Rediscovering American Conservatism Again

Mr. Ribuffo teaches history at George Washington University and is the author of The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War and Right Center Left: Essays in American History .

Last fall my friend Leila Zenderland from Cal State Fullerton asked if I was participating in the 2007 AHA convention. Yes, I replied, I had organized a session called “The Rediscovery of American Conservation.” “Don’t you do that every year?” Leila responded. No, I answered, the AHA only lets me do it every other year. That session prompted HNN’s request for this op ed, along with the assurance that I could repeat what I have written four or forty times over the past thirty-five years—an act of editorial generosity that signals how little this latest rediscovery has affected the historiographical hegemony.

It should come as no surprise to historians that many citizens of the United States, a prosperous international power since at least the 1880s, have been in some sense conservative. Indeed, for a long time they were not surprised. Progressive historians Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, and Vernon Parrington framed U. S. history as a clash between liberals and conservatives rooted, respectively, in regional, class, and cultural antagonisms. As late as 1961 this approach influenced the latter day progressive historian, William Appleman Williams, whose brilliant quirky book, The Contours of American History, remains essential for understanding conservatism broadly conceived.

The “consensus” historians and “pluralist” social scientists triumphant during the 1950s also emphasized conservatism broadly conceived. Richard Hofstadter, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Daniel Bell, among others, celebrated sensible centrists for fending off marginally respectable conservatives as well as dangerous “extremists” on the “radical right” and Popular Front left. As astute critics complained years before I took an interest in conservatism (as a high school junior in 1961), this formulation was partly an effort to legitimate Cold War liberalism. The chief conceptual legacy, Hofstadter’s phrase, “paranoid style in American politics,” should be buried in a deep cavern with nuclear waste. Nevertheless, Hofstadter, Bell, and Lipset were as smart as anyone who has written on conservatism. They understood that the right could not be understood without also paying attention to the center and left, that these categories were problematical and shifted over time, and that sensible definitions involved at least implicit international comparison. As they didn’t bother to add, their own right-center-left spectrum had only begun to supersede talk of “the people” versus “the interests” during the 1930s.

As the academy began to move leftward in the late 1960s, interest in the right began to fade. This development struck me as bizarre even as a graduate student since I noticed that in 1968 Richard Nixon was elected president as a self-styled moderate and George Wallace won 13.5% of the vote. Nor was I unique in my skepticism. A small band of scholars continued to emphasize the historical importance of the right during the next twenty-five years before the study of conservatism became cool again in the mid-1990s. We did terrific work (names provided on request).1 Yet we were unable to affect the course of historiography about the United States as a whole. Not only were we few in number but, unlike the scholars who were simultaneously revising the history of American radicalism, we did not constitute an ideological bloc with an affinity for the rightists we studied (I’m an unreconstructed McGovernite). Given these circumstances, post-cool work on conservatism reflects to a heightened degree problems afflicting the profession in general: inattention to scholarship produced before the early 1980s (except perhaps to cite Hofstadter as a straw man); an inclination to break up the study of the past into ever smaller chronological, geographic, and ethnic tidbits; and a smug sense of methodological sophistication and moral superiority.

To a remarkable degree, then, the latest rediscovery of American conservatism still lingers in the gee whiz phase. “Look at all those conservatives, they’re not as wacky as Hofstadter thought, and some of them are even women.” The same is true for the parallel rediscovery that the United States is the most religious big rich country. Indeed, following a familiar pattern when scholars thrash about in search of the next new thing, some historians oblivious to religion a few years ago now exaggerate both religion’s influence and its inherent conservatism.

So, in session after session, the same broad issues keep coming up. OK, I confess, I keep bringing them up because I think there was enough good scholarship twenty years ago to mainstream the study of conservatism without a preliminary gee whiz phase. My list of complaints is long but two will suffice here. First, we need greater historical depth. Historians of contemporary liberalism know that they must understand complicated antecedents in the New Deal, the so-called progressive era, the Jeffersonian version of republicanism, and even John Locke. Historians of post-World War II radicalism typically know about the Popular Front, Eugene Debs, Edward Bellamy, and Tom Paine. In most recent scholarship on the right, a glance back to the congressional conservative coalition formed in the 1930s feels like a stretch, William Graham Sumner seems obscure, and Alexander Hamilton is the guy on the $10 bill. This is conservatism too narrowly conceived as an almost entirely post-World War II development. Perhaps even scholars who now consider the study of conservatism cool hesitate to admit how deeply this persuasion is rooted in American life.

Second, specialties essential—yes, I’m deliberately choosing that word—for understanding conservatism broadly conceived—and much else about the United States—have been marginalized in the current historiographical hegemony. It looks really odd if you aren’t one of the social history/cultural studies hegemonists. On the one hand, the United States has become the most powerful capitalist country in history; on the other hand, most Americanists show remarkably little interest in the ways in which business leaders, diplomats, government officials, and soldiers and sailors produced this outcome. No, I don’t mean the deconstruction of their discourse in linguistic twists and turns. I mean mass production and mergers, what one embassy clerk wrote to another, the intricacies of social policy, and wars hot and cold.

In short, historians need to go beyond the recent rediscovery of conservatism narrowly conceived, a grudging awareness of some conservatives in American history, to address again the larger issue: In what sense has the United States been, and in what sense is it now, a conservative country? This is not a simple matter. For example, a constitutional secular republic with a bill of rights hardly qualified as conservative in the international context of the late eighteenth century; a country still governed by that constitution in the twenty-first century is in an important sense conservative, especially if un unelected judiciary dominates constitutional interpretation.

Such a renewed study of conservatism broadly conceived might even move the profession to reflect on its smug sense of methodological sophistication and moral superiority. Scary prospect, isn’t it?


1 For most of the names as well as extended, footnoted versions of most of the arguments made here, see Ribuffo, “The Discovery and Rediscovery of American Conservatism Broadly Conceived,” Magazine of History, January 2003 and “Conservatism and American Politics,” Journal of the Historical Society, Spring 2003, and the AHR forum on “The Problem of American Conservatism,” featuring a paper by Alan Brinkley with comments by Susan Yohn and me, in the American Historical Review, April 1994.

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