Political conservatism, say its critics, is less a rational movement to shape the future than an irrational impulse to flee the present. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. famously called it “the politics of nostalgia.”
In reality, the temptation to romanticize the past is evident across the ideological spectrum. Politicians, activists, and intellectuals often wax nostalgic about mid-century America, for example, but for widely divergent reasons. Conservatives like the period’s low rates of crime and single parenthood. Progressives like its high rate of unionization.
If Marty McFly floated by in his flux-capacitated DeLorean and offered us a trip to the 1950s, however, few would take him up on it. We know we’d be poorer for it. We’d be giving up too much in the trade — from our daily conveniences, more comfortable homes, and higher incomes to modern medicine and equality under the law.
My fellow conservatives direct our gaze backward not to worship at the altar of some idealized past but instead to study and practice the lessons of history. We believe they reflect unalterable facts of human nature. “Modern formulations are necessary even in defense of very ancient truths,” wrote William F. Buckley, one of the founders of modern American conservatism. “Not because of any alleged anachronism in the old ideas — the Beatitudes remain the essential statements of the Western code — but because the idiom of life is always changing.”
One historical subject it would profit everyone to know more about is the history of American conservatism itself. As it happens, two insightful authors have given us new books on the subject. Matthew Continetti’s “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism” (Basic Books) describes the movement as a sprawling, intricately woven, but also somewhat-frayed tapestry of ideas, institutions, and individuals. In “M. Stanton Evans :Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom” (Encounter Books), Steve Hayward offers a perfect companion piece: a loving and entertaining profile of an especially colorful thread in that tapestry, my longtime friend and mentor Stan Evans.
Continetti, an American Enterprise Institute fellow and editor of the Washington Free Beacon, begins his narrative of American conservatism in the Coolidge era of the 1920s and skillfully integrates the political, intellectual, and social history of the ensuing decades. Among the strengths of the book are Continetti’s careful study of documents, both published pieces and correspondence, and his accounts of the founding of key conservative institutions such as National Review and Young Americans for Freedom.
As for Hayward, a resident scholar at the University of California at Berkeley and biographer of former president Ronald Reagan, his book properly places Stan Evans at the center of many consequential events in the history of American conservatism, including the foundational moments I just mentioned. Named editor of the Indianapolis News in 1960 (at 26, he was the youngest editor of a major American newspaper at the time), Evans went on to write a syndicated column and many books, become a national TV and radio commentator, and train hundreds of budding journalists (including yours truly) as head of the Washington-based National Journalism Center.
Local readers will particularly enjoy the books’ North Carolina connections. For example, Continetti recounts U.S. Sen. Josiah Bailey’s efforts to organize opposition to the New Deal. While Bailey never achieved his dream of rolling back the federal government’s unconstitutional usurpation of state and private responsibilities, his proposed alliance of Republicans and conservative Democrats did come to pass after the 1938 midterms, blocking some of Franklin Roosevelt’s later and more-expansive programs.
Two other North Carolinians, scholar Richard Weaver and politician Jesse Helms, get their due in the books. And Hayward reveals the key role that Stan Evans played in Reagan’s surprising victory over Gerald Ford in North Carolina’s 1976 primary, which helped ensure he would be the GOP nominee for president four years later.
In his conclusion, Continetti argues “the job of a conservative is to remember.” Quite right. And you’ll find no better memory aids than his and Hayward’s new books.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, “Mountain Folk” and “Forest Folk,” combine epic fantasy with early American history (FolkloreCycle.com).