Julian Zelizer: Discusses Legacy of 70s Conservative Movement (Interview)

Historians in the News

Alexander Heffner: Of all your investigation into America's past, is today's the most intriguing political climate in our history?

Julian Zelizer: This is one of the most interesting periods to follow. We are at a moment when the conservative movement is struggling. The movement, which had a huge impact on American society, is struggling politically and intellectually. Yet, at the same time, conservatives have deep roots in American politics so their influence won't disappear. As a result, we are in a moment of transition and uncertainty which is usually the most exciting to follow.

AH: How would you begin to compare the rightward turn America experienced in the 1980s—following the coalescence of conservative elites and laymen in the 70s—to the Republican successes since 2000?

JZ: The conservative mobilization in the 1970s, which we document in our book, was a period of grassroots organization, ideas, and movement building. Then, conservatism was young and its heart and soul was still outside positions of political power. The movement thus enjoyed a certain measure of freedom and energy that has long since disappeared. Once conservatives were in power, particularly after 2000, they started to struggle with some of the challenges that come from being the Washington elites rather than fighting against them. Even if Sen. McCain can win the election, which is clearly possible, conservatives need to regroup, to figure out what ideas and policies they stand for, and demonstrate that they can represent the voice of the future and of innovation.

AH: With John McCain at the helm of the Republican Party in 2008, are the old-school conservative forces built in the 70s destined for death?

JZ: No. Just as liberalism did not die after the 1960s and continues to influence our politics and culture, so too will conservatism. The institutional, organizational, and intellectual changes born out of the conservative movement are very extensive. Even if we have a more liberal government for the next eight or twelve years, they will have to grapple with what they inherit from conservatives—just as conservatives in the 1970s inherited the accomplishments of liberalism.

AH: McCain has claimed throughout the primary season that he was a proud "foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution." Besides a few photo-ops with the president in the Oval Office, how truthful is McCain's assertion—and would the late president agree?

JZ: I don't think the claim is so out of line. Clearly, McCain has broken with conservatives on many issues, including campaign finance reform and immigration. But on some of those issues, like immigration, McCain is closer to Reagan than his more conservative colleagues. On many issues where McCain has stood with Republicans, such as the war or social issues, one could argue that McCain really has continued the Reagan Revolution: he has called for a tougher posture on national defense, he has railed against the corruption of Washington, and he has supported conservative stands on social policy.

AH: In the 2008 GOP primary story, Mike Huckabee was the reincarnation of...

JZ: That's a tough one. I don't think we have seen anyone put together a campaign of conservative populism in quite the way he did.

AH: Part of the 70s cultural backlash and counter-revolution was led by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed. Some claim that the Evangelical brand of Republicanism no longer has a monopoly on the party. Do you agree?

JZ: I don't think they ever had a monopoly on conservatism. One of the things that we learned was that social conservatives played an important role in conservative mobilization, but that elected conservatives often disappointed them. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and even George W. Bush all found that once in power there were substantial limits to how much they could please these elements of the party. Many Republicans did not agree with their policies and many Americans would simply not tolerate a more aggressive form of government intervention on social issues....
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