notes, "was so irrelevant that no major politician would dare call himself a conservative." But 1946 was a year loaded with portents: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Joe McCarthy all joined Congress, and the GOP obtained a congressional majority -- a hiccup during a time of general dominance by the Democrats.
The parallels to the 1994 Republican sweep are striking. Both were off-year elections. Both offered stinging rebukes to the Democrats in the White House. Both produced activist Republican majorities that got to work quickly and accomplished much. Yet both were turned into foils which the incumbent presidents, Truman and Clinton, could run against to maintain the presidency.
Nonetheless, the Republican successes of 1946 and the growing fear of Soviet militarism helped a conservative movement begin to gel. Its first leader was the mild-mannered Senate Republican leader, Robert Taft of Ohio. (Taft's untimely death in 1953 left the nascent movement rudderless, according to Edwards, and unable to rein in the excesses of Joe McCarthy.)
And the movement began to find as well a definite philosophical road to follow. Many analysts of the time could hardly fathom the new conservatism and its proponents. Arthur Schlesinger averred that only Henry Cabot Lodge and Jacob Javits -- two eastern liberal Republicans -- represented "intelligent conservatism." He also dismissed a study by the conservative intellectual James Burnham as "an absurd book by an absurd man."
But a powerful new intellectual groundwork was being laid at the time. Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind in 1953, Whittaker Chambers's Witness in 1952, F. A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom in 1944, and William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale in 1951 provided important ammunition for waging the political battles of the next fifty years. (Strangely, Edwards does not elevate Buckley to the level of his four key figures, for his treatment of Buckley is among the strongest parts of The Conservative Revolution, explaining the influence of National Review and the importance of Buckley's expulsion of the John Birch Society from the new movement.)
The Conservative Revolution leaves part of the story untold by mostly ignoring Richard Nixon before he became president in 1968. Certainly Nixon was no deep conservative as president, expanding the leviathan state and instituting wage and price controls. (Edwards is surely wrong when he claims that Nixon's "floating currency rates" pleased conservatives. No conservative defended jumping off the gold standard, which only exacerbated the stagflation of the 1970s.) But he was a hero in 1952 after bringing down Alger Hiss and had considerable presence among conservatives and anti-Communists. An analysis of the strengths and liabilities he brought to the conservative movement would have improved Edward's account.
Similarly, Edwards is intent on seeing President Reagan's doubling of the national debt in the 1980s as a "conservative failure." Reagan, unlike his predecessors, understood that the United States was at war with the Soviet Union. This was the single most important objective of the Reagan presidency and, it should be noted, of the conservative movement as well. Spending increases were the tradeoffs Reagan made to get his military buildup from a skeptical and recalcitrant Congress. And the economic boom of the 1980s more than offset the increased federal spending.
The Conservative Revolution remains an important and worthwhile telling of a story that is among the most compelling imaginable: an ideology, apparently nearing extinction, resurrected within a few decades to transform America and save the world.
Of course, it took more than ideology to accomplish this. And this is where Gregory L. Schneider's Cadres for Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Right sheds light. Whenever the 1960s are invoked these days, the picture is always of the radical students at Berkeley, Columbia, Michigan, and Kent State, storming deans' offices, dodging the draft, and being fired upon by the National Guard. But there was a different set of students during the 1960s that has never gotten its due -- and it's no exaggeration to say these students engineered the conservative takeover of the Republican party, elected the Republican answer to Roosevelt, and won the Cold War. Not bad for a bunch of kids who rarely had enough money to pay the rent.
Schneider, unlike Edwards, doesn't hail from the ranks of the conservative movement, but he nonetheless comes to the conclusion that the students involved in Young Americans for Freedom were concerned, intelligent people "motivated to take action by what they believed were the excesses of American liberalism." They were the ones who read the books of Kirk, Burnham, and Hayek until their dog-eared copies fell to pieces. And they were the ones who took direction from Buckley's National Review and M. Stanton Evans's Indianapolis News (at age twenty-six, Evans became the youngest editor of a major newspaper in America).
The Young Americans for Freedom staffed the movement to draft Barry Goldwater into the 1964 presidential race, serving warning to the Eastern Establishment of Rockefeller and Lodge. And the world didn't know what to make of them. Referring to a demonstration outside San Francisco's Cow Palace, Walter Cronkite told the nation, "They're the Young Americans for Freedom, but I don't know what kind of freedom." The New York Herald Tribune editorialized against these "purveyors of hate and the apostles of bigotry." Drew Pearson warned, "The smell of fascism is in the air." Baseball legend Jackie Robinson said, "I believe I now know how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany." California Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown added, "All we needed to hear was 'Heil, Hitler.'"
It would take sixteen years after Goldwater's defeat before Reagan would carry their ideas to victory. And as the members of the Young Americans for Freedom grew older and graduated to more prominent positions, their organization itself grew irrelevant. The improbable Goldwater nomination of 1964 represented the organization's high-water mark, though it slogged on until the mid-1980s, beset by comical bouts of factionalism and infighting and poverty. Yet Schneider also shows that they weren't always unpopular. Supporters ranged from Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor to baseball Hall-of-Famer Lou Brock.
Schneider's Cadres for Conservatism ultimately shows how those extraordinary individuals profiled by Edwards's Conservative Revolution never could have succeeded had it not been for a group of rather ordinary but determined people who were willing to buck the established orthodoxy and translate their ideas into action.
The conclusion these books force upon us is that the rebirth of conservatism required not just thinkers, or political leaders, or on-the-ground activists, but a combination of the three -- and none of them could have succeeded without the others.
Max Schulz works at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.