June/July/Aug 2008

Right Makes Might

How did Conservatives overtake the American political scene? By stoking a rhetoric of resentful individualism—and playing the race card with a new finesse.

Kevin Mattson


When I was in graduate school studying American history, there was a quick and easy interpretation of postwar politics. It went something like this: A "liberal consensus" dominated the American political scene from around 1945 to 1968. During those years, anticommunist liberalism—which included battling the Soviet Union abroad while securing civil rights for African Americans and a welfare state at home—exerted a Borg-like hold on the political establishment. Liberal ideas were everywhere. They were the air that America's leaders breathed. Conservative ideas—if such things existed—were little more than what Lionel Trilling called, in 1950, "irritable mental gestures." Conservatives during these years were cranks or crotchety sons of bitches whose ideas slid off the political radar.

Then bam—presto! came the '60s. The country fell apart, "unraveled" as one historian put it. And conservatives took over, starting in 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon and his coalition-splitting appeal to the nation's "silent majority" of working- and middle-class white ethnic voters. The "backlash" against the 1960s' excesses became nearly as ubiquitous—and mystically powerful—in accounts of the post-'60s political mood as the liberal consensus it displaced. Conservatives pointed fingers at stoned-out hippies, riots flaming up in the inner cities, and America's failure in Vietnam. Then they waited to harvest the spoils, ushering in a new era of conservative dominance, beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. Thus, a narrative arc moving from liberal consensus to conservative triumph emerged. If you taught an American-history survey course or wrote a book about the period, this arc served especially well. It was nice and neat and, therefore, likely to be proved wrong.

I should point out that my graduate school days came just before the rise of Newt Gingrich (or thereabouts) and certainly before George W. Bush. Both the radical Republicans' Contract with America and Bush's 2004 reelection permanently transformed American politics. To continue in the vein of political autobiography: I now live in Ohio, and I remember how strong conservatism feltconservatism, that is, as a grassroots infrastructure based around potent ideas—in the fateful 2004 campaign. I was working on the Kerry campaign, distributing literature, canvassing, and making "persuasion" phone calls. A friend who spent all his time reading polls told me that Kerry was pulling ahead in Ohio, that things were going our way. I knew he was wrong.

Sadly, Election Day proved me right. I was handing out literature at a polling station, and voter after voter told me that he or she had come out for two purposes: to support both Bush ("Boosh" in my region of the state) and Issue 1, a ban on gay marriage. These voters' sense of determined mission suggested they had gotten the message from their churches (they didn't say so, but I was pretty certain). There was clearly something on the ground propelling them to do what they were doing en masse. This wasn't fueled by campaign narratives, such as a belief that Boosh was one of themor that Kerry was some French-looking elitist. This was mobilization and infrastructure. And it won W. another four years in power, together with the "political capital" he claimed as his just reward.

Now, historians usually take their cues from the times in which they write. And they have faced increasing pressure to explain this conservative infrastructure. Our historical assessments are beginning to change. The people who formerly appeared as crackpots in studies of conservatism such as Daniel Bell's anthology The Radical Right (1963) and Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965) now appear as talented organizers, ahead of their times. Those who worked on Barry Goldwater's ill-fated 1964 campaign, for instance, no longer seem to be "nuts"—as LBJ's men called them—but rather the spiritual forebears of genius tacticians such as Karl Rove. The writers at the conservative magazine National Review are no longer oddball cranks but philosophers whose ideas would become public policy under Reagan and the two Bushes. Still, conservatives continue to complain about their "undertreated" status in scholarship. They feel marginalized by liberal academe, papered over by a conspiracy of silence.

But they can't justifiably lodge such complaints against Allan J. Lichtman's White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement. Lichtman, a history professor at American University, has written a chronicle of American politics during the twentieth century that places the American right front and center. It's a kitchen-sink book, encyclopedic in its knowledge, chock-full of archival details that will make historians sweat about their own underachievement. The book might be better subtitled Everything You Never Knew and Were Afraid to Find Out About the American Right.

Lichtman does more than document almost every extant right-wing organization. He changes our time frame for understanding the rise and consolidation of conservatism. He doesn't begin his story in the 1960s with backlash, Goldwater, or Nixon but rather in the 1920s, when the lineaments of modern conservatism first took hold. Consider Prohibition, the rises to power of the evangelical Billy Sunday and the Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, or the "trial of the century," which tried to convict not just a teacher named John T. Scopes but Darwinism and the American Civil Liberties Union. Consider the anti-immigration bills that passed Congress without much fuss or the pro-business politics of presidents Harding and Coolidge. And consider the Ku Klux Klan, which by the '20s had shed its image as a secretive enforcer of vigilante racism in the South to become a powerful force in the white middle-class lodge culture of northern cities by attacking immigration and calling on America to return to its Protestant origins.

Here is the white Protestant and free-market skeletal structure that defined the American right forty years before the 1960s. From the 20s, Lichtman moves up the timeline. To be sure, the right became defensive during the era of Roosevelt, but it didn't quiet down. He examines the homegrown fascism of the '30s. There was Spiritual Mobilization, an organization that "sought to mobilize 'Protestant pastors' to uphold the pre-crash fusion of Christian principle and business practice." And then as Dr. Win-the-War displaced Dr. New Deal, conservative isolationism became newly ascendant. Lichtman unearths, for instance, a group of grassroots "antiwar mothers" who feared that the "New Dealer's war would destroy families by forcing mothers to work and consigning children to day-care centers run by bureaucrats." Such figures asserted self-interest (Americans had no dog in the fight against European fascism) alongside the primacy of familial bonds. This potent rhetoric anticipated Phyllis Schlafly's 1970s activism against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), among other culture wars of that decade.

Then came the postwar years. Here Lichtman travels much-better-known ground. He revisits some familiar lore about the National Review, conservative critics of Eisenhower's flabby centrism, and grassroots revolts against the civil rights movement. And he rightly emphasizes the central story of postwar conservatism—the Republican presidential run of Goldwater in 1964. Though Lichtman doesn't shed much new light on the Arizona senator, he emphasizes infrastructure over personal leadership. "While moderates slept," Lichtman explains, Clifton White and other activists organized Goldwater forces to take over the Republican Party. And yet, the right was "near death" that year, by Lichtman's own admission. It took Nixon's crafty "Southern strategy," the consolidation of think tanks, and the growth of neocon ranks during the 1970s to develop a backbone for conservatism. And fanning out from that institutional framework were a number of linked developments: the collapse of the Carter presidency, the campaign that destroyed the ERA, the rise of the "New Right," and Ronald Reagan, who grafted a grin onto Goldwater's more cantankerous-sounding message. This was all part of the narrative of my graduate school days, and Lichtman doesn't add much to it.

Still, his research is stunning. Consider the organizations he uncovers: the Women's Patriotic Conference on National Defense (1920s), the New York State Economic Council (1930s), the American Vigilante Intelligence Federation (1930s), "the Minute Women of the U.S.A., founded in 1949 by sculptor Suzanne Silvercruys Stevenson and business executive Vivien Kellems, the organizer of the antitax Liberty Belles," American Action (1940s), the Church League of America (1950s), and the "Minutemen, a band of perhaps three hundred to four hundred patriots who armed themselves to repel a communist invasion" of America during the 1960s. How many of these groups have you heard of before? To a large extent, that's Lichtman's point: Here is the right we don't learn about in high school. But he never really explains whether these groups made much impact. They appear more like the right-wing equivalent of the wacky Trotskyist factions that warm and delude the hearts of leftist historians. Indeed, Lichtman himself seems unsure at moments about the significance of what he's uncovered. In discussing the 1930s, he admits, "Not even the spending, organizing, and educating of the right could overcome the real world of 1936" and FDR's landslide reelection. But that raises a vital question: If these groups were merely portents of more powerful things to come—stillborn revolutionaries, as it were—how essential is it to tell their story? Can we really inculcate a deeper understanding of the political past by cataloguing organizations that exerted little to no influence on the course of political events?

There's another problem, and it also relates to the book's extensive research. Lichtman buries his thesis in a mountain of details. His overarching theme is that "the modern right arose out of a widespread concern that pluralistic, cosmopolitan forces threatened America's national identity." But this argument gets swamped. Nor does it always fit his own facts. It's strange to find a book titled White Protestant Nation opening with a story about 150 members of the "Cuban-American community" protesting to shut down the presidential-vote recount of 2000 in Florida. And how to explain the partial success Bush has had in diversifying the Republican Party?

Nor is a quest for a unified national identity a legitimate framework for understanding the history of the right every step of the way. There's too much tension and conflict in this story. Take immigration, the hot-button issue if you're concerned with resisting "pluralistic, cosmopolitan forces," and one that's tearing the Republicans apart. There's always been a pro-business wing of conservatism that welcomes immigrants who serve as cheap labor. The problem is that Lichtman doesn't pay much attention to that strain, leaving his narrative flat at points when it should be conflicted—and when it should proceed to explore how such conflicts helped midwife the splits and fissures now on abundant display in today's right.

Still, Lichtman deserves praise not just for his painstaking research but for exploring the racial origins of American conservatism. This is sensitive terrain. You could imagine what right-wing pundits might say when asked about the white Protestant roots of their movement: nothing. This is the dirty little secret that conservatives would like to wish away. And it's a secret that University of Oregon political scientist Joseph E. Lowndes explores more thoroughly in his short, potent book, From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism. Lowndes doesn't travel as far back in time as Lichtman, and he zeroes in more specifically on the American South. The tightness of his book—just under two hundred pages of text—makes its arguments all the sharper. A reader has to cut through some awkward prose and academic claptrap—"cross-cutting institutional, discursive, and cultural paths," for example, and overuse of the already overused term hegemonic—to get at Lowndes's interpretation. But it's well worth it.

Lowndes starts his story with an unfamiliar figure: Charles Wallace Collins, an Alabama-born lawyer and the author of Whither Solid South? A Study in Politics and Race Relations (1947). Collins provided the intellectual scaffolding for the Dixiecrat revolt of 1948, when white southerners bolted the Democratic Party over civil rights to support the insurgent presidential run of then South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond. Collins's biggest accomplishment was to drain racist rhetoric out of the South's opposition to civil rights legislation. For Collins, the fight against equality with African Americans was to be political and constitutional, not racial. Liberals, Collins argued, would use racial equality to establish a "centralized national police state." When Thurmond took up Collins's ideas in his campaign, the Alabama lawyer wrote jubilantly about a "core of southern resistance around which a new political movement can be built." He had seen the future, and it worked.

Having breached that key pivot point in the Democratic coalition, Collins saw his views leach out and draw support from constituencies that diverged from the traditional whitesegregationist playbook. Lowndes documents discussions between Republicans and Dixiecrats in the early 1950s, before the Southern strategy and even before the "massive resistance" movement that soon followed Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Lowndes also has an explanation of Goldwater's 1964 campaign. It was activists from the South who led the conservative takeover of the Republican Party that Lichtman discusses and who helped Goldwater carry the Deep South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, even as Johnson trounced him everywhere else, save his home state of Arizona. Goldwater was no racist; he was a card-carrying member of the NAACP. Still, he voted against Johnson's Civil Rights Bill in June 1964, because, in words eerily close to Collins's, he feared "a federal police force of mammoth proportions." Goldwater became the linchpin between the Dixie-crat revolt of 1948 and the long-term "southern racialization of the GOP."

Most important of all to Lowndes is George Wallace—a figure not easily described as conservative, and certainly not a Republican. Still, the Democratic governor of Alabama developed an "antigovernment populism" and a rowdy, rebellious style that fit the mood of the '60s and provided a rich language eventually expropriated by the right. During Wallace's 1964 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, fistfights and riots broke out at his rallies, and in 1968, when he ran on the American Independent Party ticket, some supporters would drive to his rallies with a "cache of artillery" in their pickup trucks, ready to fight commies. Lowndes shows how this Democrat received crucial support from right-wingers as early as 1964. He also makes clear that though Wallace was a died-in-the-wool racist, he could speak a generalized language of revolt against the federal bureaucracy, adding a mind-bending language of victimhood. Wallace depicted the South as "the most American region," because federal bureaucrats had tried to beat it up and humiliate it. Lowndes writes, "Only this region could lead the struggle to safeguard the nation's historic virtues." In other words, every American was a southerner. And with this, Wallace famously attracted northern, ethnic whites to his cause, giving rise to what would later be called Reagan Democrats.

The last significant player in Lowndes's cast, Richard Nixon, took a page from Wallace's playbook. He tempered angry populist talk when running against Wallace (and Hubert Humphrey) in 1968 but then played it up in his fiercer fight of 1972 against ultraliberal George McGovern. Nixon cannily fused Goldwater's libertarianism with Wallace's populism and then, following the counsel of short-term court intellectual Kevin Phillips, rolled out the resulting synthesis as a big-ticket item in the suburbs and Sun Belt. The Southern strategy and resentment against busing propelled Nixon into the beckoning arms of right-wing populism. Nixon went on to govern in a centrist—and even, to some degree, liberal—fashion. But his legacy was an odd version of the 60s turned upside down: the generalized hatred of government and the embrace of outlaw individualism that soon became the heart of the Reagan revolution.

Both Lichtman's and Lowndes's treatments of the right are objective and scholarly, unlike earlier histories of the conservative movement composed by its devotees. Still, what's missing from Lichtman's encyclopedic and Lowndes's analytic account is the feel of the movement, the personalities and moods of its key players. To get a sense of that, we have the last book ever written by William F. Buckley Jr., Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater. The founder of the National Review and the "patron saint of the conservatives," to use John Judis's words, Buckley recently passed away at age eighty-two, but not before leaving us with his own recollection of Goldwater not as an epiphenomenon but as a flesh-and-blood personality.

Buckley knows that Goldwater's victory in the South was important for the future of the conservative movement. But he tells his story differently from Lichtman and Lowndes. In his account, Goldwater's wife announces the morning after the election: "You . . . took Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina . . . and Georgia." This after an evening during which Goldwater knocked back several shots of Old Crow whiskey and went to bed at eleven, expecting to wake up to reports of a rout. Buckley's story gives you the sense that Goldwater himself knew that his was a long-term campaign that would likely face short-term defeat. Even so, it becomes clear in Buckley's memoir that Goldwater saw his candidacy as launching a new phase of popular support for conservative politics—in this case, taking root most visibly in the South.

There's an insight in Buckley's book that goes well beyond the personal and anecdotal. Buckley's estimation of Goldwater matters not because Buckley was smarter than most conservatives on the scene in 1964, but because his sentiment was widely shared. Goldwater was popular because he was a straight shooter, fitting the '60s spirit of authenticity. He said things other people wouldn't. "The attraction to Barry Goldwater was to someone who would not bend with the spirit of the age as president, any more than he had as legislator and political theorist." Here Buckley reminds us of a simpler truth about politics than any presented by Lichtman or Lowndes: the importance of the messenger.

Should we understand the wider narrative arc about the American past differently in light of studies like Lichtman's, Lowndes's, and Buckley's? Perhaps the easiest way to answer is to fill in some of the broader picture that stories about the right leave out. Let's start with the obvious: Barry Goldwater didn't just lose in 1964, he lost in a landslide. And what followed his loss was a sweeping victory at home for liberal ideals: full-fledged equality for African Americans with the 1964 Civil Rights Bill that Goldwater voted against, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and myriad programs addressing poverty that we associate with the Great Society, including Medicare and Medicaid. Buckley draws on polling done around the time of Goldwater's defeat to show that though Americans might have voted for LBJ in large numbers, their beliefs were more conservative than the president's. Both Lichtman and Lowndes would suggest that Goldwater's loss didn't matter as much as the infrastructure left behind and the political language that could be drawn on in future battles. All true.

But let me offer another interpretation. What's missing from these assessments is any sense of moral imagination about the past or the diverse values that inform the American creed. As these retrospective accounts all suggest, the modern right successfully tapped one such ur-American value: the distrust of centralized political power, which harks back to the Revolutionary War and the framing of the Constitution. But it had little use for other such values—the belief in equality before the law, for example, or the defense of each citizen's fair and full participation in democratic life. Such glaring blind spots have time and again prevented the modern conservative movement from maturing into a true majoritarian political movement or governing philosophy. In that sense, the conservative story of our age is in large part a negative and limited one—pitching the fear of centralized power against other social goods no less vital to the American civic faith.

There's a danger in treating the right in an insular manner, the way historians of the conservative moment often have to. The work of Collins should be read alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on the American dream and equality. Goldwater's speech about "liberty" and "vigilance" needs to be placed next to LBJ's speeches in favor of civil rights and the Great Society. When we do that, it's hard not to conclude that no matter how potent, no matter how much infrastructure and organizational weight stood behind it, conservatism fit only partly within the moral boundaries of the American creed. The right had passion, organization, and legitimate fears about federal bureaucracy. But it's impossible to envision a resolution to the conflict over civil rights that would have ensured full equality for African Americans and mollified conservatives' fear about "a federal police force of mammoth proportions." Collins might have omitted or toned down the racist element in legitimating the South's fight, but should we do likewise in interpreting his legacy? Understanding the fullness of American history requires us not to pluck the idea out but to put it back into our overall story and ask some questions that relate to our moral imagination.

History, memoir, and social science are thus necessary, but not always sufficient, ways to size up the most familiar elements of the modern right's legacy, its past and present. After all, the right's strengths today are largely the ones it claimed yesterday: a simplistic focus on libertarian (and quasi-anarchist) values at the expense of all others, a potent appeal to self-interest on taxation, and a fierce faith in national unity. Modern conservatism is a machine that will keep grinding on. Whether it will continue to attract charismatic leaders who can make it appeal beyond its base is a question historical books and memoirs can't answer. But one thing's for sure: We can't go back to that old narrative I mastered in graduate school. Conservatism is much more than backlash or reaction. It's been a vanguard movement through much of our modern history. It has always had passionate activists ready at the helm. As these histories show—in their myriad ways—that's what ensures conservatism a future in America. And that's why we should no longer believe that a liberal consensus, or perhaps a consensus of any kind, ever did rule America or ever will again. We're not a white Protestant nation and never will be one, no matter how much some organizationally savvy ideologues in our midst long to make it so.

Kevin Mattson teaches history at Ohio University. He is the coeditor of Liberalism for a New Century (University of California Press, 2007) and the author, most recently, of Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press this summer.

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