Kevin Mattson is probably one of the most prolific U.S. intellectual historians of his generation. He’s also one of the few whose work likely gets read by a larger public. And yet, we don’t discuss Mattson very often here at this blog. This is somewhat surprising given that his interests—postwar political culture—overlap with many of ours. (It’s also surprising since one of our regulars, Ray Haberski, and one of our longtime friends, Julian Nemeth of PhD Octopus fame, both studied with Mattson.)
Why is this? I think it’s because his books, though written with verve, tend to bring intellectual history to bear on contemporary political concerns rather than offer new historiographical insights. This is not a critique. By focusing more on political relevance than on scholarly discourse, Mattson seems to have achieved what many of us claim to want: the elusive general audience. But it might explain why Mattson is unlikely to appear on any comp lists.
The first Mattson book I read, ?Intellectuals in Action: ?The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970 (2002), remains my favorite. In it Mattson examines four of the American intellectuals I find most interesting—William Appleman Williams, C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, and Arnold Kauffman—arguing that their thought, and actions, helped give rise to the New Left. I like it more than Mattson’s other books because the research and argument seemed fresh and because he seemed less interested in scoring political points. The book hinted at such politicization. His argument that those four intellectuals, though radical enough to be New Leftists, were at their core American liberals, was a defense of an expansive definition of liberalism. But, as I remember it, such politicization was hardly the driving force of the book. The same perhaps cannot be said for Mattson’s next book, When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Liberalism in Post-War America (2004). This book also sketches out the thought of major intellectuals, including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, and Reinhold Niebuhr, this time in order to defend American liberalism from its detractors on both left and right. In what almost seems like an update of Schlesinger’s Vital Center for the War on Terror, Mattson wants his readers to think of liberalism as both tough and pragmatic, as capable of negotiating the rocky shoals between the ideological left and right. In this, When America Was Great seems like a companion to Peter Beinart’s shameful, The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (2004), a longer version of his (in)famous New Republic article, “A Fighting Faith.” This comparison is probably unfair. Mattson, unlike Beinart, did not use the history of liberalism to support the war in Iraq. But, that the two books seem like companions likely speaks to the dangers of historical relevance. Mattson gained a large readership, no doubt, but When America Was Great, unlike Intellectuals in Action, already seems dated a mere eight years after its publication. Most recently, sticking with the liberal theme, Mattson co-authored with Eric Alterman the gigantic book, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. I have not yet had the pleasure to read The Cause, though it is sitting on my desk as I write this. My guess is there will be much to like in it, and that I’ll agree with some if not all of the history and politics. But I also suspect the book will be more about the 2012 election than the 1932 election, even in the FDR chapters. So The Cause will be widely read and reviewed in places most of us can only dream of being reviewed in—The New York Times, for example. But it won’t be on any graduate comp lists. Mattson has written several other books that I won’t discuss in this post. Like I said, he’s über-prolific. The one book I would like to briefly discuss is Rebels All! A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America (2008). This book was published by the Rutgers University Press series, “Ideas in Action: Thought and Culture in the United States Since 1945,” edited by our good friend George Cotkin. Ray’s new book, God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945, is coming out this summer as part of that excellent series. (I love the series description: “Ideas In Action allows established historians to consider broad and important issues pertaining to cultural and intellectual life in the United States since 1945. The books, based for the most part on secondary literature surrounding a topic, will highlight and dissect compelling controversies related to large cultural questions as they change over time. The series provides authors with an opportunity to interpret, to speculate, and to ‘think out loud,’ while furthering critical debate. Books deal not in abstractions but anchor ideas firmly in the context of politics, culture, and society. They are written in a style that is accessible to a wide range of readers and that captures the author’s personality and point of view.”)
Rebels All! lives up to the series description. It’s a broad, speculative interpretation of extant historiography. Mattson’s main point is that modern American conservatism should best be understood as “populist aggression.” In this, he argues that American conservatives are the true heirs to sixties radicals. Conservatives are the ones who have carried on the sixties legacy of anti-establishment utopianism.
I find Mattson’s argument that conservatives are the legatees of sixties radicalism very problematic. Conservatives are rowdy anti-establishmentarians in style. So what? In the first place, sixties radicals were hardly the first Americans to evince such a style. But more importantly, style should not always be conflated with substance, especially in this case. Sixties radicals were anti-establishment because they were against the war, racism, and sexism they thought endemic to the establishment. Obviously, the same cannot be said about conservatism.
I am currently writing a chapter on neoconservatism for my culture wars book, so I took particular interest in Mattson’s analysis of that persuasion. Mattson correctly points out that neocons helped the larger conservative movement by bringing less moralistic social science techniques to conservative arguments and by making an otherwise Protestant and Catholic movement more diverse. But he also argues that the neocons were often out of touch relative to the larger conservative movement. For instance, whereas neocons like Irving Kristol conceptualized religion in “small r” republican terms as a source of stability, conservative American Christians, in Mattson’s view, were populist dissidents who spread disorder. (This divide seems to speak to Ray’s work on civil religion.) More specifically, Mattson believes that, because neocons like Kristol hated populism, which he called an “antinomian impulse,” a “Jacobin contempt” for “law and order and civility,” they were somewhat irrelevant.
Relating this to the campus protests of the sixties, Mattson contrasts the neocons with conservatives like Russell Kirk, who enjoyed the campus protests of the sixties because of the pain it caused the liberal establishment. Mattson uses a famous Russell Kirk quote from 1969, where Kirk takes pleasure in campus protests, as an illustrative epigraph:
“Having been for two decades a mordant critic of what is foolishly called the higher learning in America, I confess to relishing somewhat… the fulfillment of my predictions and the present plight of the educationist Establishment. I even own to a sneaking sympathy, after a fashion, with the campus revolutionaries.”
Arguing that neoconservatism arose, in part, as a reaction to campus protest is true insofar as it goes. But contrasting that with Kirk’s schadenfreude does not quite paint a full picture. I argue that the neoconservative reaction against sixties radicalism was, in fact, internalized by American conservatism more broadly, antinomian style of the larger movement notwithstanding. The sixties protests, it must be remembered, were sopped up by the academy, among other liberal institutions, especially the identity power movements. In this way, conservative antipathy to the academy owes more to the neoconservative reaction than to “populist aggression,” however conservatives style themselves.
I’m still trying to figure out if and how Mattson’s take on conservatism relates to goal of politically relevant scholarship.