Can Left-wing historians write the History of Movement Conservatism?

In the 70’s, when I taught a course that covered the Civil War era and I dealt with slavery, I recall that black students in my class were outraged when I assigned a collection of slave letters edited by a white historian.  The argument they made was simple: whites cannot teach black history. That claim lead eventually to the absurdities of Afro-centrism.


Later, some feminists would argue that only women could teach women’s history. While mainly histories of the American Left have been written by sympathetic historians who are also on the Left- and who mine the past largely to rescue their heroes as models to follow for today-there is proof that conservatives can write sympathetically and with insight about the Left’s own history. The key example is the 2008 book by Daniel J. Flynn, A Conservative History of the American Left, which I reviewed favorably.  

But given the new polarization in America, the question must now be raised as to whether these same left-wing and liberal historians- most scholars who get Ph.D.’s in American History are of the Left- can write fair and insightful histories of the emergence of the conservative movement in America. The answer I have, a resounding yes- surprisingly comes from a lengthy cover article that appeared in the September 28th issue of The Nation.  It is called “Right On: Tracing the History of Movement Conservatism,” and is written by Kim Phillips-Fein, an assistant professor at NYU’s Gallatin School.

Make no mistake. Ms. Phillips-Fein is unabashedly a woman of the Left. Aside from her first book that was published last year and that deals with this topic (and which I have not read) all her other popular pieces are from the standard left of center publications. Yet, in this lengthy discussion of twelve books that deal with the past of American conservatism (some old and others recent) Prof. Phillips-Fein offers interesting assessments and some shrewd observations, as well as challenging some of the Left’s own assumptions about the failure of conservatism and the triumph of their own side in the American political arena.


She starts noting that for a long time, the death of conservatism has been predicted on a fairly regularly basis. Despite the rifts and tensions that exist today among conservatives, she writes that in the past not only have they failed to lead to a predicted collapse, but “On the contrary, they have generated a strangely durable, tenacious politics that has avoided being shunted to the margins of American life.” Thus she joins the ranks of younger historians who not content with older New Left veterans who spent all their academic time doing research on the 60’s Left they once were part of themselves, have decided to follow the path suggested fifteen years ago by historian Alan Brinkley of Columbia University. Young scholars, he suggested, even or particularly liberal and left-wing scholars, study those whose movement had become “something of an orphan” in the literature, the conservative movement.

Now, studies of the conservative movement have become yet another cottage industry, just as studies about American Communism written by left-wing historians had become a few decades earlier.  She acknowledges that much of the motivation for this effort is that many of these new historians “have sought to understand the conservative movement partly to forge the tools to undermine it.” This is undoubtedly true, but to make this admission is to acknowledge that history should be a tool for understanding, not a tool to enable activists to learn what they should do in a current political fight.


What Prof. Fein-Phillips wants is something else, “a retelling of the larger narrative of the postwar period incorporating the insights of recent histories of the right,” especially at a moment when with the election of Barack Obama, the most  left-wing president in our history, so many assume the forward march of inevitable liberalism. She knows, however, that before Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, most scholars thought conservatism was a “relic” never to be revived, a sect made up only of “a menagerie of resentful oddballs and misfits…eccentric racists and assorted cranks.” A good historian, she does not want others to make such a mistake again.

She offers readers of her essay a summary of how since that time, historians have dealt with the reality that at first shocked and surprised them. First was a theory of social backlash that explained for many working-class reaction to 60’s social radicalism; then a realization that a shift had occurred in American politics and that a new political force had managed to grow and rise. Next came studies of movement conservatism and the social origins of its participants, who were “not driven by irrational fears or anxieties but rather by a deeply held set of beliefs about how society ought to be organized.” They were not those left out of a failing economy, but those who had won, and who sought to use the same kind of tactics previously engaged in by left-wing movements. She writes:

For some, the New Left’s inability to moderate its strident moralizing and appeal to a broader public made it tragically culpable for the ultimate failure of consensus liberalism–the left had been unable to speak to working-class Americans, who turned instead to the right. For others, the clash simply revealed the intractable racism endemic to segments of American society, meaning that there was no particular tactical failure on the part of the left. Yet most of these earlier scholars, who focused on the collapse of the New Deal electoral coalition, agreed that the modern right was born in this furious, embittered reaction against civil rights, feminism and the antiwar movement.


A newer generation of historians saw things differently. They argued that

Far from being a sudden, explosive and negative reaction to the decade’s tumult, the conservative movement simmered throughout the postwar period, motivated by its activists’ positive vision of small government, the perfect social ordering promised by the free market and a world without communism. The social crises of the 1960s may have offered the movement an opportunity to broaden its base of support, but conservatism was thriving before that upheaval. The earlier generation of scholars, after all, never did explain how thirty years of conservative politics could have sprouted from a few explosive conflicts in the 1970s. Nor could they elucidate how the blue-collar workers who cheered for George Wallace wound up supporting a politics committed to promoting the free market, fighting unions and rolling back the welfare state.

Thus, Prof. Fein-Phillips concludes that “it was necessary to look at the rise of the conservative movement on its own terms– to study its internal logic, its intellectual history and the way its activists promoted their agenda.” (my emphasis) For one, she challenges the common idea that the new right-wing exists as a populist revolt, and recommends books studying the origins of the revival of laissez-faire economics in the Southwest, and anti-statist politics among groups like truckers, and suggests that conservatism’s success comes instead of “deeper economic changes in the country.” She suggests that the entire postwar period “might be seen as no more than a ‘long exception’ to the more lasting conservative project of individualism and laissez-faire that has defined so much of American history.” Citing the new book by the conservative historian Patrick Allitt, she writes that to some “the post-1945 conservative movement is one more development of a strain of politics reaching back to the founding fathers.”


It is clear, therefore, that in evaluating what explains the growth of a conservative movement, Prof. Fein-Phillips does not slight the work of conservatives who have also sought to explain their own movement’s growth. She notes “Allitt emphasizes the continuities between postwar conservatism and the laissez-faire politics of the nineteenth century.” Indeed, she writes that “the old narrative has been turned upside down: more and more, historians are depicting the century as one of conservative strength only briefly interrupted.”

Historians, of course, look at the past, and do not as a rule try to predict the future. But turning to the current debate about conservatism, and to  Sam Tanenhaus’ much discussed book predicting its end, she writes that “the intellectuals who have brought conservatism to a broader public have been moving away from their old certainties.” She agrees with David Frum- although she does not mention him- that many are talking only to a small segment of the population, whom she calls “a narrow and frustrated segment of opinion,” and thus risk becoming more marginal and no longer part of the central focus of American politics. She cites approvingly the stance of Ross Douthat and Rehan Salam, “that Republicans need to win back the ‘Sam’s club’ voters and convince working-class people that family values are actually in their economic interest” and that they might have to give up a hard-line laissez-faire position.

Her article is serious, although her concluding paragraph reads like old-line left-wing boilerplate. She worries that many Americans still believe in laissez-faire politics and a purely market driven world. She criticizes Obama for being surrounded by Wall Street plutocrats. Yet for conservatives who seek to gain in influence once again, she warns her friends on the Left that “History has a strange way of rescuing the defeated.” And just when conservatism seems to be on its lowest rungs, she asserts that it is only now “that we can for the first time assess the full significance of all that the right has won.”


Obviously, readers of this blog will have much to argue with Prof.Phillips-Fein. Conservatives will disagree with her assumptions and how it shapes her own examination of the conservative movement. But we should welcome a real debate, especially one done without rancor and written in a serious fashion. At a moment when most liberal/left commentary is purely a set of venomous screeds, this essay by Prof. Phllips-Fein stands alone.


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