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In this interesting book, editors Robert Mason and Iwan Morgan advance a straightforward thesis. They focus on the revival of the [End Page 637] Republican Party, not the rise of American conservatism, which they say already enjoys an “unusually rich and creative historiography” (p. 1). Second, they want readers to understand that there was nothing inevitable or even linear about the progression of the GOP after 1960—nor did the evident victory of Republicanism at a national level in 1980 approach the completeness of the previously dominant New Deal consensus. Republican ascendancy would come only more completely, if in waves, after the 1980 Reagan victory—which they portray as a narrow repudiation of Jimmy Carter rather than “a mandate either for conservatism or the GOP” (p. 4).
There are some problems with the book, most of which stem from the introduction and its desire to cram every essay into a suitcase of its own making—even though the chapters derive from a set of diverse papers given at a conference in Britain. In particular, the introduction harbors a certain right-leaning celebratory tone and an overstated quality to its arguments about uncertainty that belies a more weighted agenda-driven approach.
Among the most balanced and effective chapters are the two on race by Timothy Thurber and Catherine Rymph, and also those on the South and religion by Sean Cunningham and Robert Freedman, respectively. The epilogue is eminently more sensible than the introduction and seems to have been written by a different person entirely.
For example, Keynesianism—despite the decade that preceded the Great Recession of 2008 and its tepid recovery—is dismissed in the introduction as a set of “old economic orthodoxies [that] were [obviously] in decay” (p. 2). Anticommunist “containment” is cast as part of a liberal consensus instead of a middle ground between two positions that are not mentioned: rightwing “rollback” and leftist “appeasement.” The “painful and divisive choices of redistributive politics” (p. 4) are discussed as something inherently liberal even though this book was put together during the greatest period of upward redistribution of wealth in America since the 1880s. Even the Republican choice in 1960 is put in decidedly weighted terms: to “hold fast to its conservative tradition or be in essence the ‘me-too’ [End Page 638] party of statist accommodation” (p. 3). Even given the 1920s, it might readily be asked if Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, La Follette, Eisenhower, Nixon, and even Dewey and Wilkie were ever part of such a rigid anti-statist tradition?
The low point comes in the contention that “the rise of the Republican Party also brought the GOP Right from the periphery to the center of American politics” (p. 10)—as fundamentally unsound an interpretation of the era as is possible to enunciate. The contention could not be less descriptive of what really happened: the hijacking of the GOP by an extreme, radical-rightist fringe that is never recognized as extreme in this book, and the subsequent move of the Democratic Party to the right. Instead, the collection lauds the efforts of modern GOP architects—Kevin Phillips, Art Laffer, Jude Wanniski, Paul Craig Roberts, et al.—without ever mentioning that they are all now voting for Democrats or have spectacularly repudiated what they consider to be an extreme rightist GOP. This misguided path is followed most closely by contributor Donald Critchlow who, while denying that his chapter is a cautionary tale or a “celebration of light over darkness” (it is clearly the latter), describes Ayn Rand as a “giant” on par with F. A. Hayek even as he acknowledges that Rand thought Hayek “dangerous” for his partial acceptance of a role for the state (pp. 22-23, 27). Critchlow also bows at the altar of nuance carried to relativism by rendering now-ritual homage to the “Suburban School” of Matthew Lassiter, Joseph Crespino, Byron Shafer, and Richard Johnston while unfairly parodying the work of Dan Carter as a “monochromatic linear account” (p. 15). [End...