For the conservative movement, 2015 started out poorly and continued to be tough all year long. It wasn’t a legislative defeat. It wasn’t political tumult. It was the deaths of too many conservative luminaries who helped build the movement. As conservatives, we need to remember and honor these scholars, because it is all too easy to fall into the fallacy that the movement is defined by what current political candidates say it is. We cannot forget that the conservative movement predates politicians and was, in fact, built by great thinkers.
The conservative movement was built by intellectuals who developed not only the policies but, more important, the critical thinking that so powerfully influenced America’s future. Reflection on 2015 makes clear that we lost some titans, including Martin Anderson, Walter Berns, Harry Jaffa, Ben Wattenberg, Robert Conquest, Amy Kass, and Peter Schramm. They have left in the conservative movement a hole that will be difficult to fill.
The year began with the terrible loss of Hoover scholar and former White House aide Marty Anderson. An academic himself, Anderson brought together hundreds of conservative intellectuals to support Ronald Reagan the presidential candidate. Many of them would end up serving in the Reagan administration. Anderson himself joined the Reagan White House as a top adviser and keeper of the conservative flame. Revolution, a great memoir of his time in the White House, also served as an intellectual history of the rise of conservatism in the post-war era. In a key passage, he wrote that the conservative ascendancy that Reagan embodied was “the logical outgrowth of policy ideas and forces set in motion during the 1950s and 1960s, ideas and forces that gathered strength and speed during the 1970s, then achieved political power in the 1980s.” Later, he teamed with his wife Annelise and Kiron Skinner to write a series of books showing Reagan’s own writings, debunking false notions that Reagan’s ideas were anyone else’s but his own, and confirming Reagan’s keen political and strategic acumen. “Loyal men like Martin Anderson come along very rarely in one’s life,” Nancy Reagan said in a statement on Anderson’s death.
Two scholars who, unlike Anderson, focused on academe rather than working in politics were Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa. Both studied under Leo Strauss, famously feuded, and, à la Jefferson and Adams, died on the same day, leading to many joint pieces about their legacies. While the irony of their forever being linked together is rich — one Straussian joke making the rounds was that Jaffa’s horning in on Berns’s obituaries was “Harry’s final revenge” — each merits consideration in his own right. Berns was a great teacher, and the author of important works on important works on capital punishment and patriotism. He was also a great wit. When I audited a class of his on de Tocqueville many years ago, he recommended on his syllabus a work by Jaffa but suggested that it was “inciteful” rather than “insightful.”
As for Jaffa, he was also a brilliant teacher, and wrote a legendary book on the Lincoln–Douglas debates, Crisis of the House Divided. He was the intellectual godfather of West Coast Straussianism, best embodied by the Claremont Institute and its excellent publication, the Claremont Review of Books. Jaffa briefly tried his hand at politics, and is often credited with writing Barry Goldwater’s best-remembered line: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Despite all of these accomplishments, he is best remembered for his never-ending feuds, immortalized by Bill Buckley’s quip that “if you think Harry Jaffa is hard to argue with, try agreeing with him.”
In June, we lost Ben Wattenberg. Ben was a best-selling author, a White House speechwriter under Lyndon Johnson, and a key adviser to Senator Scoop Jackson’s presidential campaigns. Ben mastered the use of data before Google, immersing himself in facts and figures, and mastery of them informed his work. He called his approach “data journalism,” using data to explain, inform, predict, and entertain. He also used the numbers to advance his worldview, which was equal parts optimism and love of America. Ben loathed the steady leftward drift of the Democratic party. Constantly lamenting that the party of his youth had left him behind, he earned the moniker “Ronald Reagan’s favorite Democrat.” Ben’s death was particularly hard for me, as my first job in Washington was as Ben’s research assistant at AEI. (None other than the great Jonah Goldberg replaced me in that role.)
Another loss this summer was that of Robert Conquest, the eminent historian who was instrumental in exposing the range and depth of Soviet oppression. Conquest did the hard archival work to document that the Soviets in their “Great Terror” murdered at least 20 million people. He wrote his books in clear English rather than dry academic prose so they could reach a wide audience. And he met with politicians such as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to stress to them the evils of the Soviet system. It is a fitting tribute that he has his own law, Conquest’s Law, based on his observation that the more one knows about a subject, the more conservative the thinker becomes on it.
Autumn usually brings students back to campuses, but lovers of learning paused during the fall season to grieve the losses of my Hudson Institute colleague Amy Kass and the Ashbrook Center’s Peter Schramm. Both focused more on the classroom than on their writings, recognizing that teaching was the best way to pass on the keys to the next generation. It’s hard, especially for one who was not one of their students, to characterize people known best as teachers, so I will rely on the words of their pupils to convey their importance. Yuval Levin wrote in National Review that Mrs. Kass “was without a doubt the best teacher I ever saw in action.” And Jason Stevens wrote of Schramm in the Wall Street Journal, “The great oak has now vanished from the face of the earth. But, thank God, he has left behind thousands of tiny acorns that continue to grow.”
The conservative movement today has many more media amplifiers than it once did. In addition, it is blessed with many more platforms on which to do the amplifying, including Twitter, aggregator sites, and talk radio. But it is not at all clear that the conservative movement has more groundbreaking thinkers or tireless teachers who can define what conservatism is and can ensure that there are informed conservatives to lead the movement in the future. With these mighty having fallen, and other titans aging, who will do the thinking and the passing on to the next generation? As far as I can tell, none of these terrible 2015 losses had active Twitter accounts. But they brought more than followers to the political field of battle. They made the conservative movement academically formidable, intellectually attractive, and, whether you agreed with them or disagreed, worth following in democratic debate and deliberation.