Originally published: 1999
341 pages

 Chapter 16

THE CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION: THE MOVEMENT THAT REMADE AMERICA

Lee Edwards

The political climate in the United States changed dramatically during the last quarter of the twentieth century; most of that change resulted from the reemergence and then rapid public awareness of historical values and economic verities that would combat what was skewing the results our political system offered. The foundation for the new face of U.S. politics began to form in the 1930s, amid the intellectual, social, and economic turmoil of the Great Depression and in response to the emergence of Russia and re-emergence of Germany as international enigmas. As a result of these developments a counter-movement took place among those who understood the government's fundamentally flawed economic reactions to the Depression and the illusory promises of Russian communism and German fascism. Over the following fifty years, by means of both political machinations and economic discourse, the intellectual leaders of this counter-movement shaped the resurgence of American conservatism, a movement whose name belies its close affinity to European liberalism.
     The momentum of political and economic change in the U.S. accelerated exponentially in the decades after World War II with the almost radical divergence of conservative and liberal viewpoints and goals. From our current vantage point we could easily overlook how close postwar left-wing Eastern "intellectuals" were to fully embracing economically bankrupt socialist ideology, and how vehemently conservatives fought this drift. Lee Edwards charts the different course

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taken by American politics because of the bold ideas and intentional actions of a handful of determined individuals. That notion, because it is so important, bears repeating: the bold ideas and intentional actions of determined individuals saved us from political and economic mistakes of potentially unbridled proportions. The struggle to achieve this end sometimes required confrontations of the most resolute kind, but also involved intellectual sorties of admirable subtlety.
     Edwards's first task is to analyze the decades of misinterpretation (even deliberate misrepresentation) of conservative politics and politicians offered by mainstream, mostly east coast media outlets. He next introduces the original minds behind the regenerated conservative movement and clearly spells out their ideas and principles. Finally, Edwards traces the unintended consequences of (theoretically) well-intentioned but (certainly) ill-conceived liberal policies-policies that ran aground on the reality of our immutable human nature. Edwards acknowledges that many unsung heroes have contributed to the insurrection that resulted in modern conservatism, but the presence of four men was crucial to the achievement of fixed goals: Bob Taft, Mr. Republican; Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative; Ronald Reagan, Mr. President; and Newt Gingrich, Mr. Speaker.
     Taft fostered the political revival of conservatism in Congress, while Goldwater's importance was his popular enunciation of what had gone wrong with government's purpose in the wake of the unrealizable dreams of President Kennedy. Ronald Reagan brought conservatism to the White House, and Speaker Gingrich delivered it to Main Street. Each built on the propositions and
political accomplishments of his predecessors. The culmination of their efforts changed the course of America's governing archetype by the end of the twentieth century.
     As Edwards further explains, the contributions of foundational figures Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, and William F. Buckley, Jr. were unmistakably important. Without these incisive theorists and activists the conservative program would have taken far longer to both flower and implement. Others who are today less well known also contributed, often indirectly and sometimes, as members of the opposition, even unintentionally (in this vein watch the consequences of liberal senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's efforts in Chapters 18 and 27.) But perhaps of paramount intellectual importance were the members of the Mont Pelerin Society, who are represented in myriad chapters in First Principles and whom Edwards brings to life so many decades later.

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     Whittaker Chambers, a person whose notoriety is flagging with time and the ever more distant memory of Soviet Communism, was also a catalyst in this era. Chambers was a tower as both an actor in and a reporter of those times, and his story, contained in Witness (Chapter 41), was one of the struts that made the struggle easy to embrace and made the battle comprehensible. It still does.
     Of the notables, Buckley, in particular, gave popular voice to this movement. He had the twin virtues of sound theory and dogged intention. His unrelenting efforts to be heard and to offer a place for conservatism's presence to be felt (through National Review, a weekly newspaper he established in the 1950s) may be one of the most important effects of the group frustration that was evident in conservative circles beginning in that era. It is hard today to capture the extremity of the public situation, as difficult perhaps as it is to understand the true emotions of 1776. But it is all there in the words of each of the participants whom Edwards brings to the fore.
     An example of what America faced is offered in the travails of Whittaker Chambers. He writes of the times and the enormity of the crime of communism to Buckley when the latter was beginning to take action. Chambers knew whatever happened to change America's course would begin in a small way, but he also understood that it would be in a manner that meant a fight to the death. He expresses this starting point as an emotional caring, the kind of caring that drives men outside themselves. He writes of how reality would once more intrude on a melancholy world

               when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once
               something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some
               evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were
               those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the
               tokens of hope and truth.

     In response to Chambers's recollection of his hopes, Buckley later recounts his concurrent thoughts:

               The tokens of hope and truth were not, he seemed to be saying, to be
               preserved by a journal of opinion, not by writers or thinkers, but only by
               activists, and I was to know that he considered a publication-the right
               kind of publication-not a word, but a deed.

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     It was the deed of Buckley's actions that cemented in the public forum a method, and ultimately the substance of this effort. The new/old conservatives knew what they knew, their thoughts and understandings needed articulation; Buckley supplied that. The utterances spoke for themselves, and then were echoed. Conservatism was brought first to the political clerisy who had been publicly dormant in the onslaught of socialism and communism, and then to the masses-through action. Public rallies took place, political commentary became ubiquitous, political figures took positions that they had previously only espoused in private. Everything happened through human action.
     In contrast to conservatism on the rise, Edwards also outlines liberal populism-the precursor to the modern welfare state-and dissects its premises as an anomaly that collapsed of its own intellectual, then practical convolutions. But pushing that anomaly over the edge into oblivion still had to be done. He recounts in this story the efforts these people took to ensure that happened. Of course, like the cartoon character that falls over the canyon precipice toward certain death on the valley floor, populism and welfarism never quite die; they sprout wings or are caught by some wisp of wind and land gently on the earth below to rise and taunt again. Why? Because few are willing to decline a "free" lunch-no matter what its ultimate cost might be; sycophant politicians recognize this human frailty and use it to their personal advantage.
     The modern conservative movement is rooted in a simple concept, articulated by Senator Taft in the 1940s: "Every right is married to a duty." The governed have a responsibility to attend to their own destinies while the governors must offer opportunities rather than impediments to individual success. Already by the 1990s the concept of duty was the hallmark of change, leading away from the indiscriminate generosity embodied in the American welfare system of earlier decades.
     As Edwards recounts, the story of how we got from Bob Taft in 1948 to Newt Gingrich in 1994 starts not in the United States but at a meeting in Mont Pelerin, Switzerland in 1947. The leader at this summit of dedicated minds was Friedrich A. von Hayek who, along with his colleague Milton Friedman and several other future Nobel laureates, sought to bring ideas rather than emotions to the forefront of political and economic policy discussions. As Edwards comments, "socialism and statism dominated" the political landscape at that time, yet the people who convened in Switzerland shortly after World War II knew that their philosophy and framework were sound. They developed criteria for governing with the individual as the paramount element in any design.

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     Following their initial meeting the members of the newly born Mont Pelerin Society spread the word and fleshed-out their theories. They recognized that collectivism would inevitably fail but they also knew that its demise could potentially be devastating if there were no alternatives to allow a rational transition to freedom in economic matters. Their concern and their intention was to ensure that an economic awakening would not lead to upheaval, or worse, to chaos. But they were neither Cassandras nor scolds, offering only fear and doom if socialism was chosen as a viable economic paradigm. As Milton Friedman explained years later in recalling this era,

               I have long believed that we do not influence the course of events by
               persuading people that we are right when we make what they regard
               as radical proposals. Rather, we exert influence by keeping options
               available when something has to be done at a time of crisis.

     Members of the Mont Pelerin Society found influential and thoughtful supporters who published facts and data substantiating conservative ideas in order to refute the utopian dogma of liberal collectivists. Taxation was a primary topic because burdensome levies were not just bad economics, they were psychological and philosophical disincentives that discouraged individual initiative. And individual initiative was what created the modern world and kept it running.
     Edwards's book recounts an invaluable story about people and ideas and the power of their confluence to change the world. A logical starting point for the novice seeking to understand modern economics and political discourse, this volume is also a source of inspiration. The conservative principles that many people take for granted today (no matter what their political affiliation may be) were formed partly in passionate response to the actual and perceived political and economic threats during the last century. How inspired and disciplined by these principles we are today will determine what life will be like for succeeding generations. It is tempting to drift toward becoming overwhelmed when holding the course begun by these pioneers appears difficult for innumerable reasons. When that happens, just recall how much greater their responsibility was in 1947, and how much easier our efforts are simply because these people iterated first principles and did not shrink from insisting on what they knew to be right.

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About the Author
Lee Edwards is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. and is senior editor of the World and I magazine. Edwards has been published in most major newspapers and periodicals in the U.S. and serves as a professor of political science at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He was the founding director of the Institute on Political Journalism at Georgetown University and has been selected as a fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
     Edwards is the president of the Victims of Communism Memorial, built in Washington , D.C. and dedicated on June 15, 2007.  The Memorial commemorates the 100 million victims of communist oppression.

     He earned a bachelor's degree from Duke University and a doctorate from The Catholic University of America; he has published seven previous titles, including biographies of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. Mr. Edwards was born in Chicago and resides in Alexandria, Virginia.

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New York, NY 10020
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