Getting the Right Right

by John J. Miller on April 27, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

January 28, 2002

Liberals (and others) write conservative history


When Barry Goldwater spoke to the American Political Science Association two months before the 1964 election, he almost didn’t have an audience: A University of Chicago professor tried to organize a boycott. It bombed, at least on that day. The doomed Republican drew a crowd and even some applause (from “a distinct minority” of his listeners, wrote a New York Times reporter who was there). Yet the boycott appears to have succeeded in another way: Ever since then, academics have chosen to ignore Goldwater and what he represented. Looking for a book on the New Left in the 1960s? Libraries overflow with volumes celebrating everything from the Stonewall riots to Malcolm X. Want something on modern conservatism during its formative years? Good luck. There isn’t much readily available, apart from a few sneering accounts of McCarthyism.

In the historical scholarship of the recent past, conservatism is simply a black hole. This is partly because so few historians are themselves conservative. Many despise conservatism. Just as most biologists don’t want to specialize in slime molds, hardly any modern historians want to spend their careers examining a subject they find so distasteful. They would much rather write about the Port Huron Statement, antiwar protesters, or the 1968 Democratic convention–in other words, the interests and activities of the Left. By turning their gaze away from the Right, however, they have succeeded in missing one of the most important developments since the end of World War II: the rise of organized conservatism as a political force in American life.

A few members of the profession have noticed this-and called for a reassessment. “American conservatism has been something of an orphan in historical scholarship,” confessed Columbia University’s Alan Brinkley in a 1994 essay in The American Historical Review. “Scholars have redefined their categories and paradigms repeatedly in recent decades to help them understand areas of the past they have previously neglected. It may be time for us to do so again.”

Brinkley’s essay was widely read and discussed, but it didn’t spark a dramatic rethinking among liberal historians. Seven years later, conservatism remains essentially a blank space on the map. To be sure, there were a few worthwhile explorations of it during the 1990s. John A. Andrew III offered a detailed account of the Young Americans for Freedom in The Other Side of the Sixties, Mary C. Brennan described conservatism’s ascent within the GOP in her book Turning Right in the Sixties, and Robert Alan Goldberg wrote Barry Goldwater, a fair-minded biography. Yet these titles were like oases in a desert-the exceptions that proved the rule. More common were harshly negative treatments, like those of Dan T. Carter, whose The Politics of Rage drew a straight line from George Wallace to Newt Gingrich, and David H. Bennett, whose The Party of Fear refused to differentiate between congressional Republicans and Timothy McVeigh. By and large, though, conservatism remained terra incognita for scholars: They just kept on ignoring it.

The last year or so, however, has seen a small wave of books written by young liberals about conservatives in the 1960s-and all of them treating their topics with a respect and seriousness rarely seen in the left-of-center writers who came before them. The Right Moment, by Matthew Dallek, tells the story of Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for governor; Suburban Warriors, by Harvard’s Lisa McGirr, offers a social history of grassroots conservatives in Orange County during the 1960s; Before the Storm, by Rick Perlstein, provides a riveting account of Goldwater’s presidential bid, told in the spirit of Theodore H. White but without the distaste; A Time for Choosing, by Stanford’s Jonathan M. Schoenwald, is an ambitious attempt to describe the intellectual and political rise of conservatism.

It is premature to call this sudden burst of activity the start of a trend, but it does appear to rise above mere coincidence. These writers are all in their thirties. They’re also liberal: Dallek now works in the office of House minority leader Richard Gephardt, writing speeches; Perlstein met his wife through a personal ad in The Nation. Yet they all view conservatism not as a thing simply to loathe, but as a topic to study and even admire. It is possible to believe the conservative movement is on the verge of winning a “strange new respect” from the people who write about American political history.

There is, of course, a rich literature about conservatism written by conservatives. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, by George H. Nash, is essential reading. Former Goldwater aide Lee Edwards has penned a very good biography of his old boss, as well as several other commendable books. Arthur Herman has written a welcome reassessment of Joseph McCarthy. In the last several years, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has published a number of fine volumes on everything from Orestes Brownson to Wilhelm Ropke. Many of these books would pass the most exacting standards of professional scholarship, but they also suffer from the same handicap as “authorized” biographies: They will always be suspect because the writers and publishers are themselves conservative, and therefore liable to be perceived as advocates rather than dispassionate critics.

Conservatives should and will continue to write about themselves, but the movement also needs the unauthorized biographies and accounts, and all the credibility they provide. Many conservatives are capable of writing such books, but fair-minded liberals are probably better at it-or at least will seem so to people outside the conservative fold. It is, for example, hard to imagine that Whittaker Chambers could have a more useful biographer than Sam Tanenhaus, a Vanity Fair writer whose work also appears in The New York Review of Books and other respected publications. Tanenhaus not only approached Chambers with a detachment that many conservatives couldn’t attain, he also wrote a masterful and approving book. Although not a hagiography, it commemorated Chambers well, and also reintroduced this controversial figure to an audience outside the conservative ghetto. (Tanenhaus is now at work on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.–another fortunate arrangement.)

This strange new respect might be described as an Oedipal revolt against the legacy of Richard Hofstadter, the Columbia University professor and two-time Pulitzer prize winner who was probably the most influential political historian of his day. The study of conservatism was not his main interest, but he did write several essays on conservatives and his words have had lasting influence.

Hofstadter viewed conservatives as, quite literally, unhinged. His most famous essay about the Right, from a 1963 lecture, was called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” (It reached a wide audience when Harper’s published it immediately prior to the 1964 election.) It diagnosed conservatives as suffering from a severe case of political paranoia, marked by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” (Among other things, it seems, they opposed the New Deal.) Hofstadter failed to distinguish between serious conservatives and the oddballs who orbit the fringe of any movement, and his views suffer from all the weaknesses one would expect to find when a historian starts quoting from psychology textbooks to explain the political motives of people he dislikes. Yet Hofstadter was not content merely to dismiss conservatives as demented. Instead, he placed them within an American tradition of irrational hatred that (he said) previously had manifested itself as anti-Masonism and anti-Catholicism. The firm anti-Communism of the Right was simply the latest variation on an ugly old theme: “The whore of Babylon now sits in Moscow, not Rome.”

Although Hofstadter was briefly a Communist in the late 1930s, he eventually drifted into mainstream liberalism and won the animus of unreconstructed left-wingers for his criticisms of 20th-century populist movements. Yet he also drank deeply from the anti-anti-Communist brew that too many liberals tasted throughout the Cold War. Nor was he alone in rendering a clinical interpretation of conservatism: Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset (liberals who ultimately moved a bit rightward) said conservatism was the result of “status anxiety” among a displaced middle class. Conservatives, in this view, were essentially failures who couldn’t keep up with the quick pace of modern life. Right-wingers expressed their grievances through a retrograde and pathological politics that was deeply out of sync with American traditions, which, they claimed, were wholly liberal.

Because of Hofstadter and his colleagues, to describe conservatives as exemplars of the “paranoid style” and victims of “status anxiety” became a popular pastime during the Goldwater days. It remains one today. The nutty conservative is a cliche of journalism. Sometimes writers cite Hofstadter directly, as Joan Didion does in her recent book Political Fictions, when she’s trying to put down Robert Bork. Other times, they invent a new vocabulary to convey this exhausted idea. After the 1994 elections, for instance, Republican victories were ascribed to “angry white males.”

The weakness of Hofstadter’s description is that it’s nothing more than a bald assertion: He didn’t offer any real evidence to support his claims, he just stated them as indisputable facts. In Suburban Warriors, published last year by Princeton University Press, Lisa McGirr does the opposite: Rather than speculate on what she believes was in the minds of ordinary conservatives who supported Goldwater-the Hofstadter approach-she does something few historians have bothered to do: She goes and asks them what they were doing and why they were doing it, using the methodology of social history to unearth their stories. Her survey of Orange County conservatives in the 1960s is almost anthropological in its detail, and it is a groundbreaking work of scholarship.

In his essay on conservatism, Brinkley (who taught McGirr at Columbia) specifically recommended this sort of approach: “If historians have done nothing else in the last twenty years, they have demonstrated their ability to retrieve the experiences of people and groups whose lives and ideas are not immediately visible in mainstream politics and culture.” The current generation of historians has recovered the lost voices of women in the 19th century and blacks in the segregated South-populations that earlier historians generally overlooked. The 1960s conservatives ignored by liberal historians certainly deserve to be counted among these lost voices, and McGirr treats them as such. She criticizes Hofstadter, Bell, and Lipset for their portrayals, saying “their excessively psychological interpretation distorted our understanding of American conservatism.” Where they simply announced a position based on little more than their own political prejudices, McGirr offers evidence of what conservatives were really like. Her extensive research revealed that Orange County conservatives weren’t disgruntled losers unable to keep pace in a changing society, but “highly educated” and “thoroughly modern” entrepreneurs and housewives. They didn’t hold economic grudges, but “enjoyed the fruits of worldly success.” She describes the activities of people who held informational meetings in their homes and sponsored petition drives for conservative candidates-the backbone of the conservative movement. The result is an account showing conservatives to be very different from the kooks portrayed by Hofstadter, in writings that have shaped elite opinion for decades.

This is an important reinterpretation of conservatism, at once more sympathetic to conservatives and more consonant with the facts of history. The work of McGirr’s peers has similar qualities. In the books by Dallek, Perlstein, and Schoenwald, Goldwater is anything but a crank, Reagan is a gifted politician, and their supporters are serious-minded people trying to solve real problems. These authors don’t paint completely flattering portraits of conservatism–each of them faults the Right for its views on race, which is a fair criticism, though they tend to go overboard on it. And sometimes their books seem to be written with liberal aims in mind. Perlstein, for instance, concludes Before the Storm with a discussion of how badly liberals underestimated conservatives in the wake of the 1964 election-an analysis that tells us more about liberals than about conservatives, the main subject of his book. It’s almost as if this young cohort of liberals wants to examine the success of conservatism in order to use its lessons as a blueprint for other causes. But these are minor problems.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a new generation of liberal scholars would rethink conservatism. “Younger historians want to explain the political world they know,” says Brinkley. “Today’s graduate students have no real memory of the 1960s, but they do remember Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and they see President Bush today.” For historians whose formative years included observing the Goldwater fiasco, of course, the Right may have looked like a dead-end specialty, akin to a zoologist’s concentration on the dodo.

Today, clear-eyed graduate students in American political history must see conservatism as tempting virgin territory. “I was literally looking around for a topic to write about when I came across a collection of YAF papers at the Hoover Institution,” recalls Schoenwald. “I had never heard about this group before, and when I read about them I decided that I wasn’t getting the full story of the 1960s.” He wound up writing a Ph.D. dissertation on conservatives, and this later became the subject of his A Time for Choosing, published by Oxford University Press last fall.

The opportunities for more scholarship on conservatism are outstanding-and some of it is already taking place. Donald Critchlow of St. Louis University has full access to the papers of Phyllis Schlafly and is working on a biography; Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga will probably write a much-needed book on Irving Kristol’s life. But plenty remains undone. The extensive papers of Russell Kirk are almost completely untapped. There’s no definitive account of how conservative think tanks transformed public policy in the 1970s and beyond. The origins of supply-side economics and the tax revolt also lack a comprehensive treatment. Even George Nash’s classic book on conservative intellectuals could use an update-the story he tells essentially ends in 1975.

The truth is, however, there’s not only a bias against conservatism in the academy-there’s also a bias against scholarship on conservatism. “The funny thing is, if you write about conservatives, it’s harder to get a job as a professor, but it’s easier to get a book contract,” says Dallek (who is the son of the historian Robert Dallek). Indeed, this was his experience. The Free Press published his book on Reagan, and now he’s working outside the academy.

In the end, these liberals interested in conservatism may represent a remnant within their profession–a small enclave that won’t overturn the academy’s prevailing views but whose members nevertheless seek the vital truth about conservatism. Whatever the fate of this crew, conservatives, of all people, know the importance of remnants.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: