“Conservatism” is a notoriously slippery word. Much of the confusion comes from the question “What exactly are we conserving?” Traditionalists and libertarians have long debated whether the conservative emphasis should be on virtue or freedom, for instance.
Other conservatives seek to return America to a “golden era,” a time before a fall from grace. The Norman Rockwell aesthetics of the 1950s have become a nostalgic touchstone for a certain kind of traditionalist politics. Postwar America is often remembered as some sort of utopia, where men were men, families were strong, and everybody went to church. Increasingly, right-wing technocrats—mostly gathered in a few Washington think tanks and magazines—are looking back on the social and economic policies of that time for models to imitate today.
But the 1950s were no golden era. Racial segregation and misogyny marred America’s victory over fascism. Social alienation was widespread, despite the popular image of suburban families with white-picket fences remembered from Leave It to Beaver. And the centralization imposed by the New Deal—which contributed to the hollowing out of communities and homogenization of American life—only made things worse.
Conservatives who lived through the 1950s did not view this decade as particularly conservative. In National Review’s mission statement, written in 1955, William F. Buckley said that “There never was an age of conformity quite like this one.” The founders of that magazine and others present at the creation of the conservative movement would be horrified by their intellectual heirs’ embrace of the conformity they so vehemently disliked.
The Nostalgia Trap
The 1950s have two main nostalgic pulls on conservatives: aesthetic and technocratic. Both rely on a constructed past that has little to do with the realities of American history—and therefore neither type of ’50s nostalgia offers serious solutions to the country’s problems.
Especially online, ’50s-era images of white, nuclear families will circulate as depictions of a past “they took away from us” and to which we must “RETVRN.” The problem is that these idealized images represent a past that never really existed, except in advertisements and the near-socialist realist illustrations of Norman Rockwell. It was never real, and “returning” to an unreal past is not a legitimate program of cultural renewal.
Sadly, edgelords and meme-posters are not the only right-wingers who idolize the 1950s. Another group of young people on the right hold up the ’50s as an aspirational example in public policy debates: the technocrats.
Over the last six years or so, a cottage industry has arisen issuing calls for a “conservative welfare state.” Instead of undoing the New Deal and the Great Society, this group of right-wing technocrats argues that Americans ought to use the tools of the administrative state to revive the social, political, and economic arrangements of the 1950s. “That was the last time things were really great in America,” the logic runs, “so we need to return to those conditions.”
Some of these technocrats have contributed essays to economic historian David Cowan’s “American System” series that first appeared in The American Conservative. In one recent edition, for instance, the Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond argued that conservatives should look to the New Deal for policy inspiration. He says that Roosevelt’s programs were examples of “collective action in the general, rather than special, interest,” and worthy of emulation today.
Some of the policies promoted by the contributors to the project make a great deal of sense. Repealing no-fault divorce laws, for example, and extending tax relief to families are commonsense changes conservatives should be happy to support. But overall, the technocrats writing for Cowan are promoting a vision of federal power that has far more in common with New Deal liberalism than traditional conservatism.
Beyond just Cowan and his collaborators, right-wing technocrats often seem like they want to preserve the social and economic conditions of the ’50s in amber. They consider it an “imperative” to “re-shore” the kind of manufacturing jobs that employed many in the era. They idolize the “single-income families” depicted on the sitcoms of early television. And they are willing to countenance a dramatic expansion of the already vast federal bureaucracy to achieve this end.
At the end of the day, though, the technocrats’ proposals for tinkering with the welfare state share the same nostalgia as the meme accounts. We cannot force workers back into factories, or spend our way into a new baby boom. Revival cannot come from the center, and regeneration will not be sparked by tinkering on the edges of federal power. Conservatives ought to be offering America a more radical alternative than repackaging the dominant liberalism.
Early Opposition to the New Deal
The early leaders of the conservative movement would never have held up the era in which they lived as some sort of social ideal. The most famous line in National Review’s mission statement indicates just how alienated conservatives felt in the 1950s: “[The magazine] stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” National Review saw itself as a voice crying out in the wilderness—not as a prop for the establishment.
Buckley wrote that National Review “is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation. Instead of covetously consolidating its premises, the United States seems tormented by its tradition of fixed postulates having to do with the meaning of existence, with the relationship of the state to the individual, of the individual to his neighbor, so clearly enunciated in the enabling documents of our Republic.”
Conservatives saw the postwar liberal settlement of the ’50s as a betrayal, not an embodiment, of the best of the American political tradition. Instead of protecting local communities and natural rights, the New Deal’s vast bureaucratic apparatus ran roughshod over those traditional American values.
Buckley’s mission statement targets the WASP establishment lionized by the politics of nostalgia. For example, Buckley condemned rampant progressivism on college campuses long before the radicals of the ’60s and ’70s got tenure. In his view, New Deal liberals were stifling any serious dissent from the postwar consensus.
In those early days, National Review contended that the social conditions of the 1950s were a struggle against the “weight of a gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy” upheld by “a thousand vulgar promises to a thousand different pressure groups” and corroding really traditional American values with “a cynical contempt for human freedom.”
Nisbet’s Alternative to the “Age of Conformity”
Robert Nisbet was one early conservative who offered a serious alternative to the postwar, post–New Deal liberal establishment. His book The Quest for Community was published in 1953, and many of his ideas contributed to the development of a new kind of sociology with more humble aims than the utopianism of its left-wing counterparts.
Even in the 1950s, Nisbet sensed that something was very wrong in the United States. Church attendance and participation in voluntary groups may have been on the rise, but Nisbet understood that despite these apparent trends, community was on the decline. “In the twentieth century, there have arisen, under the guise of humanitarian purposes,” he wrote, “intensities of tyranny and stultifications of human personality that are unprecedented in human history.”
Nisbet disapproved of both nineteenth-century individualism and twentieth-century New Dealism. Though they may have differed in their aesthetics and philosophical justifications, both kinds of liberalism led to the growth of an “omnicompetent State” which intruded into every aspect of citizens’ lives. Both individualism and collectivism hollow out communities.
Toward the end of the book, Nisbet argues:
Too often in our intellectual defenses of freedom, in our sermons and manifestoes for democracy, we have fixed attention only on the more obvious historical threats to popular freedom: kings, military dictators, popes, and financial titans. We have tended to miss the subtler but infinitely more potent threats bound up with the diminution of authorities and allegiances in the smaller areas of association and with the centralization and standardization that takes place in the name of, and on behalf of, the people.
Nisbet preferred what he called a “new philosophy of laissez faire” and the creation of “conditions within which autonomous groups may prosper.” He did not believe new welfare programs could increase birth rates, or that the New Deal spent America back into prosperity after the Depression. Technocrats tinkering away at the edges of American life could not restore what communities had been gradually losing to both the Scylla of “expressive individualism” and the Charybdis of an administrative state.
Instead, Nisbet thought the best way to address social alienation was to smash the administrative state built up by liberals old and new alike, thereby recovering the things that made democracy worthwhile in the first place—“diversity of culture, plurality of association, and division of authority.”
The Need for Roots
Another leading conservative thinker, Russell Kirk, also published his seminal work in 1953. His conclusion was similar to Nisbet’s: “If the need of the eighteenth century was for emancipation, the need of the twentieth is for roots.”
Kirk paints a bleak picture of life in the 1950s that Norman Rockwell’s paintings cloak:
The degeneration of the family to mere common house-tenancy menaces the essence of recognizable human character; and the plague of social boredom, spreading in ever-widening circles to almost every level of civilized existence, may bring a future more dreary than the round of life in the decaying Roman system.
Kirk was concerned that the twentieth century was “proletarianizing” the great mass of Americans. Economic centralization was uprooting Americans from the social fabric that gave their lives and labor meaning. Political centralization was sapping communities’ ability to fight back against harmful policies. Cultural centralization was isolating the masses from the spiritual treasures of Western civilization. So, in The Conservative Mind, Kirk says that one of the great tasks of conservatives is to combat alienation by reminding America of an older, more traditional social organization than the New Deal liberalism of the ’50s establishment.
“To restore purpose to labor and domestic existence, to give men back old hopes and long views and thought of posterity,” he wrote, “will require bold imagination.” Restoring that purpose today will take much more work than posting memes on Twitter or Instagram glorifying a rosy view of the past. And it will take much more creativity than a few welfare programs designed to restore an outdated economic vision.
Some with ’50s nostalgia support policies that would empower the administrative state that has constantly eroded the family. But conservatives can offer a better path forward. We can articulate the deeper meaning of tradition, more rooted in genuine religious life than Madison Avenue gimmicks. And instead of trying to revive a past that never really existed, conservatives should seek to bolster and strengthen traditional communities.
To start, conservatives in public policy need to prioritize deconstructing the administrative state. But our efforts to free the American people from rule by unelected “experts” must also be wedded to a renewed social conservatism, confident in America’s heritage of ordered liberty. By disarming the federal bureaucracy, conservatives would empower states and local communities to reclaim their rightful role as guardians of the moral order.
Rather than looking to the architects of a defunct past and idolizing the narrow utopian vision of the ’50s establishment, conservatives should turn to their true intellectual forebears—the critics of those architects. Conservatives such as Buckley, Nisbet, and Kirk are far sounder guides to moral and social regeneration than New Dealers, would-be social engineers, and anonymous trolls.