The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times, by Jeffrey Hart, Wilmington, Del.: ISIS Books, 394 pages, $28
The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual, by Eric Lott, New York: Basic Books, 260 pages, $26
Two NEW BOOKS detail, and sometimes lament, the recent history of liberal and conservative ideas in America: Eric Lott's The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual and Jeffrey Hart's The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times. Together, they explore the perils and possibilities of radical ideologies in a centrist nation.
Lott, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that prominent liberal intellectuals in the Clinton era and beyond have smothered any truly revolutionary leftist radicalism. Hart, a retired Dartmouth English professor and longtime National Review hand, relates the saga of conservatism's flagship magazine along with the history of the American right the magazine shaped. In Hart's telling, the "responsible" center-right philosophy of James Burnham, a co-founder of the magazine whose reputation has been eclipsed by that of his more affable colleague William F. Buckley, guided the journal's worldly success. Burnham, Hart argues, ensured that the magazine eschewed "unrealistic" conservative or libertarian radicalism. This approach aided its surface success but guaranteed that NR's stated mission to "stand athwart history, yelling stop" would fail.
Lott's book would most aptly be titled The Sellout Liberal Intellectual. For Lott, liberal boomer intellectuals such as Paul Berman (author of A Tale of Two Utopias, a popular '90s attack on the radicalism of the '60s left) and Todd Gitlin (a Students for Democratic Society president in the '60s and now a lamenter of modern leftists' lack of patriotism) have betrayed the '60s legacy of radicalism to which all boomer liberals ought to pledge allegiance. In Lotts telling, their attacks on the supposedly anti-American and identity-obsessed radical enemies to their left merely reinforce a corrupt status quo. While these liberal reformists fancy they speak truth to power from the pages of The New Republic and The American Prospect, to Lott they are "one of the chief obstacles to a reconstruction of social and political life in the twenty-first century United States"
Lott, a late boomer himself at age 47 but too young to have made the '60s scene, comes on like a new-generation leftist young gun. White but professionally an African-American studies maven, he shoots down elders he sees as sclerotic, ultimately ineffectual, and obsessed with pursuing what Lott mocks as "Utopian Clintonism": universal health care, more cash for Head Start, campaign finance reform, yada yada yada. That ameliorist nonsense is no cure for America's real problems, which to Lott have something to do with the fact that some people have more money than others.
When it comes to his own policy prescriptions, Lott is somewhat cagey. He reveals only a couple of times, and as asides, that he's for the People's Choice ideology of anarcho-syndicalism, from which arises his occasional libertarian-sounding swipes at his liberal enemies for their "accommodation of state power" and his declaration that "in the realm of even the most benevolent state ... there are nothing but crimes."
Despite such flashes of anti-statism, Lott is mostly obsessed with finding true power for the people through race and other identity-politics categories. The boomer liberal intellectuals, Lott complains, want to retreat to their beloved pre-1968 leftism of economics and class, and to ignore race, gender, and sexuality.
But activists of race, gender, and sexuality need a power center as well, and Lott improbably offers labor unions as the agent of social change. While this book is, by design, mostly concerned with academic conferences and journals and big-think books about the state of contemporary liberalism, Lott's out-of-nowhere epilogue drags revolutionary praxis onstage: His soul is ennobled when he marches on the quad with local activist groups to...