Interview with George H. Nash, author of
Reappraising the Right
Dr. Nash, why did you decide to publish this book?
For two reasons: to contribute to the scholarly understanding of American conservatism And because the time is ripe.
What do you mean, “the time is ripe”?
As i was preparing this volume for publication, the president of the United States and his entourage were engaged in a noisy, public argument with a fellow named Rush Limbaugh, a man considered by many to be the most influential spokesman for American conservatism at this time. Meanwhile many on the political left are gleefully claiming that conservatism in the United States is in terminal disarray. They say it is brain-dead. A few on the right seem half-inclined to agree. Here and there intramural squabbles are breaking out among conservatives as they try to regroup after last year’s election. So 2009 seems like a highly appropriate time for conservatives especially—and others, too—to pause and take stock of this once-dominant political and intellectual movement. That is where I come in.
I am a professional historian and student of American conservatism. I have researched, written, and lectured about this subject since the 1970s, beginning with my doctoral dissertation at Harvard University. My first book, the conservative intellectual movement in America since 1945, was published in 1976 and is still in print (in updated form). So I bring to this much disputed subject something few people have: historical perspective.
But isn’t conservatism passé now? Wasn’t it just repudiated at the polls?
Well, we shall see. One of the themes of my new book is that in the past few decades American conservatism has grown in intellectual sophistication and political heft to become a competitive and powerful presence in our public life. Along the way it has built an elaborate infrastructure of media and think tanks that shows few signs of withering away. Come what may in the long run, it appears to me as a historian that in the short run—the next five or ten years—conservatives will be important participants in our national conversation.
It sounds like you are telling conservatives to take courage.
Yes, you could say that. I also believe that the current season of soul searching on the right is a good moment for conservatives to take a “refresher course,” reexamine their roots, and deepen their self-understanding. My book can help them do this.
I have looked at the table of contents of your book. You seem to write mainly about intellectuals, including some I have never heard of. Why?
Because--contrary to popular stereotype—the conservative coalition that developed in the past two generations has been motivated not so much by “special interests” as by ideas. The Conservative movement as we know it today exemplifies the truth of Mazzini’s remark: “ideas rule the world and its events.” Or as conservatives like to say (borrowing from a book title by Richard m. Weaver): “ideas have consequences.”
Are you saying that conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan were not so important?
Not at all. But conservatism in America has always been more than just a tune played by republican politicos. Before Reagan, before newt Gingrich, before Sarah Palin and other conservative icons, there were the writers, philosophers, economists, historians, and literary giants who articulated what conservatives believed and should believe. People like William f. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, and Friedrich Hayek—all of whom i appraise in my new volume. These brilliant individuals laid the intellectual foundations and supplied the “idea power” which conservative activists exploited in the public arena during “the age of Reagan.” Reagan, by the way, was an avid man of ideas himself—something of an intellectual, really, as you will discover in my chapter on him in my book.
You seem to take a special interest in Herbert Hoover—not exactly a conservative favorite these days. Why?
I have written a comprehensive, three-volume, scholarly biography of Hoover, one of the most accomplished and elusive figures in our country’s history—a man who saved more lives (in his humanitarian work) than any other person who has ever lived. But more importantly for the theme of my book, Hoover was once a hero of conservatives; today he is generally rejected by those who identify with the American right. Yet there is much in Hoover’s record and political philosophy which should appeal to today’s conservatives if they will get past what they think they know about him and become more adequately acquainted with his career.
You also devote a lengthy section of your book to conservatism in the American Jewish community. This seems unusual, since most Jewish voters are politically liberal.
That is true, but in my research i have discovered and documented a notable contribution by jewish writers to the evolution of modern American conservatism. I think my chapters on this relatively neglected subject will surprise many readers. It underscores one of the themes of my volume: that conservatism is not and has never been monolithic. It is a river with many tributaries.
What would you like a reader to take away, finally, from your
I would like readers of all persuasions to come away with a better understanding of American conservatism and therefore a better understanding of our times. I would like conservatives to acquire in the process a deeper and firmer knowledge of their intellectual foundations.