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Book Note: Shattered Consensus by James Piereson

The author considers the downhill trend in American politics from World War 2 to 2014.  The volume is actually an extended collection of essays, ordered approximately temporally.  The last essays reach to 2014, when it was apparent that matters could not go on as they had, but it was unclear what would happen next.  The author did not anticipate the populist uprising of 2016.

Buried in all this is a remembrance of where matters started to go downhill.  If we return to the 1940s, the conservative political movement was inactive except as a matter of habit. In the 1950s, prominent political writers could claim that liberalism was the only American political philosophy, the duty of real conservatives being to conserve the achievements of liberalism.  Conservatives were, Piereson recalls, characterized as manifestations of a  paranoid style, irrational, and perhaps delusional or dangerous.  Needless to say, conservatives by and by returned the favor with their descriptions of liberalism, and matters have gone downhill ever since.

Closing sections on President Kennedy’s assassination and on American universities fill out the book.  To quell fears of conspiracy theorists, the author notes that spent shells corresponding to Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle were found from where the shooter had acted, as a Communist Oswald had an obvious motive, and therefore there is no doubt about who killed Kennedy.  His essays actually discuss Kennedy’s limited achievements as President, his misadventures that were not known until a decade after his death, and the effort after his death to transmogrify his administration into a second Camelot.  The university discussion reveals the author’s fixation on the liberal arts Great Books approach to education. America’s premier universities, notably MIT, CalTech, Carnegie-Mellon, and Stanford, play approximately no role in his thinking.


  1. Jeff Davidson Jeff Davidson August 31, 2023

    Thanks for this. I remember reading the book-length version of The Paranoid Style in American Politics. My recollection is that it wasn’t as much about conservatives as such but more about Birchers and their fellow travelers. That paranoid style has infected many movements today, left and right, libertarian and communist.

    There’s also been some good work by Gerald Posner and Bonar Menninger on JFK’s assassination. Posner does great work debunking the many ridiculous conspiracy theories, and Menninger proposes the solution (Oswald was a lone shooter and JFK was killed by an accidental shot from his own SS detail) that fits witness statements and evidence with no real extrapolation needed.

    • George Phillies George Phillies Post author | September 4, 2023

      Excellent point, though in-period John Birch Society people were viewed as a representative part of the inchoate conservative movement. Rather later, William F Buckley, jr., read them out of the conservative movement.

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