The Republican Party and Modern Conservatism in Postwar Kentucky
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The Republican Party and Modern Conservatism in Postwar Kentucky

Kentucky senator John Sherman Cooper publicly asserted in 1963 that if Republicans embraced “the expedient argument of States’ rights with respect to constitutional and human rights,” they would not only “destroy the Republican Party,” but “worse,” would “do a great wrong” to African Americans.1 Four years later, the man who would soon become the first Republican governor in the state in two decades, Louie B. Nunn, ran one of the most racially divisive campaigns in Kentucky’s history, arguing that the civil rights movement had gone too far, too fast. This transformation of the Republican leadership in Kentucky on the issue of civil rights offers a unique lens through which to examine the post–World War II Grand Old Party (GOP). However, although historians of the nineteenth-century South have done an outstanding job assessing the role of Kentucky in the expansion of slavery and the coming of the Civil War, scholars have virtually ignored the commonwealth’s place in the mid-to-late-twentieth-century political landscape.

The rise of the modern, conservative incarnation of the Republican Party has been the subject of some of the most vibrant works on postwar America published since 2000. These works view the [End Page 307] rise of the New Right (and, subsequently, the transformation of the Republican Party) as a social movement that, like the civil rights movement, was fueled by grassroots activists. Prior to 2002, most historical accounts of modern conservatism saw its rise as a backlash against civil rights. Since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, the traditional narrative argues, Republicans deployed a top-down, racially coded “southern strategy,” which played on hostility to civil rights and black advancement.2 Although this argument still remains popular among some scholars of the American South, it no longer reigns supreme within the literature on modern conservatism and the Republican Party.

The 2002 publication of Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right marked the emergence of a new wave of studies that deemphasize racial backlash. McGirr argues that the roots of modern conservatism can be traced not to an anti–civil rights agenda, or even to the South, but instead to sunny California. She focuses on the suburbanites of Orange County, a region that formed the backbone of support for two of the most important figures of the modern conservative movement, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Conservatives in California were not driven by their support of southern Jim Crow but by their opposition to communism, high taxes, “big government,” and “moral decline.”3 Over the past decade, a number of works have similarly moved beyond notions of white, racist backlash and have traced the origins of modern conservatism to other sources—including Phyllis Schlafly’s crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s, the politicization of evangelicals, and the corporate boosterism of Sunbelt businessmen.4 [End Page 308] Many studies have also followed the lead of civil rights historians, prioritizing conservative ascendance at the local level in cities that span from Atlanta to Phoenix.5

Additionally, recent work on the Republican Party is careful to remind us of the northeastern progressivism that continued to exist within the GOP through the 1970s and of the mid-twentieth-century battles between a moderate/liberal eastern establishment and the emergent conservative movement. Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party and Timothy Thurber’s Republicans and Race attest to the continued influence of party moderates in the 1950s and 1960s.6 Similarly, biographies of liberal Republicans, such as Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, and Earl Warren, center on fierce GOP critics of conservatism who sought to shape the party in their moderate image. So-called “Rockefeller Republicans” were also staunch supporters of civil rights and had not yet abandoned black voters as a potential constituency.7

Dean Kotlowski’s Nixon’s Civil Rights further challenges the traditional racial backlash narrative of the “southern strategy” in his [End Page 309] illumination of President Richard Nixon’s behind-the-scenes support for school integration and public advocacy of black...