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Conservatives Must Understand Where They Went Wrong Before They Can Go Right

In Claes Ryn’s latest book, The Failure of American Conservatism And the Road Not Taken, the esteemed professor chronicles how conservative intellectuals denigrated history and tradition to America’s detriment.


The thing about greatest hits is that they are usually pretty good. And Claes Ryn’s new book, The Failure of American Conservatism and the Road Not Taken, is no exception. The volume collects articles, essays, and book excerpts spanning the decades of Ryn’s distinguished career as an academic and public intellectual, and it provides a compelling diagnosis of where the right went wrong. It also offers a valuable contrast with Patrick Deneen’s disappointing new book, Regime Change, which is suspicious, even hostile, toward our founding. In contrast, Ryn roots his conservatism within our constitutional order, battered and besieged though it may be.

To be sure, and as Ryn notes in an extended introduction, conservatism was “up against high odds in a deteriorating civilization.” The shame of conservatism’s failure is not in defeat itself but rather in “the way in which it perceived and handled those odds.” In particular, Ryn demonstrates that many of conservatism’s failures to conserve are due to supposed conservative leaders who embraced anti-conservative ideology. Indeed, rather than republishing his own writings, Ryn could have proven this point by simply quoting Bill Kristol’s tweets, with a reminder that Kristol was once considered a leading conservative intellectual.

However, Ryn’s curated work offers further wisdom for conservatives from a source whose credibility was earned by having been right when many others were going wrong. I began my graduate studies with Ryn — taking many classes with him and eventually writing my dissertation under his direction — at the tail end of the George W. Bush presidency, and the events of those years particularly vindicated his long opposition to neoconservatism.

Even setting aside all of his other accomplishments, Ryn ought to be honored for his prophetic understanding of how the intellectual and moral failures of the neocons would lead to political and policy disasters. As this book demonstrates, he made this case to both scholarly and lay audiences through lucid and compelling prose that was a model of bringing philosophical insight to bear on politics.

Leo Strauss vs. Tradition

Philosophical questions about the nature of truth, reason, and history have political implications and effects. By the end of the Reagan years, Ryn had identified the fundamental flaws of neoconservatism, which he traced to philosophical failures by the influential political theorist Leo Strauss and his many disciples. As Ryn observed, “When it comes to addressing questions of moral universality and right, Strauss asserted, history and tradition lack all authority.” This position was presented as anti-relativist, and even among conservative intellectuals, there was “little awareness of the radically anti-conservative implications of Straussian anti-historicism.”

Many on the right saw Straussian appeals to universal principles and absolute truth as a bulwark against moral relativism, which is why they swallowed Strauss’s rejection of history and tradition. But we are finite, fallible beings. We do not grasp the good, the true, and the beautiful in the abstract perfection of supposedly universal philosophical propositions but rather within the particularities of our historical existence. It is not relativism to acknowledge the limits of our capacities to apprehend, articulate, and instantiate moral truth. Rather, as conservatives of all people ought to know, this is an important part of the moral life, which must be lived in the here and now, rather than an abstract realm of universal propositions.

Nonetheless, Strauss’s disciples encouraged conservatives to define and defend America based on just such abstract philosophical propositions, especially the Lockean flourishes Jefferson included in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Thus, neoconservative studies of American political thought tend to focus on a few texts and figures, interpreting them through this ideological framework. Harry Jaffa’s studies of Lincoln are a classic example of this approach, in which the much more complex realities of American history are regarded as dross that must be burned away in order to refine the gold of universal philosophical propositions. The purpose of American conservatism, in this view, is to protect, promote, and perfect the ideals that were beautifully expressed, but imperfectly realized, in the American founding.

This historically inaccurate emphasis on the U.S. as a nation founded upon Enlightenment liberal ideals was dangerous to both conservatism and our constitutional order. As Ryn explains, “By propagating a rationalistic, anti-historical notion of moral right, Strauss and his disciples have created a deep prejudice against cherishing America’s distinctive, historically-evolved Christian and British past.” Loyalty is abstracted away from the real, historical America to an ostensibly timeless ideal. But as Ryn notes, “the old American constitutionalism is inseparable from the moral-spiritual and other culture that gave it birth.” Formal rules and declarations of rights are incapable of long supporting our Constitution if the people who govern and are governed by it are no longer suited to it.

Rather than focusing on reviving America’s ailing culture, the neoconservative reduction of the founding to a revolutionary regime of universal human rights suggested that the U.S. had a responsibility to spread its absolute standards of just government across the globe. And when they got the chance, the neocons tried. It sounded very noble to respond to the atrocities of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks not only by killing bad guys but also by spreading freedom and democracy throughout the world.

But as Ryn saw, at a time when too few of us on the right did, this effort was doomed. As he warned in a prescient 1989 essay in National Review, “Constitutional democracy is not the least demanding form of government, one easily implemented around the world. It is, on the contrary, perhaps the most demanding form of government imaginable, having extensive moral, intellectual, and cultural prerequisites.” The success of real-world “freedom and democracy” depends far more upon the cultivation of these prerequisites than the philosophical abstractions the neocons held so dear. Kicking the dictators out was not enough for peace and prosperity to break out.

Ryn understood how supposedly benevolent idealism can provide cover for a selfish and malevolent will to power. The sentimental humanitarian presumes his own virtue and arrogantly assumes a god-like knowledge over the complexities of human affairs, which he confidently rearranges in his schemes. In his pride, he presumes that his intellectual fancies are reality. Thus, the self-flattery of sentimental humanitarianism can lead to terrible results when applied to the real world, which is less tractable than the mental landscapes of ideological dreamers.

That such ideologues gained control of the conservative movement, misleading everyone from ordinary voters to President George W. Bush, demonstrates that something had gone badly amiss. Ryn argues that the neocons were able to hijack conservatism because of an inattention to philosophy on the part of the movement’s leaders, including William F. Buckley Jr. and others at National Review.

The conservative movement often focused on politics to the point of missing essential cultural and academic developments, neglecting both philosophy and the imagination. Even now, when “politics is downstream of culture” has become a meme on the right long enough to inspire pushback, the question is still largely confined to pop culture and tends to ignore the more complex ways in which politics and culture both influence the other.

Ryn’s longstanding philosophical interest in the imagination runs deep and teaches us that winning the culture means more than just shoving conservative messages into the likes of Marvel films. Rather, to truly shape the culture for the better, we need genuinely great art, which “expresses in an aesthetically compelling manner, not fragments or distortions of human experience, but life in its totality, including its moral dimension.” Such works are able to elevate and inspire the moral imagination, and to shape how both individuals and nations intuitively view the world.

Though the work collected in this book is years, sometimes decades, old, it largely retains its relevance to contemporary disputes on the right. Neoconservatism has retreated, and some of its most ardent champions have abandoned not only the GOP but also any claim to be conservative, but it is hardly dead. Old neoconservative redoubts such as Claremont may have rebranded as MAGA populists, but they have not reformed, and Ryn’s work remains an essential antidote to their poisonous ideas.

If there is a fault with this book, it is not irrelevance, but that’s because so many of Ryn’s writings were still on point, he included too many of them, making for a longer and more repetitive book than necessary. Nonetheless, this is an essential book for those serious about confronting the failures of conservatism.

Though it has received less attention, Why Conservatism Failed also offers an excellent counterpoint to Patrick Deneen’s recent book, Regime Change. In contrast to Deneen’s antipathy toward the founders and the Constitution, Ryn recognizes their fundamental conservatism. He also emphasizes the importance of the unwritten constitution — all of those prerequisites for a self-governing people.

Whereas Deneen seems to accept the neoconservative narrative of the founding as an ideologically liberal project (Deneen just thinks this is bad, rather than good), Ryn emphasizes how the founders recognized the fallenness of man and the consequent necessity for deliberation and constraint. Ryn asserts that “the Constitution is the political expression of a general view of human nature and society.

“It embodies an entire American ethos” and that the framers’ approach to politics and life “was not only realistic and far-sighted but morally astute.” That is why Ryn’s conservatism seeks to conserve the Constitution, both in form and in substance. He does not idolize the founders, but he does honor them rather than denigrating them as Deneen does.

Ryn’s conservatism thereby provides a superior foundation for rebuilding the ruins of our culture and politics. He is well aware of the difficulties, and that political realignment is not enough. And, to address the elephant in the room, yes, Ryn’s essays include a few balanced reflections on Trump. Though Trump is culturally far from Ryn, who is a gentleman and a scholar, Ryn acknowledges that Trump nonetheless created new possibilities within the Republican Party and conservative movement. But those openings will be wasted unless there is also a reconsideration among conservative intellectual leaders, and considering Ryn’s arguments is an indispensable part of that.

Conservatives must understand where they went wrong before they can begin to go right.

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