The Making of the American Conservative Mind by Jeffery Hart

It is hard to decide what to make of the recently released The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times by Jeffrey Hart. Is it history, political philosophy, biography, memoir, polemic?

All of the above. Hart – a longtime senior editor at National Review and Professor Emeritus of English at Dartmouth – weaves all of these aspects into the work. The result is a fascinating, thought provoking, and yet in many ways aggravating book.


In order to better judge the book’s merits it helps to separate the strands that run through it: the largely consensus history of the period; the particular history of National Review magazine; and the argument about what American conservatism is and should be.

Hart’s views on the history of the late twentieth (and early twenty-first) century are unlikely to be controversial. He passionately presents President Eisenhower as a conservative – contrary to NR’s view at the time – but for the most part his overview reflects the general re-evaluation of the Eisenhower Presidency, one that has elevated Ike’s status a great deal

Interestingly, Hart’s chapter on Bill Clinton – entitled “Was It Better Than It Looked?” – is a grudging appreciation. Hart acknowledges Clintons personal flaws, and that he could and should have done more about terrorism, but stresses Clinton’s pushing the Democratic Party towards the center and his presiding over eight years of economic growth and prosperity.

The presidents that take the most heat from Hart, however, are both named Bush. The first President Bush is dismissed as a “nice guy bad president” type who was elected as a third term for Reagan but whose policies inexplicably reflected a rejection of Reagan’s ideas. Bush 41 gets little or no credit for managing the end of the Cold War or building the coalition for the first Gulf War for example. Hart’s disdain for Bush is palpable.

While his dislike of Papa Bush might be a tad stronger, Hart doesn’t seem a fan of the current president either. Hart questions whether any of Bush 43’s successes can be termed conservative and fears that the President is pushing conservative politics in a populist, emotional, and crusading direction rather than the proper balanced and pragmatic one.

Some of the strongest sections in the book cover what might be called the founding fathers of modern American Conservatism. Hart sketches the biographies, influences, and thinking of the men who lead the resurgence of conservative thought in the twentieth century.

Starting with the two figures who had the biggest impact at National Review, William F. Buckley and James Burnham, and moving on to the important writers that began contributing to the magazine –Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, Wilmore Kendall, Bill Rusher, etc. – Hart provides interesting and insightful portraits of the important thinkers and writers that were building the nascent movement. As both a historian and a participant Hart describes how these outsized personalities and intellects formed the “American conservative mind.”

If Buckley is the personality that jump started it all, James Burnham is the force behind its stability and longevity. Burnham – the former Trotskyite, philosophy professor, and CIA analyst – is clearly the hero of Hart’s story. For Hart the strategic guidance and pragmatic sensibility that Burnham provided was a crucial ingredient in NR’s growth from an upstart political magazine to the journal of record for a political movement.

In addition to providing informative chapters on Buckley, Burnham, Kendall, as well as the variety of young talent that ended up writing for NR, Hart has a fascinating chapter on Russell Kirk vs. Frank Meyer. For those who think the clash between traditionalists and libertarians is a new development this chapter will prove illuminating. Hart argues, however, that the heated disagreements had more to do with temperament and style than deep philosophical differences:

What each contributed to National review and to the making of the American conservative mind were necessary parts of that mind, which is not either/or, tradition or individualism, but both/and. Very few conservatives are all one or the other.

And here we come to the central problem with Hart’s work. Hart is constantly trying to squeeze a philosophical argument into his history. In telling the history of National Review he attempts to make the case for a particular type of political and philosophical conservatism – what he calls a “politically viable and thoughtful American conservatism” – but fails to provide the necessary structure or evidence for many of his claims.

His conclusion in particular is full of generalizations, over-simplifications, and accusations that are not informed by, nor backed up by, the bulk of the book. This tendency to sneak into his history arguments about what makes up “true conservatism” (or what this conservatism should look like in the political realm) mars an otherwise fascinating and entertaining story.

Hart characterizes his own perspective as “Burkean, yet interpreted for the American situation.” He seems to have been heavily influenced by the writings of both James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall. (At one point he even offers William James’s pragmatism as a guide to morality. This is certainly the first time I have heard James offered up as a guide for conservatives.) But what exactly this means in specifics is far from clear.

There are a couple of things that do stand out. For Hart the story is a battle between competing voices or perspectives. He contrasts emotion and rational thinking, realism and idealism, pragmatism and utopianism, elitism and populism. Hart always sides with realism over idealism, pragmatism over utopianism, and elitism over populism. This is the standard Hart uses to judge the trajectory of NR. This is not necessarily surprising. Few conservatives would deny the danger of an overly dogmatic, utopian worldview that denies reality in favor of mere wishes or dreams; or one that always gives into the desires of the masses.

But what mars much of the analysis is Hart’s inability to acknowledge that there might be other approaches to politics than a center-right coalition that tugs the elite in a conservative direction.

In Hart’s mind it is always better to vote for the winner and retain influence than cast a protest vote. It is always better to lean center-right than stray into “dogmatism” or “doctrinaire” positions. Any decision that doesn’t reflect Hart’s view of “actuality” is utopianism. His positions are “flexible and strategic” while others are “ideological and intransigent.” These loaded terms aren’t always used consistently or fairly. This, combined with a number of dubious assertions, makes the work sound off key in spots.

Hart also skews the picture in his favor on occasion. For example, the populist and socially conservative aspects of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater are ignored because they don’t fit the model. Whereas, George W. Bush is portrayed as a populist “moral authoritarian” whose views are divisive and not really conservative at all.

To this anti-populist theme, Hart adds a distrust of Protestants and evangelicals. Although his preference for “High” church might be a continuation of his elitism. For example, he outlines the “failure” of Protestants:

[T]he Catholic Church has been successful in guarding its long-perfected metaphysics, or doctrine about God, while Protestant churches have failed through what Dryden called a “downhill Reformation.” Individuals cannot do the work that has taken centuries to complete

Hart also criticizes the Great Awakenings as having a baleful impact on American thought. He portrays these events as merely the rise and fall of emotion – another Hart bugaboo – and asserts that a third Awakening helped propel George W. Bush to the presidency. Hart muses that perhaps NR should host a symposium entitled “Is Evangelicalism Conservative?”

Hart is clearly uncomfortable with evangelical’s entrance into the political arena. He asserts that President Bush has “brought religion into the foreground of American public policy in a nearly unprecedented way.” And goes on to assert that:

Whatever might be said against the excesses of liberal secularism, the accepted convention in America has been that religious beliefs are a private matter. President Bush challenged this convention, but he did not seem to recognize the full implications of his approach to questions of religion and public life.”

I don’t have the time or space here to debate this assertion, but it is an over-simplification at best and certainly a dubious accusation to make without evidence.

This brings us to the conclusion. Late last year the Wall Street Journal ran a modified version of Hart’s conclusion and the article stirred up a great deal of discussion online – particularly his views on abortion (here is a good place to start). I won’t debate Hart’s conclusions here, but what should be noted is that the final chapter is almost completely disconnected from the rest of the book

It reads like the outline for an argument not an argument itself; as if Hart ran out of steam and just decided to list out the issues he wanted to comment on. He introduces terms and subjects that are barely touched on in the text and his positions on issues are sometimes at odds with what he said early in the text. Hart calls this an attempted synthesis but it is really a hodge-podge of haphazard thoughts and rants.

Hart offers a paragraph each on terms like Hard Utopianism, Soft Utopianism, The Nation, National Defense, Constitutional Government, and Free Market economics while launching multiple page rants about how conservatives should give up their opposition to abortion, celebrate beauty in the arts, and better their record on conservation, among other things. These come across as critiques of conservatism you might find in the New York Times not from a former National Review Senior Editor.

It appears to me that Hart is not entirely comfortable with the magazine National Review has become. He notes that it has become a more Washington focused current events oriented journal and worries about the lack of philosophical discussion.

It is also clear that Hart prefers an East Coast elite aesthetic to a more Southern and Western populist perspective. The changing demographics of the Republican Party and their impact on conservatives cut against the grain of Hart’s preferred style.

All of the above criticism, however, should not be read as a dismissal of the book. One can argue with his history and disagree with his conclusions, but anyone with an interest in the history of conservatism – or American politics for that matter – will want to read Hart’s contribution. It is a fascinating and important part of the history of this country.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

View all posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *