U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Studying the American Right, Center, and Left–All at the Same Time!

Guest post by Leo P. Ribuffo. This is a version of a talk Leo gave as part of a session of the same title at the American Historical Association in January 2013.


Contrary to the recently established canon, typified by the December 2011 Journal of American History Round Table, the study of conservatism broadly conceived did not begin in the early 1990s.  Rather, interest in this topic is almost as old as the professional study of American history.  Charles and Mary Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Vernon Parrington did not have to end their subtitles with the now ubiquitous “and the rise of conservatism” because conservatism was always there to be risen against.  For these “old progressive” historians the whole of United States history was a conflict among conservative, liberal, and sometimes radical interest groups or classes (the Beards) or regions (Turner) or worldviews (Parrington).  In other words, our methodological ancestors studied the American, Right, Center and Left all at the same time (though this spectrum was not yet standard in the United States as we shall see).

A bit of their perspective survived through the sequential triumphs of “consensus” and “New Left” history and, accompanying the latter’s early hegemony, the quarter century in which our profession’s interest in the Right broadly conceived declined to a band of about 40 scholars.  My perennial insistence that the latter day old progressive historians (and sworn enemies) William Appleman Williams and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. are important interpreters of conservatism  is often regarded as eccentric–but not by anyone who has read William’s The Contours of American History and virtually anything by Schlesinger.

In this talk I will borrow selectively from these generations even older than my own while mulling over some advantages of studying the Right, Center, and Left all at the same time.  Those who find the phrase “mulling over” as archaic as Chaucer may substitute that I will interrogate the problematic and complicate the narrative.

I will not belabor the point well understood by the Beards, Turner, Parrington, Williams, and Schlesinger that an understanding of the Right broadly conceived needs to start as far back as study of the Left and Center (though I will cite in an endnote articles where I do belabor this point). (1)  Suffice it to say that we need a book called The McKinleyist Persuasion that dispassionately traces an evolving conservative worldview from William McKinley through Herbert Hoover’s redefinition of “American individualism” to Dwight Eisenhower’s “corporate commonwealth” and on to George H. W. Bush and even to George W. Bush (if our hypothetical author can avoid ignorant quips about a “faith-based presidency”). Since McKinleyists have been more likely than Populists to control the military, State Department, Supreme Court, and Federal Reserve Board, this book would have to address elite public policies as well as grassroots hopes.

By the early 1950s the Right-Center-Left spectrum, standard in Western Europe for more than a century, finally became the prevailing way of conceptualizing  political rivalry in the United States, by and large replacing the old progressive scheme of “the people” versus “the interests.”  We all know that promotion of this framework was itself a political act related to the sanctification of Cold War liberalism.  At the most learned level, consensus historians and pluralist social theorists like Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, and Seymour Martin Lipset celebrated a sensible center that differed psychologically and sociologically as well as programmatically from the dangerous “extremes.”  Let’s not forget this politics of history but it is not all we should know.  Formulation of this spectrum, starting during the Great Depression, began as part of an effort to make sense of movements on both sides of the Atlantic that were somehow both conservative and radical.  Quite obviously Benito Mussolini differed from King Victor Emmanuel, Adolf Hitler from Paul von Hindenburg, Oswald Moseley from Winston Churchill, and Father Charles Coughlin from Andrew Mellon. These charismatic leaders certainly weren’t traditionalist advocates of quiet and calm, and their followers were often “the people” who were supposed to be heroic radical workers.  With notable exceptions–Franz Neumann and C. Wright Mills stand out–liberals and Marxists had almost no clue what to make of these actual or notional fascists.  Devotees of Thomas Frank and The Nation still don’t.  Indeed, the pervasive adoption of the term “neoliberalism” has made matters worse by obscuring differences on the Right (not to mention being unintelligible to most non-academic Americans, probably one reason for the term’s academic esteem).

Shorn of centrist celebration and social science pretension the Right-Center-Left spectrum has some virtues as an intellectual construct, ideal type, model, trope, pick your linguistic turn of phrase–I’m easy.  At least we seem to be stuck with it for the foreseeable future. Two decades ago political scientist Theodore Lowi tried to come up with a complicated modification which looked like three dimensional chess and was equally incomprehensible.

But this spectrum has four interconnected limitations.  First, it drastically oversimplifies the weird stew of politics–both shifting, odd electoral alliances and confusing political movements that bubbled over often during the first half of the twentieth century and occasionally still do bubble over from Ross Perot’s insurgency to the Tea Party.  The fabled New Deal coalition went through at least three incarnations by 1945. Michael Kazin and Angela Dillard, my fellow panelists at this AHA session, introduced us to some of this messiness in their respective analyses of the anti-war movement before World War I and aspects of African-American protest since the “sixties.” (2)  For greater detail about the first half of the twentieth-century, Beyond Left and Right by the good David Horowitz from Portland State University deserves a place in the canon.

Second, a strong inclination survives to claim a sharp distinction between a normal Center and at least slightly abnormal “extremists.”  Let’s smooth things out once and for all.  In one of our torrid multigenerational historiographical battles, I side with those who view the Communist party as a more-or-less normal American movement, with the caveat that American normality is normally less normal than ostensibly normal people normally think.  But if this holds true for the Communists, then the various versions of the Right, much more religious and native born like the rest of the population, must be viewed this way too–with the same caveat.

Third, by presenting the Center as normal, a linguistic turn favored even by Joseph Stalin when portraying himself as the moderate alternative to Leon Trotsky on his left and Nikolai Bukharin to his right, this spectrum almost automatically favors order over conflict.   Here we need a dose of the Beards, Turner, Parrington, Williams, and Schlesinger.  Just listen to the buzz of over-interpretation surrounding President Obama’s re-election among erstwhile liberals and radicals who now call themselves progressives as part of their latest public relations rebranding. Why are those old white men and women making so much noise instead of fading quietly into oblivion after smoking their last (tobacco) cigarette and turning out the lights at the American Legion hall?  Somewhere Hofstadter is smiling.  We are all consensus historians now.  Well, not quite all of us.

Fourth, there is  insufficient recognition that the realities sketched by this spectrum change.  Movements led by real people sometimes widen it simultaneously on the Right and Left (as in the “sixties”) and sometimes shrink it at both ends (as in the “fifties”).  Sometimes, too, one wing atrophies while the other flaps loudly if not necessarily effectively. Cold War liberal Hubert Humphrey and Communist leader William Z. Foster wouldn’t agree about much, as panelist Jennifer Delton’s writings tell us in greater detail, but both would think “left” an imperfect label for the Obama administration. (3)

Things change and sometimes even improve.  Jesse Helms was a so-called racial moderate compared to Theodore Bilbo.  Paul Ryan’s fantasy budget would bring the federal share of the GDP back to the 16% level of the Kennedy years.  Most self-respecting Protestant theological conservatives from the 1930s would be stunned by the philo-Semitic flip in Bible prophecy that interprets Israel as a friend instead of an ally of the Antichrist.  They would also urge Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann to wear longer skirts.  In the course of their eighty year conflict the American Right has changed more than the Left and Center.

Finally, we should address again the broad question hotly debated during the “fifties”:  Is the United States a conservative country?  Given this session’s time constraints, I’ll have to settle for the short answer:  yes, no, and it depends and on time, place, circumstance, and definition.

1.  Leo P. Ribuffo, “The Discovery and Rediscovery of American Conservatism Broadly Conceived,” Magazine of History (January 2003), “Conservatism and American Politics,” Journal of the Historical Society (Spring 2003), and “Twenty Suggestions for Studying the Right Now that Studying the Right is Trendy,” Historically Speaking (January 2011).

2.  I think that Professors Kazin and Dillard would share their talks from this session.

3.  I think that Professor Delton, too, would share her talk.

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