Briefly Reviewed: April 2023
Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s
By Nicole Hemmer
Publisher: Basic Books
Review Author: Alex Pinelli
Nicole Hemmer, author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics (2016), has recently released Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. The former is an enjoyable piece of scholarship chronicling the expansion of conservative media and its development into a cohesive and vast ideological bulwark for the Right. The latter attempts to delve more deeply into the fault lines within conservatism, specifically surrounding the lasting ethos of Ronald Reagan. Here Hemmer is in good company, as other scholars, including Professor of History Marcus W. Witcher in Getting Right with Reagan: The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980–2016 (2019) and Professor of Political Science George Hawley in Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism (2016), had already begun to question Reagan’s influence and standing on the Right. Hemmer uses past scholarship and her own insights to suggest that Reagan’s tenure was, in many ways, at odds with the burgeoning conservatism that took hold in the 1990s and has held sway, in her opinion, ever since. More specifically, she posits that Reagan’s big-tent brand of optimistic conservatism was short-lived, surviving only until his departure from the White House in January 1989. Thus, Reagan’s lasting impact on the Right has been more a mirage than a reality.
Of secondary importance is Hemmer’s categorization of the 1990s as a crucible for conservatism, a time when the right-wing media and conservative philosophy truly came into their current state. Picking up where she left off in Messengers, she details the emergence of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their contemporaries as titular heads of conservatism, while Fox News and lesser-known figures such as Anne Coulter and Tucker Carlson were just getting their start. This, again, is not a unique insight, as it has been explored by a variety of writers, but it does add context to Hemmer’s larger narrative. Her work is engaging and flows smoothly from chapter to chapter, yet some challenges do arise.
Hemmer’s greatest shortfall is that she seems to belong to a group of historians who, following in the footsteps of Richard Hofstadter’s pre-eminent work, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), consider conservatism a reactionary force in American intellectual thought. Though there surely has been a plethora of scholarship inserting nuance into this thesis and pushing for reconsideration (see George Nash, Donald Critchlow, and Lisa McGirr), a wide array of sensible scholars in multiple disciplines still holds tightly to this thinking (see Corey Robinson, Nancy MacLean, Dan Carter, or any recent book by a journalist detailing the rise of Donald Trump).
This view is an unfortunate and common pitfall for political-science and intellectual-history scholars when it comes to understanding conservatism, especially in the wake of Trump’s presidency. Many in the fourth estate and academia view Trump as the embodiment of true conservatism, and Hemmer makes the same mistake. Although her research is solid, she has placed too much emphasis on the emergence of Trumpism or, more precisely put, a populist nationalism within the conservative movement, equating the heated cultural rhetoric of Patrick J. Buchanan, talk-radio personalities, and the partisanship arising in the 1990s with a rich intellectual and cultural philosophy dating back to Edmund Burke. By interchanging Trumpism with conservatism, she has smuggled contemporary issues into her historical research, thus tainting it with presentism.
As difficult as it might be to place Trump aside as a possible historical anomaly, when done, it is clear that every national Republican political leader from George H.W. Bush (1992) to Bob Dole (1996), George W. Bush (2000-2008), John McCain (2008), and Mitt Romney (2012) largely fit into the Reaganesque model of optimism and inclusivity. Ignoring this in order to present populism as an anchor of conservatism inflates its historical presence within conservative circles (which should be judged in decades, not years), especially in the realm of politics. Though this type of present-mindedness is understandable in the realm of journalism, which focuses heavily on the here and now and the minute-by-minute headline, for the historian this is a grave error that cannot be overlooked. So, while Hemmer has produced a well-researched and enjoyable work, a faulty assumption that connects imagined dots from past to present has made what could have been a first-rate academic history into a second-tier pop history.
Beheading Hydra: A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age
By Fr. Dwight Longenecker
Publisher: Sophia Institute Press
Review Author: Mary Brittnacher
Fr. Dwight Longenecker categorizes today’s philosophical problems with easily grasped imagery. He likens our battles against toxic ideas to the temporary victory of chopping off one of the mythological Hydra’s heads only to see two more grow back. One example of the Hydra phenomenon is that getting rid of one head, atheism, resulted in the appearance of another, scientism. The Hydra heads embody the related and intertwined errors of modernism. Longenecker offers practical antidotes to vanquish each of the 16 poisonous heads.
Scientism, the view that science is the only path to truth, is disproved in believers’ eyes by miracles that cannot be explained by the known laws of nature. Fr. Longenecker explores with wonder how the One who made the laws can also dispense with them. He calls miracles “divine interruptions” and “interstices in the natural order through which the greater forces can enter.” He sees the Divine Creator as “being able to intervene in His porous, elastic, universe.” A religious mindset sees the hand of God in daily occurrences as well as in historical events. Of course, Christianity could not exist without miracles because God miraculously entered the world in the form of a man who was miraculously resurrected from the dead.
The opposite of belief in a deeply meaningful world imbued with the loving presence of God is atheism, a denial of God and, therefore, purpose in life. Historicism, another noxious head, is a bleak view of history without God. Historicism claims that each time period has its own unique truth and particular meaning, and that the story of man does not portray an integrated whole. Historicists see the stark laws of nature as the only unifying factor.
Utilitarianism, traced to 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, is Hydra head number five. This philosophy measures goodness by “whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.” But deeper analysis of this seemingly simple idea manifests problems, such as the definition of happiness, conflict over who decides what is good, and pain as a necessary side effect in its pursuit. Evangelism is the answer to utilitarianism; it provides the greatest benefit for the most souls: eternal life with God.
The next Hydra head is pragmatism, which demands that the happiness principle be enacted most efficiently and at the lowest possible cost. Radical discipleship accomplished in living by faith and seeing “the whole world through a different lens” can conquer the pragmatic spirit.
The seventh head of Hydra is progressivism, an absurd concept that insists, as G.K. Chesterton parodied, that something that occurs on a Thursday is better than what happened on a Monday. Progressivism is Darwin’s theory of evolution applied to society itself. Progressives have an unfounded but unshakeable faith in the positive ends of their engineered chaos. This Hydra head is complex and has many strands that are connected to other heads.
Relativism is Hydra head number nine. Fr. Longenecker likens it to Gumby, the flexible rubber toy. Gumby people don’t have timeless principles or dogmas by which to live, but only conformity to current opinions and fads. Within Christianity, the relativistic idea that each denomination is equal to the others is “nonsense,” according to Longenecker. “Some religions are superior to others,” he declares. Unfortunately, Vatican II-era theologians and prelates de-emphasized dogma. This lent power to Hydra head number ten, indifferentism.
C.S. Lewis exposed the specious reasoning behind materialistic relativism. According to the materialist, all thoughts are only sensory responses, and there is no basis for the elevation of one thought over another. With that reasoning, they destroy their own argument, as their idea is no better than any other idea. Physical reality provides the antidote, as it manifests that there is truth and falsehood. Fr. Longenecker shows that for anything to be considered real it must be a “particular” thing. Christianity is real because Christ was a unique person. In a similar way, the reality of Christ provides for the sacramentality of the Christian faith and is the basis of the truth claims of the Church.
The 11th Hydra head is individualism, engendering a human being without belief in God, alone in the universe. What, then, moves the materialist individual? “The will to power,” Nietzsche answered. Obsession with “choice” and deadly pride are its rotten fruits. Another consequence of willfulness is resentment when one’s ego is thwarted. Such resentment can become focused on a person or a generalized group. Resentment can twist into seeing itself as good, which results in a state of victimhood. The circle is complete and impenetrable. Many individuals manifest victimhood in the form of tribalism, the 12th head of the Hydra. Tribal behaviors include groupthink and baseless criticism of outsiders.
The 13th head of the Hydra, which developed from the philosophy of 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is sentimentalism, or judgment based solely on emotions. The cult of feeling rose to prominence in the Church in the 1960s as the conscience of the individual became the yardstick by which to judge morality. That resulted in what Fr. Longenecker calls “the ephemeral, the ugly, the shallow, and the cheap trinkets of modern sentimental Catholicism.” The “theological fallout from Rousseau’s thought” includes the idea that all will be saved. This belief cancels common sense, goodness, and justice. Along with the idea that everyone is good comes the assumption that majorities make for goodness. The way to cut off the head of sentimentalism is to teach truth via a classical education.
Next comes the sexual revolution, which led to “a society in which the general rule about sex is that there are no rules about sex.” Two more Hydra heads, eroticism and Freudianism, sprout from it. Perversion leads to more perversion and obfuscation of the innate meaning of manhood and womanhood. Confusion here breeds confusion about the meaning of human life.
Fr. Longenecker’s research on the response of Christians to the anti-Christian philosophies of the 18th century shows a pattern of conflict, engagement, and retreat. Conflict caused resentment and strengthened the resolve of the enemy. The accommodation sought by Vatican II resulted in a weakened Church. The old way has become defunct. Longenecker’s answer is “creative subversion,” another way of saying living the faith.
Tithing and prayer counter the Hydra heads of materialism and atheism. Tithing shows the true worth of money, and detachment from money properly orders priorities. Fr. Longenecker calls the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist “the only real answer to scientism.” Combined with reading of the Bible, which counteracts historicism by telling the story of the work of God in history, the sacraments provide a “creatively subversive alternative” to this worldview. Progressivism has crept into the Church, so we need the powerful tool of tradition to fight it. We keep the tradition of the Church alive by participating in the liturgical year, knowing the saints, and living a moral life.
Fr. Longenecker’s ultimate answer is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Each believer must renounce his sins and look to Jesus for mercy. He is the Truth, and He will destroy the Hydra. This relationship, however, must be grounded in the authority of the Church founded by Christ. Selfish individualism is opposed by the true communities of the family, the parish, the diocese, and the worldwide Church. According to Longenecker, the story of Adam and Eve reveals that God designed humans to be in relationship with one another, that is, to know and be faithful to one another. Strong marriages and strong families are his “creatively subversive solution” to individualism, sentimentalism, and eroticism.
Two things are needed: a passionate love for Christ and love expressed in one’s local community, starting with the family. Those who dedicate themselves to radical Christianity and trust in God will have taken the right path.
©2023 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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