Review: Creating Conservatism

May 18, 2016

As I was writing Right-Wing Critics of American ConservatismI tried to be thorough when reading and building my citations. This was trickier than it sounds. Because the book covers a lot of ground, I could not read everything written about all of the movements I studied. If I had done so, the project would have taken a decade rather than two years. As I have continued my research into right-wing movements, I discovered a number of books and articles that I missed and I wish that I hadn't. For example, I am amazed that I failed to note that one of the few recent scholarly articles on Richard Weaver was written by Jeremy Bailey, one of my mentors in graduate school.

 

I am not especially perturbed by most of these oversights, but I am frustrated by my failure to discover one terrific book that would have been very helpful. Creating Conservatism (2014, Michigan State University Press), by Michael J. Lee of the College of Charleston, is one of the best books on the conservative movement I have encountered. He put into words something I hinted at in Right-Wing Critics, but failed to articulate well.

 

Lee's key argument is that a short list of books, written between the mid-1940s and the early 1960s, were instrumental in creating and sustaining a semi-coherent conservative movement. He argued that the "conservative canon" is especially important to conservatives because it helps hold together a movement that contains many contradictory impulses:

 

The canonization of books defending a range of philosophical commitments eased the fusion of dissimilar and contradictory conservatisms both within and beyond the Republican Party: traditionalist and libertarian, populist and elitist, religious and secular, agrarian and corporatist, and principled and adjustable. In addition to furnishing doctrinal and political resources for activists, writers, and politicians, the canon was a resonant symbol of conservative synergy as well as a constituent element of political identity. But in a larger sense, the development of a political identity with a shared history, a trove of insider references, a set of common heroes and enemies, and a repertoire of preferred argumentative forms was aided significantly by an organic process in which conservatism’s textual traditions coalesced. 

 

 

Lee went on to argue that conservatives’ obsession with their own canon helps ensure that each new generation develops proper ideological purity and the movement demonstrates intellectual continuity. He is absolutely correct about this. Whether they are reading the ostensibly indispensable books because they were recommended by Dinesh D’Souza, they are attending a conference at the Heritage Foundation, or they are being trained at the Leadership Institute, young conservatives entering the movement with an eye on becoming professional journalists or activists are assured of a general familiarity with the canon. Organizations like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute not only provide support for conservative students and faculty, they provide instruction on proper conservative thought. Knowledge of Hayek and Kirk is considered a hallmark of true conservatives, and absence of such knowledge is ground for suspicion.

 

For a shorter introduction to Lee's argument, his article, “The Conservative Canon and its Uses" is also very good, but I recommend the entire book. His chapter on fusionism was particularly insightful. 

 

I regret that I missed this outstanding work while working on my own book on right-wing thought. I will be sure to cite it in my new project on the American right, which I hope to finish up shortly.

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