In National Review a few years ago, novelist Mark Helprin accused the modern conservative movement of a culpable and fatal oversight. While conservatism scored political wins with the strategic vision of William F. Buckley, Jr., in the 1950s and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, he said, conservatism forsook the genuine arena of lasting impact:
For any gains in politics, no matter how indelible they seem, can easily be washed away—in a generation, in a decade, year, month, or minute—by culture, the great Conservative terra incognita, ceded not merely to Conservatism’s transient political opponents, which would be minor, but to its habitual philosophical opponents, which is not.
“Ceded,” that is, by conservatives who thought that the right person in office, tax reform, renegotiated treaties, and other political alterations would guide the nation forever out of the liberal slough. But politics originate not in existing factions and distribution schemes, Helprin asserted; they issue from “emotion, identity, love, and belief—all things that culture shapes and by which it is shaped.”
Those of us in the university see the truth of this every day. Liberals and leftists may have bungled utopian ambitions of the mid-century, but they seized cultural institutions—K-12 and higher education, Hollywood, mainstream television, museums and libraries, the art world—and they’ve tightened their grip ever since. The cultural conquest has thereby kept political liberalism alive long after its political failures (price control, soft-on-communism diplomacy, etc.) and conservatism’s political triumphs (Reagan tax cuts, Clinton’s era-of-Big-Government-is-over pronouncement, etc.).
Helprin’s complaint rings true when we recall one of the founding documents of modern conservatism, Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. The book inspired the 1950s Right by performing the crucial enabling task of providing it a foreground, charting conservative thinking from the late-eighteenth-century to the mid-twentieth. At the time Kirk’s survey appeared, conservatism didn’t amount to a coherent body of thought, but instead, in Lionel Trilling’s famous phrase, unfolded “only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seem to resemble ideas” (The Liberal Imagination).
Kirk elevated conservatism into a noble lineage, supplying conservatives a capacity essential to political skirmish: the confidence to call upon the past for support. As Henry Regnery put it in a preface to the book’s seventh edition, “He not only offered convincing evidence that conservatism was an honorable and respectable position, but that it was an integral part of the American tradition.” Without a long train of precursors, ideologues of any kind stand at a disadvantage, ungrounded and on their own, their opponents wielding history not as a burden but as a warrant. Because of Kirk, conservatives had Edmund Burke, John Adams, Cardinal Newman, George Santayana, and other prestigious figures to invoke.
But no one developed a similar lineage in the cultural sphere. Kirk drew a 150-year line of conservative ideas and political thinkers, but we have nothing comparable for conservative ideas and novelists, poets, filmmakers, composers, and artists, no tradition-mapping, lineage-making book. In America, conservatism in politics endures, however tentatively. Conservatism in arts and letters barely exists, at least not as a coherent body of expression.
Helprin regards the absence of conservative tradition in culture as a political defeat. Without cultural conservatism, political conservatism advances and retreats in fits and starts, winning a policy debate here and an election there, but losing the war. Helprin doesn’t say so, but it also disables the conservative sensibility. While the conservative has no artistic and literary past to nourish him, the liberal has a ready-made wellspring of authors to invoke. Countless books have enlisted canonical figures in the progressive vision; see, for instance, Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, a late volume in the philosopher’s career that cast Walt Whitman as a mighty apostle of secular, liberal democracy. It’s a selective, tendentious reading of Whitman, but if no one gleans Whitman for elements of conservatism, the first world-class American poet becomes a partisan of the Left. The first axiom of conservatism—respect the past—gets turned upon the conservative himself.
When the conservative is called upon for worthy antecedents in the arts, he falters. To take an example: a few years after the Helprin piece, National Review compiled a list of “The Best Conservative Movies,” polling readers and contributors for their favorites along with brief rationales for the choice. Here was a chance to demonstrate a tradition of high culture, brilliant filmmaking rivaling the strongest works that liberal canons might collect. The results, however, were embarrassing. First, National Review set a time limit of twenty-five years, nothing before 1984. Perhaps the editors wanted to ensure that the selections were familiar to 2009 readers, but in doing so they blocked access to sixty years of prior filmmaking. Some of those older movies might have imparted decidedly conservative values and borne potent cultural authority. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8½ depict well the frivolous and wayward behavior of individuals who have lost religious convictions. Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels neatly satirizes the preachy Hollywood liberal and maintains that art in the service of populist political messages is thoroughly inferior to a good old-fashioned comedy. Such films might broaden and deepen the conservative vision, which in today’s contest with liberalism needs a lengthier backing than twenty-five years.
The selections in the list reflect that foreshortened time line. Yes, The Lives of Others (John Miller’s choice) and Brazil (S.T. Karnick’s choice) are worthy entries, but when we find Forrest Gump, Ghostbusters, The Dark Knight, The Incredibles, Team America, and Braveheart on the list, conservative taste only confirms liberal charges of vulgarity and anti-intellectualism. Often, too, comments by the judges trivialize the whole question of aesthetic value. Those movies may stand for conservative values and ideas, but they just aren’t great films. Kirk included Adams, Tocqueville, and the rest not just because they espoused conservative outlooks, but because they did so perceptively and eloquently. In a proper film compilation, movies qualify because they represent conservatism and mark artistic excellence. They have to hold their own in a political science class and in a film class alongside Vertigo, Bicycle Thieves, The Rules of the Game, and The Magnificent Ambersons, among others.
Until American intellectuals establish a more impressive tradition of conservative films, novels, poems, artworks, images, and songs complementary to the conservative tradition in politics and equal to the liberal tradition in culture, conservatism will remain a disadvantaged movement. Liberals who claim Whitman as the voice of the Common Man, Thoreau as the critic of capitalism, Twain as the satirist of religion, and so on, defeat conservatives who can’t claim Whitman et al. as anything.
Certainly that happens in cultural settings, and as it does so it puts political conservatism forever on the defensive. Obviously, the remedy lies with scholars, not with journalists and public intellectuals. The conservative movement needs intellectuals and policymakers to study issues and craft reforms, and it needs journalists and pundits to comment and opine from the Right. But it also needs professors in English, film, art history, and other fields in the humanities to devote coursework and research to conservative lineages, to spend years producing superb books and impressive syllabi.
You see the problem, of course. For humanities professors to do it, they need institutional support, especially the respect of colleagues. A graduate student writing a dissertation on, for instance, the dangers of statism in canonical authors A, B, and C needs advisers who will approve the topic as relevant and serious before the candidate may proceed. To win a tenure-track job, a fresh PhD needs to find a department that welcomes a new colleague who affirms a conservative inheritance in the field. To win promotion, a scholar has to find editors willing to put that ground-breaking manuscript into press before the tenure committee convenes. It’s an impasse. If they aim to track and validate a conservative tradition, scholars must compose and publish a book that meets the goal. But to garner the resources to do so, they need others in the field to have already accepted the topic as legitimate.
Needless to say, most humanities departments in research universities are biased against conservative viewpoints. To maintain liberal hegemony, they needn’t renounce conservatism openly, but only reject it passively, for instance, by not hiring the conservatively oriented job candidate or by declining to work with the conservatively oriented graduate student (without ascribing the rejection to ideological reasons). Nonetheless, the task remains, and the conservative moment cannot prosper in the long run without it.
But there is hope, for this effort can and has started to happen. A prime example is a book published last year by University Press of America, titled The Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman. The author is R.O.P. López, an English professor at Cal State-Northridge who has gained some notoriety recently for statements about same-sex parenting in light of his own upbringing and sexuality. (See, for example, his essay in Public Discourse.) The Colorful Conservative, though, is customary scholarship, a literary monograph whose rhetoric and machinery (including footnotes, bibliography, and so on) observe canons of contemporary literary study. What sets it apart is that López identifies a “character type [that] leans to the right of the political spectrum,” and that the type is illustrated by five prominent American authors: Phillis Wheatley, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, William Wells Brown, and Walt Whitman. Those writers were “far less liberal than their contemporaries or later readers wanted them to be,” López contends, particularly in “their allergy to forced compassion.”
Their “colorfulness” lies not in their race, class, gender, or sexuality, though López acknowledges that minority status may play a role. Rather “color” comes from their blunt nonconformity, deeply moral sense, New World bohemianism (López terms them “civilized barbarians”), and engagement with ancient authors. Each one, at moments, expresses and argues against the liberal grain; López points, for example, to Phillis Wheatley’s “absence of grievance,” her avoidance of the “contestation that has become an integral part of twenty-first-century liberal multiculturalism.” And by describing “Whitman’s ability to transpose carnal desire between men into patriotism,” López takes the most discussed theme in the poet’s corpus in recent years and turns it in a rightward direction.
The Colorful Conservative deserves our attention. López is right to regret “the scarcity of literary genealogies to contextualize conservative principles,” and he cites The Conservative Mind in precisely the terms I have raised here. A subchapter in the book flatly urges, “DON’T LET THE LEFT CLAIM LITERATURE”—hailing a conservative lineage not as a political tactic, but as a recovery of the full range of expression in the United States. The more conservatism fails to create a usable past in arts and letters, the more it appears narrow, topical, and in a word, political (understood cynically). Conservatism is easily caricatured as white, male, heterosexual wealth and power, and that mischaracterization denies the historical truth and impoverishes our civic sphere.