"Today, not only has conservatism risen to prominence in the electoral sphere, but conservative thought has seized the initiative in the world of ideas as well," writes James Piereson in an Opinion Journal capsule history of contemporary conservatism, whose preeminence seems to leave persons of the left conjuring dark forces behind the curtain:
Addressing the rise of conservatism, the left resorts to explanations that stress manipulation and trickery, with corporate payoffs to politicians looming large in the story. Conservative ideas play but a minor role in the account, and are themselves generally characterized as mere stalking horses for corporate interests. A particularly sinister role is ascribed to those conservative philanthropies that have helped fund thinkers, magazines and research institutions -- on the assumption that no one would advance such self-evidently meretricious ideas unless paid to do so.
Hillary's Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy comes to mind. Piereson traces the development of conservative philosophy from the end of WW II to the present in two distinct phases, noting that "both phases were defined by ideas rather than by narrow business or corporate interests":
The first phase [mid-1940s into the '70s] was guided more by an interest in classical liberalism and libertarianism than in conservatism as it has been understood more recently. The seminal influence on these funders was F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.
Challenging the assumptions of the historical school of thought, Hayek insisted that socialism and statism were products not of economic forces beyond anyone's control but of erroneous and destructive ideas. The Whig principles that had influenced continental thought during the 18th and 19th centuries had been displaced by German thinkers from Hegel and Marx down to Sombart and Mannheim, whose collectivist doctrines had captured the imagination of intellectuals.
Hayek envisioned a movement operating at the level of principles and theory and aloof from electoral and legislative agendas or the immediate controversies of political life. He proposed, in other words, a true war of ideas, one that might appeal to the best and most adventuresome minds of the age but that might take a generation or more to bear fruit.
During that interregnum, liberal philanthropy ruled, entering an activist phase after McGeorge Bundy was appointed president of the Ford Foundation in 1966 and pioneered a strategy of "advocacy philanthropy" that Piereson characterizes as "a strategy designed to bring about large change by circumventing the electoral process," enabling an army of "well-placed advocacy group[s] nursing grievance[s] against American society and seeking compensation on behalf of [their] members."
While liberal philanthropy was having its way with the American culture, the second phase of conservative philanthropy began to take shape in the mid-1970s "through the work of a handful of donors [who] were more self-consciously conservative than libertarian:"
They adopted a broader intellectual framework encompassing fields beyond economics: preeminently religion, foreign policy and the traditional humanities. In contrast to Hayek and his followers, they were also prepared to engage the world of politics and policy and to wage the war of ideas in a direct and aggressive style.
The foundations themselves had been endowed by successful businessmen who wished to preserve the system of private enterprise that had enabled the country to prosper.
Just as the earlier donors had looked to Hayek for guidance, these foundations looked to the neoconservatives. Writers and editors like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Hilton Kramer and Michael Novak had for the most part spent their formative years on the left. Rather than by Hayek, their ideas had been influenced by George Orwell, Lionel Trilling and Raymond Aron--intellectuals of Hayek's generation who had dwelled on the evil of totalitarianism from a moral and political standpoint.
The neocons "understood the moral foundations of a free society to be prior to and more important than its economic foundations, [and they] had an added advantage":
Having come from the left, they understood the thought processes of contemporary liberals and leftists. They also understood that the war of ideas had to be fought by engaging in real-world controversies, with stakes wagered on the outcome.
What the neoconservatives understood was that neither the intellectuals' dislike for capitalism nor their penchant for socialism was a function of economic analysis. By the mid-1970s, the economic promise of socialism was dead; it was obvious to everyone that socialist economies could not even feed their own people. What attracted liberal intellectuals to socialism was something else: mainly, the idea of community, which they contrasted invidiously to the individualism and competition of a market society.
Thus, as Mr. Kristol and others argued, an effective defense of capitalism required a defense of the cultural assumptions on which a commercial civilization is based. It had to be shown that free societies encouraged values far superior to anything that socialism could deliver . . . The task of conservatism, as Kristol said, was "to show the American people that they are right and the intellectuals are wrong." Over time, that is more or less what happened.
But the forces of darkness are always waiting just beyond the campfire, and even as Hayek's individualism and the neoconservatives' cultural defense of capitalism are ascendant, this is no time to sit back and declare victory. As Piereson concludes:
Any movement, if it is to maintain or augment its influence, will need to wage an ongoing battle of ideas. To do so, conservatives, no less than liberals, will need the help of sympathetic philanthropists.
The help of sympathetic bloggers won't hurt, either.