Where Conservative Ideas Come From

tags: conservatism, GOP

Timothy Shenk, a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, is the author of "Maurice Dobb: Political Economist" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

In January 1968, George Wallace, shoe-polish-black hair shining under the spotlight, threw himself into a debate over the meaning of conservatism. He was a guest on the public affairs program Firing Line, and his opponent was the show’s host — and de facto spokesman for the American right — William F. Buckley Jr. Wallace had known he would face a hostile interrogator, but for a politician who fed on anger the promise of conflict was all the more reason to participate.

Viewers looking forward to a verbal tussle were not disappointed "You are using the rhetoric of conservatism for illicit ends," Buckley charged, depicting the country’s foremost segregationist as a New Dealer who had turned against the Democrats only when civil rights moved onto the national agenda. "I have as much rapport with the voters as any of these so-called conservatives that you talk about," Wallace insisted, underscoring his connection with the common man by hitting the "t" in rapport. Definitions of right and left blurred in the back and forth, with Buckley complaining that an "impostor" was "forcing me to sound like a liberal, which has never happened to me before in my entire life."

For all the heat generated by their clash — Buckley, leaning back with one arm crushed against his chair, another cocked above his head; Wallace turning his attention to the audience, trying to enlist them against his patrician antagonist — the question of what it meant to be a conservative went unresolved, an argument between the two men that continued as the credits rolled.

Until recently, historians believed they had resolved this dispute. What began in the 1990s with a trickle of articles lamenting the absence of studies on American conservatism grew in the 2000s to a flood of monographs on the activists, intellectuals, and politicians who bent history’s arc to the right. Lisa McGirr’s trailblazing study of Orange County’s suburban warriors, Bethany Moreton’s exploration of the politics of Wal-Mart, and Angus Burgin’s meticulous reconstruction of the winding path from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman were just a few of the highlights in a booming field.

As Buckley would have preferred, the representative figure in this scholarship was not George Wallace but Ronald Reagan. The 40th president stood for a coalition of prosperous, forward-looking voters motivated by sincere ideological commitments and assisted by an emerging conservative establishment filled with adept manipulators of Washington’s bureaucracy. The populism and racism that fueled Wallace’s career were not forgotten, but too great an emphasis on these subjects did not fit with the grudging respect these generally liberal historians evinced for the subjects of their research. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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