Was the Conservative Movement Made in the 1970s?
A number of scholars emphasize the emergence in the 70s of a conservative “movement” that turned the nascent New Right from an extremist ideology and a fledgling faction into a powerful electoral force. While modern American conservatism took shape in the 50s and 60s, it never cohered as a full-scale political movement.
The shift to the right, however, was anything but inevitable, even if previous accounts suggested that it was. After 1970, the New Right found its secret to success; it constructed its organizational infrastructure — the political-action committees, the volunteer operations, the radio talk shows, the think tanks, and the direct-mail network. The movement developed a post-Vietnam foreign-policy agenda that would define America’s position through the end of the cold war and establish the foundation for the war against terrorism. The agenda revolved around increasing the defense budget, using heated rhetoric against the Soviet Union, refraining from arms or territorial negotiation, and embarking on limited military interventions abroad. Ronald Reagan invigorated support for that agenda within the Republican Party when he challenged and almost upset President Gerald Ford, a Republican, for the nomination in 1976. Neoconservatives like Richard Perle and Jeane Kirkpatrick similarly popularized those ideas. Mobilizing previously quiescent evangelical Christians, the conservative movement also framed a new domestic agenda around cultural issues that would attract millions of voters into a reconstructed Republican Party. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson became known for shows that reached millions of Americans, calling on them to challenge the legality of abortion and to pressure broadcasters into refusing sexual material. The conservative movement of the 70s would become the motive force driving American politics for the next three decades.
There’s a stronger case to be made from all this than Schulman and Zelizer press, though maybe their book, Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, argues more forcefully. The conventional story of the Right is that before 1945, almost all was darkness and old night. Then several intellectuals, like F.A. Hayek and Richard Weaver, published important conservative books, and before long National Review appeared. That led to Goldwater, who led to Reagan, who led to Gingrich and Bush. (And the conservative movement thinks that’s a happy ending!) There’s a lot of truth to this narrative, but it’s basically a progressive “Whig history” of the American Right. The story can be told in other ways — stressing, for example, the quite vibrant political movement around Robert Taft in the 1940s and 1950s and the continuing strength of the Old Right up through the launch of National Review.
What neither the movement nor most of the movement’s critics talk much about are the continuities between the Old Right and the Cold War Right — while most Old Right thinkers were anti-statists and anti-interventionsists (think of Albert Jay Nock or Felix Morley), some of them were proto-Cold Warrriors or turned into actual Cold Warriors (Paul Palmer and John Chamberlain are two examples). The title of Murray Rothbard’s book is correct: the Old Right was betrayed. But that’s not the full story. Even the Goldwater movement, which can be seen as Cold War conservatism par excellence, had roots in the Old Right: Clarence Manion, who commissioned Brent Bozell to ghostwrite The Conscience of a Conservative and drafted Goldwater for his 1960 presidential run, was an Old Rightist, after all.
Just as there are continuities as well as discontinuities between the Old Right and the postwar Right, there are also discontinuities as well as continuities between the early Cold War Right of the Goldwater movement and the later Cold War Right of the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of the populist New Right and social conservatism. The discontinuities are rarely stressed, though, even when they’re acknowledged. There’s a case to be made — and perhaps Zelizer and Schulman make it in their book — that the Right that emerged out of the 1970s was as different from the 1950s and 1960s Right as the 1950s and 1960s Right was from the Old Right.
Certainly ever since the end of Vietnam, the American Right has continued to refight the Vietnam War on the homefront, continually campaigning against McGovern Democrats (whether real or imagined) and the archetype of the hippie radical. I touched on some of these themes a few years back in a piece I titled “The Authoritarian Movement.” This is a topic I’ll have to revisit sometime soon.Ideology comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.