Conservatism studies: on the value and limits of academic history

Three Way Fight


Not so long ago, respected historians and sociologists promoted the idea that right-wing politics was best understood as a kind of psychological problem: a form of collective irrationality, an expression of despair or a paranoid style, or a product of status anxiety among declining sectors of the middle class. The scholars who developed this view were Cold War liberals who needed a way to delineate their supposedly rational, measured anticommunism from the reckless, irresponsible anticommunism of Senator Joe McCarthy and his fans. (Michael Rogin pointed this out 45 years ago in his book The Intellectuals and McCarthy.) The right-wing-equals-irrational approach is pretty well useless for understanding political movements, but it persists in popular culture, largely because it makes liberalism (and the Democratic Party) look good.

Most academic historians, to their credit, have abandoned psychological theories of the right. This shift got seriously underway in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan’s presidency made it clear that the right could no longer be dismissed as a declining or marginal force in U.S. politics. Since then, many valuable historical studies have been published, most of which concentrate on specific movements, locales, organizations, or people. The December 2011 Journal of American History features a helpful overview of much of this scholarship entitled “Conservatism: A State of the Field.” (All page references are to this article unless otherwise indicated.) In this essay, Kim Phillips-Fein of NYU assesses academic work on modern U.S. conservatism over the past two decades, citing and commenting on dozens of books and articles, outlining broad trends, and offering suggestions for future work. (Unfortunately, the text of Phillips-Fein’s piece — and roundtable responses by six other historians — is only available online by subscription to the journal, which excludes most of us outside academia. However, a detailed summary of the whole roundtable is available on the U.S. Intellectual History blog.)

A starting point of reference for Phillips-Fein is 1994, when Alan Brinkley wrote in the American Historical Review that historians had largely ignored conservatism. Since then, Phillips-Fein argues, conservatism has become “one of the most dynamic subfields in American history” (723). Her essay walks us through recent works on conservative intellectual history, the Christian right, women and conservatism, the role of business, regional studies, and the complex relationship between libertarianism and traditionalism. Overturning several older stereotypes, the new scholarship treats conservatism not as marginal but a thriving movement with diverse constituencies, not as a sudden backlash but a mobilization that developed gradually for decades, and not as backward or anti-modern but rooted largely in the suburban upper middle class of the Sunbelt and promoting modern business principles.

Looking forward, Phillips-Fein encourages her colleagues to “move beyond the closely focused studies of movement history that have dominated the scholarship thus far and to reconsider our ideas about the relationship of the Right to the broader trends of American political history” (724). “Instead of seeing a conservative movement springing from the ashes of World War II to counter a powerful liberal state, we might see a long tradition with deep historical roots, revitalized at different points in response to various challenges but nonetheless present throughout the century” (738). At the same time, citing some historians of the 1970s and 1980s, Phillips-Fein questions an overemphasis on conservative power in two ways. First, she argues that the recent conservative movement, “despite its obvious victories, was actually much weaker and less cohesive than historians have generally believed” (739), while liberalism and left activism persisted. Second, she suggests that conservatism’s rise to power may largely reflect external factors such as political shifts within liberalism and the Democratic Party, the 1970s economic crisis that brought “a newly aggressive class politics” (740), and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Academia tends to see itself as synonymous with serious scholarship, and Phillips-Fein says up front that her overview excludes “popular works,” whether journalistic accounts, books by conservative activists, or “polemical pieces from the Left.” While anyone writing a literature review needs to limit its scope to keep things manageable, a historiography of U.S. conservatism is weakened if it omits non-academic treatments such as Susan Faludi’s Backlash or Jeff Sharlet’s The Family, or, for that matter, the work of conservative activists such as Justin Raimondo and Paul Gottfried. As Martin Durham points out in one of the more interesting roundtable responses to Phillips-Fein, Raimondo’s and Gottfried’s books challenge the hegemony of foreign policy hawks within the conservative movement (first National Review fusionists, then neoconservatives) and reclaim Old Right traditions of anti-interventionism going back to the America First Committee and the early libertarians. The clash between interventionist and anti-interventionist rightists is crucial for understanding recent U.S. conservatism, but Phillips-Fein never mentions it.

Leftist and liberal activists, meanwhile, have been doing solid research and analysis on all of the topics Phillips-Fein highlights as needing more attention from historians: the conservative movement’s relationship with war and nationalism, antifeminism and opposition to gay rights, anti-immigrant nativism, the role of mass media, and the relationship between conservative economics and the politics of race and gender. (The Political Research Associates newsletter alone has covered almost all of these topics in feature articles over the past five years.) Anti-rightist activists have also done detailed work on conservatism’s factional divisions, and the complex interplay between conservatism and the far right, which Phillips-Fein touches on only in passing.

Regarding Phillips-Fein’s larger questions about the nature of conservatism and its relationship with broader political and social changes, some of the most useful work comes from people who combine academic scholarship with leftist analysis. For example, Phillips-Fein urges historians to explore the “apparent contradiction” between conservatives’ stated libertarian values and their actual policies, which “dramatically expanded government in areas such as defense spending and in the war on drugs” (741). This discussion would benefit by revisiting a definition that Sara Diamond offered seventeen years ago: “To be right-wing means to support the state in its capacity as enforcer of order and to oppose the state as distributor of wealth and power downward and more equitably in society” (Roads to Dominion, 9). (A pioneer in studying the modern right, Diamond left the field, and academia, in 1998 because she was unable to find a full-time teaching position.)

Similarly, efforts to place the conservative movement in the context of “some deeper shift in American politics, economics, and culture” (740) would do well to consider Thomas Ferguson’s work on the 1970s collapse of the pro-New Deal coalition within the business community (Golden Rule and, with Joel Rogers, Right Turn) and Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s explication of the collapse of the “American Dream” during the same period (Racial Formation in the United States). These are just a few examples. The left has a lot more to offer than just polemics.

3 thoughts on “Conservatism studies: on the value and limits of academic history”

  1. "…excludes most of us outside academia." Most libraries would have a journal like this available on site (via their computers).

  2. I doubt that many public libraries provide this access. Even the New York Public Library only provides full-text electronic access to Journal of American History articles up to one year ago, according to their website. And while some academic libraries probably still let members of the general public come in and use their computer resources, others require a login for online journals, databases, etc., and may charge an admission fee or otherwise limit access to the premises.


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