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The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History.

The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History. By Donald T. Critchlow. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pp. 359. $27.95.)

This author's new book is a history of American conservatism since the rise of the New Right. Donald T. Critchlow performs a valuable service in bringing together various aspects of the recent history of American conservatism that typically have been dealt with separately. The period of conservative intellectual ferment after World War II, the emergence of the New Right in the early and middle 1960s, Barry Goldwater's related presidential campaign of 1964, the travails of the New Right during the later 1960s and 1970s, the period of New Right triumph in the 1980s, and the uncertain course of conservatism since then are all addressed in turn. Critchlow's narrative relies not only on the growing secondary literature on these various topics but also his own archival research. At his best, Critchlow enables readers to see how these various parts of a larger story fit together. His discussion of how the New Right began to prosper in the 1970s and his account of the emergence of influential conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) also deserve praise for filling in some of the important gaps in the tale of how New Right conservatives moved from the margin to the mainstream.

The Conservative Ascendancy is, however, disappointing in other respects. Critchlow does little to explain the kind of moderate conservatism against which the New Right first rebelled during the later years of the Eisenhower presidency. Instead, Critchlow contends that the New Right arose simply in opposition to New Deal liberalism and "me-too" Republicans. This failure to take moderate conservatism seriously as a distinct, coherent political category blurs Critchlow's analysis throughout his book. So, too, does his tendency to see Great Society liberalism as essentially the same as New Deal-era liberalism, despite the very significant differences between those two reform agendas. He also tends to overstate the importance of leading individuals such as Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in explaining the rise of the New Right.

Critchlow's account also suffers from his strained efforts to argue that New Right conservatism continued to advance after the 1980s and achieved dominance during the George W. Bush administration. This seems unconvincing, in part because the top priorities of Goldwater/Reagan-style conservatism were essentially libertarian in nature, in the economic realm especially. The New Right's social agenda was mostly stillborn during the Goldwater/Reagan era, in part because that agenda conflicted with the libertarian orientation of so many leading New Rightists. Critchlow acknowledges at times that conservative priorities have shifted somewhat since the 1980s, but does not explicate clearly and persuasively what that reveals about the New Right's current state.

Thus, Critchlow's book, although useful in helping to understand the history of American conservatism since World War II, seems unlikely to become the definitive account of that subject.

David Stebenne

Ohio State University

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Author:Stebenne, David
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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