Conservative Denial

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 conservativism 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 conservativism 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.

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 conservativism, 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 conservativism 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 conservativism. 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 conservativism 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 conservativism were in better shape today, David Frum would feel less compelled to force its history into an ill-fitting partisan box.

ALLAN J. LICHTMAN is a professor of history at American University in Washington, DC. He is the author of White Protestant Nation.