U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Cronon Affair and the Political Culture of the GOP

By now, unless you’ve been hiding under a cyber rock for the last four days, readers of this blog are almost certainly aware of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s efforts to intimidate the historian (and AHA President Elect) William Cronon.  Those who need a primer on events so far could do worse than visiting Cronon’s own blog, “Scholar as Citizen”; his latest post can be found here, from which you can follow the links back to earlier ones.

The executive summary:  on March 15, Cronon put up a carefully researched blog post detailing the history and activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and Paul Weyrich, dedicated to drafting model right-wing laws for state legislatures around the country.  In response to this post, the Wisconsin State GOP issued an incredibly broad FOIA search of Cronon’s personal e-mails. When Cronon stated the plain fact that this was an attempt to intimidate him, the state Republicans, tearing a page from Lee Atwater’s and Karl Rove’s playbooks, accused Cronon of all the things they were doing to him.  Late last week, the story went fully viral. And in the last couple days newspapers–including the New York Times–and professional organizations–including the AHA–as well as thousands of citizens have rallied to Cronon’s side.

Though it should go without saying that I stand with Cronon in this matter, I’m less interested in simply adding my voice to the growing chorus of disgust at the Wisconsin Republican Party and more interested in taking a step back and asking an historical question (as is this blog’s wont): how did we get here?

Throughout these events, Cronon has repeatedly pointed out that his own politics are far from radical.  He’s a lifelong registered independent and considers himself a moderate.  And by all appearances he is an unusual sort of moderate (at least in the early 21st-century U.S.).  Many self-described “centrists” today never tire of accusing those who disagree with them, on both the left and right, of being ideologues. Only their own centrist political positions deserve to be taken seriously by right-thinking Americans. Such people can even be found in our profession. In contrast to such dogmatic centrists, Cronon seems genuinely interested in being open to views on both the left and the right.  This willingness to take seriously the politics of those who don’t share one’s own politics is an unfortunately rare virtue…but one that greatly benefits historical practice.  I’m not a political moderate, but I hope that I am able to nevertheless share Cronon’s willingness to take seriously the politics of others.

Driven by this desire for fairness, Cronon has repeatedly emphasized the aberrational nature of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s behavior, both in their strong-arm legislative tactics that led to his initial research on ALEC and in their efforts to intimidate him. And he has repeatedly compared this latest turn of events to another era of Wisconsin Republican politics that had national implications: the rise of Joe McCarthy.  For example, in his latest blog post, Cronon writes:

In my heart of hearts, I keep hoping that even Republicans who learn about my situation will respond by saying to themselves that this is not what their party should stand for.  Indeed, in my own understanding of the history of the GOP, leaving aside dangerous aberrations like Joseph McCarthy, what I am experiencing is not what the Republican Party claims to stand for. It is time at last for “the angels of our better nature,” in the words of another great Republican, Abraham Lincoln, to reassert themselves.

Cronon is correct, I think, in comparing the latest turn of events to the career of Joe McCarthy.  But McCarthyism and the tactics of today’s Wisconsin GOP are less blips on the radar of “normal” Republican politics than Cronon suggests.  I’m more inclined to agree with Paul Krugman’s assessment that this is just business as usual in today’s Republican Party:

The hard right — which these days is more or less synonymous with the Republican Party — has a modus operandi when it comes to scholars expressing views it dislikes: never mind the substance, go for the smear. . . . 

 The Cronon affair, then, is one more indicator of just how reflexively vindictive, how un-American, one of our two great political parties has become.

The demand for Mr. Cronon’s correspondence has obvious parallels with the ongoing smear campaign against climate science and climate scientists, which has lately relied heavily on supposedly damaging quotations found in e-mail records.        

But Cronon’s reminders that it was not always thus in the Republican Party, especially in Wisconsin, and his desire to take seriously the views of others can nonetheless be important guideposts to historians. Because while I’m inclined to agree with Krugman that there’s unfortunately nothing very surprising about the Wisconsin Republican Party’s tactics in the Cronon affair, we need to take seriously the task of explaining why this is the case.  The political culture of today’s Republican Party is a contingent fact, not an essential quality of Republican-ness or or U.S. conservatism.

One of the tasks facing historians of American political thought and American political culture will be explaining how a party and a movement that proudly trace their roots back to “classical liberalism” and that show enormous affection for the word “libertarian” are so devoted to tactics that undermine transparency in government and free and open political debate.

I’m not going to provide anything approaching final answers in this blog post, though I will finish up with some possible competing (though not mutually exclusive) explanations.  But first, I want to explore a little more the McCarthyism analogy, because I think it’s particularly interesting and instructive.

Right off the bat, it’s worth noting two things that seem to distinguish McCarthyism proper from the recent turn of events in Wisconsin.

First, in the early 1950s, there was a broad political consensus in the United States that communism represented a grave and present danger to this country.  This consensus was, of course, far broader than was support for Joe McCarthy.  Liberal anticommunists were forced to distinguish both between the presumably real dangers that concerned them and the phony dangers that McCarthy dreamed up, and between McCarthy’s tactics and their own support for the Cold War at home and abroad. And McCarthy’s defenders were able to appeal to the consensus around anticommunism (stronger on the right, of course) to rally others to Tailgunner Joe’s cause.  McCarthy’s charges tended to be vicious and unwarranted, but they at least referred to what most Americans saw as an existential threat to this nation.

William Cronon’s actions–even in the heated rhetoric of the Wisconsin Republicans–would seem to not so easily fit into a grand conspiracy against the American way of life.

Secondly, McCarthyism deeply divided American conservative intellectuals. [For simplicity’s sake, my guide here will be Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, not so much because it’s the final word on these matters, but rather because I think we can count on Nash to be fair (some might say “too fair”) to the conservative point of view (for those interested in Nash’s status in the field  today, check out Andrew’s recent post on Nash’s book).]  Many were lukewarm about the Senator from Wisconsin.  Some, like Peter Viereck and Whittaker Chambers were openly hostile to him.  The only thoroughgoing intellectual defense of McCarthy came from William F. Buckley, Jr. and L. Brent Bozell in their co-authored book, McCarthy and His Enemies  (1954).

Although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as far as I can tell, today’s conservative movement lacks heirs to Peter Viereck and Whittaker Chambers, who might denounce the tactics of the Republican Party of Wisconsin and rally to Bill Cronon’s defense from the right.

The absence of conservative criticism of the Wisconsin GOP’s behavior at least in part reflects the eventual triumph on the right of the Bozell-Buckley line on McCarthy.   Though their full-throated defense of McCarthy was unusual among conservative intellectuals in the 1950s, Buckley and Bozell would, of course, come to define the mainstream of the American conservative thought over the course of the decade or so after the publication of their book.

As George Nash notes, the rise of that vision in the early-to-mid-1960s–which he calls “fusionism” (borrowing the term coined by Buckley associate Frank Meyer) as it brought together the libertarian and traditionalist strands of American conservative thought–was built in part on the centrality of an expansive understanding of the Communist threat:

[F]usionism as an attempt at theoretical harmony was immensely assisted by the cement of anti-Communism throughout the years of self-definition.  It is exraordinarily noteworthy that anti-Communism, one of the three principal tributaries of the postwar conservative mainstream, was not a significant source of tension in most of these polemics at all.  Instead, nearly all conservatives were bound together by consciousness of a common mortal enemy. The threat of an external foe (which included liberalism, too) was an invaluable source of cohesion. . . . Their sense of combat (“the final struggle”) with a common foe helped to keep them together.

Two things to note about this passage from Nash (which appears on p. 165 of the 1998 ISI edition of his book).  First, the seriousness of this existential struggle convinced most self-identified libertarian conservatives to put aside many of their scruples about about state power and individual freedom for the duration (as it were).  And because the struggle with liberalism was, in effect, the same struggle as the struggle with communism, even the kinds of flimsy connections to communism that Joe McCarthy provided were unnecessary for a threat from the left to be seen as existential and thus requiring extraordinary exceptions to libertarian conservatives’ nominal commitments to individual liberty.

So the first potential explanation of the GOP’s role in the Cronon affair is that it is simply the continuation of this attitude toward liberalism. There are of course many additional intellectual dots that need to be connected here.  For example, ideas about the New Class (which USIH has frequently blogged about) might provide important intermediate steps that have apparently led so many on the right to see a politically moderate and extraordinarily distinguished U.S. historian as a threat to the republic.

Of course, that entire line of thought may be too high-minded.  Perhaps the tactics of the Wisconsin Republican Party, however typical they may have become, may be less the stuff of ideas and more simply political habits. Here one might turn to Rick Perlstein’s notion that, since at least the late 1960s, we’ve been living in “Nixonland,” a place in which the right manipulates various social divisions for its own political gain. If Nixon is, in some sense, the author of the political culture of today’s GOP, then the best explanation for it lies less in ideology (whatever Nixon was, he wasn’t much of an ideologue), and more in a kind of ruthless political pragmatism, backed up by some sense that everybody does it, that if you don’t screw the bastards on the other side, the bastards on the other side will screw you.

But one can also gesture toward a more intellectual strain of moral cynicism and illiberalism on the right.  In recent years, Leo Strauss’s name has frequently come up as an explanation for the political style of the contemporary GOP.  The argument that Strauss is responsible for the tone of the Republican Party today has probably been most exhaustively developed by the Canadian political theorist Shadia Drury in Leo Strauss and the American Right, though it’s received more play through Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares.

This view is, IMO, very much overdrawn. Not that one cannot find good examples of such political cynicism among the handful of bona fide Straussians in American political life.  But there are just not that many Straussians.  And illiberalism and moral cynicism played a major role in American politics–and modern conservatism–well before Leo Strauss became influential in any way.  Any consideration of high-minded defenses of Machiavellianism would need to grapple with a thinker like James Burnham (whose influence on the neoconservatives is probably considerably greater than Strauss’s).  And Willmoore Kendall’s peculiar but quietly influential brand of illiberal, statist, Middle American majoritarianism would also need to be thrown into the mix.  Thinkers like Burnham and Kendall did not have libertarian scruples that needed to be overcome by appeals to the communist menace.  It’s an interesting question how practically important such thinkers were.  The tendency of their ideas to function as highminded defenses of Nixonian politics were almost certainly less significant for American political life than the actual practice of those politics by people like Nixon and his political team.

Another possible explanation to note is more social psychological.  In recent years, prompted in part by the work of Canadian psychologist Robert Altemeyer (popularized by John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience (2006)), there has been renewed interest in the idea of authoritarianism, not as a political system but as a personality type.  From the late 1940s through the early 1960s, it was quite common to explain the American right in terms of political psychology.  Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, and Daniel L. Levinson’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950) was perhaps the key work in this line of thought.  But its tendency to understand conservatism as somehow socially and psychologically pathological was also reflected in such works as the essays edited by Daniel Bell as The New American Right (1955; later expanded and republished as The Radical Right (1963)) and Richard Hofstadter’s essay on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

This pathologizing line of thought has in more recent years often been dismissed by historians for not taking conservatives and their ideas seriously.  But I suspect that there is an analytical middle ground here.  One can accept that some people are more drawn to authoritarian points of view than others without entirely dismissing or pathologizing them.  Political scientists like Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, for example, have tried to use the idea of authoritarian dispositions descriptively rather than pejoratively in their study of polarization in American politics.

Raising questions about the authoritarian personality (Adorno), mind (Altemeyer), or dispositions (Hetherington and Weiler) reframes the question I’m asking in this post rather than answering it. In principle, left authoritarianism is as much of a political possibility as right authoritarianism is. Yet studies seem to suggest that in the U.S. today, conservatives and Republicans are notably more authoritarian than those on the left or Democrats.  Which again brings us to the question of: why?

Finally, we need to raise the possibility that something of longer standing in American political life is going on here. Is it wrong to start our story with McCarthy and post-World War II conservatism?  The late political scientist Michael Paul Rogin saw a countersubversive tradition at the heart of American political culture.  If Rogin is right, Krugman may unfortunately have it precisely backwards when he bemoans “how un-American one of our two great political parties has become.”

20 Thoughts on this Post

  1. We’re certainly a long way from Margaret Chase Smith’s Declaration of Conscience:

    “Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of “know nothing, suspect everything” attitudes….

    Surely these are sufficient reasons to make it clear to the American people that it is time for a change and that a Republican victory is necessary to the security of this country. Surely it is clear that this nation will continue to suffer as long as it is governed by the present ineffective Democratic Administration.

    Yet to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.

    I doubt if the Republican Party could—simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory.”


  2. Ben,

    First, I think one line to draw is as follows: On the one hand, certain conservatives are drawn to authoritarianism due to perceived crises (existential ones, you know, like collective bargaining (gasp!)! too much debt! teachers’ unions! Obama’s citizenship!) and, on the other hand, being collectively pathologized, as you say. In sum, seeing oneself as using authoritarian-like powers temporarily excuses one from seeing the tendency to act generally in an authoritarian fashion. Or, the perceived necessity creates a blindness to overreach in other areas.

    Second, I wonder at the usefulness of generalizing from Wisconsin. Though other states are adopting Wisconsin-like tactics, they are not all using Walkeresque methods, yes? I say this with full knowledge of the crisis “management” taking place in Michigan (setting up petty dictators by county).

    – TL

  3. I meant to say, on my second point, generalizing historically from Wisconsin (working backwards from the present there, despite the temptation of the McCarthy parallel). In other words, it was bad tactically of Cronon to use McCarthy’s name at all in his post in that it creates false historical parallels. – TL

  4. I just wrote something that speaks to your discomfort with Cronon as an “unusual moderate.” Another interesting connection of the Cronon affair to intellectual history has to do with the (comparatively understudied? Can we say that yet, after almost a decade or so of nonstopt conservatism studies?) history of American liberalism: he seems to me to be pitching an old 80s-90s communitarian idea of deliberative democracy, but it’s mostly getting washed out in the languages of academic freedom and partisan politics that most commenters want to take to the fight.

  5. “Driven by this desire for fairness, Cronon has repeatedly emphasized the aberrational nature of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s behavior, both in their strong-arm legislative tactics that led to his initial research on ALEC and in their efforts to intimidate him.”

    That’s not “fair”, that’s sort of parochial and uninformed. (Which sounds more insulting than I want it to sound, but I’m not sure how to restate it.) The specific form of this attack on Cronon is not new. It has already been tested quite thoroughly against climate scientists in academia. Here’s a link to one typical reaction, in which it is immediately called “the full Phil Jones treatment”.

    Therefore, it doesn’t really have much to do with posited Republican / conservative authoritarianism or what have you. I’d characterize it as part of the toolkit of techniques developed by the Tobacco Institute and later generalized, if you’re looking for a sort of historical geneology. The most that you can say about the GOP is that they are not principled enough to reject the use of this seemingly successful technique. But I don’t know of many political movements or tendencies that are.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

    @JJ: Thanks for posting the Margaret Chase Smith statement. If I remember Oshinsky’s A Conspiracy So Immense correctly, Smith had a very difficult time rallying support for her statement in the GOP caucus. Nevertheless, it was an impressive moment. And the larger point is that, politically speaking, the US overcame McCarthyism, even though, as I suggest above, a core group of conservative intellectuals has never stopped defending McCarthy’s crusade.

    @Tim: As I suggest, I think that the McCarthy analogy is instructive, though I’m not sure it proves what Cronon wants it to. Also: “authoritarianism” in the Adorno/Altemeyer/Hetherington & Weiler sense refers to a psychological tendency not a set of policies or political techniques.

    @ Ben Schmidt: Thanks for the link to your thoughtful blog post. What I, like you, know of Cronon’s politics is just what I’ve read. But I think your characterization of his political position over on your blog is entirely fair (fwiw, I have no “discomfort” with Cronon’s position, it’s just not mine). The problem with deliberative democracy is, as it always has been, that it is isn’t very good at dealing with situations in which ones chief political opponents have no interest in deliberating.

    This is why Rich Puchalsky is, IMO, correct to ask whether Cronon is engaging in wishful thinking. I don’t discount the possibility that what’s going on in the Cronon affair has more to do with tactics than ideology (this is the “Nixonland” argument I reference above). But I’d disagree with Rich’s final sentence: if everyone was equally prone to use these techniques, they’d be as common on the left as they are on the right. In fact, they happen not to be.

  7. I’d explain the difference between the left and right on this to the left and right’s differential access to oligarchical support. But that’s a side path. There’s a more focussed point I wanted to make about this as a tactic: the McCarthy legacy is not really the right one, except insofar as everything in the GOP is generally descended from McCarthy, or insofar as any attack on an academic for supposedly having the wrong politics is McCarthyite. But this particular form of attack was developed out of specifically industrial politics around tobacco. Even more recently, it’s been used in specifically industrial politics around climate change (e.g. oil and coal). Whether you think the focus on tactics or ideology is more worthwhile, you have to realize that this form of attack may be new to the academic humanities, but it’s not new to scientists.

  8. As far as “how practically important” certain thinkers have been, I found it interesting how certain thinkers who are to all appearances part of the conservative institutional establishment can get fired for getting seriously off message. For instance, it looks like Brink Lindsey, vice president at the Cato Institute got let go shortly after writing this:


    That piece hit precisely the wrong notes, and maybe it had something to do with what happened here:


  9. More on the “practical importance” of intellectuals. Here’s a quote from William Baroody at AEI:

    “our sophisticated ability to relate ideology to constituencies is what counts”

    (Here it is in Google booksearch:) http://tinyurl.com/4sm4zzu

    It sounds like it’s straight out of the playbook of Nixon’s intellectual Kevin Phillips… (The quote is from Sidney Blumenthal’s *Rise of the Counterestablishment*, and the full context Blumenthal puts around it is worth reading.)

  10. Following up on your last paragraph, I’d suggest that the bullying, hectoring aggressiveness we see on the right today was a feature of Southern politics prior to the Civil War and has never gone out of style there. We’re just seeing the nationalization of that style, updated with some new techniques.

  11. I think that the most fruitful line of inquiry for you to pursue in tracing down the authoritarian or paranoid style of Republican politics in America begins with remembering that the Republican Party is now the essentially the party of the South – thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. It is the true, intentional historical inheritor of the Southern political tradition, culture and customs, whose primary aim has always been white supremacy. The tropes of the present Republican Party can all be found, for example and not exclusively, in Texas politics in the middle 20th century – see, e.g. Volume 1 of Caro’s biography of LBJ. Southern politicians hated and feared labor unions and “Communists” because they threatened the economic and social order of the South – which rested on white supremacy. Those groups, or individuals associated with those groups are well-known conventional “bogeymen” in Texas today.

  12. Thanks for all the comments.

    I do think that there are many contributing factors to the current GOP political culture. Those who point to the traditions of Southern political culture as one important tributary are correct to do so. Lee Atwater’s political style was deeply Southern. And Karl Rove, though not a Southerner by birth, received an important part of his political education in the South, attending George Mason University while running for the Presidency of the College Republicans in the early 1970s (Lee Atwater was his campaign chair, fwiw).

    But I also think it’s important not to hold the South entirely responsible here. Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy were, of course, not Southerners and Southerners during the McCarthy years were overwhelmingly Democratic. (On the other hand, Martin Dies, who chaired the predecessor of HUAC–a font of what is loosely called “McCarthyism,” even if McCarthy had nothing to do with it–in the ’30s and ’40s, was a Southerner.)

  13. The Nixon example doesn’t really exculpate the South, given the influence of Southerners in Southern CA in the 1940s. I grew up in Riverside, and believe me those attitudes were prevalent.

  14. It’s a mystery to me as to why anyone still reads David Frum. He was a horrible, sloppy thinker back when he was in the right’s good graces, and of course he still is. It’s like Andrew Sullivan: no amount of apology afterwards can change the fact that he’s a person who could write that the left might be a fifth column for Al Queda.

    Here’s some quote from that Frum post:
    “It’s one thing for a political party to mobilize anxieties in this way. What happens though when we fund the entire conservative counter-establishment this way? Magazines, think tanks, and all the rest?”

    The conservative *counter-establishment*? ? He can’t stop using the same nonsense that he’s always used.

    “If Obama really is demoniacally determined to impose socialism on the United States, there’s no working with him. We can only fight him until we defeat and destroy him or he defeats and destroys us.”

    Oh, please. What if Obama were an actual socialist? Or let’s say, imagine he was FDR, who was close enough to being a socialist for most conservatives of the time. Would it really be the conservative’s duty to fight, defeat, destroy? Or would that just be treachery, more or less?

    It’s always tempting to find the right-winger who is seemingly saying reasonable things now. But this is awfully stupid.

  15. Frum is worth reading because he knows where the bodies are buried, not because he’s always right about everything.

  16. “The tendency of their ideas to function as highminded defenses of Nixonian politics were almost certainly less significant for American political life than the actual practice of those politics by people like Nixon and his political team.”

    Karl Rove (a member of Nixon’s political team) speaking a couple years ago:

    “Karl Rove, a Republican strategist who advised former President George W. Bush, called Kristol an “intellectual entrepreneur who helped energize several generations of public policy thinkers.”

    Through his editing, writing and speaking, Kristol “made it a moral imperative to rouse conservatism from mainstream Chamber of Commerce boosterism to a deep immersion in ideas,” Rove said. He added that Kristol helped create a synthesis of Cold War Democrats and Reagan White House anti-communist hawks, which proved decisive in influencing foreign and military policy in the 1980s.”


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