To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism

To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism

by Jerome L. Himmelstein

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Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In this timely book, Jerome Himmelstein offers a new interpretation of the growth of conservatism in American politics. Tracing the New Right of the 1970s and 1980s back to the Old Right of the 1950s, Himmelstein provides an interpretive map of the political landscape over the past decades, showing how conservatives ascended to power by reconstructing their ideology and building an independent movement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520080423
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/24/1992
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jerome L. Himmelstein is Associate Professor of Sociology at Amherst College.

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To the Right

The Transformation of American Conservatism
By Jerome L. Himmelstein

University of California Press

Copyright © 1992 Jerome L. Himmelstein
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520080423

Historical Prologue:
Revolution and Delayed Reaction

"Last November's victory was singularly your victory," President Ronald Reagan told the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 1981. "Fellow citizens, fellow conservatives—our time is now, our moment has arrived."1 The political movement that Reagan addressed was hardly three decades old when it savored its greatest triumph. American conservatism had certainly existed before the 1950s, but during that decade conservatives substantially transformed themselves. They reconstructed their ideology, discarding some themes, adding others, modifying still others. They began to build a long-term movement to gain broad political power. They even for the first time agreed on conservative as the name for their new ideology and their fledgling movement—a symbolic expression of a new political beginning. Understanding American conservatism in the age of Reagan requires starting with the historical context in which it emerged in the 1950s.

First of all, however, let us be clear about what this conservatism is. The constellation of economic, social, and national-security themes that definerecent American conservatism as a worldview is no doubt clear enough. In economics, conservatives have stressed freeing the market from the constraints of government. They have consistently equated less government with more freedom and greater prosperity: cutting taxes, domestic spending, and regulation would lead to greater freedom for Americans to produce, create, andachieve and hence to increased national wealth. On social issues, conservatives have condemned the secular, humanistic bent of American culture and its corrosive effects on the traditional family, gender roles, religion, and morality. In regard to national security, conservatives have urged greater spending on the American military to counter the growth of the Soviet military and restrict Soviet power. In their view, the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union is a struggle not simply between superpowers but between good and evil, civilization and barbarism; it suffuses not just the immediate relationship between the two countries but also most conflicts around the world where U.S. interests are threatened.

We can call these three elements of conservatism respectively economic libertarianism, social traditionalism , and militant anticommunism . To be sure, not all political issues fit neatly within rubrics. Nor is being a conservative an all-or-nothing proposition: one may be an economic conservative without being a social one, or vice versa. One may be more or less conservative within each category; one may advocate conservatism in principle in any of these areas while compromising it in practice—for example, by conceding a minimal "safety net" of welfare programs, downplaying the importance of social issues like abortion, or even negotiating arms agreements with the Soviet Union. What matters is that what has come to be called conservatism and the way that conservatives have defined themselves involve the conjunction of these three elements.

The core assumption that binds these three elements is the belief that American society on all levels has an organic order—harmonious, beneficent, and self-regulating—disturbed only by misguided ideas and policies, especially those propagated by a liberal elite in the government, the media, and the universities. From a fully developed conservative perspective, America's problems result not from the inherent contradictions or conflicts of a capitalist economy, a patriarchal family, or an unequal international world order but from liberal tampering with otherwise harmonious, self-sustaining systems. The free-market capitalist economy would function well except for government grown too big and too powerful because of liberal social-welfare and regulatory programs. Family, morality, religion, and gender roles would be smoothly intact if liberal elites had not encouraged permissiveness, secularism, alternative life-styles, and feminism. The Soviet Union would not pose so great a threat to American security andinternational affairs would prove amenable to American interests and actions if liberals had not hobbled defense spending for so long and been soft on communism. Perhaps many conservatives would not put things so baldly, but implicit in their ideology is, first, the identification of liberal elites and ideas as a central cause of America's problems and, second, a belief in the possibility of a natural, pristine harmony within existing institutions.

Conservatives themselves have been quick to identify the 1950s as the seminal decade in their collective political and ideological life. Writing in the early 1960s, Frank Meyer, an editor of the National Review and one of the central architects of a reconstructed conservative ideology, remarked: "The crystallization in the past dozen years or so of an American conservative movement is a delayed reaction to the revolutionary transformation of America that began with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932." Most internal histories of the conservative movement since then have identified a similar starting point.2

Meyer's words may sound strange to nonconservative ears. To many historians and social scientists, the New Deal, far from being a "revolutionary transformation," was a set of moderate reforms that undercut any possibility of such a transformation. The reaction to the New Deal, the hard-line effort to undo it, did not wait for the mid-1950s to coalesce: witness the activities of Herbert Hoover, Robert Taft, the American Liberty League, and the American Mercury in the 1930s and 1940s. Understanding the roots of contemporary American conservatism nonetheless requires seeing how the New Deal, whether a revolution or not, transformed the American political landscape and how the reaction to the New Deal, if not beginning in the 1950s, transformed itself at that time.

The New Deal "Revolution"

Despite the assertion of conservatives like Meyer, in many ways the New Deal was clearly not revolutionary.3 It was a practical, fairly moderate collection of programs aimed at dealing with the almost total economic collapse of the Great Depression. It brought together a variegated set of reformers, who enacted an eclectic set of programs between 1933 and 1938—immediate relief for the unemployed, home owners, farmers, and bank depositors; tentative efforts at economic planning and government-owned enterprise; the beginnings of awelfare state; progressive tax reform; antitrust legislation aimed at utility holding companies and a general inquiry into the concentration of property ownership; and legislation promoting collective bargaining and unions. Certainly, FDR never succeeded in transforming American politics to pave the way for economic planning or social democracy. His plans for reorganizing the executive branch of government got nowhere; his efforts to purge the Democratic party of conservatives were late and half-hearted; and, above all, he failed to articulate a reform ideology, an alternative to the fundamentally individualist, antistatist American political tradition. As a result, the New Deal never created the comprehensive welfare state or the forms of economic planning characteristic of many European capitalist countries.4

Despite occasionally radical rhetoric, New Dealers typically saw themselves as saviors of capitalism at a time when economic hardship was breeding leaders and movements of much greater radical potential. Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, until his assassination in 1935 probably the most popular politician in America after FDR, toured the country advocating a major redistribution of income and starting Share Our Wealth societies. Father Charles Coughlin, a parish priest from Royal Oak, Michigan, enthralled a huge radio audience with a proposal to nationalize the banks. (His anti-Semitism, for which he is better known to posterity, came later, after his political clout and popularity had begun to wane.) Francis Townsend, a California physician, received considerable support for his $200-a-month pension for all persons over sixty, and Townsend clubs sprang up across the country. Also in California, author Upton Sinclair, the best-known socialist in America, started the popular End Poverty in California movement and won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1934, getting 40 percent of the vote in the general election. Progressive and Farmer-Labor movements held political power in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and a new wave of militant union organizing spread throughout the industrial heartland. Compared to all these proposals and movements, the New Deal was hardly radical.

The New Deal nonetheless significantly transformed American politics in at least two ways. First, whatever its limits, it did insert the federal government more deeply into American life than ever before. The federal government became committed to providing at least some social-insurance programs and to exerting at least some controlover economic life. Although New Deal ideas and programs often seemed to echo those of the Progressive Era, the overall ethos and effect were different: operating during general prosperity, most progressives were content to involve government in limited ways to correct the abuses and inequalities of an otherwise sound society. Attempting to cope with almost total economic collapse, the New Deal, without acknowledging it, gave government a more permanent and pervasive role, pushing it further along the continuum from judge or policeman to manager or protector and placing it at the heart of national life.5

Second, the New Deal entailed the biggest political realignment in American political life since the Civil War. From the 1860s to the early 1930s, and especially after the elections of 1896, the Republican party had all but dominated American politics. From 1896 to 1932 Democrats controlled the House and the Senate each in only three of eighteen Congresses. They won the White House only twice—once in 1912, when the Republicans split between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, and again in 1916, with Democratic incumbent Woodrow Wilson in the White House. Neither time did Wilson get a majority of the popular vote. Republicans won consecutive presidential elections in 1920, 1924, and 1928 by landslides, the Democratic candidate never getting more than 41 percent of the vote.

In this context the early 1930s did indeed represent a political earthquake. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt won the White House in 1932 with 57 percent of the popular vote—the first time since James Buchanan in 1856 that a Democrat had captured the presidency with a popular majority. Democrats made gains in both houses of Congress in an unprecedented four consecutive elections from 1930 to 1936, gaining 170 seats in the House and 36 in the Senate. The Seventy-fifth Congress convened in 1937 with lopsided Democratic majorities of 333-89 in the House and 75-17 in the Senate.

The Democrats rode to power on a major political realignment that, beginning in the mid-1920s and accelerating in the 1930s, brought a large constituency of urban ethnic and working-class voters outside the South into the Democratic fold. Voter turnout in the North and the West increased from an all-time low of 54 percent in the 1920 presidential election to 74 percent in 1940. Northern and western cities, longtime Republican strongholds, slid back into the Democratic camp. The electorate changed in a fundamental way: theonce respected Literary Digest straw poll, which had accurately predicted the results of the 1928 and 1932 elections, failed miserably in 1936, giving Republican candidate Alf Landon about twenty percentage points more than he actually got. Survey samples drawn from telephone directories and presumably biased to the higher socioeconomic strata no longer accurately reflected the electorate as a whole.

The realignment also changed the balance of power and the political divisions within each party. The Democratic party ceased to be a largely southern party with a few northern appendages. As a new urban ethnic and working-class constituency came to the fore, the northern segment of the party came to predominate in the mid-1930s, and the social basis of support for liberal or progressive economic programs changed at least partly from rural to urban. New Deal programs after 1936 shifted accordingly, and resistance to the New Deal among southern and western Democrats—and with it a "conservative" coalition with Republicans—emerged. At the same time, the geographical cleavages within the Republican party reversed themselves. In the East, a bastion of the old guard, or conservative wing, of the party, Republicans found they had to accommodate to New Deal issues to compete for the votes of the new constituencies. In the Midwest and West, formerly the home of the progressive wing of the party, Democrats attracted many of the GOP's progressive elements, while Republicans picked up isolationist defectors from the Democratic ranks. As a result, where eastern old-guard Republicans had once faced progressive midwestern and western Republicans, now more and more the Eastern moderates faced midwestern and western conservatives.6 It was, in short, a changed political world in more ways than one, and these changes revolved around the New Deal.

The "Delayed" Reaction

The activist phase of the New Deal came to an end in 1938, the year that saw the last of FDR's major legislation, including the Fair Labor Standards Act and a new Agricultural Adjustment Act; yet its opponents were too weak to organize a full-scale reaction. In the ensuing years—1938, 1946, and the early 1950s—wave after wave of reaction fell short of putting into power a leadership able and willing to undo New Deal gains. The result was a political stalemate that persisted into the 1950s and beyond.

The New Deal in fact lost its momentum very soon after its landslide victory in the 1936 elections. After five years of economic recovery, the gross national product and industrial production fell sharply in 1937 in what opponents dubbed the "Roosevelt recession." Sitdown strikes and labor militancy among industrial workers increasingly alarmed middle-class voters, and FDR's efforts to gain a liberal majority on the U.S. Supreme Court by expanding its membership to fourteen provoked widespread opposition and damaged his prestige. Southern and western Democrats came to oppose New Deal initiatives. In late 1937, on one important vote on the fair labor standards bill, which proposed to set a minimum wage and maximum working hours, one-third of House Democrats joined most Republicans in voting successfully to recommit the bill to committee. While 101 of 152 southern and western Democrats defected, only 31 of 177 other Democrats did.7 Seventy-four percent of the defectors were from rural districts. Finally, in the 1938 midterm elections Republicans posted their first gains since 1928, picking up eighty House and six Senate seats, while FDR's belated effort to defeat conservative Democrats fell flat.

The opposition to the New Deal, however, remained weak and disorganized. The Republican party was a small minority in both chambers of Congress and lacked clear leadership. The nascent conservative coalition in Congress never fully solidified; its support shifted from issue to issue and fell apart totally in such areas as farm legislation. Furthermore, it never got beyond rearguard actions, often supporting and winning only small changes in New Deal legislation. Finally, the major independent anti-New Deal organization, the American Liberty League, effectively fell apart after the 1936 elections (though it continued in existence until 1940) despite substantial support from big business.

World War II put domestic political conflict on ice in the early 1940s. Whether the New Deal would have regained momentum in the absence of war, or conservative reaction would have pushed FDR out of office in 1940, is a tantalizing question that we need not address here. As it happened, America emerged from the war still in political stalemate. New Deal activists sought unsuccessfully to press forward with social change.8 In 1944 FDR had pledged to enact an economic "bill of rights," guaranteeing decent housing, education, and health care for all Americans. After the war New Dealers argued that the wartime experience, during which the gross national productdoubled in an economy under considerable government control, showed that government investment could keep the economy booming. They proposed an increased role for the government in planning and investment, which would include, among other things, responsibility for full employment and national health insurance. In foreign affairs they emphasized the importance of world peace as central to America's national interest, a peace to be insured through cooperation between the victors in World War II, world government, and a more equitable world order. Little of this came to be; postwar liberal legislation was either never enacted (national health insurance) or was enacted in eviscerated form (full-employment legislation). The new Democratic president, Harry Truman, shied away from the more ambitious ideas and stocked his administration with Democratic moderates. The party itself lost control of Congress in the 1946 elections as Republicans gained fifty-six new House seats and thirteen new seats in the Senate.

The extension of the New Deal failed for many reasons, but two seem especially important. First, continuing economic prosperity dulled the appetite of many Americans for additional social reform. That this prosperity itself benefited from government spending on highways, mortgage subsidies, and GI benefits was simply an irony of history. Second, the growing fear of communism abroad and at home ultimately shifted the emphasis to opposing the Soviet Union and rooting out subversion at home.

A full-scale conservative reaction, however, did not replace New Deal activism. If Americans had little taste for extending the New Deal, they adamantly rejected any hint of undoing it. The 1948 elections drove that point home. Republicans expected to finish the job begun in 1946 by taking back the White House for the first time in sixteen years. The political mood seemed conservative. Truman was hardly the charismatic leader that FDR had been, and the Democratic Party was badly split: its more liberal elements gravitated to former vice president Henry Wallace and his Progressive party, while Southern segregationists, angry at the Democrats' nascent concern with civil rights, defected to Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, running on a states' rights platform. Voter turnout also favored the Republicans as it fell to 53 percent, the lowest since the 1920s. Yet Truman rode to a most improbable victory over Republican Thomas E. Dewey, and Democrats retook the Congress, picking up seventyfive House and nine Senate seats. Truman's campaign made appeals to many constituencies, but the overarching theme was an attack on the Republicans as "gluttons of privilege" eager "to do a hatchet job on the New Deal" and make "America an economic colony of Wall Street." Class polarization of the presidential vote was the highest ever recorded, with middle-class voters going heavily Republican and working-class voters heavily Democratic.9

The 1948 elections, however, represented a mere interruption in the rumblings of conservative reaction. Unable to make headway by attacking Democrats on domestic New Deal legislation, Republicans and conservatives more and more emphasized Democratic and liberal softness on communism, both the Soviet threat abroad and subversion at home. They in effect chose to run against the spirit and leadership of liberalism, not its economic substance, by accusing liberals of softness, even treason, on the issue of communism. Americans since the beginning of the New Deal seemed to have embraced New Deal programs without wholly forsaking the philosophy of free enterprise. FDR had even encouraged this attitude by ultimately justifying his programs as restoring individual opportunity. Conservatives could most easily advance their fortunes, therefore, by attacking liberals themselves and their allegedly collectivist ideology in a way that did not immediately implicate specific programs. Allegations that Democrats and liberals were sympathetic to, soft on, or even in cahoots with communism were an effective tactic. Conservatives could even use such charges to reverse the rhetoric of class conflict. If Truman had appealed to workers and farmers against Wall Street and its Republican representatives, Senator Joseph McCarthy could appeal to the plain people of America against a treasonous political elite, "the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths"; and Whittaker Chambers, the accuser of Alger Hiss, could claim to speak for "the plain men and women of America" against "the enlightened and the powerful." The meaning of McCarthyism, Frank Meyer argued later in the 1950s, was that liberals were unfit to lead a free society because their worldview and sympathies were unsuitable.10

Of course, communism did not suddenly emerge as an issue in 1948. Republicans had long linked the New Deal to communism, and they used their control of Congress after the 1946 elections to press investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee intoalleged cases of subversion. Nor was communism the preserve of Republicans alone. For their part, Democrats and many liberals had moved after World War II against both domestic communism and the Soviet Union. Federal loyalty and security programs scrutinized the political credentials of government appointees; the Democratic party purged itself of leftists; the Congress of Industrial Organizations expelled communist-led unions; the top membership of the Communist party was convicted under the Smith Act; and liberal anticommunist organizations like Americans for Democratic Action policed the left flank of liberalism. In addition, the Truman administration embarked on an anticommunist foreign policy with the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Western Europe, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine, a commitment "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures"—in effect, to resist communist aggression or subversion around the world.11 Meant partly as a defense against conservative charges, this liberal anticommunism may well have helped make communism more of an issue.

What certainly increased the importance of the communism issue and placed it firmly in the Republicans' lap were several events in 1949 and 1950—the announcement of the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb coupled with evidence that American atomic secrets had been passed to the Soviet Union; the victory of the Chinese revolution; and the conviction of Alger Hiss, a major New Deal figure, for perjury in denying charges that he had spied for the Soviet Union. It was in this atmosphere that a minor speech by an obscure Republican senator, Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, on February 9, 1950, in Wheeling, West Virginia, launched a renewed conservative assault on the New Deal around the issue of domestic communist subversion—an assault that became known as McCarthyism. The outbreak of the Korean War later in the year encouraged its growth.

This wave of reaction too, however, fell short. The issues of "corruption, Korea, and Communism" may have helped the Republicans win the presidency and both houses of Congress in 1952, and Republican control of government gave McCarthy control of a Senate subcommittee from which to pursue his investigations.12 In the long run, whatever its impact on individual lives, McCarthyism did not lead to a major change in policies. Eisenhower was not a liberal activist, butneither was he a conservative. His administration was a period of some retrenchment and much consolidation but not of wholesale revocation of New Deal legislation. An expanded domestic role for government was here to stay. After flirting with the idea of liberating Eastern Europe and other communist-controlled areas, Eisenhower settled down to a policy of containment mixed with occasional negotiations. McCarthy himself lost much of his official support in 1954 when he started investigating subversion in the U.S. Army. The 1954 midterm elections returned the Democrats to power in Congress, and a year later the Senate censured McCarthy.

The broader political trend of the late 1940s and the 1950s, moreover, was away from the Republican party. In a sense the New Deal realignment was still unfolding. In states from New England to the West Coast a new generation of elected Democratic leaders emerged: Senator Hubert Humphrey in Minnesota, Governor G. Mennen Williams in Michigan, Governor Edmund Muskie in Maine, Senator William Proxmire in Wisconsin (replacing the deceased McCarthy in 1957), and Governor Pat Brown in California. With them, Democratic party organizations established themselves in states where a sustained Democratic presence had been lacking for generations. The 1958 midterm elections gave Democrats forty-nine new House and fifteen new Senate seats, their biggest majorities since the height of the New Deal and, above all, a majority in the House of Representatives even without counting the southern seats. Eisenhower left office in 1960 with the Republicans in their weakest position of the postwar years; once neck-and-neck in party affiliation among voters in the late 1940s, Republicans now trailed Democrats by a wide margin. The solidly Democratic South, to be sure, was beginning to crack, but this split would not have its full impact until well into the 1960s.13

Finally, a generally healthy economy, though dampening the desire for further liberal reform, also minimized public openness to the major redirection of American politics conservatives proposed. The gross national product and productivity generally rose, as did real income.

What came to dominate American politics in the 1950s was neither an extension of the New Deal liberalism nor conservative reaction. Many have called it cold-war liberalism, stressing its combination of anticommunist foreign policy and the slow growth of the domestic state. Others have called it interest-group liberalism, emphasizingthe extent to which debate over clear political options gave way to jockeying among interest groups for governmental favors. Alan Wolfe has named it the Growth Coalition to underline the importance given to economic growth as a solution to all political conflicts, while Godfrey Hodgson has called it simply, and misleadingly, the liberal consensus.14 Whatever its name, the basic elements of this consensus were the following:

1. An affirmation of American capitalism, as reformed or amended since the New Deal, as an unparalleled source of both material abundance and social justice.

2. A belief that enough economic growth would mute social conflict over scarce resources and obviate hard political choices concerning how society ought to be organized.

3. An affirmation of a positive role for government in economic life, not primarily to redistribute wealth or plan production, but rather to promote economic growth by pumping money into the economy and to solve what were regarded as the vestigial injustices of a basically sound society.

4. An acceptance of a permanent American role in international affairs, understood as necessary to protect American interests around the globe and to contain communism.

Within this consensus there remained much room for debate and disagreement. Of more relevance for this discussion, however, is what got left out. On the one side was a tiny, defeated left that doubted the viability or fairness of even a reformed capitalism, questioned the centrality of economic growth, rejected the subordinate role given government in economic life, and criticized American foreign policy as an effort to maintain an American empire rather than as an attempt at true internationalism. On the other side was a sizable conservative force, critical of the new consensus even while sharing common ground with it. From the conservative perspective the new consensus was simply a continuation of New Deal liberalism. Conservatives regarded reform and the growing role of government as detracting from, rather than enhancing, American capitalism. Economic growth would be achieved, wrote Barry Goldwater in 1960, "not by government harnessing the nation's economic forces, but by emancipating them." Conservatives viewed American foreign policyas a crazy mixture of half-hearted tries at containing communism and doomed attempts to negotiate with it rather than as a forthright effort to roll back communist advance. Goldwater scolded both Republican and Democratic leaders for not making "victory the goal of American policy."15

In general, conservatives in the 1950s were in a contradictory political position. They had shown themselves a force to be reckoned with although unable to get into power—not even in the Republican party, let alone in the country. A national mood of self-satisfaction and quiescence had smothered liberal activism but had not sufficiently promoted conservative reaction. More important, conservatives found themselves rejecting vehemently what they regarded as the liberalism dominant in American politics even while making the same procapitalist, anticommunist appeals. Because they shared two such potent symbols with the dominant consensus, they had sure access to the political arena. At the same time, the liberal consensus gave both those symbols contents different from what conservatives wanted them to have. Procapitalism had come to imply not laissez-faire but an active, if modest, role for the state as macroeconomic manager and guarantor of social welfare; and anticommunism meant not the isolationist ideal of avoiding political involvement in European affairs but a complicated internationalist effort at containment, mixed with negotiation.

In short, political common sense—the content of the dominant political symbols—had changed. Consequently, conservatives could no longer rely on easy appeals to that common sense to put them back into power. They needed to remake in new terms the case for a pristine capitalism—a capitalism devoid of a major role for the state. They needed to stake out a kind of anticommunism at once different from that of the liberal consensus yet shorn of the vestiges of isolationism with which conservatives entered the 1950s. To become an effective political contender, conservatives had to reconstruct their ideology.

At the same time, if the policies of the Eisenhower administration represented the extent to which the political pendulum would swing back after the New Deal swing forward, then conservatives had to concede that the natural rhythms of American politics would not return them to power. The New Deal realignment had by the 1950s created a greatly strengthened Democratic party, well entrenched throughout the north and west, and new constituencies for that party's liberal wing. To become an effective political contender, conservatives had to build their own movement, look for support in new places, and dig in for the long haul. They had to mobilize.

As if in recognition of the political changes they were undergoing, conservatives finally decided what to call themselves. By the late 1950s they generally agreed that conservative was their proper name, not individualist , true liberal , or libertarian . Up to that point, the label conservative had led a rather homeless existence in American political discourse.16 Throughout most of the nineteenth century it was conspicuous by its absence (as was its companion term, liberal ). In the European politics of that day, conservative referred generally to the resistance to the major features of modern Western society—industrial capitalism, political democracy, and an individualist culture—in the name of an agrarian, aristocratic, communal social order. Liberal referred generally to support for those same changes. Because those changes came relatively easily in the United States and conflict over them was relatively muted, there was little use for the terms that described the opposing sides in those conflicts.

In the early twentieth century, conservative and liberal, their meanings substantially altered, did become common labels for describing opposing positions in American politics. Conservatism came to mean the defense of laissez-faire capitalism against government-sponsored reforms as well as opposition to internationalism and world government and to women's rights, and support for traditional religion and morality. Liberalism came to mean the opposite in each case. In the 1930s FDR chose to call his New Deal programs liberal and tarred his opponents as conservatives; general usage followed suit.

Nonetheless conservative remained a partisan political label. FDR might have called his opponents conservatives, but former president Herbert Hoover insisted that he was the "true liberal," while writer Albert Jay Nock called himself a "radical," an "individualist," or an "anarchist," anything but a "conservative."17 Entering the 1950s, hard-line opponents of the New Deal legacy still went by a variety of names, or by none at all. The Freeman , the early-1950s mouthpiece of that opposition, described itself in its first issue as a "traditional liberal" journal. William F. Buckley's first book, God and Man at Yale , defended "individualism" and "Christianity" against "collectivism" and "Agnosticism" without calling its position conservative. FrankChodorov, for a time editor of both The Freeman and Human Events , another important hard-line journal, usually called himself an "individualist," and named the primary organization he founded the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists.18

As the movement and its reworked ideology coalesced, however, conservative became the label of choice. National Review , which was founded in 1955 and rapidly became the movement's premier journal, called itself a "conservative journal of opinion." Buckley's 1959 volume, Up from Liberalism , made it clear that the destination of its ascent was "conservatism." Works with conservative in their titles proliferated—Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative , Willmoore Kendall's The Conservative Affirmation , Frank Meyer's What Is Conservatism? In the fall of 1960 the founders of Young Americans for Freedom referred to themselves as "young conservatives." Indeed, conservatives quickly became protective of their new name, fiercely defending their right to use it against external critics; by 1964 Buckley could comfortably proclaim that any usage that did not center on his National Review and the movement it represented had simply become eccentric.19

The story of American conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s is about how conservatives both reconstructed an ideology and built a movement. The important point here is that the 1950s represented for conservatives a new beginning, or, in Meyer's word, a "crystallization." Reaction, though not delayed, was transformed.


Excerpted from To the Right by Jerome L. Himmelstein Copyright © 1992 by Jerome L. Himmelstein. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Introduction: Sociology, Social Commentary, and the Rise of the Right 

Part One: Becoming a Contender
1. Historical Prologue: Revolution and Delayed Reaction 
2. Reconstructing an Ideology 
3. The Growth of a Movement: Old Right and New

Part Two: Taking Power
4. The Rise of the New Religious Right 
5. The Mobilization of Corporate Conservatism 
6. The New Republican Edge: Gains without Realignment 
Epilogue: American Conservatism in the Bush Years 


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