Why is There so Much Conservatism in the United States and Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything about It

by Leo P. Ribuffo
Why is There so Much Conservatism in the United States and Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything about It
Leo P. Ribuffo
The American Historical Review
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AHR Forum

Why Is There So Much Conservatism in the United States and Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything about It?



ESSAY BELONGS TO A GENRE that might be called the certification narrative. From time to time, historians of high standing take (often belated) notice of research and rethinking being pursued in the ranks and certify its legitimacy, perhaps even its importance. Men and women under fifty can remember the days two decades ago when intellectual gatekeepers noticed that, yes indeed, the Cold War had something to do with capitalism and, believe it or not, Progressive Era reformers worried as much about sex and race as about rancid meat and management of the money supply.

Along with many other certification narratives, Brinkley's teeters on a paradox. Although he calls the history of American conservatism an "orphan," his own essay essentially summarizes a large body of work by other historians. Indeed, because this AHR Forum is likely to serve as a standard "review of the literature," we need to recognize at the outset that scholarship on American conservatism and the Far Right is both more extensive and better than he suggests.

Some omissions are especially surprising. Among intellectual historians, Allen Guttmann and Ronald Lora have charted important connections between nine- teenth and twentieth-century versions of conservatism; John P. Diggins, J. David Hoeveler, Jr., and Gary Dorrien have astutely analyzed the world views of major conservative and neoconservative thinkers; David Green has traced the develop- ment of "conservative" as both an epithet and a badge of honor; and Edward A. Purcell, Jr., has rediscovered the philosophical "absolutists," many of them Roman Catholics, whose arguments challenged relativism and radicalism during the Great Depression.' Without endorsing Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s cyclical theory of politics, we can nonetheless acknowledge his argument in book after

Allen Guttmann, The Conservative Tradition in America (New York, 1967); Ronald Lora, Conservative Mink in America (Chicago, 197 1); John P. Diggins, Up from Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History (New York, 1975); J. David Hoeveler, Jr., Watch on the Right: Conservative Intellectuals in the Reagan Era (Madison, Wis., 1991); David Green, The Language of Politics: Shaping Political Consciousness from McKinley to Reagan (1987; Ithaca, N.Y., 1992); Gary J. Dorrien, The Neoconservative Mind: Politics, Culture, and the War of Ideology (Philadelphia, 1993); and Edward A. Purcell, Jr., The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientqc Naturalism and the Problem of Value (Lexington, Ky., 1973).

book that conservatives have always been powerful and sometimes dominant in American history."

Impressive biographies have been written of this century's premier Protestant agitator and anti-Semite, Gerald L. K. Smith; conservative senator, Robert A. Taft; old progressive critic of the New Deal, Herbert Hoover; countersubversive bureaucrat, J. Edgar Hoover; and the founding father and then the faltering executor of the most successful center-right coalition, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon.3 Diplomatic historians Wayne S. Cole, Justus D. Doenecke, Ronald Radosh, and Geoffrey S. Smith have provided guides to conservative and Far Right participants in the broad noninterventionist coalition before World War II.4 No competent historian or sociologist of American religion found the New Christian Right "baffling." Sensible analysts put this movement in historical context from the outset, and the scholarship in several disciplines is now enorm~us.~ War I1

With the possible exception of civil rights, no post-World domestic issue has received more scholarly attention than this century's second Red Scare.6

Such omissions aside, Brinkley unfortunately departs from his customary judiciousness in evaluating the earlier work by "pluralist" social scientists and consensus historians. Daniel Bell, Richard Hofstadter, and Seymour Martin Lipset were wrong about the Right in ways that have been documented for twenty-five years. They discounted nativist beliefs and conspiratorial inclinations within the political elite and ideological mainstream, underestimated the disrup- tiveness of social change, exaggerated American society's capacity for quiet compromise, postulated the illegitimacy of cultural as well as class conflict, reflexively celebrated the political center,, regularly reduced dissident ideas to psychological symptoms, and often conflated the American Far Right with Italian

2 For a recent statement of this theory, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Cycles of American History (Boston, 1986), 23-48.

Glen Jeansonne, Gerald L. K. Smith: Minister of Hate (New Haven, Conn., 1988); James T. Patterson, Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft (Boston, 1972); Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York, 1987); Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox, The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition (Philadelphia, 1988); George H. Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover (New York, 1988); Joan Hoff-Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive (Boston, 1975); Richard Norton Smith, An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover (New York, 1984); Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower, Volume 1, Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952 (New York, 1983), and Ambrose, Eisenhower, Volume 2, The President (New York, 1984); Herbert S. Parmet, Eisenhower and the American Crusades (New York, 1972); Stephen E. Ambrose, Nixon, Volume 1, The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962 (New York, 1987), Ambrose, Nixon, Volume 2, The Triumph of a Politician (New York, 1989), and Ambrose, Nixon, Volume 3, Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990 (New York, 1991); Herbert S. Parmet, Richard Nixon and His America (Boston, 1990); Stanley I. Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (New York, 1990).

* Wayne S. Cole, Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 193245 (Lincoln, Neb., 1983), and Cole, Charles A. Lindbergh and the Battle against American Intervention in World War 11 (New York, 1974); Justus D. Doenecke, Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (Lewisburg, Pa., 1979), and Doenecke, ed., In Danger Undaunted: The Anti-Intelventionist Movement of 1940-1941 as Revealed in the Papers of the America First Committee (Stanford, Calif., 1990); Ronald Radosh, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (New York, 1975); and Geoffrey S. Smith, To Save a Nation: American "Extremism," the New Deal, and the Coming of World War 11, rev. edn. (Chicago, 1992).

5 For an introduction to this literature, see Leo P. Ribuffo, "God and Contemporary Politics," Journal of American Histoly, 79 (March 1993): 15 15-3 1. 6 For a synthesis of this scholarship that also contains an excellent bibliographical essay, see Richard M. Fried, Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective (New York, 1990).

Fascism and German Nazism. Nonetheless, their insights should not be lost in the critique. In particular, they drew attention to nonrational and even unconscious influences on political behavior (albeit in reductionist fashion) and understood the value of examining the Right in an international framework (even though their own framework was distorted by memories of World War II).'

Brinkley's discussion of so-called New Left historiography is also misleading. The "New Left" label, which entered our professional vocabulary via one the most condescending certification narratives ever to appear in this journal, conflated left liberals, Christian socialists, and diverse Marxists from several generatiom8 As an analytical category, it deserves to be interred alongside its polemical kin "extrem- ism," "radical Right," "paranoid style," "isolationism," and "McCarthyism." Brink- ley is correct that left-of-center scholars from roughly his own generation have largely ignored the Right, although three exceptions-Michael Paul Rogin, Michael Kazin, and myself--do make it into his footnotes. However, he misses the major contribution of a previous generation on the left-those whom we might call young old leftists-who entered the profession in the late 1950s and early 1960s. To say that William Appleman Williams ignored conservatism borders on the bizarre, since he spent much of his career arguing for the significance of William McKinley, Mark Hanna, and Herbert Hoover. Williams, James Wein- stein, and Martin J. Sklar used the concept of "corporate liberalism" to highlight similarities between politicians, diplomats, and business leaders whom centrist historians dubiously dichotomized into liberals and conservatives.9 Among other young old left historians, Gabriel Kolko reinterpreted the Progressive Era as the "triumph of conservatism," Warren Susman recovered the underlying cultural conservatism of the allegedly red decade of the "thirties," and James B. Gilbert took seriously the cultural conflicts over sex, comics, and rock and roll during the allegedly silent decade of the "fifties."lo

My noting these omissions and questionable interpretations is not simply a matter of giving credit where credit is due (although that is usually one appropriate response to certification narratives). My objection is that these lapses

7 Daniel Bell, ed., The Radical Right: The New American Right Expanded and Updated (Garden City, N.Y., 1963). The essays written for the 1955 edition, The New American Right, are considerably more subtle and reflective than those added in 1963, by which time the interpretation had become standard and the authors eminent. The starting point for criticizing the pluralist interpretation of the Far Right remains Michael Paul Rogin, The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter (Cambridge, Mass., 1967). I offer my own critique in Leo P. Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War (Philadelphia, 1983).

8 Irwin Unger, "The 'New Left' and American History: Some Recent Trends in United States Historiography," AHR, 72 (July 1967): 1237-63.

William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History (1961; Chicago, 1966); James Weinstein, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, 1910-1918 (Boston, 1968); and Martin J. Sklar, The United States as a Developing Country: Studies in U.S. History in the Progressive Era and the 1920s (New York, 1992). On the arbitrary dichotomy between corporate liberals and conservatives, also see Edward D. Berkowitz and Kim McQuaid, Creating the Welfare State: The Political Economy of Twentieth-Century Reform, rev. edn. (Lawrence, Kan., 1992).

10 Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Consematism: A Re-interpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (New York, 1963); Warren I. Susman, "The Culture of the Thirties," in Susman, Culture as History: The Transfomtion of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1984), 150-83; James B. Gilbert, A Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (New York, 1986). Also see Susman's respectful treatment of "The Nature of American Conservatism," in Culture as History, 57-74.

prompt Brinkley not only to underestimate the impact of various kinds of

conservatism but also to misunderstand why so few historians know anything

about it. Good books are always welcome in any field, and in this case we would

understand the United States better if we knew as much about George Wallace's

followers as about Tom Hayden's. Yet the chief historiographical "problem of

American conservatism" is not the absence of good scholarship but the profes-

sion's failure (in the current locution) to "mainstream" the copious good scholar-

ship that already exists. The Right holds a historiographical place comparable to

that allocated to industrial workers, African Americans, and women two decades

ago. Much as these groups appeared in general accounts primarily when they joined unions, marched against segregation, and won the vote, political and cultural conservatives appear primarily when they join the Ku Klux Klan, march with demagogues in the Depression, and elect a president. Brinkley himself falls into this trap when he doubts the existence of an "effective" conservative movement before the 1970s. Much earlier, conservative ideas and movements influenced the kind of liberalism that developed-and vice versa.


we bring the Right into the historiographical mainstream without resorting to archaic categories like "political fundamentalism" or strained delineations of a timeless, "organic" conservative "traditionn-approaches favored respectively by conservative and liberal intellec- tuals during the mid-1950s, the last time this topic was chic. Two caveats are necessary at the outset. First, ideal types such as "conservatism" and "liberalism," no less than "Far Left" or "Far Right," encompass phenomena that vary according to time, place, circumstance, and individual temperament as political and cultural battles are won and lost, coalitions shift, combatants mellow, and issues gain or lose salience. Twentieth-century liberals and conservatives define themselves not only by competing with each other but also by their relations with allies or adversaries further left and right. Moreover, without much sense of contradic- tion, human beings can be, for example, simultaneously economic liberals and cultural conservatives (William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s, Harry S. Truman in the 1940s, and much of the Roman Catholic hierarchy today), segregationists and political liberals (Orval Faubus in the 1950s) or even left liberals (Claude Pepper in the 1940s), aesthetic conservatives and political liberals (Norman Rockwell in the 1950s), or aesthetic modernists and political conservatives (Hilton Kramer in the 1990s).

Second, twentieth-century American conservatism crystallized in a country that already had deeply embedded patterns of belief and behavior: a sense that the United States was uniquely blessed but also uniquely vulnerable to alien isms; a de facto Protestant establishment that heightened missionary diplomacy and expan- sion abroad as well as nativist campaigns at home; a distrust of the central government codified in the Declaration of Independence and reorchestrated by Jacksonian Democrats and late nineteenth-century agrarian rebels; a producer ethic requiring real men to make something useful in order to merit prosperity and real women to serve by their side; diverse regional suspicions of various metropolitan centers and the snobs who lived there; and white racism institution- alized in slavery and segregation. These patterns of belief and behavior are neither uniquely nor necessarily conservative, but they have in fact decisively affected the development of the twentieth-century Right.

As both the pluralists and old new leftists sensed, it is hard even in retrospect to tell a liberal from a conservative before the 1930s. It is by no means clear, for example, which major party presidential nominee, Herbert Hoover or Alfred E. Smith, was more liberal in 1928. The Depression and New Deal created a relatively clear political spectrum as well as a powerful political vocabulary that survived, albeit with significant modifications, for six decades. Proponents of the welfare state usually belonged to the Democratic Party and, following Franklin D. Roosevelt's linguistic lead, increasingly called themselves liberals. To the left of the New Deal, Socialists and Communists sought a more extensive welfare state in the present and aspired to abolish capitalism in the future; between 1935 and 1939, Communists proclaimed a Popular Front and gave de facto support to the New Deal. Far Right groups, often led by such theologically conservative clergy as Father Charles Coughlin, Rev. Gerald Winrod, and Rev. Gerald L. K. Smith, promoted a mixture of fervent nationalism, nativism, and-occasionally-eco- nomic redistribution.

Although the question of government intervention in the economy was central to this sorting out, the cultural conflicts that had been building during the previous three decades did not disappear with the crash of 1929. On the contrary, legacies from those conflicts, often combined with older American themes, influenced public debate on the welfare state more than technical economic analysis did. Some of the most powerful legacies and motifs were hospitable to conservatism. For example, the Depression did not eradicate suspicion of the central government in general or government aid to the "undeserving poor" in particular; in 1935, when roughly one-fifth of the work force was unemployed, 60 percent of Americans polled by Gallup believed relief expenditures to be too high." Even sophisticated conservatives ritualistically attacked the New Deal as the latest scheme by government insiders to waste money and subvert American virtue. To the many conservative and Far Right heirs to the "100 percent Americanism" campaigns of the Progressive Era and "tribal twenties," the Roosevelt administration also looked subversive because it empowered men and women who seemed less than fully American: Jews, working-class Catholics, irreverent young men from the metropolis, and (occasionally) African Americans. Beyond these partisan divisions, there is much evidence to support Warren Susman's contention that American culture grew more conservative during the Depression: the decline of feminism; Hollywood's imposition of a prim produc- tion code; the emergence of neo-orthodox theology, neo-Freudian psychology, and neo-Aristotelian philosophy; and nationalistic celebrations of "the people" by filmmakers, popular novelists, and penitent expatriate intellectuals.

In this context, Franklin Roosevelt succeeded politically and the Democrats

Poll figures are from John M. Allswang, The New Deal and American Politics: A Study in Political Change (New York, 1978), 114.

established themselves as the majority party by combining a rudimentary welfare state with sufficient cultural conservatism to deflect charges that the New Deal was un-American. For all of his patrician insouciance, the president never doubted that God blessed America nor did he hesitate to ask publicly for divine guidance during national crises. FDR was no card-carrying member of the American Civil ~iberties Union; a rhetorical campaign against free-lance gangsters and orga- nized criminals was launched to enhance his administration's popularity during the first Hundred Days, and J. Edgar Hoover's countersubversive campaigns subsequently prospered under his patronage.

According to a convention widely honored by politicians, pundits, and the few historians still interested in presidents, liberal administrations produce liberal legislation, and conservative administrations produce conservative legislation. The reality is always more complicated, and never more so than during the 1930s, when the Roosevelt coalition stretched for a time from Wilsonian segregationists to Popular Front liberals. Mobilizations on the left facilitated passage of important New Deal legislation, as historians now routinely acknowledge, but pressure from the right was at least as significant in shaping presidential priorities, the scope of programs, and the success or failure of implementation. The Works Progress Administration was a monument to the producer ethic. Measures as diverse as agricultural subsidies and Aid to Families with Dependent Children honored the shibboleth of local control. Yielding to politically or culturally conservative adversaries or allies as well as his own caution, Roosevelt stood aloof from anti-lynching legislation, distanced himself from the Spanish Republic, and agreed to cuts in relief expenditures that precipitated a recession starting in 1937.

World War I1 and the Cold War rendered American culture more restrictive, increased the power of political conservatives, narrowed the range of political debate, and moved liberalism itself rightward. By the time the United States entered World War 11, Roosevelt had expelled from the ranks of legitimate liberalism those proponents of the welfare state who still supported an "isolation- ist" foreign policy and welcomed into his coalition internationalists who had formerly believed, or professed to believe, that the New Deal was an alien import. Several of these internationalist conservatives, including Henry Stimson, Dean Acheson, James Forrestal, and John J. McCloy, helped to manage wartime mobilization and remained present at the creation of the Cold War. Congressional conservatives gained ground as the war brought both prosperity and fear of disorder, typified in the latter case by widespread denunciations of sexually active adolescents, assertive African Americans, and "Amazon" women on the assembly line. Roosevelt swerved both left and right in 1944 and, in his most consequential rightward swerve, replaced Henry Wallace with Harry Truman as his running mate.

Although Truman was an economic and political liberal, his victory in 1948 derived partly from his public persona as an unpretentious middle American whose Missouri twang contrasted favorably with Thomas E. Dewey's metropolitan "perfect diction." Moreover, political conservatives prevented passage of most Fair Deal legislation, placed major restrictions on organized labor, and pulled liberalism further rightward. The exact proportions of Machiavellianism and morality in Truman's Cold War liberalism remain in dispute, but the hope of

outflanking critics on his right certainly influenced his decisions to create a loyalty-

security program and expand the Korean War north of the thirty-eighth parallel.

The impact of various kinds of conservatism would be more evident if historians paid closer attention to the underlying insecurities and cultural conflicts of the "fifties" instead of treating them, if at all, as precursors of the "sixties." In 1956, the young old left sociologist C. Wright Mills argued that a "conservative mood" dominated American life, and his insight can be applied to the whole social-cultural "decade" stretching from roughly 1947-1 948 to 1965-1 966. '2 Manifestations of this mood reveal worries that disorder might break through the celebrated veneer of certainty and civility: a religious revival that particularly strengthened theologically conservative--even apocalyptic-faiths; local Red Scares that persisted long after Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was censured in 1954; denunciations of public schools for allegedly leaving Johnny unable to read while Ivan studied rockets in his Soviet sandbox; assaults on insidious "mass culture" by former radicals no longer enamored of "the people"; congressional investigations of ethnic mobsters, juvenile delinquents, and labor racketeers whose activities were taken to symbolize broader national decay-hearings that advanced the careers of four future presidential contenders, Estes Kefauver,

John F. Kennedy, Barry Goldwater, and Robert F. Kennedy. Although President Eisenhower preferred the "middle of the road," his was a center-right coalition, and when Eisenhower swerved right he exploited the continuing Red Scare, experimented with a white "southern strategy," and saw socialism creeping beneath liberal plans to expand the welfare state.

When Eisenhower swerved left, he was attacked for losing the Cold War and accepting a "dime store New Deal." Some of his attackers, including Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr., received much more serious attention than Brinkley suggests; for example, Time devoted an entire book review section to Kirk's study The Conseroative Mind.13 Such self-consciously "new conservatives" need to be placed in the broader context of mainstream politics. Like the more numerous centrist liberals, they were clearing their vulnerable flank and searching for a charismatic leader. Specifically, while centrists expelled Popular Front liberals and "anti-anti-Communists" from the "vital center," the new conservatives repudiated the "isolationists" and anti-Semites who had been their unseemly allies during the 1930s. Their rising charismatic leader, Senator Barry Goldwater, may have looked like a Robert Taft with glamour, as reporters often, described him, but he lacked Taft's qualms about intervention abroad. This parallel ideological restruc- turing by movements that remained, through a process of stringent elimination, the only respectable Left and Right, pushed the whole political spectrum rightward. John F. Kennedy, who established himself as liberalism's charismatic leader in 1960, courted big business, distanced himself from civil rights militants, and deflected hostility on the campaign trail by telling stories of the Senate rackets committee. Although the exact proportions of Machiavellianism and morality in

'2 C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York, 1956), 325-42.

l3 For the reception of Kirk's book, see Anne Carson Daly, "The Conservative Mind at Forty," Intercollegiate Review, 29 (Fall 1993): 46-47.

Kennedy's Cold War liberalism also remain in dispute, his policies toward Cuba and Vietnam were certainly affected by his wariness of a conservative backlash.

The impact of various kinds of conservatism would also be more apparent if historians acknowledged that the "sixties" was not a radical era but a polarized era. Movements to expand the welfare state, end the Vietnam War, foster seculariza- tion, legalize abortion, and secure equal rights for blacks, women, and gays produced opposite and, for a time, at least equal reactions.14 In 1964, a grass-roots mobilization as significant as any on the left propelled Barry Goldwater to the Republican presidential nomination.l5 Even after Goldwater's overwhelming defeat, conservatives remained powerful enough to alter Great Society legislation, limit the War on Poverty, and influence President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision to escalate the Vietnam War. While winning 9.9 million votes in 1968, Far Right presidential candidate George Wallace inadvertently helped Richard Nixon to position himself as a centrist. Although Nixon's center-right administration resembled Eisenhower's in many ways, his rightward swerves were more drastic. Indeed, the Watergate scandal represented both the last great cultural clash of the "sixties" and this century's third Red Scare, a scare marked by classic invocations of American mission, attacks on metropolitan sophistication, and even a touch of anti-Semitism.

A post-Watergate craving to believe in a moral America facilitated the election of Jimmy Carter, who became the most conservative Democratic president, relative to the rest of the political spectrum, since Woodrow Wilson and perhaps since Grover Cleveland. Whereas most congressional Democrats still wanted to expand the welfare state, Carter's brand of liberalism was reminiscent of pre- World War I progressivism. As a latter-day progressive, Carter promoted efficiency rather than economic equality, rhetorically repudiated interest-group politics in the name of the common good, and tried to raise the nation's moral tone. Among the many ironies of Carter's misunderstood presidency is that he legitimated issues Ronald Reagan later turned against him, including calls to limit federal "bureaucracy," cut social spending, and increase the defense budget. l6

Reagan's administration represented change as well as continuity on the right. On the one hand, appropriating venerable American or conservative themes, he criticized metropolitan snobs for mocking "traditional" values and doubting America's unique mission, indicted Washington insiders for stifling individual initiative and subsidizing the undeserving poor, chastised the undeserving poor for seeking those subsidies, and accused weak-willed Democrats of losing the Cold War. On the other hand, he gave minimal support to New Christian Right proposals to restrict abortion, fund religious schools, and restore prayer to public

'4 See Kenneth J. Heineman, Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era (New York, 1993), for examples of clashes between pro-war and anti-war students. '5 For the first reliable account of the grass-roots Goldwater movement, see Mary C. Brennan, The "Right" Side of the Sixties (forthcoming, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1994).

16 I expand on my argument that Carter was a cultural conservative and latter-day progressive (admittedly an ideal type as fragile as any other) in Leo P. Ribuffo, "Jimmy Carter and the Ironies of American Liberalism," Gettysburg Review, 1 (Autumn 1988): 738-49; and "God and Jimmy Carter," in Ribuffo, Right Center Left: Essays in American History (New Brunswick, N.J., 1992), 21M8. For an excellent overview of the Carter administration that is largely congruent with this thesis, see Burton I. Kaufman, The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr. (Lawrence, Kan., 1993).

classrooms; avoided Robert Taft's mistake of opposing organized labor without simultaneously identifying with the common man and Barry Goldwater's mistake of overestimating hostility to the welfare state; and ultimately moved from confrontation with the Soviet Union to detente. These changes should be no surprise. Not only had twentieth-century conservatism adapted to liberal trends in spite of itself, but Reagan led a right-center coalition that included neoconserva- tives suspicious of evangelical Protestantism and Democrats favoring assistance to the deserving working class.''

Furthermore, even after the Reagan and Bush presidencies, American culture in general and right-of-center movements in particular are now less conservative than they were twenty years ago, let alone forty or sixty years ago. Most Americans still enjoy both receiving government benefits and deploring government regu- lations. Senators who recently defended segregation have fallen back to denun- ciations of affirmative action; even George Wallace, the most popular Far Right presidential candidate in U.S. history, ended his career where he began-as a more-or-less conventional Democrat. No prominent figure in the current Chris- tian Right purports to expose an international Zionist conspiracy. As an ironic consequence of the controversy over "political correctness," some traditionalist conservatives have become civil libertarians.

To be sure, Vice-President Dan Quayle's charge in 1992 that a "cultural elite" undermined traditional values echoed William Jennings Bryan prosecuting John T. Scopes in 1925, William F. Buckley, Jr., scolding Yale in 1951, and Spiro Agnew stumping the country in 1970. Yet both the values labeled traditional and the behavior of self-described traditionalists have changed, too. Pat Robertson occa- sionally dispenses advice on sex to his followers, something unimaginable for Father Coughlin, Gerald Winrod, or Gerald L. K. Smith.

In a striking but hardly unprecedented convergence, liberalism has become more conservative, relative to the rest of the political spectrum, than it was two decades ago. Even before Senator George McGovern lost to Nixon in 1972, self-consciously centrist commentators and tacticians urged the Democrats to mute their identification with federal regulation, antipoverty programs, black protest, and cultural innovation.18 Despite the defeat of Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis, both viscerally conservative Democrats, endorsements of this strategic turn reached a crescendo in the early 199Os, and the movement found its charismatic leader in Bill Clinton. As a "new kind of Democrat," Clinton in 1992 celebrated the family, invoked God's blessing as comfortably as Reagan or Roosevelt, and promised to reinvent government instead of enlarging it. The

'7 Michael Schaller, Reckoning with Reagan: America and Its President in the 1980s (New York, 1992); Garry Wills, Reagan's America, rev. edn. (New York, 1988); Larry Berman, ed., Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency (Baltimore, Md., 1990); and Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York, 1991).

'8 For example, see Richard M. Scammon and Ben J. Wattenberg, The Real Majority: A Surprising Examination ofthe State of the Union, with new intro. (Garden City, N.Y., 1992); E. J. Dionne, Jr., Why Americans Hate Politics (New York, 1991); Thomas Byrne Edsall with Mary D. Edsall, Chain Reaction: The Impact ofRace, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (New York, 1991); David Kusnet, Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties (New York, 1992); and David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector (Reading, Mass., 1992).

process of reinvention involved several rightward swerves during his first year in office. Specifically, Clinton made deficit reduction and the North American Free Trade Agreement his highest priorities, declared war on crime in the manner of Roosevelt and Kennedy, and, yielding to the latest congressional conservative coalition, pared legislation to stimulate the economy. The proportions of Machi- avellianism and morality in Clinton's post-Cold War liberalism will undoubtedly change during the remainder of his term. Cultural liberals, almost all of them Democrats, and cultural conservatives, most of them Republicans, still disagree about education, abortion, ethnic diversity, and gay rights. In economic and foreign affairs, however, the two major parties now stand closer together than at any time since the late 1950s, and perhaps since the late 1920s.

THISSIXTEEN-PARAGRAPH EXPERIMENT in mainstreaming the Right slights internal divisions and ignores historical contingencies. For example, if President Gerald R. Ford had won the close election of 1976, Republicans would have borne the burden of "stagflation" and liberal Democrats might have enjoyed a resurgence, even though their positions were caricatured as dangerously radical. Nonetheless, this sketch does show that during the past six decades conservatives halted or modified "liberal" legislation, helped to widen two wars, influenced debates about sex, gender, race, ethnicity, faith, subversion, and social order, and often diverted the course of liberalism.

If the Right can be so easily connected to issues historians routinely study, why do so few of them know anything about it? Although Brinkley understands that the answer lies in attitudes pervasive among intellectuals, he resumes his custom- ary judiciousness and does not dig deep enough. A general disposition toward "cosmopolitanism" is not the problem. After all, those scholars who do study the American Right are no less cosmopolitan (in any sense of the word) than their colleagues. On the contrary, since they typically take seriously ideological posi- tions other than their own, they may be more cosmopolitan. Still, because few students of the Right identify with the conservatives they study, there is no conservative caucus to lobby for the field in the interest-group politics of the profession.lg

Even more significant is the kind of Left that has become institutionally dominant ("hegemonic"?) in American history and American studies. This Left bears less resemblance to the young old leftists of the late 1950s and early 1960s,

19 The closest thing to a conservative interest group revolves around Continuity,a journal founded in the early 1980s by a group of historians determined to "turn the profession around," as editor Paul Gottfried wrote in "Editorial Notes," Continuity, 11 (1987). This editorial suggests their feeling of embattlement, as do several other articles and interviews that have appeared in the magazine. But there are useful articles on diverse conservative thinkers, cultural conflict, countersubversion, and creation of the welfare state. In particular, see Stephen J. Sniegoski, "The Darrow Board and the Downfall of the NRA," Continuity, 14 (Spring-Fall 1990): 108-28; Burton W. Folsom, Jr., "The Scopes Trial Reconsidered," Contznuity, 12 (Fall 1988): 103-28; and Marvin N. Olasky, "Liberal Boosterism and Conservative Distancing: Newspaper Coverage of the Chambers-Hiss Affair, 1948-1950," Continuity, 15 (Fall-Winter 1991). Continuity contributors are not necessarily conserva- tives, and Cold War liberals critical of revisionist diplomatic history seem especially welcome in its pages. For the record, I am an unreconstructed McGovernite.

whose books still help us to interpret conservatism, than to the Popular Front intellectuals of the 1930s, who fought hard against the Right without understand- ing it. Indeed, three aspects of the Popular Front sensibility are again prevalent: an obliviousness to the unanticipated consequences of human actions (what vital center liberals called a sense of irony), an irrepressible faith in progress that finds a silver lining in every defeat, and a reflexive celebration of groups deemed "progressive." Despite complaints to the contrary, there is a standard "synthesis" of American history that can be inferred from prominent monographs, journal articles, and convention sessions. In these venues, not only are groups celebrated when they play a "progressive" role, but they also tend to disappear when they don't. For example, young white ethnic workers, whose lives during the Depres- sion are studied in loving detail, drop from view in accounts of the "fifties" (when many of them abandoned colorful neighborhoods for bland suburbs) and return only in their late middle age as a backlash backdrop for the student radicals of the "sixties." Conservative and Far Right movements do not fit easily into this de facto synthesis.

Yet Brinkley's certification narrative, like many of its predecessors, may signal a change in the professional Zeitgeist. Intentionally or not, his essay merges with a broader trend to reconstruct an intellectually vital center. Signs of this trend include highly publicized books by political commentator E. J. Dionne, law professor Stephen L. Carter, and philosopher Cornel West, as well as renewed interest in the ideas of John Dewey and Reinhold Neibuhr.20 Prospects for a sound reconstruction are mixed. On the one hand, Dionne and Carter, along with their pluralist antecedents, tend reflexively to celebrate the political center and exaggerate American society's capacity for quiet compromise. On the other hand, both Dionne and Carter treat conservative ideas and movements as integral parts of American life.

If an emerging centrist Zeitgeist does prompt scholars to bring studies of the Right into the historiographical mainstream, perhaps they can improve on the pluralists in their use of international comparisons. Building on the work of Robert Wiebe and his own insightful discussion of regionalism, Brinkley argues that our "segmented society" has impeded construction of a centralized state.21 The point is well taken. Yet we should be wary of Wiebe's description of the United States as a "nation of almost unparalleled diversity" as well as the inferences Brinkley draws from this Since the late .1960s, four other major countries (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union) have proved to be so segmented that they fell apart, and a fifth (Nigeria) was kept together by a brutal civil war. Moreover, even though strong localist sentiments may hinder development of a centralized state, they do not necessarily pre- clude-on the contrary, they may promote-powerful conservative or Far Right social movements. What large European country avoided forced nationalization

z0 Dionne, Why Americans Hate Politics; Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York, 1993);Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston, 1993); Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca, N.Y., 1991); and Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York, 1985).

2' Robert H. Wiebe, The Segmented Society: An Introduction to the Meaning of America (New York, 1975).

campaigns during the past century? These ranged from invocations of "our ancestors, the Gauls" in French schoolbooks to genocide in Nazi concentration camps. Indeed, the success of these campaigns is one reason Americans often exaggerate the homogeneity of European ~ountries.2~

Finally, even in the absence of a strong conservative caucus to propose them, historians of the United States should seriously consider both conservative questions and conservative answers to liberal or radical questions. Such openness would especially enrich historiographical debates that have barely begun or have sunk into torpor. For instance, we might entertain the lucid conservative response to the issue of whether or not there was "social control" during the Progressive Era: of course there was, and what else should we expect when 27 million immigrants, most of them poor Catholics and Jews, entered an overwhelmingly Protestant country within two generations? Similarly, insofar as the New Deal coalition depended on diminishing ethnic differences, this growing homogeneity may have been primarily an ironic result of immigration restriction, nativist enforcement of "100 percent Americanism," and conscription during World War I rather than the progressive result of enthusiasm for Jack Benny's radio show and shared shopping at the A&P. And perhaps the New Deal and Great Society were historical aberrations rather than periodic turns in a Schlesingerian cycle of reform and reaction. The main course of American political and economic history in this century may stretch from William McKinley and Mark Hanna through George Bush and Nicholas Brady to Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin.

22 Unfortunately, even in what Brinkley calls the "age of multiculturalism," the explicit and implicit comparisons made by Americanists remain largely Eurocentric. Yet, in some respects, the United States has less in common with Great Britain than with Brazil, the other major nation to retain slavery well into the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the question of why there is so much conservatism in the United States should be pursued in tandem with the more popular perennial, "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" In both cases, we need to look beyond Europe. There has been little socialism per se anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Franklin Roosevelt had less in common with Leon Blum, the leader of the French Popular Front, than with Argentine President Juan Per6n, a fellow creator of a volatile cross-class coalition held together by personal charisma and the rhetoric of national solidarity.

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