U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Now What? Reflections On Historicizing American "Conservatism"

I spent the better part of my allotted USIH reading time the past few weeks immersed in a round table, published in the December 2011 Journal of American History, titled “Conservatism: A State of the Field.” Because the New Right has been an ongoing (to say the least) topic of concern here, since our January 2007 founding, there may be no better place than USIH for reflecting on the JAH round table. As such I expect other USIH contributors will chime in, either here or with additional posts.

My first thought on completing the round table was: now what? What are we going to discuss here, on this topic, now that Kim Phillips-Fein et al have so ably summarized the state of the historiography? It truly is a comprehensive collection. A graduate student could spend her entire education mining the essays, footnotes, and prominent books. And that student would be rewarded well for her effort. Because of its comprehensiveness, I beseech your advance forgiveness for not covering your favorite topics, authors, or passages from the round table.

Since I’m still processing the contents, and hence have neither a complementary nor a counter narrative to offer, I’m going to reflect on the essays as they were presented—beginning and ending with Phillips-Fein.

Phillips-Fein’s Introduction

This 20-page essay is clearly the heart of the round table. It’s Phillips-Fein‘s show, and she doesn’t disappoint. As such, this piece receives the greatest attention in this post. (Note: I’m going to shorten her name to KPF for the rest of this post.)

KPF [right] praises much of the new scholarship on conservatism and, as expected, notes its tendencies. She posits for the reader some of the now-familiar central themes for the growth of the New Right (not to be confused with just conservatism): anti-communism, opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, reactions to labor unions and their power, and “changing sexual norms” (p. 724). KPF recounts the impoverished psychological accounts of conservatism from consensus historians (think Hofstadter and Daniel Bell), to George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Tradition since 1945 (which she calls “the most influential synthesis of the subject”—discussed here by Andrew Hartman) and Alan Brinkley’s important 1994 AHR article, “The Problem of American Conservatism.” Jennifer Burns’s recent account of Ayn Rand is covered (also discussed here by Mike O’Connor). Our very own Paul Murphy gets a shout-out for his influential account of the veritable road-not-taken by conservatives as offered by southern agrarians (i.e. criticism of capitalism).* Other topics addressed by KPF include suburban conservatism, the sun belt, Christian conservatism, affluence and middle-class conservatism (not merely backlash or populist varieties). There are so many books covered in KPF’s essay that my list above is scanty in comparison.

What of the issues KPF raises? She advocates for more work on “the connections between racial and sexual politics and conservative economic ideas.” She also believes that can be written on mass media, local party organizations, “antifeminism and opposition to gay rights,” “anti-immigrant and nativist sentiment,” “war, nationalism, and patriotism”—the last inclusive of groups like veteran’s organizations and the American Legion (p. 735-736). KPF spends a paragraph discussing the need for more work on recent conservative “extremists” (something Wilfred McClay takes issue with in his lead-off response, titled “Less Boilerplate, More Symmetry”).

KPF notes the problem of periodization: Does New Right conservatism begin in the 1920s, 1930s (wherein Leo Ribuffo gets a shout out on p. 737), or after World War II? She fairly consistently argues that that 1945 is the legitimate starting point. KPF also reminds readers of the “long exception” argument on liberalism made by Jefferson Cowie and and Nick Salvatore in an essay that first appeared in International Labor and Working-Class History (74, Fall 2008).

The 1970s and 1980s receive special attention at the end of KPF’s introductory essay. She notes that recent scholars covering this period are undermining “the ‘whiggish’ tendency to read conservatism’s successes backward through postwar history” (p. 739). KPF argues that recent studies on these decades reveal something of the “fragility” of the conservative movement–that its success may have more to do with the fracturing of liberalism than has been previously discussed. Jefferson Cowie’s recent book, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (whose book has come up in four posts here) is mentioned, as well as neoliberalism via David Harvey and—wait…for…it—the much-discussed-at-USIH “instant classic” by Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture.

Near the end KPF acknowledges the need for more work “looking at conservatism from an international perspective…analyzing the ways that the movement drew from intellectual and organizational sources outside the United States” (p. 742-743).

And here’s KPF’s conclusion: “The real project is to see conservatism with a new perspective—to understand its tenacity through the liberal years, its longstanding relationship to the state and to economic elites, and how its history is intertwined with that of liberalism, as well as the ways its ascendance reflected not only its own political dynamism but also broader changes in American society” (p. 743).

“Less Boilerplate, More Symmetry” by Wilfred M. McClay (pp. 744–47)

I already mentioned one main point from McClay above. I will bring up another below—a useful metaphor. [Aside: For regular USIH commenter Varad Mehta, per your comment on my last post, Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History gets a nod at the end of McClay’s piece.]

“Conservatism as a Growing Field of Scholarship” by Alan Brinkley (pp. 748–51)

This piece rehashes and praises many of the points made by KPF. Otherwise, Brinkley meditates on how the post-war movement managed to unify in the face of internal contradictions and paradoxes within (e.g. pro and anti-containment foreign policy). He is also fascinated with how the movement has drawn in new constituencies and used new media. He ends by discussing the problem of neoconservatism within the movement.

“Rethinking American Conservatism: Toward a New Narrative” by Donald T. Critchlow (pp. 752–55)

Critchlow [right] agrees with KPF’s assessment of Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Tradition, saying it “remains unchallenged.” Critchlow notes problems with the definition of “conservative” and, strange as it may seem, refers to the work of a medieval historian, Robert Stacey, on the concept of limited government. Also, interestingly, Critchlow proposes “a little counterfactual thought experiment” wherein he argues that the notion of “modern liberalism is the ideological anomaly of the twentieth century” (p. 754). Sound familiar? It echoes the Cowie/Salvatore argument mentioned above from 2008. Critchlow concludes as follows: “The story of conservatism in postwar America is one of ideological contradiction, political opportunism, electoral triumph, and of deeply held beliefs about the nature of the individual and the good society.”

“On American Conservatism and Kim Phillips-Fein’s Survey of the Field” by Martin Durham (pp. 756–59)

Durham’s essay praises KPF’s introduction. He argues for closely studying the conservative magazine, National Review, as a unifying force in the history of the New Right. Correspondingly, on the temporal diversity of the movement, he writes that “it would…seem wise to describe conservatism since 1954 as modern conservatism”–acknowledging that libertarianism and anticommunism existed earlier (p. 759).

“Political History beyond the Red-Blue Divide” by Matthew D. Lassiter (pp. 760–64)

Lassiter‘s thesis seems to be the following: “The new political history has inadvertently replicated some of the blind spots of the liberal consensus school that it supplanted, especially through a linear declension/ascension narrative that has conflated the fate of the New Deal with the political triumph of the New Right. …The interpretations of political history have tracked too closely to the red-blue binaries of journalism and punditry; …the literature has taken the contradictions and fragmentation of liberalism as given but smoothed over similar weaknesses and fissures within conservatism” (p. 760).

Lassiter [right] wants us to distinguish between the history of conservatism and broader political history. He also wants us to recognize “the times and places in which liberalism and conservatism have overlapped.” And this move “requires a reconsideration of the polarization thesis that has animated the scholarship on the New Right. …[This] thesis has evolved into a hegemonic framework” (p. 762). Lassiter wants a better periodization of the various conservative elements. He also sees a problem with the lumping of unconnected currents of change with Reagan’s election.

Finally, I wondered whether Lassiter had read Rodgers when he wrote (bolds mine): “The phrase ‘free market’ describes a principled ideological position, if not a concrete reality. It seems more useful to evaluate the rhetoric of ‘anti-government’ and ‘free enterprise’ conservatism as a political and cultural construct, a discursive fiction wielded as a form of power in the struggle to shape the nation’s political culture and its political economy” (p. 764). It’s not an assertion of a “contagion of metaphors,” but it goes to Rodgers’ point about the changed nature of discourse since the 1970s.

“Now That Historians Know So Much about the Right, How Should We Best Approach the Study of Conservatism?” by Lisa McGirr (pp. 765–70)

The title sort of says it all, or at least articulates something of McGirr‘s main theme. Like other round table contributors, McGirr admires KPF’s “thoughtful survey” (p. 765). While recounting and restating many of KPF’s points, she adds several points: (1) We need to study more deeply the “secular shifts in global capitalism” (p. 767). (2) We would do well to study better “the arguably important institutional areanas where conservatives have long held substantial sway,” such as in Congress (p. 768). (3) McGirr echoes KPF’s call for more study of transnational networks and “the roots of ideas”/origins (pp. 768-769). (4) McGirr is also generally an advocate for looking at conservatism after World War II as a distinct, more cohesive kind of conservatism–an entity “constructed afresh from a new constellation of ideas” (p. 770).

McGirr [right] pushes readers to look again at the demise of Progressivism for some hints at what occurs later. She then makes an artful, relatively concise statement about the stakes of those potential connections: “In no small part due to the traumatic experience of national prohibition in the 1920s, modern liberals drew a thicker line between private behavior and government regulation than had early twentieth-century reformers. Indeed, liberals’ increasing emphasis on personal rights and freedoms opened up space after World War II for conservative claims to being the champions of ‘moral virtue'” (p. 770).

Finally, McGirr comes out as a proponent of Cowie and Salvatore’s “long exception” thesis. The period from the New Deal through the Great Society was unusual—a highpoint for American liberalism as we think of it today.

“A Response” by Kim Phillips-Fein (pp. 771–73)

I have already referenced KPF’s final response above, and will do so again below. For now I just want to say that she addressed concerns raised in nearly every round table piece. I found this passage particularly intriguing and enlightening (underlines mine):

While recognizing the divide between ideology and policy, it remains important to think about how economic ideas matter. While conservatives have not limited the growth of the state in the ways that their rhetoric might suggest, their opposition to the welfare state has significantly shaped their approaches to public policy. Alan Brinkley raises the question of how to think about the attraction of conservatism to people who are, as he puts it, perched precariously in the middle class. The recent rise of economic inequality, he suggests, may actually have led to the embrace of an antigovernment, antitax politics by middle-class and working-class people, who, facing stagnation of their incomes and living standards, have grown frustrated with a state that seems increasingly incapable of aiding them. The erosion of government…has not led to a call for more government, but rather to a sense of the impotence of the state and a deep pessimism about the possibilities of government activism, and a feeling of resentment about rising tax burdens that yield few tangible benefits (pp. 772-773).



Returning to my original question: What now? Where do we—as a USIH community—go from here? KPF herself, on page one of the round table (p. 723 in JAH) states: “Historians might be forgiven for asking whether there is anything left to study in the history of the Right.” I certainly felt that way immediately (but only immediately) after reading the round table.

For her part, KPF synthesized the round table contributions by laying out “three subjects” she believes “will be at the heart of moving the interpretive project forward: [1] the question of origins, [2] the relationship between the radical and moderate parts of the conservative movement, and [3] the role of economic ideas in conservatism” (p. 771). I like [1] and [2], but think that [3] is already well under way—or implicit in many works already done. I like to think that USIH (the field, the society, and this blog) will be integral moving [1] forward.

Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mind obviously helps move the project forward in relation to the “question of origins.”** Robin’s book was not included in the round table, which is a shame, but most likely due to its recent publication date. Robin [right] goes toward what Brinkley suggests in his round table contribution: namely, synthesis. Robin also addresses something KPF calls for in her final “Response”: the need for more work on “deep currents” (p. 771). Robin’s book also goes toward KPF’s call for internationalizing the conservative movement. Finally, both Brinkley and KPF seem to suggest there is a need for more lumping (though not “über-lumping”!) and less splitting. Robin’s book does that too.

But other post-hole, or “splitter” if you prefer, studies are open for exploration. Hartman’s work on the Culture Wars will be a welcome addition to the historiography (many of these USIH posts are his), as will Ben Alpers’s forthcoming book on the Straussians (several Alpers pieces on that topic have been posted here) and Ray Haberski’s forthcoming book on the problem of war in the post-war period (latest installment here). I think my work on Adler and “Great Books Liberalism” (and more) will contribute to delineating some of the intellectual boundaries of the liberal-conservative divide. In other words, several USIH blog contributors are, and will be, at the heart of furthering the historiography on conservatism and liberalism in the near future.

Pardon the self promotion that follows, but two problems noted by several round table authors have been broached here before by me. First, to build on KPF’s point about “extremists” (p. 736) and McClay’s response to that topic, we need emotional histories of American conservatism. I wrote about this in an April 2011 post titled “The Emotional Panoply of American Conservatism, 1964-Present.” In that post I argued that “the array of emotional states covered by recent American conservatism suggests a necessary, renewable source of power behind the ideas and ideology of movement.” Or, in the words of Alexander Pope via Nicole Eustace, “passion is the gale.” Corey Robin’s Fear: A History of a Political Idea also goes to this point.

Second, several round table authors argued that we need more and better histories mid-century liberalism (KPF, pp. 727, 773; McClay, pp. 744-745; Brinkley, p. 750; Critchlow, p. 754; Lassiter, ALL; and McGirr, pp. 766, 770). Around this time last year I suggested (here and here) that our discussions of conservatism would be incomplete so long as we didn’t understand better the boundaries between it and liberalism—what mid-century liberalism really was. In his round table contribution McClay called this dialectical tension “the reciprocating engine.” He implored us to remember that these “ideological dispositions” are “mutable” (p. 745). I agree.

Although I have not discussed this topic explicitly at USIH, I would suggest that anti-globalism is another splitter line of study worthy of exploration. This was not suggested by KPF in her long list of a dozen or so worthies (pp. 735-736). I’ve studied this only partially in relation to Hutchins’s and Adler’s advocacy for world federal government, and reactions to their positions—most notably by Birchers in the 1950s and 1960s. But the Birchers’ response was more about nativism (maybe?) than recent fears of global markets (think 1999, Seattle, and the WTO), concerns about the value of labor, conspiracy theories about one-world government (think Limbaugh, Beck, etc.), and fiscal austerity (the Ron Paul position). These later formulations of anti-globalism could be better analyzed.

Whatever we do, we need to fight the kind of garbage offered up by pundits-turned-historians, like this piece by Robert Reich blaming our situation on the Civil War and white southerners—not that any USIH folks would ever produce anything that simplistic.

What are your thoughts? What of the round table—overall or by piece? And what do you think is left to do? – TL

* We’ve covered so much ground on the New Right and conservatism at USIH that I was mildly surprised to see no citations of either our blog posts or book reviews. Perhaps we don’t cite enough JAH articles around here? Just kidding, but our work has most certainly contributed to the scholarly conversation. This may be the ultimate argument for creating an S-USIH journal.

** I’m wondering if Robin’s book won’t also become something of an instant classic. I say this because you don’t attract high-profile ire from the likes of Mark Lilla unless you hit a nerve.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. A great run-down of the action. As one of the grad students who is spending the next few years working my way through the stockpile that the contributors have amassed, I’m grateful to you for this road map.

    Like Tim, I also found myself wondering whether I’d find Robin’s book in one of the many deep footnotes. What I think is so timely about The Reactionary Mind is that it speaks so precisely to what could be a time of fission in the conservative movement, or at least a moment when new events have pushed scholars to emphasize more the qualified nature of conservatism’s successes in achieving its goals and even in defining itself. To me (and, clearly to a lot of other people), what made Lilla’s attack on Robin’s “lumping” so strange is that Robin is actually very good about acknowledging the stark differences in doctrine and ideology that separate the figures about whom he is writing. What he does insist on is a very specific commonality, or class of commonality, and that is something very close to what you (and Phillips-Fein) call for–a way to “capture the emotional tone of the movement” (in her words).

    Yet I wonder if “emotion” is the best word; I don’t think that in its usual sense and the sense that Phillips-Fein seems to be using it, it equates to what Robin is getting at. Fairly consistently, Robin insists on inserting a cognitive or intellectual valence in place of or in addition to what most people ascribe simply to emotion. A good example is in his first book (which is titled “Fear: A History of a Political Idea”): “Hobbes warmed to the fear of death–not just the affective emotion, but the cognitive apprehension of bodily destruction–because he thought it offered a way out of this state of nature” (32). A corollary passage from The Reactionary Mind might be: “it is clear from The Sublime and the Beautiful that if the self is to survive and flourish it must be aroused by an experience more vital and bracing than pleasure or enjoyment. Pleasure and enjoyment act like beauty, ‘relaxing the solids of the whole system.’ That system, however, must be made taut and tense. The mind must be quickened, the body exerted. Otherwise, the system will soften and atrophy, and ultimately die” (223).

    Fear and sublimity are more like technologies than they are like affective currents or moods or reflexes, and they are especially not pathologies or irrational tangles. I find Robin illuminating not because he assigns a specific range of emotions to people on the right or characterizes someone as conservative based on the emotions they manifest–I don’t think he does that at all. What he is after, I think, is a more complicated sense of self, a method of using and pursuing emotions like fear and sublimity, which is specific to or characteristic of conservatives. That, I think, is a way forward to begin talking about “extremists” without being tempted to reiterate the comforting Hofstadterian bromides about paranoia and anti-intellectualism on the Right.

  2. Andrew,

    Thanks for the long comment. And thanks for the correction on the title to Robin’s first book. 🙂 I’ll go change that in the post.

    On your (and Robin’s) point about emotion as a cognitive/intellectual valence, sure. The interplay between the mind and what we call “emotion” is where I was going with this. I should’ve been more clear. “Emotions” need to be weaved, or braided, into our histories of ideas. Those emotions help us understand reception (or the lack of) and attraction. And, though it seems counterintuitive, emotion goes toward the staying power of ideas. An idea that is integrated with our deeper loves and fears will certainly have more staying power.

    I assert that there exists a conservative vocabulary, and hence a discourse, about fear and other emotions (i.e. repugnance, per my prior post on the subject)—a vocabulary that is qualitatively different than that of left-leaning people.

    – TL

Comments are closed.