It’s not unusual for The Nation to publish something that by itself justifies the whole year’s subscription. With the September 28 issue the ante went up. I’d place Kim Phillips-Fein’s “Right On” as at least two years’ worth. Brilliant, profound, penetrating, lucid and intellectual… But it’s not just the dazzle; it’s the wisdom and insight.
Kim Phillips-Fein’s historiography of modern conservatism is illuminating, yet her schema of generational changes in how historians have narrated this history cannot escape the history she would reframe. In her story, a first generation of scholars was overly focused on racial backlash in the 1960s. These histories were supplanted by accounts that sought to analyze conservatism as a principled, grassroots movement dating back decades before the 1960s. That story is being succeeded, she argues, by a new generation of histories that properly make political economy the causal agent in history.
One problem with this developmental account of the scholarship is that it too neatly divides historical concerns, falsely splitting anxieties from interests, economics from politics, and race from class. Certainly political economy matters, but its meaning is not self-evident. Actors on the ground (elite and grassroots) had to generate convincing interpretations of economic conditions via a contingent linking of race, anti-elite populism, business conservatism, anti-feminism, anti-statism (and yet military and carceral power) to a triumphant affirmation of national identity. Racial fear, market ideology and evangelical Christianity have no necessary or inherent connection; these positions had to be forged into a coherent worldview across the long postwar era in order for conservatism to become hegemonic. Phillips-Fein is thus right to foreground the role of liberal individualism in conservative success, but she ignores how it is made politically meaningful by its mediation through race and gender, by contrast to demonized figures of embodied dependence. Indeed, an exclusive focus on economics or on liberal ideology may unwittingly echo the voices in our political culture–right and left–that would wish away the still-pervasive racial dimension in American political and economic life. Rather than a linear narrative that progresses through different positions, therefore, it seems more fruitful to hold in tension the different elements of conservative ascent.