What is American conservatism? Who were the thinkers who built it? Why did they do so? Who were their opponents?
In a recent, widely read symposium in The New Criterion, a range of thinkers debated what American conservatism should now do. Conservatism, as you may know, is in a state of flux and tumult. In his contribution, Charles Kesler, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, offered substantive guidance, critiqued certain contributors for overwrought ideas, but also closed with the admonition that many of the so-called New Right conservatives understand very little of what they think they are deposing. That is, they really don’t know what brought American conservatism into being, nor do they really understand the arguments that have shaped it, and why progressivism’s centralization of power and pulverization of civil society have been chiefly the two things that conservatism has set itself against.
If denizens of the New Right wish to learn which thinkers made it possible for conservatives to be capable of governing and changing the direction of the country, they should start with Steven Hayward’s new biography, M. Stanton Evans.
When we think of American conservatism, we rightly think of Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Whittaker Chambers, F.A. Hayek, Eric Voegelin, Willmoore Kendall, Leo Strauss, among others. But how do you translate their ideas and insights into politics? That has always been the question for conservatism in America, which has led it to be a radical movement in the best sense, one that cuts away at foundational error and replaces it with sound ideas.
Stan Evans lived in pursuit of this ideal. He was the consummate warrior who proved that progressive ideas could be defeated provided you had facts, logic, strategy, and heaping amounts of humor on your side.
Everyman’s Bill Buckley
His voice boomed when he wanted it to. It was, Hayward notes, a combination of Texas, Tennessee, and tobacco. Evans’s journalism, speaking, and books gave shape to a political conservative movement in the 1960s and 1970s that was seeking legitimacy not only within the Republican Party but across political institutions. Described by Daniel Oliver as “everyman’s Bill Buckley,” Evans reported that his political thought gave expression to the wisdom of the farmer in Seymour, Indiana.
His comedic side was part of his political act. In it, he found a way to disarm the deadly seriousness of progressives. He wanted to assure them, “that the CDC has determined that conservatism cannot be spread by casual contact.” And Evans helped us to laugh at Progressives. “Happiness,” Evans once said, “was to find a declassified list of closet communists.” I have never known the honor, but I’ll take his word for it.
Evans followed Buckley at Yale in the 1950s. There he immediately grasped that what Buckley described in God and Man at Yale (1951) was true. There was indeed a full assault by the clerisy on Christianity and free markets. Both were regarded by faculty as substantively in error and to defend them was a style crime. But one is a lonely number. Surrounded by opponents, Evans dug in and began his vocation at Yale of building conservatism. His first act was to establish Yale’s “Party of the Right.” Membership was inclusive so long as you held two principles: You had to be for McCarthy, his aims, and his methods, and you had to support repeal of the income tax. Break with one or both of those, and you were out of the club.
After Yale, Stan was hired by Frank Chodorov, editor of The Freeman, to be assistant editor, then one of the few publications on the Right. Under Chodorov’s direction, Evans received instruction on the immense perversities of government fiscal and regulatory policy. This education was deepened by Evans’s study with Ludwig von Mises as a graduate student at New York University. He would also work under Chodorov as a managing editor at Human Events, which was then joined at the hip to the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (later to become the Intercollegiate Studies Institute). Evans then became an editorial writer and was quickly promoted to editor-in-chief of the Indianapolis News at the ripe age of 26, making him the youngest editor of any major newspaper in the United States. Evans stayed in the position until he was 41, then moved to the D.C. swamp to drain it. Obviously, the bilge still flows, but therein lies a tale.
At the Indianapolis News, Evans distinguished himself as a journalist, commentator, and conservative thinker. His writing style was to lay a foundation of facts built on government reports, price data, and economics that called into question standard progressive approaches to policy. Although he was a crusader, his writing was not in the style of performative conservatism. After building sufficient data and analysis, only then did Stan “show a little leg” and close with a nice smash. He offered searing but sparing opinions after the factual predicate had been laid. William Rickenbacker, a fellow National Review contributor, observed that Evans’s style was “textbook English, unadorned, framed square, and double-joisted to carry a load of fact and logic.”
He could put the knife in when it was needed. Hayward notes that Evans’s summation of The New Yorker holds true today: “No other journal so elegantly combines the comforts of privilege with the glamor of dissent—that admixture of chic and iconoclasm which in our society marks the received, the anointed, and the superbly upper-middle-class.” What else better describes the actions of wealthy white liberals rushing to their iPhones to contribute to bailout GoFundMes for BLM rioters in 2020?
Evans’s severe criticisms of the Great Society, which he noted was the brainchild of avowed socialist Michael Harrington, incurred the wrath of the powerful Sargent Shriver, Director of President Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Shriver complained in a letter to the editor: “I am confident that the new importance the War on Poverty is giving to the helping professions will have a beneficial effect both locally and nationally on the often inadequate salaries in those fields.” Evans had noted that the programs were creating cushy jobs for “caring” professionals with salaries that took as much as two-thirds of the funds for the programs while diminishing the work of local charities. The programs were as much for the bureaucrats as for the poor. In a later criticism—too late—Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan would make the same observation about much of the Great Society. Shriver was too dull to realize that by insisting the government was raising salaries of social workers he only further made Evans’s point.
Evans’s hope that the Republican Party could be a conservative party also required work in Indiana. He referred to the state’s GOP as “the machine.” Their actual voters weren’t at the top of their concerns. His response was to find ways to enlist and aid actual conservatives into seeking office. After defeating establishment Republicans in the primary, Edgar Whitcomb won the governor’s race in 1968 on a strong anti-tax, low-spending platform. Evans took the occasion of Whitcomb’s victory and the loss of the moderate William Ruckleshaus to liberal Democrat Birch Bayh in the U.S. Senate race that year to underscore that pragmatism and compromise don’t work. Pragmatism eventually concedes the high ground to liberals. Evans dryly noted, “Some of the Ruckelshaus literature had a ‘new politics’ cast to it, seemingly aimed at the Eugene McCarthy vote.”
Evans’s opposition to Republicans who dithered or embraced progressive domestic policies was also resolute on a national scale. He supported Barry Goldwater in 1964, knowing it was a losing effort from the beginning. In the aftermath, Evans observed that we had to recover from the shellacking “without grief counselors.” This was also a time when Evans laid down one of his political laws: Nothing is inevitable.
Evans came to hold President Nixon in disdain shortly after the 1968 election, which he won largely on conservative cultural themes. Evans was a part of the “Manhattan Twelve” group that met at William Buckley Jr.’s apartment and publicly opposed Nixon’s foreign policy in his first term, chiefly over China. Evans authored their collective statement, which launched a broadside against Nixon from his Right. The statement concluded with the words: “We consider that our defection is an act of loyalty to the Nixon we supported in 1968.”
Nixon’s aide Patrick Buchanan soon brokered a meeting between eight of the 12 signatories and Henry Kissinger. Buchanan and Alexander Haig were also present. Kissinger and Evans largely conducted the meeting, with Kissinger imploring the group to hold off on criticizing the Administration. They were alone, Kissinger said. No help was forthcoming for anything the Administration did. Evans replied that the Administration buckled to pressure too quickly, and paid too much attention to the media, who were not representative of the country. And conservatives had supported the Administration, Evans stressed, when they could, but Evans was also drawing a line in the sand. Kissinger ended the meeting asking for patience and time. None would be forthcoming. Nixon calculated that he had conservatives in the bag. What else could they do?
A few days later, Nixon announced wage and price controls, and he ended the gold standard. Evans had Nixon pegged almost from the beginning. He lacked principle, an anchor, and it would be his undoing. He responded by supporting Congressman John Ashbrook’s near quixotic effort to best Nixon in the Republican primary in 1972. Ashbrook lost, and Nixon’s career ended ignominiously in resignation over the Watergate break-ins.
Nixon’s pragmatism and desire for victory did him in, but he had done nothing really that Presidents Johnson or Kennedy had not done, Evans noted. The outrage suited progressivism, as it always does. Nixon was taken out, but the lessons that should be learned would not be. Progressives expressed their outrage over the powers of the “Imperial Presidency” even though the institution was, in its current form, one that progressivism had invented, Evans reminded readers. Progressive outrage was just hatred for Nixon. Once in power, they would augment executive power as it suited them. Government should shrink, Congress should be restored its powers. Self-government, not administrative power, should be the watchword.
A man from Texas, Tennessee, and Indiana who had chosen to spend much of his life outside of official Washington despite his pen and influence on Republicans, understood the federal government better than the entire chattering classes. In the end, Evans said, they wanted power, and here is where the real corruption rested. Nixon’s sins were real, but hardly the end of the Republic. He stood between Progressives and the only thing they understood, the state. And he gave them the opportunity they needed to spring for it.
Evans moved to Washington in May 1975, he joked, “to be closer to his money.” He had been the chairman for a few years of the American Conservative Union, which he had turned into a formidable institution, developing both policy and journalism capabilities. The Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC—now a raucous, blowout affair—was also his brainchild. Evans founded the National Journalism Center in 1977, which over the course of his leadership turned out hundreds of great journalists, teaching them what journalism is and how they should do it. Many prominent individuals came from this network, including John Fund, Tim Carney, William McGurn, Greg Gutfeld, Ann Coulter, and the author of this Evans biography, Steven Hayward, in 1981.
There was also the matter of Ronald Reagan, whom Evans had supported since he first heard him speak in the aftermath of Goldwater’s defeat. Reagan was Goldwater’s conservative successor, Evans wrote in a 61-page case for his 1968 presidential candidacy titled The Reason for Reagan. He argued, “The rise of Ronald Reagan as a major national figure constitutes one of the most remarkable stories in the annals of American politics.” Reagan “expresses and embodies a powerful new tendency in our politics.” He was right but off by over a decade. Evans’s 1968 book, The Future of Conservatism, observed that there were two Americas. The conservative America was the one not predetermined by progressive ideas. Conservatives had to speak to this America and grow it if their ideas were to prevail. Reagan had the potential to do both, Evans thought.
Hayward demonstrates that Evans rescued Reagan’s flagging effort in 1976 to secure the Republican nomination against Gerald Ford. Reagan had lost several primaries and looked likely to lose in North Carolina. Much of Reagan’s campaign staff had all but quit. The sunny challenger’s campaign would be dead soon in rather humiliating fashion. Evans wasn’t on the campaign but dramatically stepped in to mobilize an independent expenditures quest that saw him leap-frogging around the state in a puddle jumper. That effort is credited with giving Reagan the victory in North Carolina and turning his campaign in a positive direction. Reagan would ultimately lose, but he would finish on a strong note several primaries later, and the momentum carried him into 1980. No Evans, no President Reagan? Maybe.
Evans, though, would challenge Reagan’s administration in the first term on spending and deficits, with dramatic meetings in the White House, some with Reagan in attendance. And Evans’s criticisms clearly stung Reagan who had appreciated his support and his pieces in Human Events. Reagan’s aides tried to keep Human Events from him, so the President subscribed personally to the publication.
But Evans never turned against Reagan as he did Nixon. The evidence didn’t support it, and the numerous policy accomplishments pleased him. Evans’s editorials for Reagan during the 1984 campaign gushed with support for the man conservatives had waited for all those years.
Evans’s closing legacy, Hayward argues, is also literary. He makes a case that his book The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition (1994) wisely articulates how the American founding incorporates the Christian legacy on Western political thought into American constitutionalism. This had been ignored or resisted by most scholars, and yet the evidence is clear that Christian thinking had altered how we think about law, the state, and the person, in an unmistakable manner. The American Founding got this right.
The book can be considered, Hayward observes, a long meditation on the Sharon Statement that Evans had authored for 90 other conservatives at the home of Bill Buckley in 1962. The Statement served as the organizing principle of Young Americans for Freedom and succinctly argues in fewer than 400 words that freedom and virtue come from God, and they demand a limited, constitutional state. American constitutionalism is a moral and spiritual enterprise, and it was the task of conservatism to enter this drama.
Evans then engaged in a deep primary source dive into the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy, concluding that a tremendous amount of the evidence from federal government archives supports the charges that McCarthy leveled. His 2012 book, Blackballed by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joseph McCarthy, is built on a voluminous file of research now housed at the Hoover Institution. The book is a serious attempt to painstakingly wade through exactly what happened. That the book settled on politically incorrect conclusions should not dissuade honest assessments of its findings.
The conservative movement is unthinkable without Evans, who passed away in 2015, and yet many do not know of him. That was how Evans wanted it; he didn’t puff his achievements. He was the solid rock in the foundation of the building. After this effort by Hayward, many will come to understand just how solid Evans’s contributions were.
This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty