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Conservatism, Then and Now

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October 12, 2008|4:00 pm

Shaped by the conservative movement since childhood, publisher Alfred S. Regnery has published an insider’s take on the influence of conservatives in Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism (2008).

Regnery covers just about everything including think tanks, publishers, candidates, religious conservatives, financial donors, the courts, the Constitution, and free markets. He does an excellent job at explaining the merger of traditionalists, anti-communists, and libertarians in to one political force due in large part to the writings of William F. Buckley, Jr. and other intellectuals, grassroots activists, and the emergence of Barry Goldwater. Regnery also traces how conservative leaders were able to separate themselves from some of the more radical conspiracy minded leaders like Robert Welch of the John Birch Society. Russel Kirk responded to Welch’s charge that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was an agent of a world communist conspiracy by quipping “Ike isn’t a communist. He is a golfer.”

While Eisenhower was a disappointment for conservatives, Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy unified and excited the conservative movement on a national scale. The Goldwater candidacy failed at electing a conservative to the highest office, but it allowed for its leaders and activists to learn valuable lessons for the future. The emergence of Ronald Reagan and “The Speech” was undoubtedly the greatest triumph of Goldwater’s unsuccessful presidential bid.

Regnery also incorporates succinct and effective arguments on why conservatives opposed Great Society programs, wage and price controls, and new government agencies. He also identifies Richard Nixon’s vast expansion of government power through regulation as another key building block for statist policies. Neoconservatives, the new right (religious conservatives), and Phyllis Schlafly are also analyzed.

Regnery demolishes the myth that the conservative movement was largely funded by Texas oil tycoons with briefcases of money or big corporations. In fact, he points out that many big businesses and corporations opposed conservatism because of corporate desire for regulation and less competition in the marketplace. “The right has never had the sort of money available to the left. During the early years of the movement, from 1945 into the mid-1970’s, no more than about a dozen foundations were willing to give money to conservative causes, and most of those were small, family charitable organizations,” says Regnery.

Direct mail also played a revolutionary role in the rise of conservatism. Not only was it an effective way to raise money, but it allowed conservatives to educate the populace without their message being filtered. Direct mail was also a critical tool for allowing conservative candidates to compete and win against liberal “country club” Republicans.

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In Upstream, Regnery also looks at judicial activism and U.S. Supreme Court nominees. He adds valuable insight into the nominations of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Samuel A. Alito, Jr., as well as the failed nomination of Harriet Miers. The author also explains the significance of The Federalist Society. Regnery notes that The Federalist Society has “reintroduced ideas that the liberals would prefer to see abandoned, such as natural law and religious liberty, sovereignty and federalism.” The group played a substantial role in vetting Roberts and Alito, while helping to nix Miers.

Throughout the book there is a wealth of information on conservative economists and free market advocates. He also highlights writers like George Gilder who critiqued Hayek and Milton Friedman by noting “their arguments for capitalism were too utilitarian and lacked inspiration.”

The chapter on religion and American conservatism is very important for understanding arguments for limited government that are grounded in faith. Especially informative are arguments put forth by the economist Wilhelm Roepke and Peter Viereck. Viereck authored Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt against Revolt. Regnery notes, “Liberalism, Viereck thought, held a naive belief in the basic goodness of man, which was inadequate to defend against the evil of tyranny. The alternative, according to Viereck, was a conservatism based on Christianity. Conservatism, he concluded, should be the political secularization of the doctrine of original sin.”

Upstream is a valuable book for those who are seeking to learn more about the conservative movement and American politics in general. Regnery clearly explains how a small and fractured movement evolved into a serious and powerful force on the political stage. He elaborates on how the Republican Party apparatus is not by itself committed to conservatism. The goal of the party is to elect and ensure power for the party.

Perhaps most importantly, he understands the original American conservatives were the Founding Fathers. Regnery simply says, “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were based on the premise that government was the great threat to freedom, and the purpose of a constitution was to limit the power of government.”

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Ray Nothstine is associate editor at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.
 

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