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Filled with fresh insights into these and other initiatives, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism provides a telling profile of one of the most influential activists in recent history. Sure to invite debate, it casts new light on a major shift in American politics, the emergence of the Republican Right.
About the Author:
Donald T. Critchlow is the author and editor of twelve books on modern American politics, public policy, and business. He is professor of history at Saint Louis University
"In Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, Donald T. Critchlow uses the career of the woman feminists love to hate as a lens through which to examine the neglected history of grassroots conservatism in postwar America. Critchlow combines scholarly rigor with fine prose to produce the best book ever written on this subject."—Bracy Bersnak, American Spectator
"Had Schlafly been a figure of the Left, this book extolling her remarkable achievements would join a bookcase of similar flattering portraits acknowledging her as one of the most influential Americans in the second half of the 20th century. But because her influence prevented a destructive feminist agenda from being enshrined in the Constitution, she has had to wait 50 years for this book—the work of a respectful academic who has delved into the archives to tell an important untold story."—Kate O'Beirne, National Review
"In this riveting, valuable book, Donald Critchlow makes the case for a Great Woman theory of history."—Charlotte Allen, First Things
"Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade, by Donald T. Critchlow is a biography of a conservative, activist woman leader and the history of the grassroots minions she organized, almost single-handedly transforming the image of a conservative woman from the little old lady in tennis shoes, searching for communists under her bed, to a movement of well-organized, sophisticated women volunteers who moved into party politics. She may be the only woman of the late 20th century who could be accurately called as influential as Susan B. Anthony."—Suzanne Fields, Washington Times
"Critchlow has provided an important and compelling new exploration of the rise of the postwar right."—Catherine E. Rymph, Reviews in American History
"As Donald T. Critchlow explains in impressive detail . . . two decades of experience in Republican politics, including a pair of unsuccessful congressional campaigns, taught [Phyllis Schlafly] how to craft arguments that would stir a wide audience, how to focus on hot-button issues and talking points, how to choose appealing representatives to make a case, and the importance of organizing at a local level and working tirelessly to fire up the troops."—Frederic D. Schwarz, American Heritage
"[Phyllis Schlafly] is now . . . the subject if an overdue biography, and fortunately it hasn't been written by a women's studies professor who hates her. Donald T. Critchlow . . . treats Schlafly with the respect she deserves. He enjoyed exclusive access to her personal files and provides genuine insights into her life and times."—Charlotte Hays, DC Examiner
"Critchlow has written a fine, and long overdue, biography of this activist from Alton, Illinois. He has also chronicled the rise of the modern American conservative movement after the Goldwater debacle. His is a bottom-up history of grassroots political organizing, and the role women played in it, and a top-down tale of the woman who led it. . . . [A] truly compelling account."—Karlyn Bowman, The Weekly Standard
"Donald Critchlow's heavily footnoted Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade is as much a history of red-state conservatism as it is a biography of a conservative blue-staters love to hate. Particularly when viewed through the prism of gender politics, Mrs. Schlafly's accomplishment is remarkable. . . . . Mrs. Schlafly took a movement of lumpen proletariat and brought it the center of American power and institutions."—Jessica Gavora, The New York Sun
"Donald Critchlow . . . has presented us with a comprehensive, meticulously researched and thoroughly readable biography. . . . Critchlow's book is likely to be the most comprehensive account of Schlafly's remarkable life for quite some time to come."—William A. Rusher, Claremont Review of Books
"Donald Critchlow . . . has written a worthy biography of the woman and her times. . . . By focusing on Schlafly and the grassroots conservative world she helped build, he challenges the knee-jerk idea that conservative foundations and think tanks wholly powered the resurgence of the right."—Abby Scher, The Public Eye
"Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism is a tour de force. By situating an important political figure in a broader social movement, Critchlow contributes greatly to our understanding of American politics in the last half of the twentieth century."—Jonathan J. Bean, H-Net Reviews
"Critchlow . . . fairly delineates [Schlafly's] beliefs and her objections to modern liberalism. It is a worthy contribution to the history of the conservative political movement."—University Bookman
"So influential has the Right been in shaping the American social and political culture in the last twenty-five years that one might be tempted to see its rise to power as inevitable. But as Donald T. Critchlow argues in his political biography of Phyllis Schlafly, one of the twentieth century's most influential conservatives, the emergence of the Right to a dominant position in national politics and in the Republican Party in the 1980s was an uneven process."—Sylvie Murray, American Historical Review
"Critchlow's account is an important achievement. Copiously researched and beautifully written, it makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding of recent American political history."—Kenneth Osgood, American Communist History
This turn in American politics was of historic proportions. The liberal vision, which had dominated American politics at least since the early twentieth century, appeared spent, exhausted by campus protests, urban riots, a war in Vietnam in the 1960s, inept political leadership in the 1970s, and anxious attempts to graft conservative rhetoric onto a hybrid liberalism in the 1990s. Long-time liberal fears that the American Right might gain political power had become reality. Conservatism had become a badge of respectability for many voters, while public officials were running away from the label "liberal." Whether middle-class Americans were actually more conservative in 2000 than they were in 1956 is debatable. What is important is that more Americans called themselves conservatives than did those who proclaimed themselves liberal. Furthermore, many of those calling themselves conservative proudly declared themselves evangelical Christians or traditionalist Jews, Protestants, or Catholics. This was an extraordinary reversal from fifty years, or even thirty years, earlier when being called a conservative was an opprobrium often associated with "little old ladies in tennis shoes" searching for communists at their local school board meeting. By the twenty-first century, average Americans, blue collar and white collar workers, middle-class husbands and wives, white Southerners, and many college students across the country proudly proclaimed themselves to be conservative. Conservatism in the twenty-first century implied opposition to the status quo, rebellion against the establishment, a democratic faith in the people, and a deep suspicion of the wisdom of the liberal elites in government, the media, and academia. "I am a conservative," the newly elected U.S. Senator Roger Jepsen declared in 1980, "because I am for change."
This shift to the right was reflected in the transformation of the Republican party into a voice of conservatism. This transformation was neither inevitable nor smooth, but came through fierce factional and ideological warfare within the party as liberals, moderates, and pragmatists battled to defeat the GOP's rightwing. At any number of times, the GOP Right looked as though it had been defeated for good. Following conservative Barry Goldwater's defeat for the presidency in 1964, his followers were purged from party leadership. Richard Nixon's election in 1968 did little to resuscitate the GOP Right, even though many conservatives had rallied to his campaign for the presidency. When Nixon left office in disgrace, the Republican Right was isolated and demoralized. Only the emergence of cultural issues-abortion, feminism, prayer-in-school, and homosexual rights-revived the Right, and in doing so, set the stage for Ronald Reagan, an avowed conservative, in 1980. The GOP became a party dominated by religious and cultural traditionalism, as evidenced by the party platforms of the 1980s. A survey of delegates attending the 1992 Republican National Convention found that "over 22 percent of the convention delegates identified themselves as fundamentalists, while 66 percent attended worship services regularly, and 52 percent were either members of or were sympathetic to the political movement known as the Christian Right."
While the Democratic National Convention meeting in New York that same summer of 1992 nominated a Southern Baptist and a New Democrat centrist, William Clinton, the delegates attending the convention contrasted sharply with their Republican counterparts. Those declaring themselves atheists, agnostics, or individuals not affiliated with any religion accounted for 19 percent of all delegates, while 55 percent of the delegates said they rarely attended worship services. The Democratic party had become a party of secular and religious progressives who, while not abandoning religious commitment, rejected the moral dictates of the orthodox camp. The divide between the two parties extends beyond political ideology to a deeper cultural and religious chasm that encourages heated partisanship and disallows easy political compromise. This religious and cultural divide emerged at a time when New Deal economic liberalism, the glue which had held the Democrats together since the 1930s, began to be repudiated by the American electorate.
How had a small movement, consisting of a few conservative intellectuals and grassroots anticommunist activists in the 1950s, become so powerful as to radically change American politics in ways arguably comparable to Jacksonian democracy in the 1830s or the Republican party in the 1860s? What transpired in the last half century to change America as a beacon of liberalism at the end of World War II to a voice of conservatism as the century drew to a close? Why did liberalism come to be seen by so many Americans as a failed experiment by the end of the twentieth century, even though it had fulfilled its promise to create the modern welfare state in the 1930s, had created a new international order after World War II, and had extended new rights and civil liberties to Americans in the 1960s?
This book offers insight into this transformative upheaval in American politics through the political career of Phyllis Schlafly, whose involvement in the Republican Right began in the immediate aftermath of World War II and extended into the twenty-first century. Schlafly's political activities impart their own intrinsic interest, but the importance of Schlafly lies in what her career tells us about the remarkable changes that took place in the larger politics of the last half of the twentieth century. Never elected to political office, although she ran twice for Congress, Schlafly rose to prominence in conservative politics not as a philosopher or intellectual, but as an organizer. Her Eagle Forum, the organization she founded in the early 1970s, today claims a membership of 50,000 women who can be mobilized for conservative causes and candidates. Her career as an anticommunist crusader in the 1950s, her book A Choice Not an Echo that sold over three million copies in 1964 and helped secure Barry Goldwater's presidential nomination, her campaign against the SALT Treaties and for American strategic superiority, her commitment to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), her two campaigns for Congress, and her leadership in the pro-family movement personified the rise of the Right in contemporary United States.
Schlafly is best known to those over the age of forty for her A Choice Not an Echo and her campaign to defeat ERA, which drew thousands of women into an antifeminist, pro-family crusade. Both these were catalysts that propelled a resurgent Right and made her a heroine of the Right. Since the 1960s she has been a regular radio and television commentator, beginning with her fifteen-minute Daughters of the American Revolution "America Wake Up" radio program. This was followed by her CBS Spectrum radio commentaries and televised debates (1973-78), her syndicated three-minute daily commentaries (1983-present), and live interviews on hundreds of television and radio programs. Her one-hour weekly live-broadcast is heard regularly on Christian radio today. Her Phyllis Schlafly Report, begun in 1967, is read by 30,000 subscribers for its essays on politics, education, national defense, feminism, the judiciary, and immigration. Through these activities Schlafly tapped into the anxieties of traditional-minded Middle Americans concerned about changing social and cultural mores in America. Schlafly helped organize the grassroots movement in churches and local communities that eventually became a major player in the Republican party. At the same time, these activities unleashed an intense and seemingly irrepressible culture war. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 intensified debates over gender, abortion, and cultural issues, and, twenty-five years later, this debate is as vigorous as ever.
Schlafly's life presents a fascinating story in itself, but her importance-at least for the purposes of this book-rests in what her political activities tell us about the transformation of the Republican party from moderate/liberal to conservative. (Readers interested in a more personal biography of her are referred to Carol Felsenthal, The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority: The Biography of Phyllis Schlafly, published in 1981.) Through her political career, three themes emerge. First, this study constructs an alternative narrative to other histories of the Republican Right in America. Previous studies have tended to assume a sequence of events that culminated with the election of Ronald Reagan. That linear story usually begins with a small number of conservative intellectuals who became prominent in the post-World War II period. They prepared the ground for Goldwater's nomination in 1964, and although he was defeated, conservatives returned home to build an elaborate network of conservative organizations and programs. Conservatives endowed foundations such as the Bradley Foundation, the Olin Foundation, and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation; built policy centers such as the Heritage Foundation; and funded educational programs through such groups as the Institute for Humane Studies, the Liberty Fund, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. This network prepared the ground for Ronald Reagan's election in 1980.
The problem with linear history is that the conservative triumph was not a straight march from Point A to Point B, nor was the arrival at Point B at all certain. The history of the Republican Right as illustrated through the political career of Schlafly was an interrupted tale of fits and starts, in which conservatives were often defeated in political fights with the Left and within the Republican party. The history of the Republican Right is episodic, a dramatic story of defensive battles and losing campaigns-foot-soldiers driven by concerns about communism and the subversion of the American Republic, often isolated by charges of extremism. Defeated in the presidential election of 1964, purged from leadership positions in its aftermath, and then betrayed by Richard Nixon in the 1970s, conservatives were demoralized and uncertain of their future in the 1970s. Arguably, if Ronald Reagan had won the Republican nomination in 1976 against incumbent Gerald Ford, he would have been defeated by Jimmy Carter in the general election. Yet another setback would have been difficult for the Right to overcome. Conservatism as an ideology would have remained, but as a major political force it might have been spent. Of course, this is conjecture, but it makes the point that the triumph of the Republican Right was certainly not inevitable.
Until recently, much of the history of the conservative movement has focused largely on the conservative intellectuals and writers, while ignoring the importance of grassroots conservatism. Those histories portrayed a small group of writers and intellectuals, articulating an antistatist philosophy that deeply resonated with the republican tradition in America-its distrust of centralized government and political elites, and its fear of corruption. From these intellectual seeds, it was assumed that a grassroots political movement sprang forth, but nature knows that seed dropped on barren soil does not grow. A few fringe groups sprang up that were given to conspiratorial views of history, which allowed liberals to hang extremist labels on the grassroots Right. Those groups were subsequently marginalized within the larger conservative movement.
This study of the postwar Republican Right finds that the foundation of the Republican Right was laid in grassroots anticommunism that paralleled the development of an intellectual movement that sought to educate the general public, especially young people, about the principles of conservatism. At the same time, grassroots anticommunist organizations in the late 1950s educated large numbers of Americans through hundreds of often obscure publications, local seminars, lectures, film strips, study groups, and educational campaigns. Radio programs such as the Dan Smoot Report and the Manion Forum reached tens of thousands of listeners, while Dr. Fred C. Schwarz's Christian Anti-Communism Crusade organized training schools and rallies that attracted thousands of participants. These grassroots anticommunist activities were often conducted through local groups and organizations that were tied together only by their cause and by national speakers and writers who attended local events. Without belying the importance of intellectuals such as Friedrich von Hayek, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Ayn Rand, William F. Buckley, Jr., or Russell Kirk, grassroots activists were reading books such as Barry Goldwater's best-seller The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), John A. Stormer's None Dare Call It Treason (1964), Phyllis Schlafly's A Choice Not an Echo (1964), and eye-witness reports by ex-communists. Without intellectual foundations, the modern conservative movement might have gone the way of earlier grassroots movements that rebelled against the established order, for example, the Anti-Masons in the 1840s and the Populists in the 1890s. Yet without grassroots activists to give political substance and energy to conservative ideas, conservatism as political movement would have remained largely the province of a handful of writers. Schlafly's talent, in part, was her ability to translate conservative ideas to grassroots activists and motivate them to achieve political goals.
The second theme emerges from the first: Conservative intellectuals and grassroots activists waged war on New Deal liberalism, but conservatism triumphed only when New Deal liberalism was perceived as a failure by the American people. Writing in 1959, William F. Buckley, Jr., the founding editor of the newly established National Review, declared, "We must bring down the thing called Liberalism, which is powerful, but decadent; and salvage a thing called conservatism, which is weak but viable." Through a well-organized grassroots campaign, conservatives were able to nominate Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964, but Goldwater's subsequent overwhelming defeat, followed by factionalism within the Republican party kept conservatism weak and perhaps not viable, either.
Four years later in 1968, America appeared to many on both the Left and the Right to be a nation in inner turmoil-economic, spiritual, and cultural. The nation had become mired in an interminable war in Vietnam, torn apart by internal dissent and racial violence, its economy bloated with inflation, and its military power and prestige in the world in decline. Liberalism took much of the blame. By the 1970s, liberalism fell into further disrepute for not upholding values of responsibility for one's actions: that work is better than public assistance, that having children in marriage is better than out-of-wedlock, and that freedom and authority are not opposite values. "Liberal" became a label to be avoided. Running for the presidency in 1988, Michael Dukakis was branded with the "L" word and it cost him the election. Liberal had become a tarnished word to many Democratic politicians by 1992.
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