Historian George H. Nash spoke on the history of conservative intellectualism at an event organized by the Northwestern Chronicle on Thursday, April 3. At a time when many debate the direction of the Republican Party, Nash explored the history and different branches of the conservative movement.
In his introduction, Charles Rollet, editor-in-chief of the conservative publication, said he was concerned by stereotypes that conservatives cannot be intellectuals. Rollet specifically cited a North by Northwestern article criticizing speakers the College Republicans brought to campus, known for being ideologically “firebrand conservatives,” Rollet said. Working with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a libertarian educational organization, Rollet sought to find a respected scholar to speak on campus.
In his lecture, titled “The Conservative Intellectual Movement Then and Now," Nash emphasized the premise that understanding conservatism means understanding the movements of ideas. Nash is best known for his book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, as well as his biographical work on Herbert Hoover.
“It is not and never has been monolithic,” Nash said of the conservative movement. “It is a coalition of diverse origins and diverse tendencies that are not always easy to reconcile.”
Three recognizable movements emerged after World War II: libertarians, traditionalists and anti-communists, later becoming a coalition.
The conflicts Nash addressed within the coalition in history still resonate in today’s politics. Challenge with libertarians and traditionalists, he explained, were addressed by the fusionism of Frank Meyer, emphasizing individuals practicing virtue and the government protecting liberty.
Figures on the religious right, also known as social conservatives, emerged in the late 1970s. Different religious branches came together, sharing ideas on foreign policy and economics with other conservatives, but preferring to focus on social issues and defending their moral code.
While conservatives found it easy to build consensus using the common enemy of the Soviet Union, Nash said they can notrely on “the spirit of resistance.” Emphasizing the potential universality of conservative ideas he outlined, Nash suggested conservatives reach out demographically.
Nash does not expect the conservative movement to collapse. Based on the coalition’s durability and ability to “create a counter-culture” along with a revived culture war where conservatives feel under siege, Nash said the right will likely be able to address these challenges.