U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Do Historians of Conservatism Owe to Conservatives?

Yesterday, Geoffrey Kabaservice issued a challenge to those citizens—and particularly those historians—who genuinely want to understand the history of conservatism. Stop listening to liberals professing to have plumbed the heart of the movement, he says, and ask actual conservatives to give you their take.

The liberal scholars whom Kabaservice denounces include some members of our Society, so I thought it appropriate to take a break from my series on the history of capitalism and bring his column to your attention. Kabaservice singles out for opprobrium Corey Robin, Heather Cox Richardson, Rick Perlstein, Nancy MacLean, and Seth Cotlar. The only historian (apart from himself, one supposes) who escapes his strictures is Lisa McGirr, whose Suburban Warriors “was one of the earliest and best of these [new] histories [of conservatism],” but even she committed one of the common errors of this biased scholarship: “to take the extreme right as representative of conservatism (or the Republican Party) as a whole.”

That tendency to overrepresent the extreme has gone unchecked, Kabaservice argues, because by design or not, the history of conservatism has been a tool for insulating liberals from encountering—and perhaps learning from—actual conservatives, especially more moderate ones who fit in poorly among the “kooks” that populate the liberal history of the right. Even worse, the liberal history of conservatism has made academics unwilling to have conservative colleagues. “I was a graduate student at the beginning of this new wave of conservative studies,” he writes, “and I couldn’t help but notice that it coincided with the historical profession’s purge of any scholars who could be described as Republicans or conservatives.”

Courtesy of The New Yorker. If you click through, you can read Mark Oppenheimer’s account of the 1995 strike and the more recent history of grad student labor.

“Purge” is, I think we could agree, a loaded word, asserting intent and even some kind of (dare I say) collusion, but Kabaservice provides no evidence for such a grave charge—in fact, doesn’t even make a gesture in that direction. Or rather, he does, but inadvertently: when discussing Corey Robin’s work, he parenthesizes, “full disclosure, [Robin] helped make my Ph.D. years miserable by leading a grad student unionization effort at my university.” Robin and Kabaservice coincided as graduate students at Yale. Robin was one of the leaders of GESO, which has what many (even sympathetic) grad students have considered an aggressive organizing culture.

It’s important to understand the context here, and as a former GESO member, let me act as a kind of native interpreter. What Kabaservice is saying is that Robin—perhaps personally—sought to recruit him, probably by asking to meet and to listen to the case for a graduate union. I know from experience that GESO organizers can be persistent and that they frequently brush off polite attempts to say “not interested.” They want to engage your objections; they are deeply confident that they can convince you, and they aren’t afraid of an argument. It’s possible that Kabaservice found himself in a conversation with a GESO organizer that got heated; it’s possible that he had a number of these confrontations during his time at Yale.

Making for a more pressurized environment, Kabaservice and Robin were enrolled at Yale during the 1995 grade strike by TAs—Kabaservice and Robin both took their doctorates in 1999.[1] Robin was one of the leaders of this strike, and for a graduate student undoubtedly out of sympathy with the strike’s goals and methods, Kabaservice probably saw him as responsible for “making my Ph.D. years miserable.”

Kabaservice’s grudge doesn’t go very far to explain what he means by a “purge” of conservatives and Republicans from academia, but it does perhaps explain a bit about why he has such strong feelings about the academy as a place of liberal/progressive intolerance.

What is odd, though, is that numerous Yale faculty—not to mention the university administration—were stridently against the strike. I’m not by any measure an expert on the history of graduate student organizing at Yale—for that, you should talk to Zach Schwartz-Weinstein—but the general sense I have of the environment at the time suggests that it was the strike leaders who were closest to being all-too-literally purged from academia.

This little sidelight on Kabaservice’s column may suggest a more general pattern, however. Most of us form some of our broader views about academia while in graduate school, so it seems reasonable to speculate that Kabaservice interpreted the conflict and tension on campus that surrounded GESO as creating a hostile environment specifically for conservatives. Even though he almost certainly could have found numerous faculty who agreed with his views on GESO, and even though the administration was militantly on his “side,” what was important (to him) was that the very existence of conflict posed an occupational hazard for conservatives trying to work in academia. Conservatives—at least conservatives like Kabaservice—felt that a politicized academy was by nature one that was hostile to conservatives, even if the actual terms of its politicization were by no means friendly to progressives.

This aversion toward politicization comes through in his column when he identifies what the history of conservatism should look like. He tells us that

[liberal] historians of this new generation consider themselves to be unbiased and even sympathetic observers of conservatism. Many believe their collective efforts have produced a profound historical understanding of conservatism as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon, and thus contributed in some measure to bringing politically opposed citizens together.

In denying that the liberal historiography of conservatism has achieved these goals of being unbiased and sympathetic, “profound,” and unifying, he reveals what he thinks the historiography ought to be doing. Later, he avows that histories of conservatism need to be “even-tempered,” a word that suggest not just “nonjudgmental” and “impartial”—two other qualities he believes this scholarship should have—but also serene, untroubled. A lack of open conflict is essential to writing good history, he argues: “It’s unlikely that a more nuanced history of conservatism will emerge until this latest culture war has run its course.”

It’s unclear what historians are supposed to do at a moment when the fractious world won’t stop intruding on our studies, but Kabaservice has a further requirement. What a history of conservatism really needs is to be written in dialogue with living conservatives.

[N]early all [liberal scholarship on conservatism] reveal[s] the pitfalls for liberals writing about a movement with which they have no personal experience. If you’re a historian who has not a single conservative colleague—and perhaps not even one conservative friend—chances are you’ll approach conservatism as anthropologists once approached tribes they considered remote, exotic, and quite possibly dangerous.

This is an odd thing for a historian to say, given that most of us spend our lives writing about people whom we cannot possibly be friends with for the very simple reason that they have been deceased for centuries. We don’t, however, complain that medievalists aren’t friends with any 11th century monks, or that a scholar of ancient Rome has not a single Roman colleague.

That is not at all to say that academia should be ideologically homogeneous: I do think that a diversity of opinions is important to the academy’s scholarly mission, as well as to its pedagogical purpose. But the idea that historians can’t write a good history of conservatism unless they have conservative friends and colleagues is not really a tenable argument for greater ideological diversity. And I’m not sure it’s supposed to be.

Instead, the function of Kabaservice’s insistence on ideological diversity is a demand for ideological courtesy, or, essentially, for deference. Liberals ought to accept internal accounts of what conservatism’s ideas mean, and take at face value the explanations that conservatives give for their actions. He is arguing, essentially, that liberals ought to defer to the judgment of conservatives about their own ideology in the same way that a doctor of internal medicine won’t overrule a neurologist when it comes to the brain.

This is an incredibly weak argument. People who self-identify as conservatives aren’t ipso facto experts on conservative ideas or the history of the Republican Party any more than a self-professed Christian is an expert on the Pauline epistles or second-century ecclesiology. When Kabaservice complains that liberal historians “approach conservatism as anthropologists once approached tribes they considered remote, exotic, and quite possibly dangerous,” and implies that liberals ought to run their interpretations by the ‘natives,’ he’s in fact grousing that conservatives are not being given the chance to edit the scholarly record before it is published. That is less of a check or balance and more of a preemption.

I do believe that historians generally ought to write in such a way that their subjects would be recognizable to themselves in the scholarly record, but there are absolutely cases where insisting upon this does scholarship—and the public—a grave disservice. If there is anything that reading history teaches us, it is that power denies its potency, deceives itself far more than it deceives its subordinates.

The old saw that no man is a hero to his valet is also an invitation—to liberals and conservatives alike—to read the archive against the grain. To refuse to accept conservatives’ self-estimation at face value is not to be conspiratorial or paranoid but instead to refuse them an ahistorical and indeed unprofessional deference. If that makes for uncomfortable reading for conservatives like Kabaservice, then so be it.

Edit: Added “(to him)” in paragraph 9 for clarification.

Notes

[1] In fact, there were two strikes during their time there: one in April 1995 and one—the larger one—from December 1995 through January 1996. You can read Robin’s contemporary account of the strike here.

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. The second half of this piece is excellent. I might add that, at the grassroots level and sometimes among the conservative intelligentsia, the historical distinction “extreme” and “moderate” is almost impossible to find. Partisans have often used that imprecision to tar mainstream conservatives with guilt by association, but it is worth considering (with charitable detachment by liberals and a degree of critical introspection by conservatives) how various conservative values have found traction and constructed meaning in American society. Of course, as you, Sugrue, and others have pointed out, this is exactly what most of the scholarship on conservatism (written from a variety of ideological perspectives) has done for the past twenty years.

  2. Thank you for the post Andy 🙂 I’m hesitant to accept all of the premises either Kabaservice or yourself suggest.

    “People who self-identify as conservatives aren’t ipso facto experts on conservative ideas or the history of the Republican Party any more than a self-professed Christian is an expert on the Pauline epistles or second-century ecclesiology.” While indeed the ideological argumentation of these ideas is likely foreign to folks on the ground, the lived experience of those who identify as conservatives is integral to realistic understandings of their actions and efforts. Despite what we’d often hope, these adherents, be they underinformed, apathetic, or misinformed, create the bulk of the electorate (and therefore in the long run hold the reins). Their voices matter to our discourse. Otherwise, we risk slipping into a situation where we’re kindly informing those who need to be told of their own thinking and also implying that only those with bylines are relevant to the discussion (I’d hope that we all recognize the issues that come into play here on both fronts).

    This ties to a second issue I’ve encountered here, “This is an odd thing for a historian to say, given that most of us spend our lives writing about people whom we cannot possibly be friends with for the very simple reason that they have been deceased for centuries. We don’t, however, complain that medievalists aren’t friends with any 11th century monks, or that a scholar of ancient Rome has not a single Roman colleague.” This is a rather ugly analogy in my mind. These are dramatically different situations. I’m certain those who study 11th century monks would leap at the opportunity to have a sit down with their subjects, this just isn’t realistically possible. However, those studying conservativism, particularly in the nearer histories we’re seeing now, do have the opportunity, and likely the obligation, to sit down or interact with both proponents and detractors who are alive if for no other reason than due diligence. Our histories will be richer and certainly on more stable ground for it. That being said, as you suggest, these should be opportunities to inform and respond, not to editorialize or preempt things which may prove unfavorable.

    Kabaservice’s editorial has significant issues, and you’ve fairly pointed out that his argument could easily harmfully skew historiography. I’m just worried that at times we get dangerously close to landing the baby and the bathwater on the floor.

  3. Andy, thanks for this. A few points: 1. I wondered a little about the good faith on the part of Kabaservice here because he fails to even mention George Nash, or to indicate the extent to which Nash’s interpretation of the conservative intellectual movement since World War II not only laid the groundwork for more recent interpretations, but is widely respected and cited by those left/liberal historians he (Kabaservice) is otherwise critical of. In fact, this is a rare instance of scholarly historians citing a work as seminal in the historiography that was itself published under the sponsorship of the conservative movement itself. Patrick Allitt is another historian of conservatism who is himself a conservative–he gets no play here either. And this “oversight” is magnified by the fact that Kabaservice seems to want historians to pay more attention to “real” conservative intellectuals, and less to the Newt Gingrich/Dinesh D’Souza types who present themselves as intellectuals in the public sphere. Okay, but it’s not as if historians have ignored Irving Kristol and gang either. 2. I am happy to give Kabaservice Corey Robin as exhibit one in the Left misrepresentation of conservatives. It should be noted, however, that many historians have been highly critical of Robin’s characterization, and not just conservative ones–there is no “liberal consensus” on conservatives, as much as Kabaservice implies that there is. 3. I agree with Ethan that it’s a slight of hand for you to compare historians who know no conservatives to historians of 11th century religion. The whole point of the recent study of conservatism is that it points to a history that barely antedates World War II, and that it is much more focused on the conditions of how we got here now. What is Nancy McLean writing about if not the condition of the intellectual sources of the present? And, given the historiography of the past decades, Kabaservice appears to have taken from left-oriented scholarship the notion that who gets to speak is a profound determinative of how history gets written. Wouldn’t most of us agree that a history of women that is written through the lens of men has an epistemic problem and surely needs to be rethought? Historians seems very much committed to the idea that our sources should help us see people as they saw themselves, not simply as objects seen by others. Is there a reason that historians of conservatism should be an exception to this general principle?

  4. First, I want to link Tom Sugrue’s great Twitter thread on the abundance of great scholarship on the modern conservative movement in the United States. You can find it here.

    Thanks, everyone, for these great comments!

    Campbell,
    You make an important point about the gray area between extremism and moderation, and perhaps the even more fundamental point is that scholars of conservatism (or liberalism) seldom set out with the purpose of planting their subjects on an ideological grid. When they use “extreme” or “moderate,” it tends to be relationally–in reference to another specific person or group. The problem arises when readers retain those terms but act as if they are absolute–in reference to the whole political landscape.

    Ethan and Dan,
    I definitely take your point about my analogy being strained, but I think you’re being awfully vague in your descriptions of what kind of obligations historians owe to conservatives.

    Kabaservice’s complaint was that liberal historians don’t have conservative colleagues; he assumed that this means that they aren’t talking to any conservatives. The former assumption is, for most of us, wrong, and as Seth Cotlar pointed out, many historians of conservatism grew up in conservative families, so the idea that they are personally unfamiliar with the worldview of conservatives is simply erroneous.

    All that said, let’s pretend Kabaservice is right. Dr. Jones is writing a history of the National Review‘s coverage of apartheid in South Africa. Does it make sense to require her to interview whatever conservatives she can find to provide background on the subject? What kind of background are they providing? What she should do is interview the principals involved–regardless of their politics. Some liberal journalists may have gotten into an argument in print over an NR piece, or maybe Buckley traveled to Johannesburg with a moderate businessman. The point is, the people whom Dr. Jones ought to be speaking with–whenever possible–are people actually involved, not people who happen to vote for the same party or espouse some of the same positions. Dr. Jones won’t find out anything more about National Review or apartheid by interviewing a bank president in her city than she would by talking with the nearest Democratic Socialist.

    That said, I think we may be holding different kind of projects in mind. For most historical projects, if there are living people involved, you consider whether interviewing them will be helpful–of course. But that might not be feasible and one still has the documentary record–and perfectly good histories can be written just from that.
    If one is instead pursuing a more ethnographic project–like, say, Theda Skocpol’s work on the Tea Party–then obviously it is important to have conversations with as many self-identified conservatives as possible. But how many of us work on projects like that?

    • Andy, as someone working on the very recent past, let me second the final part of your reply here. It seems to me that intellectual history especially is dependent — rightfully so — on a written archive, and post-game interviews conducted 20 or 30 years after the events in question may turn up a (possibly unreliable!) detail or two, but are not going to shed very much light on the past — they’re memory, and they are texts made by and for the present.

      The insistence that a subject should “recognize” himself or herself in a historian’s faithful rendering of sources is short-sighted or naive or both. If right-wing thought-leaders refuse to recognize any kind of racist overtones to the phrase “monkey things up” or insist that what Secessionists (or James Buchanan?) were really worried about was “states’ rights” in the abstract, one can hardly expect that they will grapple honestly with scholars’ close reading of written sources or recognize the fairness of the sketch we draw.

      The more sharply we can draw people from the archive, the less likely the picture we draw will square with their memory or their self-understanding.

      O wad some Power the giftie gie us.
      To see oursels as ithers see us!

      The historian’s obligation to our subjects, living or dead, is to be faithful: faithful to the truth, to the record, to the evidence; to not distort, to not overlook evidence that argues against our own conclusions; to be fair — all those things Thomas Haskell listed so much more aptly in the most quotable paragraph of historiography ever written. If we’ve done that, we don’t need to worry about whether our subjects like or even recognize the picture we draw. That’s on them.

      History is a moral inquiry. You can hold up a moral mirror to some people, and they’ll deny with every fiber of their being that the reflection they see there is their own, because the stakes of admitting that they have been seen for who they are really are too psychically costly to reckon. That’s on them.

  5. Andy–
    I actually don’t think historians of conservatism have any obligations to conservatives, although the way I expressed it, I think, can understandably be read that way. And I certainly don’t think that conservatives (or any other ideological group) have a claim to approve the work of historians in advance of its publication–they can have at it in the critical forum in which the work is received, just like anybody else. And the argument, when confronted by evidence that points otherwise, that says “I know conservatives and this is not what they believe,” is a really bad argument. Point to evidence, reveal limiting assumptions of an author, demonstrate inadequate contextualization–make your case.

    Historians’ obligations are not to the objects of our analysis (and their intellectual heirs) but to elevating our understanding of the past. Anything that helps them do so is a valuable resource–and that means getting the read and point of view of people you are ideologically at odds with as a way to reframe historical problems and issues. It doesn’t mean accepting their arguments or sharing their point of view. I took it that Kabaservice was saying that this was the problem (and he may be very wrong about that–as I said historians on the left have drawn approvingly from scholars on the right such as Nash, and as you say, his assumption that people on the left don’t actually know any conservatives is ill-founded). But I actually think your Dr. Jones would benefit, not by interviewing a bank president to find out something about NR’s coverage of apartheid, but by being conversant in a larger sense with how conservatives see and have seen themselves. If she focuses narrowly and empirically only on those involved in National Review’s coverage of a single issue without exploring the assumptions and ideological frameworks that conservative authors and publishers bring to their subjects (frameworks that will not necessarily be present on the surface to be discovered empirically), she may well miss an important aspect of her study. I may be misreading Kabaservice (and I think there is much to disagree with in his argument) but I don’t think he’s saying that conservatives should have some kind of veto power over the ways in which they and their intellectual ancestors are portrayed. He’s saying that historians on the left have a blinkered understanding of conservatives–for instance, letting Newt Gingrich and Dinesh D’Souza represent the intellectual POV of conservatives rather than looking for the range of “serious” thought on the conservative side. Again, he could be wrong about this (I actually think he is), but I think we should separate his claims about what liberal and left historians have said about conservatives with the broader claim that Andy makes, which is that historians in general should not be concerned with the broader ways in which people who are not the immediate object of study see themselves, that everything there is to consider is in the archival record. I think that what we bring to the record helps determine what we see there–if we know that conservatives think of themselves in particular ways, that helps us to see aspects of the past that we might not have been as attuned to without that familiarity.

    • Dan,
      I don’t think we’re in disagreement so much as we are imagining different scenarios–different kinds of projects.

      The project I’m imagining is about the conservative movement–but not necessarily about “conservatism” in toto. It isn’t trying to define what conservatism is; it’s trying to reconstruct a relatively discrete sequence of events. That’s what most of the literature on American conservatism has been. Some monographs may draw larger conclusions about the way that their slice of history changed the coalition of forces in the conservative movement or presented opportunities or obstacles which forced a reformulation of particular conservative principles or ideas, but no historical monograph that I can think of (except maybe Nash) takes upon itself the task of saying what conservatism is. For that, you really do need to go to a work of political theory like Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind.

      I do agree that historians are humanists and therefore should open themselves to the variousness of human experience, but I’m not sure that this needs to take any particular form, or that we could ever stipulate what “the broader ways in which people who are not the immediate object of study see themselves” might mean as a research question. If someone is writing a history of Catholicism, must they attend Mass? If so, how often?

      Maybe I’m being reductive, but I feel like it is difficult to remain at an abstract level–if we want to place some kind of expectations on whom scholars have to associate with in order to pursue certain lines of inquiry, it seems like we’ll end up talking about these kinds of particulars sooner or later.

      • Thanks Andy. I think you’re right (on imagining different projects)–and maybe there’s a great deal of ambiguity in Kabaservice’s post about what he thinks historians get wrong about the history of conservatism. I guess I didn’t read him as saying that historians fail to adequately reconstruct “a discrete sequence of events,” but fail to understand the motives and the principles that have guided historical actors, or seek to emphasize certain ideas that are salient for them at the expense of others that aren’t.

        I, too, think it’s a bad idea to tell historians that the value of their work relies on who they know in their personal lives, or who they associate with, or to seek to delegitimate work based on the presumed ideology or identity of the author. Ultimately, as we know, the work will stand or fall on the critical reception it receives by a community of historians who are more committed to the standards of historical inquiry than to a political ideology narrowly conceived. But that doesn’t mean that it’s irrelevant for us to note that the sympathies and ideologies of the author have shaped historiography in particular ways that might be limiting (as well as revealing). If Kabaservice is saying that you can’t write a history of conservatism without being friendly with conservatives, then I think he’s wrong (and I will reiterate, I think he’s wrong in all kinds of ways in this essay). But if he’s saying that our sensibilities can be sharpened by engaging with people who see the world in other ways than we do, that it’s a good idea to get out of our “echo chamber,” I can’t disagree with him. But I disagree that the raft of scholarship on the history of conservatism is an echo chamber.

        Thanks for initiating this interesting discussion.

  6. Andy didn’t say or even imply “that everything there is to consider is in the archival record” (nor did anyone else). He did say in the above comment that “perfectly good histories can be written just from [archival sources].” And that’s manifestly true.

  7. Dan,
    I am 100% on board for asking historians to get out of their echo chambers, although like you, I’m skeptical that very many of us are actually in one. But I also think that there’s an important difference between asking that historians actively try to challenge their preconceptions (which both you and I are advising) and stipulating that liberal historians can’t write good histories of conservatism if they don’t have conservative friends (which is what Kabaservice is saying).

    To me, the former requirement is continuous with good archival work and sensitive reading of sources: we can shake up our assumptions thoroughly by diving into the documentary record. We can further pursue those efforts to test our preconceptions by engaging with living people who self-identify similarly to our subjects, but I think that’s likely to be a more haphazard process: conservatism might mean something very different to the Republican down the hall compared to the author of the letters you’re reviewing.

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We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.