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Reflections: Rethinking the History of American Conservatism

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 38, Number 2, June 2010
pp. 367-392 | 10.1353/rah.0.0217

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In 1994, the Columbia historian Alan Brinkley stimulated an intense debate within the historical profession when he published an article in the American Historical Review that focused on the history of American conservatism. Brinkley argued that historians had not devoted sufficient attention to the evolution of conservatism in contemporary politics. Historians, he said, had treated conservatism as a marginal, irrational, or irrelevant force since these arguments were first put forth by liberal consensus historians in the 1950s and 1960s. Most scholarly attention focused on the history of liberalism.1

The political bias and intellectual orientation of the profession, Brinkley said, had led historians to ignore the origins of the political transformation that had clearly taken place after the 1960s and that reached a new stage right at the time that the article was published, when conservative Republicans took control of Capitol Hill: "The 'problem' of American conservatism as I have tried to describe it here is, in the end, a problem of historical imagination . . . while historians have displayed impressive powers of imagination in creating empathetic accounts of many once-obscure areas of the past, they have seldom done so in considering the character of conservative lives and ideas." While another member of the roundtable, Leo Ribuffo, argued that Brinkley was not paying sufficient attention to a first wave of scholarship that already existed on the subject, a large number of younger historians concurred with Brinkley's basic assessment of the field.2

What followed over the next fourteen years was a burst of innovative scholarly activity on the history of conservatism. The AHR published Brinkley's article at the same time that there was an unexpected renaissance taking place in the historical profession with a young generation of graduate students and assistant professors who were interested in revitalizing the field of American political history.3 Many of them, who were part of the post-Baby Boom generation and who came of age in the Reagan era, were not invested in the intellectual battles of the 1960s; they were determined to use the history of conservatism as an avenue to write about politics through a method different than their predecessors. They preferred one that avoided the criticism from the New Left that political history only covered elites. (To be sure, some of the scholars who joined in this enterprise were more senior.)

Whereas the first wave of scholarship on conservatism, characterized by books like George Nash's intellectual history of the Right, were interested in discovering a serious conservative tradition in America, the second wave of scholarship focused on the rise of the Right between the early Cold War and the 1980s. Attempting to develop a sophisticated scholarly analysis of the compelling backlash thesis that had been put forth by journalists like Thomas Edsall and Susan Faludi and to capture what followed the "New Deal Order," they sought to explain how conservatives shifted from being a small opposition force, marginalized in a liberal nation, to becoming the dominant political force by the 1980s.4 In their accounts, the origins of Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980 could be found in the emergence of a true grass-roots movement that was built from the bottom up, a movement that transformed the terms of national political debate.

The scholarship was especially concerned with analyzing the motivations behind the conservative movement and examining how the Right was able to gain so much organizational momentum following many decades when it had been in the political wilderness. There was no consensus over where they should center their study, with some asking why average citizens joined local organizations of the new Right and others trying to figure out why the Republican Party banished its moderate Northeastern wing and privileged more conservative arguments and personalities.

Although there were multiple arenas where conservatism took hold, these historians attempted to discern single causal arguments about the specific actors and organizations they were examining. One cohort emphasized the importance of a racial backlash against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the black-power movement. Implicitly or explicitly, race played a central role in defining conservative objectives and in explaining their electoral appeal. Much of...



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