Monday, August 7, 2017

Tonsor: Conservative Movement: Revolution on the Right


Among the reasons I chose to study history at Michigan was the opportunity to attend a Big Ten university. I'd heard Michigan referred to as a "public ivy" -- that is, it combined the excellence of an ivy league education with the extracurriculars of a Big Ten university. Its academic rankings had long been stellar. Michigan was consistently recognized as one of the top public universities in the world. It and Berkeley were consistently ranked the top two public universities in the U.S. And its history department was consistently regarded as one of the top five in America. I figured I'd need the university's elite status to win a good academic post in a tough job market.

Bo Schembechler coached at Michigan from 1969-1989.
Besides Michigan's elite academic status, and besides the opportunity to study with Stephen Tonsor, I'll admit that there was another reason I wanted to go to Ann Arbor. An advisor back in Colorado had said, "If you can go to a top 10 university with a top 10 football program, then it's the best of both worlds. Football Saturdays will be a good way to blow off steam while you're trying to get through a tough course of studies." How prescient that advice proved to be. 

It happened that Michigan had the winningest program in college football -- it was the best of the best -- ahead of such storied programs as Notre Dame, Texas, Nebraska, and Ohio State. I'm not ashamed to admit, as a lover of college football, that its elite status held no small appeal. In the Bo Schembechler era, I had chosen to become a "Michigan Man." The famous fight song, The Victors, branded the Michigan Man as "the leader and the best." So the football legacy was just one more element in the total Michigan package. 

Monday, October 12, 1987, was Columbus Day. I was feeling cranky. Over the weekend my Wolverines had lost to rival Michigan State under a gloaming sky. Not only did we lose the Paul Bunyan Trophy to our rival in East Lansing, but we also tumbled out of the AP poll, from 12th into college football oblivion. (We would have to wait until we beat Alabama in the Hall of Fame Bowl to end the season ranked a respectable 18th nationally, but that was ten weeks in the future.) 
America's largest collegiate arena, Michigan Stadium -- the Big House -- as it appears today.
But Tuesday was a new day that changed my mood and filled me with anticipation. Ronald Reagan's vice president, George H. W. Bush, announced that he was running to be the 41st president of the United States. Bush made the announcement in my hometown of Houston, Texas, and I was happy that he was a candidate. My family lived in the 7th Congressional District when Bush first ran for office. I had met him as a ten year-old boy at a little airport on the outskirts of the Bayou City. It was on a Sunday afternoon in May. In the south Texas heat, he had his suit jacket slung over his left shoulder when he approached my dad and me to talk. He was tall and when he shook my hand he looked me in the eye. I liked this man, George Bush, and I grew to respect his sense of duty and commitment to public service.


These two events -- Michigan's football game and Bush's campaign announcement -- set the stage for my conversation with Stephen Tonsor on October 15th. When the bus delivered me to the central campus, a light dusting of frost was melting on the Diag. My advisor was scheduled to hold office hours but I arrived a little early at Haven Hall that morning. As I scanned the bulletin board on his door, I discovered a New Yorker cartoon I hadn't seen before. It showed three people looking out of a high-rise window down into a cramped courtyard below. One was the cigar-smoking realtor, and the other two were a couple trying to decide if the apartment was right for them. Many floors down, in the dark narrow courtyard, grew a pathetic little tree. The realtor was trying to close the sale: "You got a tree in this yard. It ain't every house got a tree in its yard." I could see why Tonsor, with his Teutonic love of nature, found amusement in a cartoon that took a swipe at the sterility of modern urbanization. 
On assignment for LIFE in 1950, Alfred Eisenstaedt took "Drum Major,"
arguably the most famous photograph ever taken at the University of Michigan.
The picture has been called the photographer's Ode to Joy.

After Tonsor arrived he invited me to sit down and asked how things were going. Wondering if he followed Michigan football, and probing whether we could lighten the relationship a bit, I responded that I was unhappy that the Wolverines had lost the Paul Bunyan Trophy to our rival up in East Lansing. Before I could finish the thought, he waved my words off. "College football -- huh! Why do you waste your time? The sport is a throwback to the most primitive hominids. The very idea of throwing pigskin! Why, it was probably invented by the missing link. It would be well to ban the sport from higher education. I never had one of these gladiators in my classes who excelled -- not one.[1] And too many weekends this time of year, throngs of hooligans trespass onto my property and throw beer cans into my yard." He became so agitated he was veritably rocking.

I felt dressed down, a little ashamed to be grouped with so lowly a creature as "the missing link." It would not, of course, change my behavior because I loved football. But since there wasn't much I could say after that outburst, I tried to laugh off my professor's contempt and move quickly to the second and more serious topic at hand. It turned out that the two topics were related because each settled its contests with a clear winner and a clear loser. Michigan's most famous football player, Gerald R. Ford, liked to say this about sports and politics: "Every morning I read two sections of the newspaper. First I read about the heroes -- the athletes in the sports section. Then I read about the villains -- the crooked politicians in the front section!"


"I am a relatively new Republican," I revealed to Tonsor. "So I was pleased with the announcement yesterday that Vice President Bush is running for the White House. Do you think he has a good chance? Not since the 1940 election has a party captured the Oval Office more than two elections in a row."

Tonsor's expression behind his glasses was Sphinx-like. I wondered if my support of the vice president disappointed him.

I soon got my answer. "I have a love-hate relationship with American politics. Rough-and-tumble doesn't even begin to describe the spectacle. Coleridge observed, 'In politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly.' Look at the folly in Washington, DC. Our politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, are such little people and have made a swinish mess. It gives me no pleasure to say it, but even our President stoops low to conquer.[2]

"I am amazed that so many people who are attracted to politics think they can be morally pure in that arena. Politics in a democracy is still politics. It's about getting the power, the votes, to enact one coalition's agenda. To achieve such a majority usually requires horse trading. So politics in our democracy is a cauldron of compromise. There is no moral purity in it. Looking for purity in the political process is like looking for purity in a sewer. It's necessary to civilization, but it's still a mess!"

I was obviously striking out trying to find suitable topics for conversation this day. It was not my finest Dale Carnegie moment.

"Now, Bush," he said. "Bush will face fierce competition. He is conservative but not a conservative like Ronald Reagan, which makes a difference."

My brow furrowed and Tonsor explained that lots of people are conservative, but that does not make them a conservative -- a movement conservative, that is. The indefinite article alters the meaning.

"What unites most people on the right, whether they are movement conservatives or the conservative Everyman," said Tonsor, "is the willingness to submit to reality." Chuckling he added, "Irving Kristol mordantly observed that 'a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.' Apparently not mugged enough!"

I laughed and was happy to feel the mood lighten. I'd never make the mistake of bringing up football again. 

"Modern politics make strange bedfellows, Mr. Whitney. The New Deal coalition I grew up in relied on an alliance between the intellectuals and the labor unions. It held solid from 1932 to 1948, and then again in 1960 and 1964. Something similar has happened on the right.

"The modern Right -- the Reagan Right -- consists of various factions that are in productive tension with one another. I see the cultural conservatives in the mix if not at the center. These are highbrow intellectuals. They tend to be Roman and Anglo Catholic. They read T. S. Eliot and William F. Buckley. They listen to Bach and Haydn. They write and lecture in an effort to influence the Zeitgeist.

"In productive tension with highbrow cultural conservatives are the working-class and middlebrow populists and party activists who love their country. The political temperament of these patriots is formed in their families, churches, and 4-H. They go by various names -- Everyman, the Forgotten Man, the silent majority, the moral majority. They are Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. They glean their political attitudes from Rotary Club meetings, school board elections, and local newspapers. Their conservative temperament is reinforced by TV westerns like Death Valley Days and movies like Patton. The two factions do not make friends easily -- their cultural tastes often diverge -- yet they will ally with one another against the intrusions of the state and the condescension of liberal elites. Everyman just wants to be left alone and have his rights respected.

"The modern Right also includes the anti-communists -- people like James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers. They can favor a large national security state in order to fight totalitarianism. This puts them in productive tension with the libertarians in the party. They are anti-statists who want free markets to be the spine of the body politic and its political economy. Milton Friedman and the Chicago School are at the center of their work.

"The mostly Jewish neocons in Manhattan have been important, but they exist in productive tension with the Protestant evangelicals in their suburban and rural churches. The preservation of the state of Israel is one of their shared concerns.

"Finally there is the Establishment, which tends to be conservative but is best characterized as opportunistic. Jefferson warned us to beware this class -- the so-called money men. The monied Establishment is centered in our commercial capital, New York City, and exerts influence in our political capital, Washington, DC. It is rent-seeking. That is to say, these bigwigs hire lawyers and accountants and lobbyists who bend the system -- its laws, tax write-offs, corporate welfare, and administrative rules -- in their favor. It's where the loopholes come from. While both parties court the Eastern Establishment, they'd soon abandon the Republicans if the Democrats seemed more likely to do their bidding."

I opened my looseleaf binder and scribbled out some notes as quickly as I could. By my count, Tonsor mentioned seven GOP factions that existed in 1987:

  • cultural conservatives
  • populists
  • anticommunists
  • libertarians
  • neocons
  • evangelicals
  • Establishment 

Seeing how furiously I was writing, Tonsor kindly paused for a moment before picking up the thread.

"In their Old Right iteration, the conservatives did not even have a name. When I was your age, there was nothing like a Reagan conservative. Still, right-leaning intellectuals served in an important capacity. They were the loyal opposition to the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. To understand them I recommend that you read Albert Jay Nock -- perhaps his essay on "Isaiah's Job" in the April 1936 number of The Atlantic, or his libertarian take on Thomas Jefferson. Two additional Old Right leaders you might look into are the humanists, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. Russell Kirk provides excellent summaries of Babbitt and More in his seminal work, The Conservative Mind. These humanists confronted modernity without altogether rejecting it. They reminded Americans of the need for continuity in an age of change, for virtue in an age of liberty, for duties in an age of rights, for being in an age of becoming, for the spiritual in an age given over to the material -- all necessary elements to a humanely ordered freedom. As eloquent as the Old Right was, as powerful as it was culturally, the alliance rarely succeeded in capturing the imagination of the Forgotten Man in enough numbers to win major elections.[3] Indeed, in their wilderness years between 1932 and 1948, the Old Right lost five presidential contests in a row.

"There is a reason for that. If you look at these prewar conservatives who opposed Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal -- H. L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Irving Babbitt -- they were of a libertarian cast of mind, disciples of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill. The worldview of these classical liberals was elitist and agnostic. Without churches, these prewar conservatives did not connect with the lived traditions of God-fearing Americans who made up the vast majority of the nation's electorate.[4]

"World War II changed the world. And as more and more people grew weary and wary of the active-state liberalism of the New Deal, there arose the second iteration of the Right. It is the current postwar conservative movement and it has been led by estimable thinkers -- Friedrich von Hayek, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and William F. Buckley Jr. It also includes one of my mentors, Frank Meyer, as well as one of my closest friends, Henry Regnery, whom Caroline and I go to visit in Chicago and in Three Oaks. These intellectuals began a movement in the 1950s when National Review gave them an intellectual commons to discover each other and to debate in common cause. In the early days they were a scattered elite, mostly libertarians, anticommunists, and cultural conservatives who sought to expand freedom, security, and virtue respectively. Their aims did not fit well with the programs of the liberal cognoscenti. So they had to swim upstream against the current of liberalism which dominated America's elite.

"As George Nash points out in his Conservative Intellectual Movement in America -- a fine book, by the way -- the philosophical right was in search of a political man to match. A man who could shake up the Republican status quo and wrest the party from the Eastern Establishment. They found their man in Goldwater in 1964. Well, he lost. After we licked our wounds, we went back to work to change the climate of opinion. The conservative movement made steady inroads in the national conversation in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to a series of shocks to the nation for which the New Deal coalition had fewer and fewer credible answers. Assassinations, urban riots, campus unrest, failure in Vietnam, the Warren Court, energy crises, Watergate, stagflation, malaise, the Berger Court -- all this disorder made the average American anxious. By 1980 an alliance of intellectuals, politicians, and right-leaning citizens was strong enough to put Reagan in the White House and to keep him there in 1984. Vice President Bush will argue that he can best extend Reagan's legacy of ordered freedom. As I say, he is not a conservative, but he is conservative enough and a good man, congenial and competent."


"Now that you are living in Michigan, you should also know about the so-called Macomb County Democrats who have been seminal to Reagan's victory. Macomb County is less than an hour's drive away, north of Detroit. Its bedroom communities are home to the factory workers who man the assembly lines of the Big Three. To understand them culturally, you have to remember that these voters are the children of the Forgotten Man of the 1930s. They are registered Democrats, socially conservative, and mostly Catholics, and they feel abandoned by what was once the New Deal coalition. I understand these people, because my family was also working class and put their hopes in FDR. But as the New Deal Coalition kept moving left, especially during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, there was increasing distance between liberal elites and the children of the Forgotten Man. As a result, they voted with their feet. They have realigned themselves with the Republicans and cast their lot with the GOP.

"Perhaps you're familiar with Stanley Greenberg's study of Macomb County Democrats that came out a couple of years ago [1985]. He is a Harvard Ph.D. and a liberal pollster who tries to explain the recent electoral shift in American politics, which reflects a deeper cultural shift in American life. The important point is that the electoral realignment could occur because first there was an intellectual realignment. An elite coterie of conservative thinkers articulated the frustrations and aspirations of the Forgotten Man, and politicians took note. These conservatives -- in places like Sharon, Connecticut; Mecosta, Michigan; Woodstock, New York; and Three Oaks, Michigan -- helped bridge the cultural divide with Macomb County. That's one reason 1980 and '84 came about, because of an impressive new political coalition that has put, and kept, a conservative in the White House.

"So George Bush's task is to be populist connect with Macomb County. As Macomb goes, so goes the GOP. If he and the conservative elite can connect with the voters in Macomb County, the right will do just fine in American politics in 1988. Maybe conservatives will, too."

In my head I recast Tonsor's formulation to make it more alliterative: If conservative philosophers can connect with right-wing politicians, who in turn can connect with ordinary people in places like Macomb County, then the right will do just fine in American elections.

After listening to Tonsor's magisterial overview of the American right, it occurred to me that I now had another reason to be grateful for choosing Michigan. It was blind luck, but I was discovering that I had a front-row seat to the conservative intellectual movement in America -- not just in Tonsor's Haven Hall office, not just in the nearby Earhart Foundation on Plymouth Road, but also in Mecosta (Russell Kirk), Three Oaks (Henry Regnery), North Adams (Philadelphia Society), Hillsdale (the college), and Midland (Mackinac Center for Public Policy). Each of these men and institutions was contributing to the change in the climate of opinion that was transforming American politics in places like Macomb County. I was witnessing a realignment as profound as that which occurred in the 1930s, when the New Deal coalition arose. Now the New Deal coalition was unraveling, and the new Reagan coalition was taking its place. To be a witness to this "revolution" was invigorating tonic indeed for a newly arrived Michigan Man.



[1] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, May 18, 1985, p. 5; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[2]Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, July 25, 1987, p. 4; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[3] Tonsor seemed to use the term, "Forgotten Man," mostly in the way that Yale professor William Graham Sumner used it in his seminal 1876 article by that title, to refer to ordinary citizens who are forced to pay for government reforms that benefit a minority to which they do not belong. Franklin Roosevelt redefined the term in one of his early fireside chats. By "Forgotten Man" FDR referred to the vast majority of people who were left behind when capitalist oligarchs enriched themselves at the workers' expense.

[4] Mark C. Henrie, "Traditionalism," American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, ed. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), pp. 870-71.

No comments:

Post a Comment