Readers of this magazine are unlikely to resist the central thesis of this book and its supporting arguments, the large majority having long ago arrived at the author’s conclusion that the American conservative movement that arose in the immediate decade after World War II and has been a presence in American political life ever since has been, broadly speaking, a failure, with results that are appallingly evident today. “Conservativism,” Claes Ryn concedes, “was up against high odds in a deteriorating civilization” in 1945. Yet “what revealed its shortcomings was the way in which it perceived and handled those odds. Even in more favorable circumstances, those weaknesses would have become apparent, if perhaps less conspicuous. The weaknesses in question help explain why putative conservatives have not learned much from their mistakes and why they have been unable to see that their accustomed approaches to problems were deficient or misguided.” If you seek their monument, look around you.

The Failure of American Conservatism consists of mostly previously published material in the form of articles, essays, and excerpts from books by Professor Ryn, with a sixty-nine-page introduction written specifically for the present volume. It is at once a brilliant summation of the state of Conservatism, Inc. and a crushing indictment of a political movement that professed to be a cultural one as well, though lacking, in Ryn’s estimation, the intellectual resources to be either in a comprehensive and effective way. Ryn holds that conservative intellectuals who proposed to reclaim the American party system from the liberals—the Democrats and the left generally—while, in twenty-first-century lingo, “taking back the culture,” lacked the historical and human imagination to see how the job could be accomplished given the social and intellectual context of the times. To have succeeded, he argues, they would have needed to have had a far wider knowledge of, and a firmer grasp on, the principles of Western philosophy and a greater familiarity with serious culture—literature, music, the plastic and fine arts—in which they had little to no interest, but rather a mild disdain for them. If their aesthetic and intellectual world were indeed a Sahara of the Bozart, as Mencken called the American South in the 1920s, they neither cared nor noticed, secure in the belief that civilization is foremostly a pragmatic business centered on politics, economics, and the law, and that the way back to responsible conservative governance and a sane culture is through concentrated and nearly exclusive attention to these things. 

“A stronger historical consciousness and a proportionally better immunity against moral-political utopianism,” Ryn says, 

would have made conservatives resistant to imperialistic dreaming and adventurism. Strengths of this kind as combined with more knowledge of the origins of American culture and constitutionalism in the classical, Christian, and English heritage would have made them understand that American ordered liberty did not result from implementing abstract principles but from the long gestation of a particular culture.

Such strengths would have told them that mass immigration by greatly dissimilar and even antagonistic peoples would have profoundly damaging influences on American culture and constitutionalism. These strengths also would have warned them against promoting the president to an emperor and against the construction of the national security super-state desired by the neoconservative faction within the American party system. And they would have allowed them to recognize and diagnose the besetting problems of American and Western civilization, while sensitizing them to the “inhumane qualities of the [modern] imagination” that are responsible for a progressively diseased American soul.

While Ryn’s dismal evaluation of American conservatism over the past eight decades is brutally accurate, his suggestion that there was available to it a “road not taken” seems to me a dubious one. “It should be obvious,” he thinks, “that the inadequate treatment of seemingly esoteric philosophical issues is no small matter. Weakness of this kind has badly damaged American intellectual conservatism across a broad range of practical affairs.” Yet the twentieth, like the twenty-first, century was not a philosophical age, in America or anywhere else in the world. Nor, for that matter, was American culture in the seventeenth century and subsequently. Indeed, the British culture that shaped America for several centuries—as Ryn emphasizes heavily throughout this book—had historically been regarded by Continental societies as philosophically thin (at least since Hobbes, Locke, and Hume in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) by comparison with that of the Germanies especially. Thus, in reproaching postwar American conservatives for failing to fashion a sturdy and comprehensive philosophical grounding for their movement over the span of three-quarters of a century, he is, retrospectively, asking a lot of them; too much, in fact. The Framers he so admires were not, after all, philosophers themselves but practical men of affairs—lawyers, statesmen, and agriculturalists. Being Americans—really, British-Americans—they were also pragmatists, very much like the modern conservatives with whose modern-day pragmatism Ryn reproaches them. Why, if philosophers were not required to devise the Constitution of the United States, were they necessary to the construction of a revised and effective political engine on that document a quarter of a millennium later?

While overestimating the importance of philosophical sophistication to a successful modern American conservatism, Ryn exaggerates, though perhaps not by much, the extent to which the movement has been culturally philistine. In this respect it is significant that almost the only conservative journal that he references is its flagship publication, National Review, founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley, Jr., and that Ryn criticizes it for treating literature and the arts as a kind of cultural afterthought, like a food and wine department. In truth it was much more than that, until relatively recently at least. It may be in poor taste for me, as the back-of-the-book editor there between 1976 and 1989, to mention it; still, the fact remains that in the course of its history the magazine has published and reviewed the works of many distinguished novelists, poets, critics, historians, and scholars in other fields, including Donald Hall, Larry Woiwode, Richard Ford, Joan Didion, John Lukacs, Hugh Kenner, Robert Nisbet, Alistair Horne, Malcolm Muggeridge, and countless others. Similarly, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (founded in 1977), where I was employed in the same capacity for thirty years, receives no mention from Ryn (though one of his former students was my editorial colleague there for decades), despite the fact that it printed copy by Andrew Lytle, Walker Percy, Jean Raspail, John Lukacs, Mel Bradford, Shelby Foote, and Muriel Spark, to name only a few, while presiding over two substantially funded literary prizes awarded annually. It is quite true that the cultural and political wings of modern American conservatism have remained substantially separate, the former reluctant to identify itself closely with “the movement” on account of the latter’s establishmentarianism and Babbittry. If so, that suggests only that Ryn’s subject is effectively a bipartite one and must be understood as such. Further, in concentrating almost exclusively on National Review and, after it, Modern Age—founded two years after NR by Russell Kirk and Henry Regnery, and manifestly a cultural journal—Ryn has neglected to mention a fairly wide number of highly respected conservative cultural publications, including The New Criterion, First Things, and the University Bookman (also founded by Kirk). 

It is significant that every reference in this book to American conservatism is to conservatism in this country post-1945. There is good reason for this. No such thing as a conservative “movement” existed in American politics and letters before the Second World War, though there were, of course, many figures in both fields who could plausibly be described as having been conservative in one sense or another, among them John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Fisher Ames, John C. Calhoun, John Randolph, James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Henry Adams, Henry James, the “New Humanists” Irving Babbitt (greatly esteemed by Ryn and frequently mentioned in this book) and Paul Elmer More, H.L. Mencken (in politics and economics), T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner— as well as Andrew Lytle, Allen Tate, and their fellow Agrarians—and many more. These men failed to create a “movement” in any period not because there were so few of them, nor because they were otherwise intellectually diverse or widely dispersed geographically, but because most of them were not self-consciously “conservative” in the way that conservatives since 1945 have been, never regarding themselves as a collective force or even a school—the enormous exceptions being, of course, the Confederacy, conservative Southerners following the Civil War, and the Dixiecrats, whose conservatism was regionally and culturally specific. 

In place of an American conservative tradition, Ryn identifies what he calls a “constitutional character” that was also a national one—essentially British in nature, carried over by the American colonists from the mother country, and cultivated on North American soil, where it developed distinctive attributes of its own while remaining close to its historical origins. It was this culture of moral restraint, personal responsibility, and legal and political order that produced the U.S. Constitution and shaped the new American republic in its early decades. It is this “character” too that Ryn argues was subsequently altered and ultimately transformed over the next two centuries, and that the conservative movement which took shape in the second half of the twentieth century should have aimed to restore by reestablishing the moral, intellectual, social, and political conditions that shaped and supported the original one.

In reality, the goal was illusory and the task therefore impossible, for reasons Dominic Green recently explained in The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848–1898. The truth is that the constitutional character as Ryn describes it was weakened and for all practical purposes destroyed long before the middle of the twentieth century and effectively doomed before the turn of it. What Green means by “spirituality” is modernity’s ersatz substitute for religion, which with diabolical speed deformed moral and religious sensibility in America—and the entirety of the Western world—in a mere fifty years, during which time what passes for a modern transcendental imagination began its development toward the anti-religion it has become today. Green’s “birth of spirituality” led, directly and inexorably, not only to Nietzsche’s “death of God”—the traditional God, the God of the Ages, the God beyond and above the modern autonomous and imperial Self—but to the sickness and ultimate demise of America’s constitutional character that Ryn, quite correctly, identifies as having been both the source and support of the Old American Republic. Ryn seems to suppose that had American conservatives in the 1950s contrived somehow to reinvent the popular American historical imagination of old, they might have prevented the “inhumane” one that prevails in this country and the rest of the West today. He fails to realize that 1945 was already too late, as Flannery O’Connor’s literary imagination and spiritual prophecy demonstrated over the next decade and a half.

In any case, in order to think more philosophically and precisely, the young conservative movement needed “time,” as Ryn concedes: 

Politics forms an essential part of the effort to build and protect civilization. But, in trying to effect a renewal of American and Western society, winning and exercising political power cannot take the place of the patient and demanding artistic efforts that, in time, might change the mind and imagination of a people. It is such efforts, together with the practical actions that they inspire, that set the basic direction of society.

The period between 1945 and today is not, historically speaking, any time at all. Europe has been a civilization for several thousand years, yet Europe today is suffering from most, if not all, of the evils Ryn identifies in contemporary American society, culture, and politics, despite its many and deeply rooted traditions and its cultural legacy, which is the greatest civilization the world has ever known. Where Michael Oakeshott, Benedetto Croce, and Étienne Gilson failed, how should William Buckley, James Burnham, Frank Meyer, and Russell Kirk have been expected to have succeeded?

Ryn is on firmer ground in condemning American conservatives’ philistine lack of interest in the arts and learning—whose practitioners they condescended to or ignored—than he is in pointing to their conservatism’s “shaky intellectual foundations.” It is, for instance, unlikely that a solid philosophical grounding would have prevented them from being bamboozled by the abstract and ahistorical thinking of the neoconservatives on such subjects as the reality of universal human rights, the absolute moral imperative for democracy, and the virtues of ahistoricism, as Ryn thinks such a grounding would have done. The desire for power, encouraged by American wealth, relative hegemony, and moral corruption, was sufficient to encourage them to go in the direction they already wished to travel by organizing a new global crusade to replace the anti-communist one they (whether consciously or not) missed. Many neoconservatives were recent immigrants, or their children, from countries where, as members of unpopular minorities, they had had no opportunity to exercise cultural influence, gain political power, and otherwise assert themselves. Now, comfortably resettled in the United States, they enjoyed many such opportunities and were determined to take advantage of them. On the other hand, the unapologetic inverse snobbery characteristic of a large number of conservatives in this country, often expressed by their insistence on wearing their lack of intellectual and social sophistication (real or feigned) like a badge signifying the plain and honest patriotism of the American heartland, needlessly alienated many intelligent and educated people who might otherwise have given them a sympathetic hearing. M. Stanton Evans chose deliberately to present himself as the anti-Buckley, a native son of Kingsville, Texas, who grew up in Chattanooga and made a point of preferring cheeseburgers and beer to escargots and Pouilly-Fuissé (he had graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale in 1955), while Donald Trump is infamous in New York society for (among a thousand other things) putting ketchup on his filet mignon. This conservative, or quasi-populist, sans-culottisme repelled almost equally the precincts of intellectual conservatives. It is an interesting though certainly unanswerable question whether this cultural chasm on the American right has weakened and divided the conservative movement over the decades, and, if so, by how much.

One of the great strengths of Ryn’s argument is the emphasis he places on the historical imagination that shapes and determines every nation at any given stage of its history, the always highly self-conscious (and now increasingly ideological) United States perhaps more than most Western societies. The thing is profound and very real—far more so than the “values” that politicians and journalists are always blabbing and boasting about. True, those “values” are easier to specify than a national imagination—although a very real thing. Equally real is the almost total transformation that the American imagination has undergone since the end of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth. The new moral attitudes that have been developing in the United States since the 1840s include, beyond those governing personal codes in every department of human behavior, a new attitude toward public power and a new conception of the proper nature, extent, and reach of democratic government—much for the worse rather than the better. Ryn’s description of America in the twenty-first century under what he calls the new “regime”—regime, he explains, in the sense that Aristotle uses the term in the Politics—is devastatingly accurate. Yet there is a regrettable tendency among too many conservatives to refuse to acknowledge this cultural and political sea change for what it is, and to react accordingly. 

Today, America and the West are in the grip of a progressive liberalism that aims to liberate society from reality in every aspect of human existence, from the scientific fact of there being two fixed and immutable sexes to the fundamental laws of economics. Postmodern liberalism has created a world of sheer fantasy, a crazed dream-world no less mad (“All have won and all must have prizes!”) and dangerous (“Off with his head!”) than Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, but which a good half of America and Great Britain have nevertheless embraced with enthusiasm and excitement. “The reluctance to face facts,” Ryn says, “has become epidemic in America and the Western world, and at present many putative ‘conservatives’ are as prone as others to hiding from troubling historical circumstances. . . . A kind of somnambulism helps mask what the political, intellectual, and cultural regime has wrought,” while inducing “a general phenomenon of denial” that takes two forms. “The one assumes the historical situation to be dark indeed; the other plays down the problems and tries to look on the bright side.” Simultaneously, “catacomb Christians” flee the world ahead of what they see as the coming dark age. “They consider this withdrawal noble, true to the spirit of Christ.” Yet, “in our era of flight from reality, there is a danger that in practice a supposed return to moral-religious basics will turn into a combination of trepidation and dreaminess.”

So much for a type of Christian seeking to disguise escapism as doctrinal purity. What of a type of conservatism wishing to pass off accommodation as “moderation,” when in fact it is simple quislingism? “By politely asking [the regime] to make marginal corrections,” Ryn writes, “there is a good chance that you will have bestowed upon you that most coveted of all titles, that of being a ‘moderate.’ This is the regime’s reward to those who put up harmless opposition.” Of which there is a great deal these days. “Hordes of nonthreatening critics surround the regime. They are ubiquitous in journalism, where Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and New York Times columnist David Brooks might serve as particularly good examples.” Perhaps the best example of all is what Ryn calls “the permanent ‘Republicrat’ government,” which since 2016 has been “reacting to the nascent [MAGA] rebellion with incredulity and indignation. Imagine, questioning their right to rule! People whose careers are intertwined with the existing order lament the extremism and sheer vulgarity of the challenges to the regime.”

In response to The Horror, the same people have established a criminal regime on the fair banks of the Potomac staffed by the grossly expanded and wildly empowered twenty-first-century version of what Mark Twain called “America’s only native criminal class.” America is not yet at the end of her road, but it is far—very far—from being “morning in America” again. Should morning ever return to what some patriotic sentimentalists persist in calling God’s country, it will be small thanks to the American conservative movement, as Claes Ryn has demonstrated impressively in this most interesting and enlightening book.