Published Humanitas, Volume XX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2007

Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, by Paul Gottfried. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. 208 pp. $39.95.

Former presidential speechwriter David Frum wrote an infamous piece in National Review, titled “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” that tried to write conservative opponents of the war in Iraq out of the “movement.” Now that conservative opinion is openly split between pro and antiwar factions, witnessed among other things by the groundswell of support for Ron Paul, a formerly obscure congressman, for the Republican nomination for President in 2008, Frum’s piece seems in retrospect more than the simple smear article it appeared to be. For the piece is an implicit acknowledgment that conservatism, in the form it has increasingly taken since at least the 1970s, has split almost beyond repair. On the one side is the “movement,” clustered in Washington and New York, dominated by the group of writers known as the neoconservatives and numerous publications, think tanks, and public policy institutes. On the other side is an assortment of groups that resemble more the disorganized pre-World War II Old Right than the Reagan Coalition or the Moral Majority.

In this new book Paul Gottfried avoids the groupthink and just-so stories in his search for the roots of contemporary conservatism. Too much writing on conservatism is revisionist history or the gentle effacement of actual differences among groups vying to speak for conservatives. In contrast, Gottfried thoroughly searches out the source materials that trace the demise of the antiestablishment, or “Old,” Right and its replacement with what has variously been described as “big government conservatism,” “national greatness conservatism,” or, more generally, neoconservatism. Based on scrupulous citation, Gottfried concludes, for example, that National Review’s positions are not what they were thirty, or even twenty, years ago, that what seems “conservative” now would not have been so considered then, and that even the neoconservatives have shifted their positions on their way to influence. Further, Conservatism in America tries to explain what Gottfried describes as the “irresistible fluidity” of conservative principles.

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