Further into the right: the ever-expanding historiography of the U.S. new right.
Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade. By Donald T Critchlow (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. xi plus 422 pp. $22.95).
In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution. By Joseph Crespino (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007 - xvii plus 360 pp. $35.00).
Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. By Philip Jenkins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 344 pp. $28.00).
Radical Conservatism: The Right's Political Religion. By Robert Brent Toplin (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006. 306 pp. $34.95).
While scholars have chronicled the New Right since it first emerged as a political movement in the U.S., an interpretive shift signaled by Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors (2001) has seen social history methods steadily replacing traditional political history as the dominant framework for understanding the modern conservatism that supplanted postwar liberalism beginning in the 1960s. (1) A steady proliferation of books and articles in the years since McGirr's work have clearly rendered the New Right a "hot" topic of inquiry, as a new cast of grassroots-activist characters has joined political icons such as Nixon and Gold-water. Hand in hand with this shift has occurred a more concerted effort to meet conservatives on their own turf; just as social historians replaced the middle-class white men of the Progressive Era with a more diverse roster of participants in recent decades, so too have scholars of the New Right moved beyond the stereotypical "radical right," pathologized for its symbolic status politics and moralism that "represents a disguised form of repressed envy," as Daniel Bell put it several decades ago. (2)
The current, and still emerging, analysis of the New Right abandons knee-jerk condescension to recreate social and cultural worlds in their full complexity, situating members of the New Right as historical agents rather than mere political automatons. But at its best, this new scholarship also acknowledges that the preservation of racial and gender hierarchies and norms figured prominently in the mobilization of the movement, the most important U.S. political movement in the final third of the 20th century. The five books selected here for review do not encompass the continuously expanding historical literature of the New Right in its entirety, but they effectively convey the current cutting edge, their diverse angles of approach showing just how deep the roots and far the tentacles of the movement extend, from women's suffrage to serial killers, these books cover a vast terrain, but collectively they reflect the powerful allure of a movement whose seeming unity, simplicity, and coherence have spoken to the needs, desires, and fears of millions of Americans in recent decades.
Catherine Rymph begins somewhat earlier, at the dawn of women's suffrage in 1920. Since then, she contends, Republican women have faced the classic institutional outsider's dilemma: integrate into the party and risk having their influence diluted by the dominant men, or organize separately and consign themselves to perpetual marginalization. Republican Women charts the divergent responses of its titular characters: party women, who joined the GOP and strove for power from within, and independent clubwomen, who sought to exercise political power in large part through the implied threat of withholding their votes if the patty platform ignored their agendas. Because the clubwomen dramatically outnumbered the party women, Rymph directs her primary focus on them, arguing that the party's careful cultivation of their support "unwittingly nurtured" a right wing it could no longer control (11). In the author's persuasive analysis, this fringe ultimately shifted the center of Republican gravity to the right, playing as significant a role in the coalescence of the New Right as other groups that have drawn more notice from historians, such as the California Republican Assembly, the Young Republicans, and the Young Americans for Freedom. (3)
Clubwomen first organized primarily as social groups of elite white women in the 1920s and 30s, often requiring that prospective members "be known personally by at least one state governor" (47). With such tactics severely limiting the potential of grassroots impact, Republican women's clubs "muddled along" until the late 1930s, when the Republican National Committee named Maine committeewoman Marion Martin assistant chairman in charge of women's activities and head of the RNC Women's Division (62). With Martin at the helm, the National Federation of Women's Republican Clubs (later National Federation of Republican Women, or NFRW) began a new program of recruitment, also soliciting clubwomen to adopt new positions of strict party loyalty.
Martin effectively embodies Rymph's concept of the patty woman; serving in the Maine house and senate, her careerist bent necessitated compromise and negotiation. Rymph frames party women as tending toward moderation in their politics, privileging party goals over individual agendas. In contrast, clubwomen, often "drawn to notions of political purity" and motivated less by political career ambitions than passion, viewed the party as a vehicle for their agendas rather than as an institution worthy of deference (4). Martin's plan of instilling party discipline in the clubs was, then, as Rymph notes with sly understatement, a "curious strategy for empowerment," hut one that did find significant success; by the time of the federation's first convention in 1938, it had drawn 85 affiliated clubs representing 95,000 women, over twice the membership of the League of Women Voters (6, 73).
Despite the ambiguous nature of her empowerment efforts, Martin did support women being politically informed and active, and she rejected notions of gender difference that bestowed upon women a moral purity distinguishing them from men. Indeed, historians often consider such ideas a relic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Rymph argues for their lasting impact, as Martin's successor Elizabeth Farrington revitalized the seemingly archaic discourse of moral superiority when she became NFRW president in 1948. By focusing intently on moral principle, Farrington expanded the appeal of the NFRW to clubwomen unimpressed by Martin's emphasis on falling into lockstep with party platforms. Farrington proved quite willing to overlook differences, seeking "points of common ground" with extremist clubs that held militant, even anti-Semitic, views (107). While this had the short-term effect of building up the NFRW (which reached 3000 clubs and a half million members by 1956), it also commenced a shift toward extremism that held great significance for the long run.
Farrington's approach reshaped women's political activism, directing it toward what Rymph terms "the housework of government." If her moral rhetoric drew women into party activism, it also delineated strict limits for their feminine roles, capitalizing as it did on their social positions as wives, mothers, and suburbanites. In the gendered GOP political labor of the Eisenhower era, clubwomen assumed such tasks as compiling voter lists, conducting surveys, and driving voters to the polls. While low-skill and low-prestige in nature, such duties also ceded to clubwomen control over the grassroots machinery of the party. Interestingly, the clubwomen's efforts sometimes resisted the conservative femininity that defined their moral mission, as seen in a 1958 fundraising booklet that suggested a striptease auction. When the media called attention to the booklet, attendant outrage led to a revision emphasizing more established traditions such as bake sales (142). Ruptures like this raise questions of how clubwomen themselves understood and performed the moral ideology of femininity that structured their activism. Rymph does not go quite so far as to fully recreate the worldview of the average clubwoman, but she does vividly portray the careful means by which GOP activism was sutured into domestic and social lives, as well as how participants found a "sense of purpose" in their activism that kept at bay the problem of domestic confinement that as yet had no name. (150).
As the clubwomen assumed their role in the party, party women continued to resist the language of sexual difference, encouraging women to become leaders and finding much success under the Eisenhower administrations, which included about 130 women. In fighting for their vision of Republican womanhood, party women achieved important but ephemeral successes; in a chapter on "Republican feminism" Rymph shows the brief flourishing of liberal Republican women in the mid-1970s, as First Lady Betty Ford and RNC chair Mary Louise Smith supported the ERA, reproductive rights, and other progressive goals. This moment was not, of course, to last. By 1980, the grassroots-driven conservatism of the clubwomen dominated the GOP, rejecting the ERA and calling for an anti-abortion amendment. Horrified party women, along with liberal Republican men, faced the agonizing choice of abandoning the party or hoping for quiet reform from within. Necessity compelled those who stayed to ''redefine Republican feminism" in strictly economic terms of lower taxes, deregulation, and other issues more commensurate with the Reaganite agenda (230). By the end of the 1980s, Rymph claims, a new model of Republican womanhood had emerged, one that replaced the differing gender consciousness of both party and clubwomen with an abstract emphasis on individualism.
This ascent of the New Right is oft-chronicled, but Rymph's highlighting of clubwomen's role in fostering the grassroots activism that acted as its springboard is new, and Republican Women is a valuable contribution to the growing literature on the movement, as well as on gender and politics more broadly. Rymph's research is expansive and well utilized, and within her overarching interpretive framework of party women and clubwomen she is also attuned to related issues, such as the consistent marginalization of African American Republican women. If the book's title perhaps suffers from slight overreach (readers interested in powerful congresswomen such as Margaret Chase Smith or Kathryn Granahan might he disappointed that Rymph's social history approach comes at their expense), Republican Women nonetheless remains a fresh and exciting work for scholars of the New Right, political history, and women's history, among others.
It also operates in rewarding dialogue with Donald Critchlow's Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism. Critchlow's book fills an inexplicable lacuna in the historiography of the New Right, finally bestowing upon Schlafly the attention she merits. Quite often discussed solely in the context of her notorious anti-ERA activism, Schlafly in fact played a key role in mobilizing the New Right, particularly its female members. While the hostile tone often directed toward her is understandable, considering Schlatly's success in derailing the constitutional enshrinement of gender equality, her historical significance deserves a nuanced portrayal. Critchlow handles this task thoughtfully, refraining from judgmental commentary but allowing certain ironies, such as the young Schlafly's (then Stewart's) application for a teaching post being rejected on overt gender grounds, to speak for themselves. In his analysis, her main importance was as a "translator" who converted the arcane and obtuse writings of conservative intellectuals such as Russell Kirk and Leo Strauss into terms palatable to a broader grassroots base, thus serving as a conduit of thought into action (6).
Critchlow's narrative embeds Schlafly's personal biography in the larger drift of conservative politics with skill and clarity. Born into a Catholic family devastated by the Great Depression, the young Schlafly found her political voice only after an impressive academic climb from a local Catholic college in St. Louis into the Ivy League. Only after winning her master's degree in 1945 and moving to Washington, D.C. to work for the pro-business American Enterprise Association (later Institute) did she begin to identify as a conservative, and even during her year there, Critchlow notes, she also joined a pro-United Nations group.
Returning to her hometown, Schlafly's abilities and ambitions seemed limitless as the twenty-two year old young woman's work as campaign manager for a Republican lawyer helped topple an incumbent congressional Democrat in 1946, but meeting and marrying lawyer Fred Schlafly seemed to portend a domestic life, in accordance with the gender norms of the day. A potential life of childrearing and caretaking was abruptly interrupted in 1952, however, when Fred declined an invitation for a Republican congressional run, inspiring an unexpected call of, "How about Phyllis?" (37). From there, the road to prominence was short; while Schlafly lost her run by a large margin, she drew national media attention as "the average housewife" running for congress (48). Although twenty nine women sought congressional seats in the 1952 election, Schlafly's rhetoric of women's unique moral virtue as a restorative salve to corrupt male politics clearly resonated with the press, and Critchlow's reconstruction of her campaign bears out Rymph's claims for the persistence of this rhetoric long past its alleged decline.
As he details Schlafly's next decade of activism, as a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and numerous other groups, Critchlow examines the centrality of anticommunism, informed by Christian faith, to postwar conservatism. Defining liberty as 'limited government, property rights, and personal freedom," anticommunist conservatives held a coherent worldview in abhorring a political philosophy designed to eradicate those ideals, Critchlow contends (74). Setting conservative ideology against its tumultuous Cold War backdrop, he expertly traces the contours of a "diverse, decentralized" movement easily characterized by its opponents as extremist (69). Such accusations led to incremental discursive shifts in the 1960s, as anticommunism was supplanted by the subtly different arguments of national defense, which adhered to the same politics but presented its case in seemingly less paranoid terms.
When Critchlow reaches the 1964 Goldwater campaign that catapulted Schlafly back into the center of the GOP spotlight thanks to her brief tome A Choice Not an Echo, the narrative becomes more familiar, and certainly the ERA battles have received extensive attention as well. But setting this book apart from the existing literature is Critchlow's trump card: unprecedented access to Phyllis Schlafly's personal papers, which constitute an archival treasure trove. From her teenage diary entries to correspondence with presidents and Supreme Court justices, this archive offers a breathtakingly fresh window into Schlally's life work, and Critchlow employs his discoveries to vivid, memorable effect, revealing everything from the inner workings of her various organizations to a humorous anecdote in which Bob Hope, sharing an airplane with the Schlaflys, mistakenly assumes autograph-seekers outside seek him.
On matters of research, prose quality, and narrative depth, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism is thus nearly impeccable. On matters of interpretation, however, it invites some challenges. While Critchlow's rejection of a pathologized analysis of conservative activists is in keeping with contemporary interpretive trends, at times his approach verges on overcorrecting the earlier scathing depictions of Schlafly by scholars. Discussing the contentious 1967 National Federation of Republican Women election in which Schlafly sought the presi-dency, pitting the support of her clubwomen followers against the wishes of the party women, Critchlow emphasizes the (successful) dirty tricks of her opponents. No doubt scorched-earth tactics prevailed, but while Critchlow frames Schlafly in sympathetic terms as an outsider "purged" by entrenched party interests, even referencing admittedly "inconclusive" charges of delegate-packing (156), he has very little to say about the "questionable strategies" of Schlafly supporters noted by Catherine Rymph in her account of the same conflict (Rymph 181).
In a similar vein, while ERA supporters were "especially vicious" in their attempts to link Schlafly with the Ku Klux Klan, Critchlow conspicuously observes Trotskyites and Maoists in a 1975 pro-ERA rally but declines to qualify their marginality to the very mainstream movement (252, 2.36). Perhaps more troubling is Critchlow's problematic use of "pro-abortion" to describe the pro-choice position, a loaded and simply inaccurate term that calls into question the fairness of his approach to feminism (later ERA rallies featuring witches' covens are described as "esoteric" and "bizarre") (265, 278).
Critchlow also strives mightily to downplay the significance of race in the mobilization of the New Right. While his argument that anticommunism superseded racial issues in the minds of postwar conservatives is persuasive, when he extends his case beyond that it grows notably weaker. Pointing out, for instance, that conservative anticommunists in the 1950s warned that racism "played into the hands of the communists," he fails to note that so too, according to them, did the civil rights movement (63). In suggesting that Schlafly's law and order rhetoric was more than "code-words for white racism," the author points out that she did not protest busing, and that he has discovered "only one short passage about race" in her voluminous writings; when that ostensibly singular reference turns out to be a claim that the 1967 urban race riots were "organized by outside agitators," Critchlow lets pass in silence the very telling fact that Schlafly quite clearly knowingly played off the emotive resonances of massive resistance and its inaccurate demonization of civil rights activists (185, 187). To suggest that racialized discourse exists only in overt, literal references to race, as Critchlow seems to do, is to do a profound disservice to the inarguably multi-layered significations of political language. This issue returns when Critchlow distances anti-ERA activists from racist groups by pointing out that "they never had contact with the segregationist Right" (222). As lane Sherron De Hart and Donald Mathews have shown, contact was hardly necessary for ERA opponents to, like Schlafly in 1967, access segregationist sentiment, as they did with such neologisms as "desexegregation." (4)
A more compelling analysis of the persistent tacit identity politics that have long defined the GOP and conservatism at large as white comes from Rymph, who observes the ostensibly pro-woman Republican delegate expansion of the 1920s that effectively served to weaken black representation in the party by diluting southern representation, as well as the NFRW's Marion Martin-era decision to allow state-level racial discrimination (Martin herself called black women's clubs' antidiscrimination efforts "some headache" in a 1946 memorandum) (83). For a full refutation of any notion of New Right racial innocence, however, Joseph Crespino's In Search of Another Country suffices marvelously.
Beginning with the striking image of 1980 Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan celebrating states' rights while campaigning at the Neshoba County Fair, near the site of the notorious 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, Crespino asks how such blatantly race-baiting political discourse could have moved from the fringes to the center of American politics. In his analysis, this transition was in significant part effected by the political trajectory of Mississippi state politics; often perceived as a retrograde backwater among the United States, Mississippi to Crespino embodied and precipitated many of the directions that would mark national politics in the 1970s and 80s. In contrast to Critchlow's downplaying of racist impulses behind modern conservatism, Crespino seeks to complicate historical understandings of these without ever averting attention from the preservation of white privilege that continues to serve as a crucial cornerstone of conservative platforms.
The "southern strategy" analysis that often guides interpretations of modern conservatism, while fundamentally correct, risks oversimplification, claims Crespino. By failing to accommodate the massive economic and social changes that literally reshaped the American South and thus informed political shifts, overly broad southern-strategy analyses attribute to racism a "mythic, ahistorical quality" which, in turn, generates misunderstandings of its sources and nature. Rural whites, for instance, have often appeared as the "cancerous, racist element" in society, whereas an emerging body of work locates the center of ascendant conservative power in the suburbs (8). (5) As Crespino portrays it, the hideous violence of rural white racists carried less long-term impact than the calculated tactics of more respectable, moderate white political leaders. Mid-1950s Governor J.P. Coleman pioneered the strategy of "practical segregation": making calculated concessions to the legal and political realities of the Warren Court era, but calibrating those gestures to deliver just enough to defuse civil rights mobilizations and ward off federal authorities, and nothing more.
This policy would evolve into the "racial troubleshooting" of the 1960s, as state leaders further accepted token desegregation in an ongoing effort to prevent more substantive federal redress of racial imbalances. Hand in hand with this went the emergence of a state Republican Party, as the national Democratic Party lost favor over its moderate support for black civil rights. As this shift transpires, Crespino documents numerous instances of self-conscious conservative rhetorical efforts to downplay racism while still maintaining continuity with white supremacist imperatives. Women for Constitutional Government, a group formed in the wake of the federal desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962, recognized the phrase "states' rights" as "anathema to our cause because it connotes segregation. From now on, the word should be 'conservative,'" the astute group decided (78).
That racial concerns fueled the rise of Mississippi GOP conservatism might be an uncontroversial assertion, but Crespino's efforts to then link this transition to the broader national rise of the New Right are more ambitious--an ambition matched by its persuasive results. As school desegregation became a crucial site of national debate, Mississippi politicians like Governor John Bell Williams and Senator John Stennis played important roles in the reframing of the issue as a national, rather than southern, one, thus helping dismantle a tenuous national consensus as non-southern white voters sought to avoid the implications of educational equality in their own neighborhoods, particularly busing programs. With support from the Nixon administration, these efforts served dual purposes: stateside, they furthered the building of GOP support, as witnessed by the 1972 congressional election of Trent Lott, who effectively transmuted his former segregationist rhetoric into that of antibusing; nationally, the antibusing sentiment thus inspired helped deflect attention from racial imbalances to "activist" federal courts.
The rapid proliferation of private "segregation academies" in the wake of court-mandated desegregation also carried national implications. While Mississippi led the way in this obvious attempt to avoid interracial student contact, as school desegregation went national in the 1970s the trajectory grew ubiquitous. IRS policies denying tax exemptions to private schools established for racial motives became a key conservative battleground in the 1970s, and a centerpiece of GOP campaigning as Reagan took up denouncing this scrutiny in 1980. Crespino follows these debates into the early 1980s, as Lott's influence with the Reagan administration resulted in the 1982 revocation of tax non-exemptions to segregated schools, a controversial decision withdrawn in the face of widespread outrage over its clear racist origins.
Crespino navigates all of this with consummate skill, offering clear understandings of state and national politics and basing his linkages of the two fields on solid evidence. Even topics somewhat tangential to the core arguments, such as the Christian theological views of segregation that grounded much of state politics, receive careful and detailed attention. While the author could be a bit more clear in delineating distinctions among urban, suburban, and rural forces in the political geography of Mississippi, and an early argument about the role of black self-defense in shaping white reaction goes somewhat underdeveloped, In Search of Another Country is a stellar work of historical scholarship, powerfully researched, organized, and argued. Crespino does return to African American agency in the conclusion, showing the advances made despite the New Right's absorption of much segregationist organizational infrastructure.
As a closing touch he turns to Trent Lott's infamous 2002 spontaneous declaration that if Strom Thurmond had won his segregationist Dixiecrat 1948 presidential run, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" (274)-Crespino contends, with the full weight of his impressive book behind him, that the manic rush of conservatives, including President George W. Bush, to distance themselves from Lott reflected not the Mississippi senator's obsolescence, hut rather his comment's "crystalliz[ing] so succinctly the reactionary populist resentment of the modern civil rights struggle and the important role that that antipathy has played in fueling modern conservative politics" (275). By under-mining the elaborate facade of race blindness that continues to obfuscate the foundations of conservative politics, Crespino delivers both masterful historical work and necessary political intervention. Indeed, shortly after the publication of In Search of Another Country conservative media pundits attempted to reframe Reagan's states' rights-advocating 1980 Mississippi campaign as race-neutral, and Crespino weighed in with a powerful rejoinder. (6)
If Rymph, Critchlow, and Crespino all further the project of excavating the origins of the New Right in new and exciting ways--d to be sure, despite my qualms about some of Critchlow's analyses, Phyllis Schlafly remains a work of major significance--Philip Jenkins and Robert Brent Toplin examine modern conservatism ascendant. Neither author has written a social history, but both works will be of interest to social historians for their limning of the conceptual paradigms within which New Right thought and action have operated. At a glance, this duo set modest goals for themselves; Jenkins in Decade of Nightmares challenges the periodization of Bruce Schulman's The Seventies, arguing against the viability of that decade marker as a meaningful interpretive frame-work, while Toplin in Radical Conservatism offers a taxonomy of the "radcon" wing that exercises such heavy influence over the contemporary Republican Party. While Jenkins'' book is the more richly imagined of the two, both carry the trajectories set in motion by such historical agents as Elizabeth Farrington and Phyllis Schlafly into the twenty-first century, rendering them suitable companion pieces to the three books already discussed.
In place of "the seventies," Jenkins proposes his "decade of nightmares" as a more viable concept; if the "long sixties" is allowed as the decade between the first Kennedy assassination and Watergate, then this newly conceived period occupies the subsequent decade, 1975 to 1986. Rather than an arbitrary dispute over abstract periodizations, Jenkins contends, the understanding of his proposed notion as a relatively coherent era greatly helps establish the social and cultural forces that, often invisibly, facilitated the rise of the New Right. To wit, Jenkins claims that national fears about declining American international power, urban decay, vulnerable children, and rampant crime allowed conservatives to profit from their promises of restoring order to a destabilized world. "Only by understanding the thorough pessimism of these years," Jenkins writes of the mid-70s, "can we understand the amazing appeal of Ronald Reagan a few years later" (74). Not inattentive to the significance of race in the mobilization of modern conservatism, Jenkins argues race alone is insufficient as a category of analysis, since the fears that haunted newly conservative voters often carried tangible implications for their families and children. These concerns need not displace the importance of race to be acknowledged as real and at least experientially unrelated to the interstitial racial coding that marks so many political discourses in the U.S.
Whereas Schulman posits 1968, with its assassinations, riots, and political chaos, as the transition year into the "long seventies," Jenkins sees a gradual emergence into his decade of nightmares. Watergate and its extended fall-out were, of course, pivotal, but 1977 marks Jenkins' true turning point. Often obscured by a culture-focused historical memory that reduces the year to disco, punk, and a few television icons, 1977 in fact witnessed epochal shifts in public understandings of child abuse, drug use, and criminal behavior that allowed conservatives to play off fears and regain popular support for legal, penal, national security, and other institutions that had been discredited by the exposure of their systemic flaws and abuses in the years prior. In turn, these resurgent policing agencies provided simplistic policies based on absolutist moral precepts rather than nuanced analysis. With the collaboration of the media, "monsters" thus emerged: terrorist networks, pedophiles, pornographers, drug dealers, serial killers, all of whom ostensibly acted not as a consequence of complex historical forces but rather out of sheer, unmotivated evil.
To Jenkins, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 marked not a "sharp caesura" in this process, but rather an expansion and institutionalization of its logic (23). Numerous Reagan policies--corporate deregulation, heightened incarceration as a response to crime, the misleadingly-named War on Drugs, child protection, etc.--began under the Carter administration, and he persuasively argues for extensive continuities between the two presidents. Thus the nightmares of the 1970s would continue as the nation awoke screaming in the 1980s, screams encouraged by the New Right that benefited from them as citizens found solace in aggressively simplistic political responses such as Nancy Reagan's "just Say No" campaign and the 1984 Child Protection Act that Jenkins rightly sees as a "radical" shift from protecting actual children to criminalizing counternormative fantasy representations (269). Only in the late 1980s would this decade of nightmares begin to unravel, as the Democratic recapture of the senate, news of the Iran-Contra and televangelist scandals, the stock market crash, and the Savings & Loans disasters collectively forced Americans to once more take a more critical stance toward policy.
Jenkins canvasses this vast terrain with a deft touch, thematically streamlining his chapters with grace and lucidity. His grasp of culture and politics is astounding, surely aided by the fact that the indefatigable scholar has written prolifically on several topics related to his core argument here. Of particular note is his sharp eye for the latent meaning of several national narratives, such as the use of the POW/MIA issue to assuage American guilt over Vietnam and reimagine U.S. soldiers as the innocent, aggrieved party held in the grasp of the evil Vietnamese military, or the media fascination with serial killers (wrongly, Jenkins notes, perceived as all-white) as a means of articulating fears about crime without allowing liberals to dismiss such fears as racist. At times, Jenkins' prose is a bit rushed; when a single page discusses everything from ABSCAM to MI-PORN to Mount St. Helens to serial killers, Decade of Nightmares takes on a performative quality, mirroring in its dizzying effect the very bombardment of nightmarish imagery Jenkins seeks to discuss. In a few such instances, the author fails prey to the Wisconsin Death Trip tactic of simply overwhelming the reader with this barrage of horrors, but for the most part he is meticulous in using his compressed chapters, such as that on the imagined "abuse epidemic" of the 1980s, not as definitive histories of the topics at hand but rather as jarringly effective reconstructions of the social and cultural narratives, often invisible to political historians, that provided crucial contexts for the messages of Reagan and other New Right leaders.
Picking up, in many ways, where Jenkins leaves off, Toplin uses Radical Conservatism to dissect the far right wing of the GOP. Contending that the radcon movement, as he calls it, "does not appear to operate with a common core of ideas," Toplin breaks little interpretive ground (19); much the same can and has been said about Progressivism, liberalism, and modern conservatism already. Toplin's target readership may be undergraduates rather than scholars, for whom Radical Conservatism is unlikely to provide overly fresh analysis, but the author does nicely map the political topography of the radcon movement in a way that offers useful categories for social historians seeking to situate grassroots activists within the convoluted New Right coalition. Stealth libertarians, culture warriors, and hawkish nationalists form the major groupings, and for each Toplin explicates the ideological foundations and examines a few case studies of major figures. The explication can tend toward neralites--claim that libertarians, "like religious fundamentalists, tend to be sticklers for consistency" hardly offers insight specific to the group (68)--but the case studies are well developed, especially the sustained analysis of Allan Bloom. There, Toplin recovers the initial reception of Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, which so overwhelmed reviewers with its Olympian scholarly tenor and prose that few critics recognised its rabidly ideological nature, often misguidedly saluting it for its objectivity and detachment when in fact the book, beneath its elevated rhetorical veneer, delivered a savage attack on the progressive impulses of the 1960s very much in line with New Right perspective. A cogent critique of the "liberal media" thesis by which radcons demonize mainstream news sources for offering two sides of contested issues, even as the same radcons simultaneously strive to legitimize extremist positions as necessary counters to "liberal" arguments based on facts and data, is another high point of the book.
Of all the authors under review, Toplin takes the most overtly oppositional stance to the New Right. Rejecting not conservatism itself but rather the "militant, close-minded expressions" that undeniably characterize radcon thought, as evidenced most clearly by the George W. Bush administration's categorical rejections of nuance, negotiation, and compromise, Toplin focuses his critique on radcon tactics, rather than the philosophies that underlie them (5). His central metaphor--that radical conservatism shares with religious fundamentalism an unfortunate tendency to force facts into preexisting beliefs--is both reasonable in a general sense and somewhat useless in a scholarly sense, where its oversimplistic distinction between politics and religion, so clearly not the case for millions of Americans, can be a bit facile; like using race as a metaphor for gender, the comparison turns intersecting categories into parallel ones. Neither Toplin nor Jenkins anchors his analysis in the sort of lived experience at the grassroots level that so vividly informs the work of Rymph, Critchlow, and Crespino. In one sense, that is to be expected, as neither author promises a proper social history. In another sense, it is an absence often felt. Jenkins focuses on cultural narratives and their impact on national politics to great effect, but one often wonders about the refraction of these narratives through different social groups; did construction of serial killers, for instance, vary when the affected community was primarily black, as in the Atlanta child murders of 1979? Toplin, meanwhile, focuses on radcon books in his work and often makes assumptions about their impact and reception--assumptions that could be both strengthened and challenged by using, for instance, the combustible yet repetitive comments posted by readers at radcon-friendly websites such as TownHall or RedState.
Collectively, these five books carry modern conservatism from the 1920s into the 2000s. Their diverse approaches embody the multifaceted nature of the fragmented but powerful movement, even as their recurring thematic motifs such as gender and race highlight the most contested sites of American politics, sites on which the New Right ultimately stakes many (though not all, as Critchlow and Jenkins remind us) of its claims for public support. While none of these works, nor even the quintet as a whole, can fairly lay claim to definitiveness on the topic (economic and foreign policies go generally underattended throughout), each enriches the already expansive literature of the field, and their publication attests to the New Right as perhaps the most fertile analytical ground available for scholars seeking to understand the contemporary United States in all its circumlocutory political perversity.
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(1.) Lisa McGorr, Suburban Warriors: I'he Origins of the New American Right (Prineeton. 2001).
(2.) Daniel Bell, "Interpretations of American Politics," in Bell, ed., The Radical Right(Garden City, NY, [963), 62. On Progressivism, see the shift from George Mowry, The California Progressives (Berkeley, 1951 ), to William Deverell and Tom Sitton, eds., California Progressivism Revisited (Berkeley, 1994).
(3.) On these groups, see Lisa MeGirr, Suburban Warriors; Mary Brenan, Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP (Chapel Hill, 195); John Andrew III, The Other Side of the sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics (New Brunswick, 1997).
(4.) Donald Mathews and jane Sherron De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of the ERA: A State and a Nation (New York, 1990), 174.
(5.) Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt Smith (Princeton. 2006); Kevin Kruse, White blight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton, 2005).
(6.) See David Brooks, "History and Calumny," New York Times, November 9, 2007, and Crespino's sharp response, "Did David Brooks Tell the Full Story about: Reagan's Neshoba County Fair Visit:'" History News Network, November 11, 2007.
By Whitney Strub
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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