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.
JOSEPH LOWNDES, author
From the New Deal to the New Right:
Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism
GEORGE SHULMAN, author
American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture
Finally historians have the critical distance and vantage point to look back at what has been up to now largely overlooked, and to start to connect the ideological dots and major turning points of the conservative movement’s post-’60s emergence. As an overview, the Phillips-Fein essay touches on many of the significant works necessary to place the movement in perspective. A particular case is the conflicted cultural path public education as a liberal institution has taken because of Ronald Reagan’s conservative influence. His election in 1980 is considered a standard baseline, but of deeper significance is his election as governor of California in 1966, and the culture war he unleashed on the state’s public school system (K-16), which later appeared full blown at the national level. I recommend Kurt Schuparra’s excellent Triumph of the Right: The Rise of the California Conservative Movement, 1945-1966; W.J. Rorabaugh’s Berkeley at War: The 1960s; David P. Gardner’s Earning My Degree: Memoirs of an American University President; and Terrel Bell’s political memoir, The Thirteenth Man. Bell was Reagan’s secretary of education, and Gardner was president of the University of California, appointed by Bell to head the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which published A Nation at Risk in 1983. Caveats aside, progressives are at risk if they do not take heed of Phillips-Fein’s overarching point: history has a strange way of rescuing the defeated. And that history is learned in schools.
JAMES ANDREW LaSPINA, author
California in a Time of Excellence:
School Reform at the Crossroads of the American Dream
What has triumphed is the Spite Right. Its progeny include Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, Goldberg, Gallagher, Malkin, Ingraham, Savage, O’Reilly–self-scribbled caricatures who dwell in their own political cartoon, where there are only intrinsically evil “liberals” (Limbaugh adduces Ed Koch and William Kunstler on the same page) versus “conservatives” whose goodness derives solely from fighting them (see ABCDunlimited.com/ideas/rightism.html).
New York City
Many thanks to those who wrote in about my article, and especially to James Andrew LaSpina for referring readers to several important works on California and Ronald Reagan. To respond to the concerns raised by George Shulman and Joseph Lowndes, who is himself the author of a wonderful book on the origins of the right, it was not my intention to suggest that the recent scholarship that focuses on political economy somehow replaces or invalidates all the work that came before. The field has developed through historians having arguments with each other; but each of the different strains of the historiography has its strengths and weaknesses, its areas of insight and areas of elision. Looking at political economy adds a new dimension to understanding the backlash against civil rights, for example by illuminating how political leaders such as Jesse Helms were able to recast a defense of racial separation in the more politically palatable rhetoric of market individualism or (as historian Tami Friedman has argued) by showing how Southern business boosters were able to win industry away from the North by adopting a states’ rights language that justified their rejection of the New Deal state as well as their defense of segregation. But while the newer scholarship on the role of economic ideas and business activism in the rise of the right has the virtue of helping to explain why and how conservative power has helped create widening economic inequality, finding ways to connect this narrative to the history of backlash and racial exclusion will be one of the tasks scholars must grapple with in the years to come.
William F. Baker’s “How to Save the News” [Oct. 12] inadvertently attributed funding for A.C. Thompson’s Nation investigation, “Katrina’s Hidden Race War,” solely to ProPublica. In fact, that investigation was directed and underwritten by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. ProPublica provided additional support, as did the Center for Investigative Reporting and New America Media.