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