Conservatives Are in Denial About Their History


Mr. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University.

My new book White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement places conservatism within the big picture of modern American history. The book traces the origins of modern conservatism to the 1920s. It explains why conservatism triumphed in the late twentieth century and why it is has fallen into disarray under the leadership of President George W. Bush.

The review of my book in the New York Times by former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum shows that at least some diehard defenders of the Bush administration do not wish to enter into in a serious conversation about America’s conservative political tradition, but rather are engaged in sweeping self-denial at the expense of fairness, accuracy, and historical understanding. In Frum’s view only patriotic anti-communist and the pristine free-market theories of University of Chicago economists should be included in the conservative pantheon. Certainly nothing belongs that even hints of a less than respectable and inclusive approach to sensitive issues such as race, gender, religion, or business-self interest. This response to Frum’s partisan-driven review is aimed at opening up a discussion about the rise (and likely fall) of conservatism based on the actual historical record.

My book shows that the modern right arose in the 1920s “out of a widespread concern that pluralistic, cosmopolitan forces threatened America’s national identity.” The “vanguards” of American conservatives in this era “were white and Protestant and they had to fight to retain a once uncontested domination of American life.” Support for private enterprise completed this social conservatism to forge a consensus in the 1920s centered on conserving “white Protestant values and private enterprise.” Most of the subsequent history of conservatism revolved around the reinforcing and contradictory features of these core values.

Frum begins his review not by responding to what is in the book, but by critiquing its alleged neglect of contributions to conservatism by Catholics as illustrated by a list of 10 familiar Catholic conservatives. Yet each of these figures rose to prominence in the 1940s or later (most of them much later), which validates my point that a movement launched primarily by white Protestants after World War I later reached “a partial and uneasy rapprochement with Catholics.” This rapprochement “reflected a crucial double-shift in American history: the decline of anti-Catholicism among white Protestants and the rise of a politically and theologically conservative Catholicism that put sexual morality, traditional gender roles, biblical truth, and the protection of Christianity above Church teachings on labor, the death penalty, and social welfare.” (p. 4) Thus, rather than changing the conservative consensus, conservative Catholics largely accommodated themselves to an ongoing tradition.

Rather than neglecting Catholic conservatives I devote a section of the book to the rise of conservative Catholicism at mid-century and extensively probe the contributions of individual Catholics. For example, the book includes 19 pages of references on Senator Joseph McCarthy, 33 pages on William F Buckley, Jr., and 14 pages on Phyllis Schlafly.

Frum claims that I trace the origins of the modern American right to the Ku Klux Klan and to “fascist groupings that troubled the peace of American society in the aftermath of World War I.” Yet historians know that significant fascist groups arose in America only after the advent of the Great Depression. And rather than tracing conservative origins to such groups I conclude that “They gained headlines and worried legislators and prosecutors but ultimately signified little within the larger conservative movement.” (p. 76)

The importance of the Klan of the 1920s, however, should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the now voluminous new Klan literature. This work demonstrates the political importance of the 1920s Klan and its broad appeal to white Protestants that extended far beyond crude racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholicism. The Klan appealed more broadly to the desire for conformity to traditional values and standards of moral behavior.

Frum also ignores the many other crucial influences that I specify as responsible for the “birth of the modern right,” including post World War I anti-communism, business conservatism, evangelical Protestantism, and conservative activism among women. Frum claims that the book “hails women’s suffrage as progressive” and Prohibition and other conservative initiatives as reactionary. Yet the book avoids any attempt to label conservatism as reactionary and argues instead that “American conservative is a powerful and forward-looking as liberalism, although for conservatives the driving forces of American history are Christianity and private enterprise, not secular reasoning and social engineering.” Indeed, by tracing the origins of conservatism to the 1920s the book shows that the movement represented far more than a response to the rise of the modern liberal state in the 1930s. And rather than drawing a supposed progressive-reactionary dichotomy between suffrage and Prohibition as Frum asserts, the book argues instead that “the campaign for suffrage drew its vitality from the same ethnic, racial, and religious forces that backed Prohibition.” (p. 22)

Contrary to Frum’s unsupported claim, the book does not claim that all aspects of conservative philosophy and policy neatly mesh together. Rather, as with every movement, much of the history of conservatism revolves around challenges posed by contradictions from within. It is perfectly plausible for business men like the Du Pont brothers who founded the landmark Liberty League of the 1930s to also have opposed Prohibition, which “exposed the tension between moral reformers and a business community opposed to government control of industry.” That is why, the “dynastic Du Pont family … took the leader in organizing the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment.” (p. 14) But for Frum to say the “Liberty League was basically the old Association Against the Prohibition Amendment under a different name,” is a gross distortion of history. Unlike the Prohibition Association, the Liberty League “launched a broad crusade for conservative ideals that advanced the maturation of an interest-group politics not tied to a particular issue or constituency.” (p. 61)

Likewise, individual leaders like Democratic Governor Walter Pierce of Oregon (cited by Frum) struggled with similar contradictions, while others evolved in their thinking over time. For example, Illinois Congressman Samuel Pettingill and General Robert Wood, the Chair of Sears, Roebuck turned from backers of FDR’s New Deal to major conservative leaders. Many of the most prominent neo-conservatives began their political lives as dedicated Marxists.

Although Frum suggests that the book ignores the forward positions on race sometimes taken by Republicans in the early twentieth century, the work devotes considerable attention to the racism endemic within the Democratic Party of the era. It notes that until the 1940s, Republicans were much more likely to support civil rights measures than Democrats.

Despite the fact that about half of White Protestant Nation is devoted to business conservatives and their relationship to social conservatives, Frum’s review includes only two brief lines on business conservatism. He says that the book offers “scant reason” for its claim that conservatives have backed private enterprise, but not necessarily free enterprise. In fact, the book includes thousands of words explaining the numerous departures by business conservatives from free market principles. These include backing for protective tariffs; loans, subsidies, and special tax breaks for business, export guarantees, below market access to grazing and drilling on public lands, and special protective legislation. As the Executive Director of the staunchly conservative National Association of Manufacturers said in the 1940s, “businessmen, faced with the hard, cold facts of their immediate self-interest, will endorse ‘exceptions’ to any commonly-accepted definition of the function of competition.” (p. 137)

Frum also charges that the book neglects “change over time.” He fails to understand, however, that the history of political movements combines both stability and change over time. Without common features a movement would be incoherent historically; without change it would stagnate and die. Beyond explaining continuities from the 1920s to the present, the book analyzes major historical transformations within conservatism as well. Examples include the partial rapprochement with Catholics, the advent of neo-conservatives, and the split with libertarians. The book analyzes the shift from conservative support for balanced budgets to supply-side economics, from protectionism to free trade, from isolationism to aggressive interventionism abroad, from support for public education to the backing of private-school vouchers, etc.

Frum additionally suggests that the book needlessly dredges up irrelevant conservative figures and groups such as Elizabeth Dilling, the Liberty Lobby, and the Pioneer Fund. Yet Dilling was a pioneering woman anti-communist whose charges of communist influence within the Roosevelt administration (although tinged with an anti-Semitism that was hardly unusual at the time) had wide resonance on the right in the 1930s and for decades to come. She was a key leader of the enormous mothers’ movement against America’s involvement in World War II. The Liberty Lobby was the first important conservative group to set up shop on Capitol Hill. In the 1960s, its pamphlets on Lyndon Johnson’s unsavory past and the capitulation to the left by Republicans in Congress circulated in the many millions. The Lobby’s Liberty Letter surpassed all other political publications in circulation and its lurid conspiracy theories were echoed by many conservatives including Phyllis Schalfly in her historic work on Barry Goldwater, A Choice Not an Echo, which like Dillings’ books was self-published. The founder of the Pioneer Fund, Wickliffe Preston Draper, was the single largest financial contributor to the massive resistance movement that delayed school integration and other civil rights initiatives for a decade in the 1950s and early ‘60s. His Fund poured many millions of dollars into research that kept alive assertions of black inferiority in intelligence and ability. Some of this work also found its way into the blockbuster book, The Bell Curve by Richard Hernnstein and Charles Murray.

Frum additionally claims that White Protestant Nation fails to consider the broader political context for the triumph of conservatism in the late twentieth century, notably the failures of the Democrats. Yet the book analyzes in great detail the failures of Democratic liberals in the 1970s to respond to economic troubles and challenges abroad. It concludes that Democratic President Jimmy Carter “could not overcome the failings of his first term.” (p. 351) The book also devotes scores of pages to the development of new conservative infrastructure and political appeals in the 1970s. It studies the formation of organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Conservative Caucus, the National Conservative Political Action Committee, and the Moral Majority. It explores the revival of political activity among conservative business groups including new groups as the Business Roundtable. It explains how conservatives reformulated their social ideology in terms of “pro-family” policies and how they responded to new issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights.

Ironically, George W. Bush’s former speechwriter fails to address the epilogue of White Protestant Nation which explains how conservatism has fallen victim to internal contradictions during the Bush years. (pp. 436-456) The analysis shows that today’s conservatives cannot reconcile their historic opposition to social engineering with their backing for one of the most expensive and ambitious social engineering ventures in US history: the reconstruction of Iraq. They cannot square their backing for states' rights with their support for constitutional amendments on abortion and gay marriage and their opposition to vehicle emission standards set by California and other states. They cannot reconcile their advocacy of individual freedom with their support for warrantless wiretapping of U. S. citizens, stringent versions of the Patriot and Military Commissions Acts. They cannot reconcile their support for limited government, fiscal responsibility, and balanced budget with a president who has built the biggest, most expensive, and most intrusive government in U.S. history.

Perhaps if conservatism were in better shape today, David Frum would feel less compelled to force its history into an ill-fitting partisan box. Maybe even Frum will eventually come to see that only the truth can set you free.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Robert Lee Gaston - 7/25/2008

The intellectual framework of the American conservative movement is a much wider and deeper than the author seems to want to acknowledge. It is one hell of a reach from the KKK to the Yale educated, devoutly Roman Catholic William Buckley, the Senator from Arizona Barry Goldwater, (his father was Jewish) and the real Russian revolutionary Ayn Rand. It’s about liberty.

Max J. Skidmore - 7/25/2008

Kennedy infallible? Surely you jest, at least if that's what you think I believe. As for Johnston Island, OK, you were there. As Cheney would ask: "so?" You weren't there during post-treaty above-ground tests, because they did not occur. The tests took place prior to the treaty. The treaty set it aside as a ready spot to test should atmospheric testing resume; it didn't.

There may be much that is covered up, as you say, but one cannot hide an atmospheric nuclear test--virtually every government in the world would note it, and our enemies would have trumpeted it to the skies; they didn't.

Anyway, this has nothing to do with the argument about conservatives, etc., and Democrats and Republicans. You do tend to wander off the point so much so that I'll waste no more time on this.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/24/2008

Well, we were talking about whether Carter was more liberal than Kennedy--my position--when you seemed to try to refute me by presenting the Kennedy test ban treaty as an example of a liberal success he had, which is generally how it has been portrayed by hagiographers, and I just fall out of my chair every time I hear this nonsense because I was there, and know the story at first hand. I was in the atomic testing zone at Christmas Island in 1962, and at Johnston Island in 1963 and 1964--so YOU look it up and find the references, I don't have to. But I warn you there is a heavy defense screen woven around the myth of JFK's infallibility, with many salient points omitted from many accounts because the authors are in love with him. Most people who haven't any use for Kennedy don't bother to correct this stuff, and seldom look at it. When you see the source is a Dallek, for instance, you should know what follows about Kennedy is unreliable.
Nearly everything about the atomic testing was classified, too, and maybe still is, which doesn't help in refuting the ignorance. Nor, of course, does Kennedy's martyrdom help bring forth deserved criticism.

R.R. Hamilton - 7/23/2008

"[A]fter signing [the Civil Rights Act of 1964], LBJ prophetically quipped to Bill Moyers: 'I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for your lifetime and mine.'"

Just some anecdotal evidence of the exaggerated effect the civil rights laws had on Southern voting:

I was a teenager in Texas in 1970 when Lloyd Bentsen was running for Senator against then-Congressman Geo. H.W. Bush. In that race, the Democrats were boasting that all the Democrats in the Texas delegation (20 out of 22 congressmen) voted against the Open Housing Act of 1968 while both Republicans -- including Bush -- had voted for it.

The first year I ever saw a political billboard where the GOP candidate ran his name with the word "Republican" was 1978. The first year I ever saw a Democrat's billboard without the word "Democrat" was 1984.

Thus, clearly there was no overnight shift in voting patterns caused by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The South didn't begin to vote predominately Republican until the 1980s. What happened between 1965 and 1980 that might explain the shift? My answer is the simplest one: pocketbook issues. The economy of the South of the 1960s and 1970s was commodities-driven -- summed up in Texas as "the Three Cs": Cotton, Cattle, and Crude. When commodity prices skyrocketed in the 1970s, Southerners found themselves pushed into higher tax brackets that they thought should be paid only by the "rich Yankees". While I don't deny that the Northern Democrat support for affirmative action, etc., did help push Southerners into the arms of the GOP, I think the economic and tax issues did even more.

Max J. Skidmore - 7/23/2008

I should also have asked Mr. Brooks whether he thinks the treaty was "liberal," or "conservative," regardless of what he imagines its effects to have been. He does tend to wander in his replies, but his point originally was that JFK was no liberal, but now he seems to be arguing regarding the merits of a JFK policy, not its left or right orientation. Sticking to the point may help clarify thought--at least one would hope so.

Max J. Skidmore - 7/23/2008

I should also have asked Mr. Brooks whether he thinks the treaty was "liberal," or "conservative," regardless of what he imagines its effects to have been. He does tend to wander in his replies, but his point originally was that JFK was no liberal, but now he seems to be arguing regarding the merits of a JFK policy, not its left or right orientation. Sticking to the point may help clarify thought--at least one would hope so.

Max J. Skidmore - 7/23/2008

Mr. Brooks--would you care to supply some documentation regarding atmospheric nuclear testing by either the USSR or the USA after implementation of the treaty? By documentation, I mean from reliable sources, not allegations from extremist literature.

Mr. Davis, "here, here" doesn't make sense. You mean "hear, hear." Think a bit about what you write before you write it, and perhaps you will make a stronger case (well, perhaps).

Randll Reese Besch - 7/22/2008

That was when the Dixiecrats became Republicans and many liberal Republicans found themselves as Democrats and the blacks of America moved to the Democrats from the Republicans when that shift occured. Yes the parties changed and were nothing like their founding but they still invoke it all of the time regardless of the a-historicity of it.
A move of ideology under different names. I agree with Mr. Geshekter that a multidimensional look at the politics, history and parties must be made for the analysis to be able to be valid and correct.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/22/2008

Nothing epitomizes the failed Kennedy presidency better than his disastrous Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The Soviets never complied with its provisions from the first day, and when the U.S. caught on to their perfidy early in 1962, we had to resume testing on a crash basis to catch up for the time lost in the arms race--owing to Kennedy's naivete... This tendency to overlook the worst in our enemies has been characteristic of Democratic foreign policymakers for decades, whether with respect to the Soviets, Central American communists, or Wahabis.

Walter D. Kamphoefner - 7/22/2008

You all should perhaps consult a contemporary source, Will Rogers, who once stated: "I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat." The mid-twenties saw an intraparty feud among Democrats between the "Klan wing" and the "Al Smith wing" that was as nasty as any interparty feuds today. So to determine that (some, probably a majority) of Klansmen were Democrats really explains nothing, then or now. These intra-party struggles of the Democrats continued at least till the Civil Rights Act of 1964; after signing it, LBJ prophetically quipped to Bill Moyers: "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for your lifetime and mine."

Max J. Skidmore - 7/22/2008

Cherry-picking is alive and well. I won't argue the point regarding JFK, but you could as easily have pointed to his negotiation of the treaty banning atmosphere nuclear testing, his establishment by E.O. of the Peace Corps, his submission of a civil-rights bill, his all-out support for Medicare, etc. In any case, you're making my point--the one that you obviously missed: Democrats can be conservatives too. Republicans can also be liberals (or at least could at one time).

Elliott Aron Green - 7/22/2008

The Prince de Ligne is supposed to have said that in order for things to stay the same, things must constantly change. That may explain why some Establishment circles favor the candidacy of Senator Obama, the "change" candidate, who endeavored mightily not to be specific about which changes he would introduce. Indeed, anti-war, anti-military Obama seems to have been a cocoon or chrysalis from which "national security" Obama is now emerging. This latter day Obama wants to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, where they will presumably be either out of harm's way or in a better position to go after al-Qa`ida. So the advocate of change is himself changing --back to the old style Washington "statesman" that so many millions believed he had come to drive out.

Be that as it may, the Prince de Ligne's view implicitly deprecates the motive force of ideology [as a prime mover] and emphasizes the role of interests, interest groups, power elites, etc., which may employ ideologies.

If I may summarize points made in the above commentaries, the labels of Democrat and Republican are not fit to describe or explain political or historical realities. Nor, I suggest, are conservative and liberal adequate categories for describing American politics over time, much less "left" and "right." For instance, before WW2, Christian socialist movements --often connected to the Catholic Church-- were Judeophobic on economic grounds among others. Father Coughlin, the radio preacher of the 1930s, may be an example of this trend. His radio preaching was understood as Judeophobic and he was considered "right-wing". Now, many Judeophobic themes essentially similar to those of Coughlin and other Christian Socialists are commonly uttered by "leftists" in the context of hostility to Israel. So why was one "rightist" and the other "leftist"???

What annoyed me about Lichtman's essay was, I think, its use of defective categories. Lichtman suggests that Prez Carter was a "Democratic liberal." Messers Stepp and Skidmore see carter as a "conservative." [Hughes seems uncertain about Carter]. So these labels/categories are not really adequate [or used the same way by everyone] for describing or defining. Maybe there are several forms of "conservative" as well as of "liberal", which Lichtman seems to acknowledge without going so far as to question the very categories, which should be done. Is Catholic conservatism the same as Protestant? Maybe in some ways. But does Lichtman really see Catholic theology before the 1940s as "liberal"?? Was Pope Pius XI or Pius XII "liberal"?? Do the Church's teachings on labor or social welfare, for example, go back to the popes who controlled extensive landed estates in the Papal states of central Italy?

Maybe we need less of a two-dimensional approach to politics and ideologies and more of a three-dimensional approach, something less simplistic.

Michael Davis - 7/21/2008

Here here. JFK resembled none of the Democratic nominees from 1972 onward.
He would be considered a Republican in Massachusetts today.

David Thaddeus Liebers - 7/21/2008

Two questions/comments.

1.) Why does academia not like to talk about Catholics such as James Groppi, Dorothy Day and Antona Ebo.

2.) I'd probably generalize American Catholics as theologically confused partially because its so diverse a group. However, I'm wondering how, Mr. Lichtman, you'd back up the claim that Catholicism has become _theologically_ more conservative since 1940? Are you sure?

Evan Shawn Powell - 7/21/2008

"those in power, NOT acting like conservatives..."

Ummm, how, pray tell, did all these faux "conservative" individuals of the past 80 plus years come to power without the support of the blameless Conservative collective? Have they been fooled for those 80 years? All conned into supporting and voting for a milquetoast conservative? Perhaps a leftist conspiracy to keep real conservatives out of office? Those weak conservatives have been out witted repeatedly by the leftists? Perhaps there just was not a conservative strong enough to, say, really create a political machine like that the leftists have?

I am puzzled, but I suspect it has something to with utopian dreams, political dogma divorced from reality, generalities and labels.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/21/2008

Carter "the most conservative Democrat since Cleveland?"

How about John Kennedy? Although Kennedy's presidency was quite brief, it was not liberal. He cut taxes, launched the Cuban invasion,launched the Vietnam War, refused to jump on board with Martin Luther King, (in fact authorized wire taps on him), and appointed Whizzer White.

Mike Schoenberg - 7/21/2008

The problem with Friedman, Greenspan and others is that yes we have low taxes, huge debts, Katrina 3 years later still a problem and now we have the Mississippi floods to pay for. As long as we have this assinine idea that government is the problem, we are in trouble. The list goes on with the FDA not having the funds to find out why we are being poisened by the food, people losing their houses while the banks get bailed out, an unfunded war, huge national debt.....

Charles Lee Geshekter - 7/21/2008

I appreciated Allan Lichtman's lengthy response to the unfriendly critical review by David Frum in the NYTimes.

Lichtman seems to have written an important book; his succinct summary on the HNN will enable many non-specialists like me to go and read other things.

Michael Davis - 7/21/2008

It doesn't matter, conservative is a synonym for Republican; just as liberal is a synonym for Democrat.
The point is that Conservatives didn't fail this country; those in power, NOT acting like conservatives failed at their mission to create a prosperous business environment for all, built on the foundations of low taxes, AS WELL AS low federal spending. We see the results now. Milton Friedman would tell you, before he died, that nothing about the administration is conservative and/or free market.
To think that liberals (read: Democrats) are going to get us out of this mess with New Deal thinking, are quite severely mistaken.
I shudder for the future.

Max J. Skidmore - 7/21/2008

These comments inject a partisan element that isn't in the article, which deals with conservatism, not "Democrats versus Republicans." In fact, Lichtman explicitly mentions Democratic conservatives and Republican progressives.

Certainly the Democratic Party had a strong conservative contingent, primarily in the South; Lichtman doesn't say otherwise.

Moreover, it isn't true that "Carter isn't "considered" (by whom? one wonders) a "conservative." Obviously he is a Democrat, but hardly a "leftist." Undoubtedly he was the most conservative Democratic president to take office since Cleveland, and it's unusual if not bizarre for any thinking person to consider him a "leftist." Again, being a Democrat doesn't mean--as those making these comments clearly assume--that one cannot be a conservative.

There is more confusion regarding Tom Watson, who did begin his career as a populist radical, no doubt a "leftist." After his hiatus from politics, however, in no way did he emerge as a "leftist racist." He was a racist, pure and simple, and an anti-Semitic extremist of the right.

William J. Stepp - 7/21/2008

In _The Cycles of American History_ Arthur Schlesinger Jr. referred to the First Peanut Farmer as a conservative and compared him to Grover Cleveland (which is a slur on Cleveland).

Tim R. Furnish - 7/21/2008

And what about the former KKK official Senator Robert Byrd? Last time I checked, he was a Democrat.

Elliott Aron Green - 7/21/2008

maybe American conservatism came out of the White Protestant milieu. But many of these people were Democrats. And many or most of the KKK were Democrats. If Lichtman sees the KKK as "conservative," an arguable claim, then how about Prez Jimmy Carter who came out of a Ku Klux Klan background, whose mother read the leftist-racist Tom Watson's weekly, and apparently passed her anti-Jewish prejudices on to her son, yet Carter is not considered a "conservative" but rather is a Democrat and "leftist"? The USA had a White Protestant majority in the 1920s and before. But some of these people were in the WWW [Wobblies], some were socialists, Knights of Labor, etc. Were they all "conservatives"?