- Questioning Conservatism's Ascendancy:A Reexamination of the Rightward Shift in Modern American Politics
The latest histories of postwar American conservatism challenge the notion that there was anything inevitable—or even predictable—about the movement's political triumph in the late twentieth century. Until now, most historians of modern conservatism have portrayed the movement as a product of long-term structural causes, including deeply ingrained racial and religious attitudes, demographic changes, and global economic trends. Such interpretations have deemphasized the importance of individual conservative politicians such as Ronald Reagan because the factors that produced conservatism's success at the polls transcended the contributions of any single person. Since historians believed that conservatism was a product of long-term social processes, they did not foresee any immediate end to the "conservative ascendancy."1 But some of the most recent studies, produced in the wake of President Barack Obama's election victory, suggest that the supposed triumph of American conservatism may have been much more ephemeral, and its sustainability much less certain, than many had thought. Contrary to previous interpretations, several historians have posited that perhaps conservatism's short-term victories depended more on the fortuitous decisions of a few individual political actors than on long-term social and cultural developments.2
Sean Cunningham's Cowboy Conservatism and David Farber's The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism represent this new interpretive approach. Researched and written during the final years of the Bush administration, when it appeared that the postwar conservative coalition was collapsing, and published a year after Obama's election, when it seemed that a new era in [End Page 325] American politics had begun, the studies by Cunningham and Farber emphasize the conservative movement's self-contradictory elements and potential for collapse, while suggesting that its brief moment in the sun depended more on perception than substance. Conservatism's short-term electoral triumph, they claim, was shaped more by a few key individuals than by long-term social or economic trends. Cunningham's work argues that conservatives may have triumphed for a short period only because of their successful manipulation of media image, not because of large-scale demographic and policy changes. Farber argues that conservative ideology, which he suggests was given its current shape by a few key ideologues and politicians, contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction and, as a result, is now a declining political ideology.
Cunningham's Cowboy Conservatism reaches its novel conclusions by focusing on a state that has received a surprising lack of coverage in studies of postwar conservatism. Previous historians' neglect of the Lone Star State is unfortunate because Texas—the state that launched the political careers of Lyndon Johnson, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush—offers an ideal case study of the shift from liberal Democratic politics to moderate Republicanism and finally to the conservative wing of the GOP. The state has often been a harbinger of political trends. When Texas sent John Tower to the Senate in 1961, it became the first Southern state to renounce the tradition of "yellow dog" Democratic voting and to elect a Republican in a statewide race. Texas provided critical support to Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in 1976. Some of the state's politicians, such as Tom DeLay, were leaders in the conservative Republican takeover of Congress in the 1990s. And because of its Hispanic minority, Texas fostered a multiethnic approach to politics—reflected in George W. Bush's outreach to Hispanic voters—long before that became necessary in other regions of the country. A study of Texas politics offers an opportunity to study in microcosm trends that have affected the rest of the nation.
Cunningham argues that, although Texas politics have always included a certain strand of conservative populism, the state has experienced a dramatic shift...