How Peter Viereck Could Clean Up Conservative Ideology

Peter Viereck's conservatism offers sanity and realism.

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Andrew Sullivan has a nice post on the forgotten seminal American conservative Peter Viereck, who was written out of the "movement" for a variety of reasons, but especially because of his acceptance of the New Deal social compact.

Responding to a New Yorker profile of Viereck published shortly before his death in 2006, National Review's John J. Miller charged that the liberal magazine's intent isn't to

revive Viereck's legacy so much as it is to tear down President Bush's. That's why, early on, Reiss informs his readers that Viereck "anticipated the radicalism of the George W. Bush Presidency before Bush had graduated from college." By this, Reiss means that Viereck (in 1962) depicted conservatism as "a movement infiltrated by religious fundamentalists, paranoid patriotic groups, and big business leaders, united in their loathing of the cosmopolitan elites on the nation's coasts." From Manhattan, of course, that's who populates the red states right now: snake-handling evangelists, gun-toting militias, and Halliburton executives.

[See a photo gallery of Bush's legacy.]

Miller argued, too, that conservatives hadn't consciously neglected Viereck; in fact, they were the ones preserving his (comparatively meager) contribution to the movement:

Today, Viereck is remembered almost exclusively by conservatives, in books such as George Nash's and by figures such as Claes G. Ryn of Catholic University (who recently wrote a foreword to a republished edition of Conservatism Revisited). They have accorded the man his proper place.

I don't think Miller actually read Ryn's introductory essay—because it casts Viereck in much the same mold as the New Yorker profile. Viereck was the antidote to the kind of neoconservatism that had become ascendant in the Bush era:

The neoconservatives appear conservative to some because they claim to represent universal principles and to offer an alternative to liberal moral relativism and nihilism. Their allegedly universal principles turn out to have less in common with a conservative, Burkean understanding of higher values than with the ideas of the French Jacobins. Like the latter, most neoconservatives want traditional, insufficiently democratic  and progressive societies to be remade in the image of their universal principles. They have little or no respect for old, slowly evolved historical patterns of life, which they view chiefly as obstacles to progress and equality of opportunity. Their allegiance is to modern, Enlightenment-style civilization. Having assigned to America the role of spearheading the "global democratic revolution," a phrase also used by President George W. Bush, the neoconservatives want the American federal government to be muscular and activist, particularly in foreign policy, and to have great military power. They are impatient with the traditional American conservative suspicion, shared by Viereck, of strong, centralized government.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the GOP.]

Miller (and Ryn, too, actually) makes hay of the fact that Viereck's father—a poet like his son—had been disgraced as a Nazi sympathizer. Viereck fils, according to this line, made peace with the New Deal and condemned McCarthyism in order to curry favor with the era's polite liberal consensus. This is an early version of today's oft-heard denigration of apostate conservatives: that they're sucking up to the Georgetown cocktail set. But this argument doesn't bear scrutiny in Viereck's case: He embraced the "conservative" label at at a time when it was extraordinarily unpopular to do so, as Miller admitted. And if you really wanted to distance yourself from fascism, why would you side with the "statist" New Dealers and Adlai Stevenson? Wouldn't you go the whole Hayekian hog?

Viereck accepted the New Deal not because he was a "pre-neoconservative," as the late Bill Buckley asserted. Neoconservatives like the late Irving Kristol rejected road-to-serfdom alarmism because, as Dan Himmelfarb wrote in Commentary in 1988, "neoconservatives belong to the tradition of liberal-democratic modernity."

The thrust of Viereck's conservatism was that it antedated liberal-democratic modernity. You could accept social reforms in the spirit of Disraeli and Shaftesbury without being a "statist." Viereck's conservatism offers sanity and realism on the question of economic liberty while simultaneously avoiding the neocon temptation of "national greatness" and global-democratic revolutionism.

Viereck, for me, is a lodestar for how we conservatives can clean up our ideological wreckage.

His books are still in print. Go get them. In the meantime, check out this evenhanded profile of Viereck by the American Conservative's Daniel McCarthy.

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