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Right On

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WALT ZEBOSKI/AP IMAGESGov. Ronald Reagan and wife, Nancy, opening the California State Fair, 1968

About the Author

Kim Phillips-Fein
Kim Phillips-Fein teaches American history at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She...

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Is the conservative movement dead? In November, when many of its leading intellectuals publicly abandoned the McCain-Palin ticket, deserting their comrades and going over to the other side, the movement suffered not only electoral defeat but ideological apostasy. During the transition, as the stock indexes of the world tumbled, crushing the blithe confidence in free-market ideas universally espoused just a few years earlier, many seasoned political observers wondered whether the long-awaited "conservative crack-up"--to quote the title of R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.'s book of 1992, which predicted the imminent decline of the conservative project--might have at long last arrived. The old Reagan coalition had split into warring elements, with the traditionalists turning on the libertarians and Wall Street executives backing away from a Republican regime that proved to be inept at managing economic chaos. A movement that claimed to have descended from both Milton Friedman and Edmund Burke, wedding the fast pace of capitalism and the slow, stately march of tradition, might always have seemed ideologically strained. By the spring of 2009, the fissures had turned into cracks, and the movement collapsed in on itself.

Or did it? After all, the death of conservatism has been prophesied many times before. In 1964 the New York Times opined that Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater had "not only lost the Presidential election...but the conservative cause as well." In 1977 Fortune magazine pronounced that the Republican Party was "exceptionally weak," virtually "bereft of any 'turf' that is securely its own." Three years later Gerald Ford made a play for the Republican nomination by insisting that the country would never elect a movement conservative. "A very conservative Republican can't win in a national election," he told the Times. Even during the 1980s, when a genuine movement conservative occupied the White House, liberal journalist Richard Reeves declared Ronald Reagan's politics a mere "detour" from the country's liberal history.

Perhaps this time things really are different, but the apparent rifts and tensions within the conservative movement--between elitism and populism, capitalism and custom, the piety and fanaticism of the far right and the moderation of the old guard at the helm--have not caused dissolution, historically speaking. On the contrary, they have generated a strangely durable, tenacious politics that has avoided being shunted to the margins of American life. Goldwater may have been trounced in 1964--he lost every state except his own and the five of the Deep South, where voters were drawn to his opposition to the Civil Rights Act--but movement conservatives remained undeterred and ended up using his campaign's donor lists to fortify the ranks for future battles. Four years later the Republican Party, which had seemed a shambles during the Johnson presidency, retook the White House. When Richard Nixon left Washington in calumny in 1974, it seemed, again, that the GOP would be weakened for a generation. Instead, Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 and was re-elected in a landslide. For conservatives, it seems that their most crushing defeats herald their greatest victories.

Given these Houdini acts, it is surprising that until recently there has been no significant body of scholarship on the history of postwar conservatism. In 1994 historian Alan Brinkley observed that the right had become "something of an orphan" in American political history. Most scholars--themselves liberals--believed that liberalism had triumphed in the United States over the course of the twentieth century. The disparate regional cultures of the country had been unified into one cosmopolitan nation. Ever since World War I and the Progressive Era, Washington had assumed greater management of the economy, culminating in the New Deal and later in the War on Poverty and Great Society programs. The Manichaean, parochial world of religious fundamentalism had given way to the subtle moral distinctions of modernity. Brinkley suggested that if scholars had overlooked the lingering sway of market ideology, the pervasiveness of antigovernment sentiment and the sustained vibrancy of fundamentalist Christianity, it was because they were utterly convinced of liberalism's triumph. Such assumptions left them unable to reckon with the lasting power of conservative politics and therefore incapable of understanding the collapse of the New Deal electoral coalition and resurgence of the right in the 1980s.

Fifteen years after the publication of Brinkley's article, the conservative movement is no longer an orphan in the academy. Indeed, writing its history has become something of a cottage industry, with every year bringing new monographs, articles and dissertations on a dizzying array of subjects: right-wing populism among long-haul truckers; the grassroots religious conservatism of Southern preachers who migrated to California in the postwar period; the role of Phoenix, Arizona, in the rise of laissez-faire ideology in the Republican Party; the intellectual influence of Ayn Rand; gay and African-American conservative thought; backlashes in communities ranging from Baltimore to Orange County; anti-unionism in American culture; histories of far-right preachers and the leaders of organizations like the John Birch Society.

As someone who has written about conservatism, I think that while the field has flourished for intellectual and professional reasons (nature, one might say, abhors a vacuum in the scholarly literature), there are political causes for its growth as well. The body of scholarship on the right grew as the movement leapt from one success to the next. Many (although not all) of the younger historians writing about the right are actually left of center, children of the Reagan era who came of age as scholars during the Bush years and have sought to understand the conservative movement partly to forge the tools to undermine it. This groundswell of rich and complex research has allowed a thousand monographs to bloom, but it has yet to produce a retelling of the larger narrative of the postwar period incorporating the insights of recent histories of the right--something on the order of James Patterson's powerful synthesis of postwar American history, Grand Expectations. And there have been few efforts to understand what the history of the right has to tell us about the movement's influence today, or its future, which is especially important at a time when conservatism has found itself on the defensive once again.

Before Reagan's election in 1980, academic scholarship about the conservative movement was meager. There were a few books on topics like the right in the 1930s, the history of McCarthyism, the Ku Klux Klan and the isolationist politics of the far right, but most academic historians spurned the subject of conservatism. The right was seen as a relic of American history--a menagerie of resentful oddballs and misfits, fanatical preachers, eccentric racists and assorted cranks who rejected the New Deal and the Great Society. This patronizing view followed from that of the "consensus" historians of the 1950s, such as Columbia University's Richard Hofstadter, who interpreted McCarthyism as the vicious politics of "status anxiety." According to Hofstadter, the paranoia of the right was fed by the resentment of members of social groups whose fortunes were declining in the newly prosperous mass-consumption society of the postwar era--"so many people do not know who they are or what they are or what they belong to or what belongs to them," Hofstadter wrote in "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt"--and who turned to the politics of conspiracy in an anxious attempt to shore up their sense of moral virtue. These "pseudo-conservatives" believed they were powerless victims menaced by evil outsiders, and they lashed out angrily at their perceived enemies, confident of their righteousness. More generally, in the 1970s and '80s scholarship on conservatism was scarce because old-fashioned political history was in decline: the study of culture and social life began to eclipse the analysis of elections, protests, strikes and legislative battles. But Reagan's election reawakened scholarly curiosity in the conservative movement. How could such hostility to government, such opposition to the tolerant, pluralistic politics of liberalism, such a belligerent temperament thought to be moribund, suddenly re-emerge at the center of political life?

The first generation of historians to take conservatism seriously focused closely on the politics of social backlash. The main characters of their stories were the working-class white voters of Northern cities and the South who had grown alienated from a Democratic Party that they thought was overly solicitous of African-Americans. They were angry about welfare, school busing and affirmative action--policies they felt helped people less deserving than themselves. More deeply, they were frustrated by the radical politics of the 1960s: the longhaired kids protesting Vietnam, the hippies slouching in parks, the feminists with the temerity to blame the nuclear family for their oppression, the black-power advocates with their clenched fists and ten-point programs. The recession of the 1970s drove these blue-collar workers away from their old faith in the power of the state to safeguard prosperity.

Most of the scholars who wrote about these reactionaries--such as Jonathan Rieder in Canarsie (1985), Ronald Formisano in Boston Against Busing (1991) and Dan Carter in The Politics of Rage (1995)--were far from sympathetic to their subjects; their commitments lay with the African-American families who sought to integrate the schools of white neighborhoods. Nonetheless, they endeavored to present their subjects as working-class people in a time of economic decline, desperate to protect the few institutions--home, family, school and neighborhood--over which they had control. As Rieder put it in his study of the backlash in Brooklyn, "The basic fact of life for the residents of Canarsie was the precariousness of their hold on middle-class status, the recency of their arrival in that exalted position, and the intense fear that it might be taken from them." In this, Rieder and others shared a set of assumptions with the 1950s historians of McCarthyism: they treated conservatism as a populist politics of displaced frustration, in which rage at liberalism reflected anger about the underlying problem of increasing economic insecurity.

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