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Chapter 1 The Rise of Conservative Republicanism A History of Fits and Starts Donald T. Critchlow O ne of the most significant developments in modern American political history was the rise of a self-identified conservative movement, which would turn the Republican Party into a voice of conservatism. Increasingly the Republican Party became a home to conservatives, driving out liberal Republicans , the so-called eastern wing of the party. This transformation came slowly, often by fits and starts, and with a good deal of bitterness, infighting, and recrimination . As conservatives slowly won their battle to make the Grand Old Party into their bailiwick, Republicans continued to battle the Democrats for political office. The struggle between the two parties involved its own political drama, and at no time was the outcome certain. The main lesson to be learned from the rise of conservative Republicanism is that whenever it appeared knocked down and out for the count as a political force, Democrats and the Left allowed it to get up off the canvas to go on for another round. In short, there was a good deal of fortune in the rise of the Right and its transformation of the GOP and an even greater deal of political miscalculation by the Left. This is to say that the course of the conservative movement was not preordained, nor was its political triumph through the agency of the Republican Party inevitable. To presume that the conservative ascendancy was a linear development elides the circumstance of history and good political fortune. The GOP could have remained a party of moderation instead of becoming a force for conservatism, and conservative Republicanism could have been vanquished by the Democrats. Nonetheless , the GOP Right ultimately triumphed over its intraparty foes and put liberalism —both the New Deal variety and post-1970s progressivism—on the defensive. One indication of these changes was the political complexion of presidents. From 1932 to 1968, the only Republican to win the White House amid a quartet of liberal Democrats, Dwight D. Eisenhower, ran as a moderate rather than a conservative . Conversely, no Democrat won the presidency as a liberal between the victories of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Barack Obama in 2008. Any assumption that the latter’s triumph heralded the restoration of the liberal ascendancy contravened 13 the reality that approximately 35 to 40 percent of the electorate still identified itself as “conservative.” A successful political brand in the last third of the twentieth century and beyond , conservatism seemed a lost cause before then. Indeed, one of the challenges for the modern Right was to escape from the somewhat disreputable shadow cast by the old Right. Associated with intransigent reaction to the political changes of the 1930s, American conservatism manifested a peculiar crankiness and eccentricity that prevented it from developing a sustainable political movement until the 1960s. Still, much conservative criticism of the New Deal economic program—­ expressed by the likes of the Liberty League, University of Chicago economists, business organizations, and independent financial journalists—revealed a good deal of intellectual rigor and was by no means as nonsensical as political and ideological opponents then (or later) made it appear.1 The Right’s general, though by no means unanimous, pre–Pearl Harbor opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies to aid Britain in its war against Nazi Germany further allowed critics to dismiss it as outlandish. In particular, the anti-Semitic attitudes of some prominent anti-­ intervention leaders, including female ones, saddled conservatism with a reputation for bigotry.2 Postwar conservatives, most eminently William F. Buckley Jr., the founding editor of the nation’s most influential conservative magazine, National Review, quickly disassociated their movement from isolationist foreign policy and anti-­ Semitic polemicists. Buckley’s most significant initiative to this end was in breaking relations with the increasingly anti-Semitic American Mercury in 1951.3 This set the foundation for the emergence of the Right in modern American politics. However, the growth of conservatism as an intellectual force and a political movement did not immediately endow it with respectability. Startled by its rapid development, which eventually culminated in the nomination of Barry Goldwater to head the Republican presidential ticket in 1964, liberals were not sure what to make of it. Influenced by the fight against fascism in the 1930s and social science analysis of that ideology, some liberals envisaged American conservatism as a protofascist movement. In an influential critique, historian Richard Hofstadter framed the rise of the Right within what he called...


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