To conservatives, the need for a reliable account of the past may feel especially acute right now. Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism, by George Nash ’67 (Intercollegiate Studies Institute)
Reviewed by Noah Silverman ’92
[Nonfiction] It is a lucky thing for American conservatives to have a chronicler of George Nash’s quality to recount our recent history.
To begin with, he is a partisan of conservatism, but no propagandist. Nash maintains a straightforwardly conservative outlook, but he wears his politics lightly—in keeping with an easygoing prose style that can disarm would-be critics.
Daniel McCarthy, a fierce “paleoconservative,” made clear his determination to savage Nash’s latest work, Reappraising the Right, in a review on the History News Network website. Yet McCarthy still praised Nash’s “pellucid prose” and conceded that the essays in the book “are a joy to read and fine specimens of the historian’s craft.”
To conservatives, the need for a reliable account of the past may feel especially acute right now. The Tea Party movement has delivered a surge of energy to Red America, but Nash speaks for more than a few of us when he frets that “too much conservative advocacy has been reduced to sound-bite certitudes and sterile clichés.” Nash notes explicitly that history is the tool to combat such intellectual slackness, to liberate us from “the provincialism of the present.” The work in this collection delivers on that promise.
In Nash’s excursions, we find accounts of successful ventures in conservatism but also vivid illustrations of the misfortunes conservative leaders and would-be leaders invite when they lapse into dogmatism or sectarianism. One particularly well-wrought essay recounts the fits and starts of a defunct and now largely forgotten conservative organization active during the 1950s and ’60s, the Jewish Anti-Communist League. Nash recounts a lengthy sequence of clashes—within the conservative upstart organization and between it and mainstream Jewish civic organizations—with care and sympathy for all those whose positions he describes.
Another essay that Nash includes under the heading “Conservatism and the Jewish Community” describes the emergence of a coterie with which readers may be more familiar: the neoconservatives who came on the scene in the 1970s and have remained a vital tendency within American conservatism ever since. Like the neoconservatives, the Jews organizing massive anti-communist rallies in the 1950s sometimes saw themselves as the vanguard of a countercultural movement confronting the monolithic liberalism of “mainstream” Jewish agencies. And like the neoconservatives, the Jewish anti-communists vigorously challenged what they saw as the misappropriation by Jewish liberals of their shared faith’s moral authority.
But while the Jewish anti-communists were, even at the apex of their influence, not much more than an auxiliary of the broader anti-communist movement, neoconservatives have remained a distinct and unique tendency within the larger body of conservative opinion. Whereas the Jewish Anti-Communist League’s most prominent leaders were so close to Sen. Joseph McCarthy that they could not perceive the toll the association had taken on their credibility until it was exhausted, leading lights of neoconservatism have distanced themselves from other conservatives when they deemed it necessary, as many did during debates over immigration, judicial activism and American intervention in the Balkans.
Nash returns frequently to a favorite metaphor that likens conservatism in the United States to a river fed by many tributaries. There are six essays here on one especially influential channel in this waterworks, National Review magazine. The magazine William F. Buckley founded in 1953 was the site for an ambitious intellectual project uniting those foes of liberalism who made tradition their touchstone with those inclined to emphasize libertarian concerns. Nash admits that, “as a purely theoretical construct,” this “fusion” doctrine was “rickety.” But he is duly impressed with its success “as a formula for political action.”
This collection arrives at a moment when many pundits, especially—but not only—on the Left, presume that the once-fearsome conservative edifice built upon this foundation over the course of decades is in terminal decline. Nash maintains otherwise, while acknowledging that serious theoretical and practical challenges confront American conservatives.
This book is not a manifesto, and Nash states this fact explicitly. But it is not without functional value. Readers hoping to gain a clearer understanding of how contemporary conservatism developed will find it most valuable. And anyone seeking to formulate a winning conservatism—and a conservatism that deserves to win—ought not pass up the chance to learn from his or her forebears with as skilled a guide as George Nash.
Noah Silverman is the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Congressional affairs director.