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The Long History of Fighting Over the Term ‘Conservative’

The postwar circle of New Conservatives tried to claim the word—but they lost and were largely forgotten.
April 2, 2021
The Long History of Fighting Over the Term ‘Conservative’

Late in 1953 Clinton Rossiter cycled through his rolodex. The Cornell political scientist, known for his books on government and the American Founding, had a Guggenheim grant to study conservatism in America. His contacts were the leading practitioners of the “New Conservatism,” a recent intellectual trend that had received some coverage in the press and that seemed to be at the forefront of, or at least was trying to make sense of, a major political shift. “Millions of ‘old fashioned liberals,’” Rossiter reported, “are emerging at last in the drab but honest colors of self-conscious conservatism.”

In the 1940s and early 1950s, the scholarly circle of writers and thinkers known as the New Conservatives hoped to craft a conservative temperament for the atom age. By and large Anglophile college professors, they critiqued mass culture and politics. Instead, they celebrated the values of Christian or Western civilization alongside their own brand of moderate politics often modeled on the British Conservative party. As leading New Conservative Peter Viereck put it in an early statement, “our civilization is based on a blend of legalism, reason, and the Christian discipline (Protestant or Catholic or the closely-related Jewish).” Whether these elements were strictly true was beside the point: “Their necessity is indisputable.” Rather than repudiating the New Deal, the New Conservatives wanted to build upon it while curbing its perceived excesses. They envisioned a conservatism as anti-fascist as it was anti-communist.

Rossiter found the whole enterprise intriguing; it spoke deeply to his own views and his personality. Still he couldn’t decide, as he wrote to the liberal journal The Reporter, whether he was a “conservative liberal or a liberal conservative.” And he remained skeptical of the New Conservatism’s prospects. Rossiter subtitled the second edition of his Bancroft Prize-winning study of conservatism The Thankless Persuasion.

One of the obstacles of the New Conservatism was a pre-existing American right represented by Liberty League veterans, anti-New Dealers, and Republican stalwarts committed to “rugged individualism.” Although the press sometimes dubbed the Republican right “conservative,” the term was generally used pejoratively. The people associated with this pre-existing, diffuse right preferred to think of themselves as “true liberals” or simply advocates for the American system. By contrast, the New Conservatives tried to foster a conscious mindset and philosophy of conservatism.

But by the early 1960s, the New Conservative project was dead. In response to Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, the painfully moderate Rossiter had chosen sides. He rebuked his association with conservatism—now identified with Goldwater—in Time magazine. “I am not now and never have been a conservative,” Rossiter announced. Likewise Peter Viereck looked back in the 1960s on the political language he helped popularize and wondered “what went wrong.” Conservatism belonged to the right, not the center.

Today, as various factions clash over what it means to be a conservative—Are Trumpist populists conservative? Are the Never Trumpers? What about Republican standardbearers from ten or twenty or forty years ago?—it is worth revisiting the forgotten story of the first time Americans contended for the mantle of “conservatism.” It’s instructive to consider what happened to the losing side in that contest, and just why the episode came to be forgotten.

The New Conservative circle was a loose one. It included politically involved political scientists, like Malcolm Moos and his colleague Thomas Cook at Johns Hopkins, John Hallowell at Duke, Raymond English at Kenyon College, Francis Wilson at the University of Illinois, and the prominent sociologist Will Herberg. These men kept abreast of one another’s work, meeting at conferences and often sharing their dismay at the radical left and radical right.

The New Conservatives were sometimes stereotyped as Egg-heads for Eisenhower—partly true: they were egg-heads, but only some were for Ike. Malcolm Moos became the president’s speechwriter, helping to craft his farewell address, famous for its discussion of the “military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower aide Arthur Larson became a conduit through which New Conservative economic ideas reached Ike. Moderate Republicans like August Heckscher of the New York Herald Tribune and McGeorge Bundy were also associated with the New Conservatism, and the philosophy found some expression in Eisenhower’s “dynamic conservatism” or “modern Republicanism.” But many of the key New Conservatives preferred the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson to Gen. Eisenhower, and preferred the Democratic party to a Republican party associated with Joseph McCarthy and libertarian economics.

The most prominent New Conservative was Viereck, for whom conservatism and moderation were almost an Oedipal response. Viereck’s father, George Sylvester Viereck, was a literary figure, a Germanophile, and ultimately a pro-Nazi propagandist who spent five years in prison as an illegal German agent in the 1940s. Peter rejected his father’s anti-Semitism and also his extremism. The eccentric Harvard and Oxford graduate fashioned himself as a conservative opposed to the violent “dynamism” of the far left and far right. A talented lyric poet, he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and taught history at Mount Holyoke College.

Viereck’s vision for New Conservatism was “non-Republican, non-commercialist, non-conformist.” He sought to synthesize “the ethical New Deal social reforms with the more pessimistic, anti-mass insights of America’s Burkean founders.”

For the New Conservatives, tradition, hierarchy, liberty, and stability were antidotes to the threats of the era: nuclear war, mass politics, and totalitarianism. They championed both moral realism and ideological skepticism, which placed them firmly within the preoccupations of the Cold War’s intellectual classes.

A key idea of the New Conservatism was a simplified notion of original sin. This theological concept of mankind’s fallenness and frailty found a new audience in the early Cold War years, particularly in the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. The New Conservatives thought that original sin, understood more metaphorically than spiritually, spoke to a universal fact of human life—in fact, in a 1952 American Scholar article Raymond English, citing Viereck, offered “the political secularization of the doctrine of original sin” as a working definition of conservatism.

To a conservative, English argued, “civilization, society and the state are built up by man with difficulty and after painful experiences of the evil of his own inclinations.” By contrast, liberals ignored the reality of human frailty. They assumed “that social arrangements and government are contrivances which man creates and can and must change and improve radically in the light of his natural reason and goodness.”

The New Conservative takeaway was that liberal optimism was unfounded, and its culture and institutions lacked rootedness. Human nature, with its imperfections that can be traced back to original sin, “must be restrained by the ethical traffic lights of traditionalism,” Viereck noted. He told one ally that America needed a “responsible conservative opposition to the reigning relativist-pragmatist liberalism.” Some New Conservatives saw conservatism as liberalism’s dialectical partner: the conservative antithesis to the liberal thesis, ironing out the contradictions of liberalism. Others saw conservatism as a way to “preserve the truth of liberalism” against “totalitarian dictatorship” while also “correcting some of its errors,” as John Hallowell put it in a letter.

In sophisticated circles during the early 1950s, the New Conservatism was the emergent conservatism: the right wing of the Cold War liberal consensus. But as Viereck, Rossiter, and others sought to define conservatism, they increasingly found themselves—after some tentative overtures—tussling over the term with the American right, headed up by William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and Barry Goldwater.

By the 1960s, most of the New Conservatives had either abandoned the effort or, like Francis Wilson and Will Herberg, come to identify with the Buckleyite right and the modern conservative movement. Viereck withdrew from conservative disputes to focus on poetry and Russian history. His star fell. An elite university declined to offer a mid-career Viereck a position. They felt he had “said his say, given others the benefit of his enthusiasms, and exposed his limitations.”

The irony is that the New Conservatives and Buckleyite conservative movement often used the same rhetoric, venerated the same icons, and held tight to many of the same principles. Certainly there were differences of emphasis of first principles—but the fact that some New Conservatives soon found themselves at home in the pages of Buckley’s National Review suggests they saw the commonality. The real division between the New Conservatives and movement conservatives was less the abstract philosophy of conservatism than a disagreement about what it actually meant to be a conservative in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

Many of the New Conservatives were far to the left of Buckley on economics. Inspired by Disraeli, they admired the Tory socialism of the British Conservative party, or the stabilizing influence of Keynesian economics, trade unions, and the welfare state. They also accepted an energetic role for the government in a modern society. Conservatives hope “these functions will be discharged justly, virtuously, and with a minimum of compulsion or interference with the lives of men,” Rossiter wrote. “Yet he attaches too much importance to political authority and activity ever to fall prey . . . to the simple doctrine that the best government is the least and the least government the best.”

By contrast, the New Conservatives saw the Republican right, represented by such senators as William Knowland of California and John Bricker of Ohio, as radical Manchester liberals, not conservatives at all. In a foul mood, Viereck dismissed the Republican party as “at least halfway degenerated into a façade for either plutocratic profiteering or fascist-style thought-control nationalism.” In reply, National Review routinely labeled the New Conservatives the “Liberal propaganda machine’s Trojan Horses” designed to undermine the prospects of an authentic conservatism.

As if to demonstrate that the New Conservatism was the right wing of the liberal consensus, the two moderate Republicans most associated with it, August Heckscher and McGeorge Bundy, both joined the Kennedy administration.

A second and perhaps more decisive dividing line was McCarthyism. The New Conservatives opposed McCarthy. Viereck’s perception of the GOP was shaped less by Eisenhower than by its failure to repudiate McCarthy; it’s what stopped him voting for Ike. Meanwhile, Buckley and the National Review circle strongly backed McCarthy. Buckley and his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell wrote a book-length defense of McCarthy, and NR published an article under the disgraced and ailing McCarthy’s byline. Educated and cloistered, the New Conservatives had no appetite for the culture-war pugilism the right saw in McCarthy.

In June 1962, writing retrospectively about conservatism, Viereck argued that movement conservatives had failed the “acid test” of McCarthyism. And, Viereck continued, in the 1960s they were failing the same test—this time posed by the John Birch Society. By 1971, Viereck had given up the fight for conservatism. Still, he called the right-wing adoption of “conservatism” a PR stunt for the radical right to use a respectable term to obscure a history that connected Birchers, Southern racists, McCarthy, and Francisco Franco.

As early as the 1950s, Viereck had noted the New Conservatives tended “to vote New Deal, etc, & thus are really in part of the liberal camp.” But he was never comfortable with this conclusion since the essence of conservatism is “the tragic view of man” and a critique of the utopianism of liberalism. “Shall we then cease to call ourselves philosophical conservatives, despite our conservative view of history or human nature?” he asked in 1971, still pondering the same question.

The New Conservative project failed for many reasons while Buckleyite movement conservatism has become a major force. The New Conservatives themselves split politically. Many returned to a form of political quietism, leaving conservatism to the right-wingers. Others threw their lot in with the Buckleyite right and journals like National Review and especially Modern Age. Rossiter presciently suggested the largest divide as the New Conservatives disintegrated was whether they were most concerned about the “Pseudo-Conservatism” of the right or the “purposeful progressivism of the Left.”

Beyond this breakdown, the New Conservatives were primarily scattered academics. They lacked the right’s movement mentality. They had no journal or magazine to publish their manifestos or thrash out ideas. Unlike the Buckleyite right, whose intellectual leaders were professional writers who lived off political controversy, most of the New Conservatives were usually academics who turned back to the academic scholarship they had never really left. Nor did the New Conservatives have a political figurehead like Goldwater or later Reagan. As noted above, some backed Eisenhower, many preferred Adlai Stevenson and later John F. Kennedy, and some turned to Goldwater, splitting the New Conservatives’ political enthusiasm.

By contrast, the Buckleyites were conscious movement builders who tapped pre-existing right-wing networks dating back at least to the 1930s for funds and personnel. Buckley, his publisher Henry Regnery, and one of his early acolytes M. Stanton Evans were all second-generation right-wing leaders. (Buckley and Regnery’s wealthy fathers were donors to the Republican right, particularly in isolationist circles; Evans’s father Medford Evans was an academic philosopher who wrote for right-wing journals.) Even if they had not always called themselves conservatives, the Republican right had a ready base and infrastructure that the Buckleyite conservatives could build on.

In this sense, the New Conservatives’ effort to turn “conservatism” into a philosophy of the center ran against common usage. When Buckleyites claimed “conservatism” for the Republican right, it comported with how the press already covered them. The New York Times already described politicians as liberals and conservatives. It was only a short step to accept that conservatism was the philosophy of the right.

Meanwhile, the New Conservatives struggled to differentiate themselves from contemporary liberals. As skeptical, socially conservative Cold Warriors with a secularized conception of original sin, they fit almost too neatly into midcentury categories of liberalism. For many liberals sympathetic to the New Conservatism, there was simply no need to speak of the taboo conservatism when Cold War liberalism sufficed. (Indeed, the emergence of neoconservatives from the Cold War liberal milieu shows how close these groups were.)

The New Conservatives went altogether gently into the good night. But the New Conservative moment transformed the political vocabulary of the United States by legitimating “conservatism” as an explicit and conscious political ideology. To some extent, modern conservatism lives on the capital of the New Conservatives who established key tropes of modern conservatism. The New Conservatives advanced a critique of liberals as materialist and shallow. They developed an interpretation of the American past that reimagined the United States as a bastion of cultural and political conservatism rather than a decisively liberal nation. And they put forth the idea that conservatism was a coherent, realistic, and sophisticated worldview.

The right-wing proponents of “free enterprise,” “small government,” and a blunter anti-communism that paid less attention to the far right supplanted the New Conservatives. The Buckleyites incorporated much of the New Conservatives’ traditionalism, terminology, and critiques of liberalism, but wed it to the laissez-faire, anti-government right. America is perhaps poorer for the loss of this conservative inheritance.

Joshua Tait

Joshua Tait is a historian of American conservatism. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Twitter: @Joshua_A_Tait.