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The Roots of Modern Conservatism

Roots of Modern Conservatism

A Brief Historiography

With impeachment in the rearview mirror and the 2020 POTUS election on the horizon, there is no better moment for a quick reflection on the roots of modern conservatism. The conservative movement emerged in a decade defined by assassinations, black nationalism, second wave feminism, Stonewall, the Moynihan Report, Vietnam, murders in the Deep South and the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Historian Arthur Schlesinger- an advisor to JFK- considered the conservative movement a reactionary anomaly- a politics of unreason- that would pass as quickly as it arrived. He was wrong.

Against the backdrop of Cold War tensions and domestic unrest, disparate issues- protecting religious freedom, preserving traditional values, defending capitalism, supporting nuclear proliferation and containing communism- coalesced in a movement that radically altered the American political landscape. Today, conservatives are a powerful political bloc, and modern scholarship examines the roots, political base and messaging of conservatism. Common themes across the literature are the role of rhetoric and personality in popularizing conservative ideas, grass-roots activism in uniting a silent majority, the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign as a lever in conservative strategy and the mobilization of women as conservative agents. Herein a small sample of the literature is explored: Jonathan Kolkey identifies the origins of the New Right; Mary Charlotte Brennan explores grass-roots agency in the conservative coup d’ etat of the GOP in 1968; John Andrew argues Young Americans for Freedom as the harbinger of intellectual conservatism; and Jeffrey Kazin illustrates the power of populism that Donald Critchlow and Dan Carter showcase in biographies of Phyllis Schlafly and George Wallace.

The rise of the conservative right is the focus of Jonathan Kolkey’s The New Right: 1960–1968. His work explores the origins, composition and philosophy of the New Right within the context of landmark events like the assassination of Kennedy, the Vietnam War and Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign.

Kolkey situates the origin of radical conservatism in the anticommunist activism after World War II and argues the New Right combined activism that promoted extreme solutions to social problems with traditional values like Christianity, civic consciousness, anti-statism, individualism and free enterprise.

Extending Kolkey’s argument, Mary Charlotte Brennan in Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP examines how the conservative Right transformed the Republican Party by 1968. She argues conservative Republicans ascended because of effective grass-roots activism shaped by electoral bumps (Goldwater 1964) and attacks from the left and moderate-liberal Republicans. Brennan considers the Goldwater campaign an important benchmark in the conservative campaign to gain control of the GOP. Although Goldwater lost in 1964, conservatives used growing organizational strength and public appeal to decide the nomination in 1968 when the politically astute Nixon ran on a conservative platform. As the Vietnam War, Black Power and social flux polarized Americans by the late sixties, the conservative capture of the GOP was a result of grass-roots organization, the distancing of the movement from extremism, strong leadership and a message steeped in traditional values.

John Andrew in The Other Side of the Sixties (2001) expands on the scholarship of Brennan and Kolkey by examining the organization Young Americans for Freedom. Andrew argues the conservative movement and the left must be viewed together because both challenged the status quo from different angles and were equally important in influencing public opinion. Unlike Kolkey and Brennan who look back from the vantage point of 1968 to examine the conservative movement, Andrew observes it from the early years of the decade because it is in this period that a “cacophony of voices replaced the chorus of elites” in American politics. He argues historians have typically focused on the reaction to liberalism through student organizations like SNCC and Students for a Democratic Society and failed to include the conservative student reactions from such groups as the Young Americans for Freedom. YAF rejected liberalism and aimed to make conservatism the reigning wing of the GOP by injecting conservative values back into America through intellectual radicalism. YAF was the catalyst for the rise of conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., and The Sharon Statement, formulated at the estate of Buckley in 1960, codified YAF’s message, a message that so concerned the Kennedy Administration it illegally investigated YAF for subversive activities.

Like Brennan, Andrew stresses the difference between YAF and extreme right wing groups and illustrates how YAF distanced itself from the stigma of extremism associated with other conservative groups like the John Birch Society. He credits YAF for establishing anti-statism and anticommunism as central tenets of conservatism and the use of a national periodical- The National Review (1955)- to dispense its message under the leadership of Buckley.

Examination of the strategies and methods of populist leadership is an important interpretive approach to the study of conservatism. Michael Kazin in The Populist Persuasion: An American History adds to the picture of the conservative right presented by Kolkey, Brennan and Andrew by examining the roots of populism in American politics. Kazin’s subjects “used traditional kinds of expressions, tropes, themes, and images to convince large numbers of Americans to join their side.” His analysis of Alabama politician George Wallace fits nicely into the arguments of Kolkey and Brennan because Wallace “ensured that the 1960s would be a decisive era for the Right,” and conservatives like Wallace raged against elitism and federal control.

Wallace is best known as a racist, populist Democrat from Alabama. Dan Carter in The Politics of Rage explores the political career of George Wallace between 1963 and 1986 and claims Wallace forged a political agenda that rallied support from disparate groups across America. More than a Dixie demagogue and spokesman for the white backlash of the 1960s, Wallace reshaped American politics in the 1960s and 1970s as an “alchemist of a new social conservatism that compounded racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution that reshaped American politics in the 1970s and 1980s.” As civil rights, communism, the Kennedys and chaos defined the decade, Wallace used populist oratory to rally the silent majority of Americans around a platform that included traditionalism, Protestantism, states rights and on the extreme end, white supremacy. Carter weaves the personal and the political together in his work and reveals how Wallace’s four failed runs for the presidency, four terms as governor and the transition of his political image from racist to apologist impacted the future of American politics. Carter shows how populism, grass-roots agency and conservatism made Wallace- a racist turned apologist- a prominent player in American politics in the sixties and seventies.

Like Carter’s analysis of Wallace, Donald Critchlow in Phyllis Schlafly and Grass-roots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade explores the rise of conservatism since World War II through the life and work of Phyllis Schlafly. His book tells the story of the Republican Right, tracing its evolution from anticommunism in the 1940s to pro-family-anti-abortion-heavy defense foreign policy-laissez faire economics by the eighties. With Schlafly as his lens, Critchlow reveals the power grass-roots activism and women played in the Right’s emergence as an American political force. He demonstrates how Schlafly skillfully intertwined foreign policy, national defense and protection of traditional values to bring together disparate religious and political groups and forge a groundswell of conservative activism that shaped the platform that elected Ronald Reagan president in 1980.

Critchlow claims the rise of the Republican Right in the sixties was sudden and “incognizable to many on the left” and equally stunning to most liberal-moderate Republicans. Critchlow’s interpretation challenges the traditional view that grass-roots activism was the seedbed of intellectual conservatism and instead presents the two as interdependent and parallel movements: “without grass-roots activists to give political substance and energy to conservative ideas, conservatism would have remained largely the province of a handful of writers.” Critchlow presents the Republican Right as a product of the messaging of conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley, Jr. and the grass-roots activism of conservatives like Schlafly. He argues Schlafly’s grass-roots seminars, lectures, pamphlets, bell-ringing, study groups and educational campaigns connected conservatives and led to the establishment of a conservative party platform that promoted traditional values, small government and individual responsibility.

The importance of gender is central to Critchlow’s examination. He presents conservative women as harbingers of libertarianism and religious traditionalism, two important ideas manifest in the politics, writings and organizations of Schlafly. She shaped traditional women into a powerful political force under the banner of conservatism. Her DAR connections, radio shows, publications in the sixties on national defense, The Phyllis Schlafly Report and her STOP ERA and Eagle Forum groups spoke to female grass-roots activists and forged the fatal blow to the ERA in 1982. Critchlow presents the battle STOP ERA waged between 1973 and 1982 against feminists as masterfully crafted by this experienced organizer whose opponents, although better financed, were top-down organizers whose lack of grass-roots connections led to their demise. In Critchlow’s discussion of the differences between the two sides, he shows how the militancy of some feminists and the 1977 IWY resolutions gave Schlafly and her machine ammunition against the feminist movement at a moment when the Carter administration’s failures spawned a conservative reaction. Critchlow shows how the passions of Schlafly- anticommunism, strong defense, calculated foreign policy and traditional family values- found fertile ground among a discouraged American public who faced inflation, ERA, gay rights and abortion with suspicion. Her decades of activism converged in this period to marshal a new era in American politics.

Schlafly’s staunch anti-disarmament position, support of nuclear build-up and ABM testing coupled with her traditional values and libertarianism led many moderate Republicans to fear her as a right wing extremist in the same camp as the KKK and Minutemen. Critchlow reveals how her message of libertarianism and traditionalism united disparate religious groups, conservatives and women on the local level that in turn forged a national conservative force that took control of the GOP in 1968 and gained momentum over the course of the subsequent decade. Using media outlets like radio and television, organizational pamphlets, party conventions and books, she educated the grass-roots about issues that would ground the conservative platform in the last half of the twentieth-century. Critchlow argues that gender politics, engineered at the grass-roots level combined with the demise of liberalism and the power of conservative ideas, were central to Schlafly’s success.

Grass-roots activism, populist rhetoric, powerful leadership and the use of media, community organization and the GOP fueled the rise of conservatism in the sixties. The moral to the story: when combined and weaponized, gender, intellectualism, populism and grass-roots organization are powerful tools in modern American political movements.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Andrew, John. The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997; Bass, Jack and Walter Devries. The Transformation of Southern Politics: Social Change and Political Consequence since 1945. New York: Basic Books, 1976; Bennett, David. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988; Brennan, Mary Charlotte. Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995; Carter, Dan. The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1996; Critchlow, Donald. Phyllis Schlafly and Grass-roots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005; Isserman, Maurice and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. New York: Basic Books, 1995; Kolkey, Jonathan Martin. The New Right, 1960–1968. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1983.

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