Kim Phillips-Fein’s review is a thoughtful survey of the last fifteen years of historical scholarship on conservatism in the United States. She recounts how a once-marginal set of questions moved to center stage and produced an avalanche of studies. As a contributor of one such study of conservatism, I am gratified to have the importance of this effort recognized in several flagship journals. The result of all this scholarly effort, Phillips-Fein notes, has been nothing short of a transformation in our understanding of the post–World War II American Right and to a lesser degree the longer tradition of American conservatism. Without a doubt, Alan Brinkley’s influential 1994 call in the American Historical Review for more attention to conservatism has been answered. Fifteen years later, Phillips-Fein’s essay prompts us to ask: Were any of the answers surprising?1
Thanks to this effort, postwar conservatism has become, to borrow John Lewis Gaddis’s formulation, a history “we now know.” As Phillips-Fein notes, this knowledge has come from many different perspectives. We have rich portraits of the local communities where postwar conservative culture blossomed. We have comprehensive portrayals of the women and men who made up the social base of the libertarian and Christian Right. We have biographies of the leaders of the conservative movement as well as close examinations of major conservative organizations, networks, mobilizing tools, and the relationship of all this activity to the Republican party. We now have a greater understanding of modern conservative religiosity, including, for example, that evangelicalism—once thought of as appealing to men and women within rural, backwater, and poor regions— flourished in the hypermodern, privatized world of postindustrial, affluent suburbs. We have penetrating portraits of how within our modern era’s vast corporate empires of low-wage, nonunion service industries was born a powerful new grassroots theology of equal parts free-market capitalism and staunch evangelicalism. Conservative writers too, whose work was once dismissed as little more than “impulses,” “mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” have been richly elucidated in their multiple strands. Finally, the new studies have illuminated the relationship between the Right and broader shifts in gender and racial norms since World War II.2
While most of this work has been focused on the post–World War II “conservative renaissance,” a number of studies have stretched the chronological boundaries of this conservative mobilization back to the New Deal. Another pioneering group of historians have begun the analysis of the conservative movement since 1980, and their preliminary conclusions have focused our attention on the conservative movement’s somewhat marginal accomplishments (in relationship to its far-reaching agenda), its fragmentation, and a resurgence of liberal organizational efforts after they adjusted to sharing the halls of power with conservatives in Washington, D.C. As the significance of the movement has become clear, we have come to appreciate how studies of the Right have enhanced our understanding of the broader intellectual history, women’s history, and the social and political history of modern America.
As Phillips-Fein points out, much of this writing has been motivated by one central question: How did radical free-market ideas, staunch unilateralism, a deeply hawkish nationalism, and conservative religiosity—all with deep roots in American life but increasingly marginalized by the political economy and political culture of the golden age of American capitalism—become more prominent in policy and politics toward century’s end? How, in other words, did a movement—with ideas that were once labeled by Richard Hofstadter as “bizarre,” “archaic,” “self-confounding,” and “so remote from the basic American consensus”—succeed in reshaping common wisdom about the proper role of the federal government in the economy and society?3
That many historians chose to answer this question by focusing on core right-wing actors—both leaders and rank-and-file cadres—should come as no surprise. At the time these scholars were writing, these actors were seriously misunderstood. The idea of studying the Right from the bottom up emerged as a corrective to the notion then prevalent among many liberal commentators and observers that elite funders, Republican strategists, think tanks, and well-funded mass mailings were all that really mattered to explain the political prowess of the Right. This notion still tends to color journalistic portraits of recent right-wing incarnations such as the Tea Party movement, which credits its emergence to right-wing funders such as the Koch family and media moguls. (These backers certainly facilitated the movement’s mobilization and its visibility, but their importance should not be overblown nor lead us to lose sight of the staunch pockets of popular conservatism within the nation.)
Phillips-Fein applauds the new scholarship on the Right, but she also seeks to push the literature on the Right to “see conservatism with a new perspective.” Scholars have an opportunity, she argues, to look beyond conservatism as a merely political movement and to see it as a broader cultural and economic force throughout the twentieth century. Historians may also have overplayed the marginalized stature of conservatism and the dominance of their liberal opponents in the postwar years—an emphasis that makes seeing the continuities between pre–World War II antistatism and the modern movement more difficult to grasp. Finally, she encourages us to think more globally about the conservative movement, recognize its connections and consequences abroad, and examine the relationship of the Right’s rise to prominence in the United States to economic developments that had similar repercussions elsewhere.4
I agree with Phillips-Fein’s assertion that to fully understand the making of the politics of contemporary America, historians must do more than study the Right as a political movement. The “movement” perspective remains important, with historians richly describing the process by which the Right mobilized to assert its prominence within the Republican party. The agency of conservative elite and grassroots actors is, however, as I argued in Suburban Warriors, just one important factor in explaining the broad transformation in politics, political economy, and political culture over the past forty years. Broad structural shifts in postwar American life, some (ones that offered conservatives new opportunities) that historians have only recently begun to study, were also essential to forging the sea change in American politics. Secular shifts in global capitalism during the 1970s, the actions of newly assertive business elites, the “identity crisis” of the Democratic party and liberal reform groups, and the emergence (in the North and the South) of centrist suburban middle-class voters who opposed liberal reformers’ social engineering efforts to remedy past discrimination all have moved into the focus of historians’ investigations.5 These directions in research and writing have contributed in important ways to understanding the polarized politics of the recent past. That said, we should not lose sight of the important role that the Right as a political movement played in capturing the national limelight with its particular constellation of ideas and policies, in recasting the federal government and the economy toward conservative ends. Despite the very real fragmentation and failures of the Right to achieve many of their objectives once in power, conservative policy standards—including deregulation, tax reductions, and reduced federal entitlements for the poor—have indelibly marked the nation.6
Second, Phillips-Fein suggests that narratives of the Right’s rise tend to overemphasize the extent to which conservatives were outsiders to institutional power in the post–World War II period. The dominant political movement framework, Phillips-Fein argues, emphasizes the story of collective action as a critical component in the shift in policy and politics over the last forty years. It calls attention to the importance of networks, resources, and the intersection of economic and political elites and the grass roots but in doing so risks overemphasizing the Right’s displacement and marginalization. Yet the work of Phillips-Fein and others demonstrates that historians who have studied the Right have understood that conservatives were insiders to substantial economic and institutional power, even when they did not for a time hold the visible reins of political power. Historians have called attention to their influence in organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers, their strong support among business elites, and their important allies in segments of the military and state agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The extensive literature on the nation’s traumatic experience with McCarthyism, moreover, also reminds us of the widespread influence of countersubversive conservative forces and their contribution to the terrain of the narrowed political discourses in the post–World War II world.7
Ironically, as Phillips-Fein suggests, the recent outpouring of scholarship on movement activists and leadership may have overshadowed the arguably important institutional arenas where conservatives have long held substantial sway. Studies that recentralize institutions promise to greatly enhance our understanding of conservative power in the post–New Deal period. Similarly, more attention might be paid to the role of traditional political parties as powerful institutions in American life and the way procedural reforms in Congress (and in parties as organizations) pushed by elite institutional actors have contributed to party polarization. Central to the story of the Right’s policy successes, after all, has been the transformation of loosely structured parties into our contemporary, highly organized, ideologically disciplined national parties. Of course, any understanding of continuity on the Right should look far more closely at strongholds of antiliberal sentiment in Congress within both the Democratic and Republican parties throughout the post–New Deal years.8
Finally, I applaud Phillips-Fein’s call to look beyond the borders of the United States. To date, the literature on the Right has been largely (though not solely) focused on domestic developments. Relatively few studies have attempted to chart the transnational networks of the Right from the spread of conservative ideas in distinctive national contexts to the establishment of institutions abroad with significant links to the Right in the United States. Nonetheless, in focusing on self-identified studies of the New Right, Phillips-Fein may have overlooked some important work on the international conservative movement done by scholars working in other national contexts. An excellent and richly detailed study on the Mont Pèlerin Society, for example, has been written by the Swiss scholar Bernard Walpen. Other scholars, such as Martin Durham and Margaret Power as well as Dieter Plehwe and Philip Mirowksi, have begun to bring together work on the global reach of right-wing networks, though clearly much more remains to be done.9
What about the deeper, longer history of American conservatism—the question, as Phillips-Fein puts it, of “origins”? In her telling, scholars are tracing, perhaps predictably, the roots of the ideas of the post–World War II conservative movement ever earlier in U.S. history. She cites scholarship on the Ku Klux Klan, Beverly Gage’s work on antiradicalism, and Julia Ott’s study of business campaigns in favor of free-market ideals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While perhaps they were guilty of not paying enough attention to continuities, few scholars of the post–World War II Right ever argued that conservatism emerged sui generis in opposition to the New Deal; they consistently noted the importance of the deeper roots of conservative religiosity, free-market ideas, isolationism, and antiradicalism “that predated the organization of the movement itself.”10
One difficulty, as Alan Brinkley noted in his 1994 article, is that the constellation of ideas that came to constitute the post–World War II conservative movement did not cohere as an organized force until the World War II years, at a moment when a broad coalition of conservatives identified a common enemy of “liberal collectivism.” New Deal managerial elites and their labor and liberal allies along with the requirements of fighting a total war during World War II established a new common wisdom about state regulation, the role of the administrative state, and federal government responsibility for the welfare of citizens. Of course, progressivism and World War I had laid the groundwork for a regulatory state, but only during the New Deal, despite its many compromises, did the terrain of public policy fundamentally shift. As proof, one need only remember the deeply market-oriented Republican presidencies of the 1920s. The “libertarian” antistatism of the post–World War II Right was an echo of the “classical liberalism” at the very heart of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century notions of state and economy. As a political persuasion, this form of conservatism could not survive the triple challenges of depression, world war, and Cold War. As a result, postwar conservatives would be far more willing to embrace a strong-armed state for defense and to bolster free markets than “classical liberals” had been.11
A critical component of the post–World War II Right was a staunch conservative religiosity. Here too it shared much with deep earlier currents of evangelicalism and fundamentalism in American history. Here too, however, almost as much had changed. Conservative religious believers (and some of their central spokespersons) had in the decades prior to the New Deal and World War II been far more flexible in their ideas about the economy. Mass populist tent meetings, for example, drew on the traditions and fervor of evangelical Protestant religiosity to call for curbing the tentacles of corporate power. Agrarian socialists, as Jim Bissett has told us, meshed Jesus, Karl Marx, and Thomas Jefferson in the early twentieth century. William Jennings Bryan’s deep fundamentalist traditionalism and staunch Democratic reform ethos is also suggestive of the difficulty of any simplistic linkages of Christian evangelicalism and “conservatism.” These earlier constellations, however, were reworked in the postwar period, as liberals increasingly became champions of personal freedom, and regions where staunch Protestantism had traditionally flourished underwent dramatic economic change (thanks in no small part to New Deal economic policies).12
While the ideas that came under the umbrella of the post–World War II Right can certainly be traced back to earlier incarnations (deep distrust of the state, libertarian individualism, an emphasis on property as the fundamental basis of freedom, antiradicalism, and staunch religiosity were all prevalent currents in American history), such echoes do not amount to a cohesive conservative tradition that the postwar Right was merely carrying forward. The intensity of the soul searching and philosophical debates among conservatives after World War II evince the extent to which conservatism was being constructed afresh from a new constellation of ideas.
A fitting analogue for understanding how ideologies such as “liberalism” and “conservatism” relate to their prewar lineages might be the much-studied demise of progressivism. Prior to the New Deal, liberal forbears (those progressives such as Jane Addams) favored utilizing the state not only to reform the economy but also to improve private behavior. This common wisdom had led to the nation’s embrace of national prohibition. 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 a space after World War II for conservative claims to being the champions of “moral virtue.”
Even this brief foray into the shifting currents of ideas that constituted progressivism, liberalism, and conservatism should suggest the problem of searching for the origins of the postwar movement earlier in the century. Studying the deep currents of conservative religiosity, antibolshevism, anti-Catholicism, and the strength of antistatist traditions and free-market ideas in U.S. history may, however, lead us to view the liberal ascendency between the New Deal and the 1960s, as Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore have suggested, as the “long exception”: evidence not of a liberal consensus stretching back to the American Revolution but a brief interlude when antistatist individualism and the prerogatives of property were sidelined in favor of a more optimistic liberalism that sought to distribute power downward and somewhat more equitably in society.13