In a prior post, in comments to prior posts, and in other writings on George Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945, it has been noted that he is a conservative and that his political leanings have affected his book in some way. But we have not yet come to any consensus about whether Nash’s politics influenced CIMA in a positive or negative fashion. We also haven’t talked about specific examples from the book.
I’m not suggesting that we must come to any consensus about the direction of Nash’s bias, of his subjectivity. But I’d at least like explore wherein and how the book reveals his politics, or how his politics may have influenced his argument, use of evidence, word choice, analysis, and narrative style.
Some caveats: What follows is by no means exhaustive. I also will not present observations in the order that they appear in the text. Finally, I will offer page numbers when possible (from the 1996 ISI edition).
(1) William F. Buckley is presented as the glue that holds the movement together (“he performed an emblematic and ecumenical function,” p. 332), and therefore appears in almost every chapter. CIMA is no biography of Buckley, but he’s the central character. That said, to me he is treated with kid gloves in the text. His failings are minimalized.* Why? Should he have been explored more critically?
(2) The John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by Robert Welch, is mentioned in only four spots in the text (pp. 272, 275-276, 415, 442). The last two are in the notes, and p. 272 is only a passing reference. That means Nash reduced the Birchers to one real page (275) of coverage (p. 276 is a one-sentence wrap-up of the prior page). To me this minimization is, effectively, a denial of the dominant 1950s *perception* that conservatives were primarily about paranoid anti-communism. There are many points in the text were Nash notes that anti-communism was “the cement of the postwar conservative intellectual movement” (p. 298). Finally, this is important because, as Nash asserts in the text (p. 275, 442), conservative leaders had “tried to bury the Birch issue” in early 1962.
So why avoid an in-depth discussion of Robert Welch, his co-conspirators (e.g. Fred Koch, father of Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries fame), and Welch’s minions? Is this evidence of some sort of denial, or bias, on Nash’s part? Or is it simply another manifestation of the difference between studying intellectual history and the history of thought? At one point in the text Nash relays that Buckley “believed…Welch’s well-publicized activities were being exploited by a liberal press in order to ‘anathematize the entire American right wing'” (p. 275). Is this minimization of the Society, then, more evidence of Nash’s centering on Buckley, which might slant the book’s overall argument and selection criteria toward Buckley’s chief concerns? Does Nash believe in the 1960s accusation about liberal media bias?
(3) Sometimes Nash’s narrative flourish leads to questions. The flourish could be either about positives of the right or negatives of the left. For instance, in a discussion of various world crises of the 1950s, Nash offered the following:
Liberals, of course, might blind themselves to these unpleasant realities—so said conservatives. Liberals might prefer to hope—serenely, pathetically, endlessly, futilely—that maybe now, maybe this time, maybe soon, the Communists would change their spots, cease to be committed revolutionaries, and settle down. Perhaps we could then have peaceful coexistence at last. Meanwhile let us negotiate, “build bridges,” engage in cultural exchanges, climb to the summit. Come let us reason together.
Nonsense, said the conservatives. Fatuous delusions. …Would liberals ever recognize that the world was not, every day in every way, getting better and better? (p. 240)
This is admittedly an excerpt. There’s a textual context wherein this flourish makes some sense. But it’s still over the top. There’s another example on p. 273 where Nash notes that the movement “had certainly come a long way from the ghetto-like isolation of the early postwar years. …What a contrast with the era of Senator Taft!” What got me here was the exclamation point. Why? What drove that style choice?
(4) Much like Buckley, Nash’s presentation of Milton Friedman is fairly uncritical. Friedman rightfully receives a great deal of credit from Nash for offering both new ideas and specific policy proposals that helped make the conservative movement a legitimate political force (pp. 267-271). Those proposals are presented as being empirical, but there is no attempt to explore how Friedman’s proposals were more than ideas. Even though Nash provides evidence of Buckley’s skepticism of Friedman (p. 321), no criticism from liberal politicians or intellectuals is presented. I’m not saying that every presentation of a positive has to be “balanced” by criticism. But I am asserting that if (a) the person/idea is important enough, and (b) the criticism existed in context, then that criticism ought to be included. It’s absence, to me, is more than subjectivity—even in a text where the focus is conservatism.
(5) Lastly, race. This was the cause of the original long discussion (beginning with comments #4 and #6) of CIMA, instigated by Andrew Hartman’s question about whether intellectual historians still read Nash. The sum total of discussion about the Civil Rights Movement and race amounts to about five pages (pp. 260-265). In that discussion the work of Ernest van den Haag is presented uncritically—as if it’s persuasive. It felt like Nash was violating “show don’t tell” rule of historical narrative construction. Nash told us that van den Haag “was undermining the claim that integrated schools were a solution to racial problems” (p. 261) without proving it—without showing us how his work was persuasive with other conservatives like Buckley. Why, moreover, didn’t Nash cover the racism of southern Dixiecrats more thoroughly? Surely postwar conservative intellectuals gave some serious thought to Strom Thurmond and other racist conservatives? And race is only mentioned in passing (pp. 185-187) in Nash’s discussion of Southern Agrarians, Richard Weaver, and The South as a region exemplary of conservative ways. What influenced Nash to minimize the discussion of race when, perhaps, this could have been an opportunity to show nuance and empathy for African Americans in conservative thought?
I think this is enough to prompt some discussion. What have I missed? Where is my thinking wrongheaded? Has Nash addressed these questions elsewhere, at another time and in another venue? – TL
*I’m not finished with my reading. I’m on p. 302 of 341 total. So it’s possible that Nash will offer more on Buckley’s failings in the last 40 pages.