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.”