U.S. Intellectual History Blog

From Meaning to Power: A Second Phase in the History of Conservatism?

I want to draw your attention to a great essay in the Boston Review by Lawrence Glickman, who recently contributed to our roundtable on Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. The essay throws a dash of cold water on what Glickman calls “an emerging mythology around the involvement of business elites in politics,” namely that businesspeople try to avoid politics until they are absolutely forced into “taking a stand.” Glickman perceptively asks, though, why do we assume that “taking a stand” can only mean standing up for “social” or “cultural” issues like LGBT rights or condemning white supremacists? “This perspective,” he writes, “ignores the ‘stands’ that corporate leaders take on economic issues—regulation and anti-trust, for example. That this division between what is and what is not political comes across as entirely natural to many people is simply one sign of how successful those corporate leaders have been at playing politics.

It may be a bit pedantic of me to turn Glickman’s important political argument into a meditation on historiographic trends, but what most fascinated me most about Glickman’s essay was the way it guides the reader back to the backlash against the New Deal as the origin point of this “mythology” of apolitical business elites. What is striking to me about that move is that it echoes what has been a quiet re-orientation of the history of conservatism along the following lines: away from religion and towards capitalism, away from grassroots chronicles and towards top-down narratives, away from the diffuseness of “culture” and towards the greater formality of ideas. It has also moved away from a center of gravity in the 1960s and 1970s to a new tipping point somewhere within the 1930s and 1940s.

I want to make plain that I am not in any way critiquing this turn, and it is important to underline that many of the best histories of conservatism we have dance right over and around the crude dichotomy I have set up in the previous paragraph—in the work of Darren Dochuk or Bethany Moreton or Sarah Hammond, for example. The work of those three historians in fact presaged and possibly accelerated this turn, as they each pulled what had traditionally been a mostly post-Eisenhower story back into the Great Depression as a starting point for their histories of conservatism.

But if To Serve God and Wal-Mart (2009), From Bible Belt to Sunbelt (2011), and (the forthcoming) God’s Businessmen: Entrepreneurial Evangelicals in Depression and War (as a dissertation, 2010) represent a sort of estuary between the two phases of the history of conservatism, the division between them can be seen by comparing what may be their sharpest exemplars—Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands (2009) and Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors (2001).

In some ways, this shift is a return to a more traditional focus for studying conservatism, represented by classics like George Wolfskill’s Revolt of the Conservatives: A History of the American Liberty League (1962) and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-1960 (1994). But I think it also represents a major change in the location and form of historians’ curiosity about conservatism.

One way to think about the grassroots phase of the historiography of conservatism is to consider it somewhat anthropological in nature: it tried to make sense of the folkways of conservative people, of conservatism as a way of life or as a frame through which some people—a sort of political tribe—saw the world. What these historians/anthropologists seemed to be after was, above all, meaning—values and rituals.

This newer phase, then, might be thought of as more sociological in nature: its object is not meaning but power; it is not so interested in folkways but in lines of force and influence. Rather than thinking about conservatism in terms of communities, it tends to analyze conservatism in terms of networks.

If we are to think about the historiography of conservatism in this way, though, an unexpected thought occurs—at least to me. The question underlying much of the anthropological approach to conservatism seems to me to have been, “what is it like to be a conservative?” But that question was not always strictly anthropological. It could also, I think, sometimes be somewhat autobiographical—the urge to explore conservatism was a way to sort through certain conservative impulses residing in the author’s own political consciousness.

Let me be more plain: among white men of a certain bent, the demand that “we”—that is the liberal or progressive intelligentsia—learn to really understand (white male) conservatives may have been merely an act of projection. When the Richard Rortys or the Tom Franks or the Todd Gitlins or the Walter Benn Michaelses (or now the Mark Lillas) insist that progressives must commit to understanding the (white male) conservative worldview, what they are insisting upon is that we must make room for them to work out their own discomfort with the politics of race and gender. Their insistence that we must “get” conservatives is, in the end, not just an attack on “identity politics” but really something more solipsistic: it is a demand for attention.

Now, certainly, not all of the works that came out with the intention of understanding the meaning-making of conservatives fall into this trap—but most of those which don’t, I think, happen to have been written by women.[1]

But this solipsism is, thankfully, most definitely not present in the newer, more sociological histories of conservatism. I eagerly look forward to seeing where it goes.


[1] The aforementioned McGirr is a good example, but Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s book on the Tea Party as well.

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  1. This is an incredibly fascinating essay, Andy. Thanks for writing it! As I read it I began to think about the relationship between the historiography of modern conservatism and the historiography of the civil rights movement, which has also undergone some changes in recent years. Thinking about Charles Eagles’ essay from 2000, “Toward New Histories of the Civil Rights Era,” he asked historians to get away from writing and researching about the two groups that seemed to be the yin and yang of Southern history from 1945 until the late 1960s: civil rights activists and their adversaries in the KKK and the White Citizens’ Councils. He pushed for greater nuance in understanding the people whose lives were most impacted by the upheaval of the civil rights campaigns in the South, especially for white Southerners who weren’t necessarily involved in anti-civil rights activities (much of this guides the work of Jason Sokol’s *There Goes My Everything*). And I’ve toyed for a while with the idea of doing work on African Americans in the South who weren’t involved in activism either. It definitely gets to your point of using history, and historical research, to understand the thinking of people you may not necessarily agree with politically or culturally.

    It’s also interesting to think about how this relates to the rise of a new series of studies about American liberalism, too. With greater nuance being applied to understand post-1960s liberalism in such books as Lily Geismer’s *Don’t Blame Us* I am hopeful we get a still fuller picture of life in America from the New Deal to the present.

    • That’s a great comparison, Robert! I had Jason Morgan Ward’s book Defending White Democracy in the back of my mind as I wrote this post. It’s another example of this kind of relocation of a movement’s origin point back to the 1930s/1940s. (I haven’t read his second book, Hanging Bridge, but it looks like it similarly guides readers back to a deeper/longer history.) And then there is the great work of Glenda Gilmore and Danielle McGuire and others who have pointed us toward not only a longer history of the CRM, but have also expanded our sense of who some of the key actors were (including more women) and what their goals were.

      And I definitely agree that the history of liberalism is undergoing a quiet renaissance–we’re really in an amazingly fertile moment for excellent history writing.

      • So, so true! And good to bring up Jason Morgan Ward. Definitely one of my favorites when it comes to Southern history and the CRM. And it’s funny you bring up McGuire and Gilmore–when I was writing my essay on Esther Cooper Jackson Saturday night I couldn’t help but think about how people like her become more important when we lengthen both the temporal and ideological contours of what counts as part of the Civil Rights Movement.

  2. Andy,

    I’m not sure that a “discomfort” with identity politics or, put more analytically, a sense that some rebalancing of focus is or was called for, is necessarily the same as a conservative impulse. It may be the same as a conservative impulse in some of the writers you mention, such as Lilla (whose recent book I’ve not read).

    But there were and are some on the left who certainly could not be accused of harboring conservative impulses who felt esp. by the 1990s and early 2000s that, at least w.r.t currents in political theory for example, a tunnel-like or laser-like focus on identity politics (for lack of a better phrase) had drawn needed attention away from issues of economic inequality and related matters, and in the process ceded that field to the Right. With the recurrence of interest in inequality marked by the great recession, the reception of Piketty’s book etc. etc., that claim may no longer resonate so much. But in the ’90s I think it was a very plausible argument and concern.

    I can’t comment in a very informed way on the evolution of the historiography of conservatism. But I’m not sure an ‘anthropological’ interest in ‘understanding’ white conservatives, or perhaps more precisely the ‘white working class’ voters in certain states who voted for Trump, is evidence that one is projecting or working out one’s own conservative impulses.

    To go off on a brief but not wholly unrelated tangent, my own armchair-sociological (i.e., devoid of scholarly trappings and hard research support) view is that it would be strange if the country’s changing demographics, in conjunction with other factors, did not affect electoral behavior and politics more generally — even in, or perhaps especially in, places where those demographic changes have not yet had a direct and particularly noticeable impact.

    Years ago, it was perhaps only people who lived in certain polyglot enclaves, like that place in Queens or the Bronx or Brooklyn (I forget which) that has for decades had hundreds of different ethnicities living cheek by jowl, who were aware on a daily basis of the country as a demographic hodgepodge, in the neutral sense of that word. Today it’s much more widely experienced.

    From the mid-1960s, when I was say 8 years old, through the mid-1970s, when I graduated from high school, I lived in a virtually all-white suburb. I went away to college, where the majority (not all, but the clear majority) of my classmates were white kids from middle-class and yet more privileged backgrounds. Today I happen to live in the same county where I grew up (albeit in a quite different part of it) but in a totally different demographic environment, where on a given day I almost certainly hear more Spanish than English, plus some Amharic (probably) and other languages that I sometimes can’t offhand even identify. As someone who thinks of himself as enlightened and progressive, that doesn’t bother me at all (on the contrary), but I am nonetheless, as a (not-young) white male, conscious that I am in a minority, or at any rate certainly no longer anything like a clear majority, where I live.

    That doesn’t affect how I think about politics or vote (i.e., I voted for liberal Democrats when I was 20 and I still do that today), but it doesn’t take too much of an imaginative leap for me to guess how the experience of losing one’s majority status might affect some people whose social networks, personal histories, political and educational backgrounds, and socioeconomic circumstances are different from mine.

    I hope you won’t take this autobiographical aside as an apology for xenophobia or racism, which it certainly is not, or even as bearing on identity politics, but just as a bit of armchair sociology – fwiw.

    • Louis,
      You raise some great points, and I really appreciate you sharing your own experiences. I’ll try to unpack some of the assumptions that I left rather messily embedded in what I wrote, and hopefully that will address some of the reservations you have about the last part of the post (which, admittedly, is pretty sketchy and ruminative).

      First, what has always bothered me about the anthropological approach to conservatives is that–granting that communities across the country have become increasingly “sorted” by political outlook–it treats conservatives as a kind of tribe. To me, that’s just not a realistic way to think about conservatism–or about any kind of politics.

      On the other hand, I’ll reiterate that many works that took an interest in trying to interpret the way that conservatives made meaning of their lives did so in a much more sophisticated manner, generally by investigating particular (formal or informal) organizations or associations rather than by studying conservatives as a supposedly self-evident category of people. I don’t object to the anthropological approach in general, just to the way that some people have used it to construct a myth of the conservative as a kind of mystery tribe whose customs progressives have to decipher and accommodate in order to have any shot at electoral success.

      The connection I make to the solipsism of the Lillas et al. comes from two things: first, I just don’t buy that identity politics pushed out or distracted anyone from pursuing redistributive politics. I can make a longer argument for why I don’t put any stock in that narrative, but for now I’ll just make a bald statement of my skepticism. Second, the people who do tend to buy into the strong version of that argument (and please don’t think I’m trying to include you among that group) are so much more focused on attacking identity politics than they are committed to doing something constructive about redistribution that it seems necessary to me to wonder what is really spurring their hobbyhorses on so vigorously. I can only conclude that there is something about “identity politics” that makes them really uncomfortable at some level deeper than the purely abstract or even just the strategic level.

      Now, the question is, is valid to call being uncomfortable with “identity politics” a conservative position? In the sense that you speak to–of being uncomfortable or wary of the unfamiliar–perhaps not, at least if we’re using “conservative” as a kind of cant word or epithet. But that wasn’t how I was using it (and I recognize that this wasn’t evident from my original post). I wasn’t trying just to call the Lillas or Michaelses names, but to understand the ways that they may have found themselves, over the years, agreeing with certain self-identified conservative pundits or intellectuals who similarly find that the gains from “identity politics” have been minor compared to the loss of “a common culture” or a spirit of patriotism or a sense of national purpose or unity. I don’t, for the record, think that any of those things are unworthy goals–on the contrary, I’d like to see more unity and even more patriotism–but I do think that it is intrinsically conservative to look at the record of the past forty or fifty years and thinks that the main achievement of the campaigns for greater gender equality and more inclusion of racial minorities in places of power and authority has been discord and disunity. The moral and political accounting that leads to that conclusion is, I think, only possible as the result of some fairly strong conservative presuppositions about how change should occur and who should be directing that change.

      • Andy,
        As I was writing my comment last night I realized I probably wasn’t being entirely fair to your post, but I decided to let the comment stand so that you would have a chance to make your points even more clearly than in the post, which I think you’ve done in this reply. I take your point about objecting to one variant of the anthropological approach (not the approach as a whole), which is something you did say in the post, and I agree that “it is intrinsically conservative to look at the record of the past forty or fifty years and think that the main achievement of the campaigns for greater gender equality and more inclusion of racial minorities in places of power and authority has been discord and disunity.”

        On identity politics and redistribution: I think that the narrative of a direct, one-for-one real-world tradeoff between them is wrong. On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to the view that there was at one period an imbalance in political theory and related fields between attention to ‘identity’ and ‘equality’, as for example J.M. Schwartz argued in The Future of Democratic Equality (2008) [which, tbh, I haven’t read most of, but I’m familiar with his general view]. That’s not to say, for instance, that Judith Butler should have written a treatise on schemes for redistribution rather than Gender Trouble, since people have different intellectual interests and strengths and that’s all fine — and there was doubtless a need for Gender Trouble (I’ve never managed to read more than about three pages of it, but that’s irrelevant). However, when an entire field gets imbalanced, which is what arguably happened, it may have — albeit indirectly and in an attenuated way — an impact on real-world politics. I say “may have” because whether it had actually had any real-world impact is, admittedly, very debatable. And of course you may disagree with the view that the field got imbalanced; it’s a judgment call (and I’m not a political theorist, just casually interested in the field).

        P.s. Earlier this year, speaking of pol. theory, I read Nancy Rosenblum’s Good Neighbors. It’s the only book of hers I’ve read from start to finish (as opposed to briefly dipping into). It’s a good book, drawing out some generalizations and implications for democratic theory based on how neighbors, in the U.S. at any rate, relate to each other as revealed in both imaginative literature (short stories, novels, poetry) and historical examples (plus her personal experiences). I don’t think it’s a masterpiece capital M, and I didn’t agree with everything she said, but it’s a solid book and filled with literary references, which is one reason you might like it.

  3. Andy – Very suggestive piece, thanks.

    Glickman’s probably right that a narrowed sense of the political, or better, taking the political as politics only, ie, the contentious play of competing positions and interests on salient issues, has played into the idea that business “normally” operates outside of politics. This both rests upon and nicely complements the old distinction between the “natural” market and the “artificial” political world. It misses the sense of the political that includes constitution of the market itself as a structured and abstracted free space, in which an important role of government is to provide a “good business climate.” And it misses Powell’s Gramscian call to mobilize business in the slow process of movement building – long-term backlashing – in the name of reconstituting that relationship.

    Interestingly, Powell seems to share the widespread perception at that moment, that political and cultural radicalism represented a single, coherent revolutionary assault, though Reich, Roszak and others had already opted for the cultural, for recognition over redistribution, and savvy entrepreneurs were well along in turning “the contradictions of capitalism” into “the conquest of cool.” And today – and why not? – when the process Powell helped launched is fully realized, corporations, in their latest incarnation as persons, can “speak truth to power.”

    • Bill,
      That point you draw out about the supposed cohesion of the cultural revolt seems to me to be crucial, and it strikes me that the article by James M. Buchanan I cited in my last post also falls into that trap. Thanks!

      I honestly don’t know what I think about the disciplinary imbalance you describe: I certainly think that hard-edged class politics disappeared, but I’m not sure whether its disappearance was caused by a turn toward identity politics, or whether identity politics moved in to fill a void left by class’s recession. My feeling is generally the latter, although clearly many people vehemently argue the former.

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