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Twenty Suggestions for Studying the Right Now that Studying the Right Is Trendy

From: Historically Speaking
Volume 12, Number 1, January 2011
pp. 2-6 | 10.1353/hsp.2011.0013

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There is a boom in the study of the Right, broadly conceived. Subtitles of books that not so long ago would have ended with "and the persistence of capitalist hegemony" or "and the pervasiveness of status anxiety" now end with "and the rise of conservatism."

This is the second such boom since World War II. The first discovery of American conservatism involved many of our favorite straw-man targets, including Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, and Seymour Martin Lipset. Typically those scholars involved in the first discovery of the Right traced the story back at least to the Constitution. Typically, too, they paid close attention to government, economics, nationalism, foreign policy, and war at the expense of race and gender. Despite their mistakes, the best of these self-consciously centrist historians and social scientists were very smart and worthy of serious engagement.

Moreover, the intellectual cohort of the first discoverers extended beyond the "vital center" (in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s famous phrase) to include the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills and sometime conservative political scientist Clinton Rossiter. Most important were the rival grand narratives of American history offered by William Apple-man Williams in The Contours of American History (1961) and Schlesinger everywhere. When I make this point to newly minted experts involved in the second discovery of the Right, the usual response, accompanied by a blank look, is something like: "I don't know what you mean. I'm writing a thick description of fifty Birchers in Binghamton."

The first discovery of the Right petered out during the High Sixties. There was nonetheless an in-between cohort of about forty historians, most now in our sixties, who did terrific work. Names will be provided on request—except for one scholar who deserves to be singled out for praise: George Nash. The historical profession should be ashamed of itself that Nash never received a major, full-time appointment as a professor.

Unlike the rediscovery of American radicalism and working-class culture in the 1960s, which drew on many ideas from the 1930s, the second discovery of the Right rarely builds on earlier scholarship. Thus there is an emphasis on race and gender at the expense of government, economics, nationalism, foreign policy, and war. Since only a grumpy old man can write that this shift entails losses as well as gains, I will write it—again. Furthermore, participants in the second discovery of the Right show a remarkable lack of interest in anything that happened before the emergence of the so-called movement conservatism of William F. Buckley, Jr. and Senator Barry Goldwater during the 1950s.

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Barry Goldwater, 1962. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-U9-8502-19].

Hence my first and most important suggestion: pay more attention to events that occurred before the 1950s—even long before. There is simply no other important movement or worldview that historians study in such a truncated fashion. Students of liberalism go back through the New Deal to the so-called Progressive era and sometimes to Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and John Locke. Students of radicalism go back through the Popular Front, Debsian socialism, and sometimes to Tom Paine. Conversely, for many participants in the second discovery of the Right, Herbert Hoover, William Appleman Williams's tragic hero, is a distant and barely recognizable figure. Yet current orchestrations of venerable anti-statist motifs, including those damning President Barack Obama as a socialist, can be traced back through the Great Depression at least to the late 19th century when, as Rossiter observed in one of my favorite phrases, the conflation of political freedom and laissez-faire capitalism looms as the "Great Train Robbery of our intellectual history."

The 1930s bulks large in importance not only as a period that continues to influence conservatism broadly conceived, but also as the era in which the right-center-left spectrum emerged as a standard (though not yet the standard) model for conceptualizing American politics. Many of us involved in the first and first-and-a-half discoveries of conservatism studied far-right political movements that crystallized in opposition to New Deal liberalism, socialism, and communism. The insurgencies led by Senator Huey...

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