The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade Americaby Lee Edwards
The triumph of the conservative movement in reshaping American politics is one of the great untold stories of the past fifty years. At the end of World War II, hardly anyone in public life would admit to being a conservative, but as Lee Edwards shows in this magisterial work, in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, a small group of committed men and women began to chip away at the liberal colossus, and their descendants would scale the ramparts of power in the 1980s and 1990s. Not even the fall of Newt Gingrich has changed the indisputable fact that the movement has truly rewritten the rules of American political life, and the republic will never be the same.
Edwards tells the stories of how conservatives built a movement from the ground up by starting magazines, by building grass-roots organizations, and by seizing control of the Republican party from those who espoused collaboration with the liberals and promised only to manage the welfare state more efficiently and not to dismantle it. But most of all he tells the story of four men, four leaders who put their personal stamp on this movement and helped to turn it into the most important political force in our country today:
* Robert Taft, "Mr. Republican," the beacon of conservative principle during the lean Roosevelt and Truman years
* Barry Goldwater, "Mr. Conservative," the flinty Westerner who inspired a new generation
* Ronald Reagan, "Mr. President," the optimist whose core beliefs were sturdy enough to subdue an evil empire
* Newt Gingrich, "Mr. Speaker," the fiery visionary who won a Congress but lost control of it
By their example and vision, these men brought intellectual and ideological stability to an often fractions conservative movement and held the high ground against the pragmatists who would compromise conservative principles for transitory political advantage. And through their efforts and those of their supporters, they transformed the American political landscape so thoroughly that a Democratic president would one day proclaim, "The era of big government is over."
Political history in the grand style, The Conservative Revolution is the definitive book on a conservative movement that not only has left its mark on our century but is poised to shape the century about to dawn.
The American Spectator
William J. Bennett This is an important book. Unlike many other writers and historians, Lee Edwards takes seriously the thought, the battles, and the accomplishments of twentieth-century conservatism.
George F. Will Here is the story of conservatism's progress from the fringe to the center of American politics, told by someone who lived the story.
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Read an Excerpt
When Republicans in 1994 captured the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in forty years, regained control of the U.S. Senate, and wound up with thirty governorships representing 70 percent of the country's population, stunned Democrats (and not a few analysts) wondered "What happened?"
It was, according to the New York Times, "a political upheaval of historic proportions." The change that the American electorate called for, concluded the Washington Post, was "almost uniformly in one direction...against liberalism and toward the right."
The 1994 elections were, quite simply, the most dramatic manifestation of a conservative revolution in American politics that had been going on for fifty years. It was conservative because it offered an orderly transition to a new form of politics and yet revolutionary because it represented a radical change from the immediate past.
The conservative revolution rested on two epic events, one foreign, one domestic, that have shaped our tumultuous times. The first, and more important, was the waging and winning of the cold war. The second was the American public's rejection, after years of acceptance, of the idea that the federal government should be the primary solver of our major economic and social problems.
Conservatives declared from its emergence that communism was evil and had to be defeated, not just contained. And they saw that the federal government had grown dangerously large and had to be rolled back, not just managed more efficiently.
Because conservatives played a decisive role in ending the cold war and alerting the nation to the perils of a leviathan state, they reaped enormous political rewards, from Ronald Reagan's sweeping presidential victories in 1980 and 1984 to the Republicans' historic capture of Congress in 1994.
But we find little discussion of the conservative revolution in history books. If we seek explanations as to why communism fell, we read that the Soviet Union was much weaker and more extended than we had realized and that history fortuitously produced a Soviet reformer and democrat in Mikhail Gorbachev. These books tell us that the policy of containment worked, although it took several decades longer than its formulator, American diplomat and liberal icon George Kennan, had predicted.
And from such histories we also learn that it was the New Democrat, Bill Clinton, who recognized that "the era of big government is over." He was, they instruct, reacting to the national debt of over $5 trillion produced mostly by the faulty economics of the two previous Republican presidents. It was also Clinton who promised to "end welfare as we know it" and delivered on his promise: The number of welfare recipients across the country declined by 9 percent during the first Clinton administration.
These history books speak of conservatives, it is true, but usually as demagogues, Machiavellians, and simpletons. Accordingly, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a beetle-browed bully, instigated a modern Reign of Terror in the early 1950s. Barry Goldwater, an Arizona cowboy, threatened to destroy social security and start a nuclear war as a presidential candidate in 1964. Ronald Reagan, a one-time B-movie actor, produced a climate of rampant greed with his trickle-down economic policies in the 1980s. And House Speaker Newt Gingrich, reeking of malfeasance, tried to carry out a contract against America.
Such an accounting is light-years away from the true political history of America over the past five decades. It glorifies mediocrities and demeans extraordinary men and women. The failure of so many historians, considered eminent in their field, to present an accurate political portrait of the modern conservative movement, and therefore modern American politics, prompted the writing of this book: the political history of a disparate, often fractious group of philosophers, popularizers, and politicians who rose up to challenge the prevailing liberal orthodoxy. And they triumphed over great odds to become the national movement that dominates American politics today.
The conservative revolution that remade America was a long time in the making. Indeed it seemed on the edge of extinction more than once: after the untimely death of Robert A. Taft in 1953, after the crushing defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, after the Iran-contra affair in 1987, and after the demonization of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. But the conservative revolution not only survived these crises, each time it gained strength and momentum, in large measure because of its principled leaders.
First came the men of ideas: intellectuals and philosophers like Friedrich A. Hayek, the Austrian-born classical liberal; Russell Kirk, the midwestern traditionalist; and Irving Kristol, the New York City Trotskyite-turned-neoconservative. Next came the men of interpretation: the journalists and popularizers like the polymath William F. Buckley, Jr.; the columnist and television commentator George Will; and the radio talkmeister Rush Limbaugh.
Last came the men of action, the politicians and policymakers, led by the Four Misters: "Mr. Republican," Robert A. Taft; "Mr. Conservative," Barry Goldwater; "Mr. President," Ronald Reagan; and "Mr. Speaker," Newt Gingrich. There were also two Republican presidents whose lives and careers were intertwined with the conservative movement from the 1940s through the 1970s: Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Conservatives admired Hoover for refusing to be the passive scapegoat of the Great Depression and for helping to build the conservative movement. And conservatives never forgot that Nixon was the tough young congressman who "got" former Soviet spy Alger Hiss, no matter Nixon's later transgressions such as shaking hands with Mao Zedong in China and using Keynesian methods to deal with the economy.
The conservative revolution was also helped by the decline and fall of American liberalism, which lost its way between the New Deal and the Great Society, between Korea and the Sandinistas, between Harry Truman and Michael Dukakis. Liberals went into free fall, their swift descent marked by a telltale shift from concern for the common man and Middle America to preoccupation with minorities and special interests.
And the conservative revolution was helped by the political maturation of American conservatism itself, as the movement learned how to combine traditionalists, libertarians, and neoconservatives; the South, Midwest, and West; and blue-collar Catholics and Protestant evangelicals into a winning electoral force.
Conservatives triumphed in the 1980s and 1990s when their movement contained all the elements necessary for political success: a clearly defined, consistent philosophy; a broad-based, cohesive national constituency; experienced, charismatic, principled leadership; a sound financial base; and proficiency in the mass media. They were also helped by a sixth factor: an atmosphere of crisis. In 1980, Americans were sharply aware that the nation required leaders who could cope with critical problems like inflation, unemployment, and the Soviet empire, and in 1994, they demanded that something be done about out-of-control government programs like health care and welfare.
And yet electoral politics is one thing and governing politics quite another. Many brilliant political campaigners have been a disappointment or even a disaster in office. Newt Gingrich was a visionary leader in 1994, but after four years as Speaker, he fell under fire from conservatives for compromising too readily on core issues like tax cuts and found himself with too few allies when the 1998 congressional elections produced a loss of five seats for the Republicans rather than the gain of thirty that he had predicted. Three days after the election, he stepped down from the speakership and was replaced by Louisiana's Robert L. Livingston, a more pragmatic conservative. But the chaotic nature of Washington politics was demonstrated yet again when Livingston dramatically resigned five weeks later (admitting marital infidelity), to be succeeded by Dennis Hastert of Illinois, another consensus-seeking conservative.
Conservatives have proved conclusively that they can win elections: even in the so-called disappointing year of 1998, they still retained majorities in the House, the Senate, and among the governorships. But can they build and maintain a governing majority? Or is "a conservative government" an oxymoron, given conservatives' instinctive antipathy toward the state?
Today, conservative ideas reign in the halls and offices of Congress, in the calculations of the Clinton administration, in the statehouses, in national and regional think tanks, in newspaper op-ed and magazine articles, and in daily radio talk shows and Sunday morning television programs. Conservative ideas are even discussed respectfully in a growing number of leading colleges and universities.
But it is the answer to the central question -- "Can conservatives govern?" -- that will determine whether the conservative revolution has truly remade America or only touched it fleetingly; whether conservatism remains a commanding political movement in America or, like so many other movements, winds up on the ashheap of history.
Copyright © 1999 by Lee Edwards
Meet the Author
Lee Edwards teaches politics at the Catholic University of America and has written seven previous books, including biographies of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. A senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a senior editor of The World & I magazine, he lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
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