On the Right: NET and Modern Conservatism

Defining Conservatism

Across five episodes in 1970, NET sought to define conservatism. Entitled “Conservative Viewpoint,” these programs enlisted conservative journalists, politicians, professors, intellectuals, and advocates to outline the conservative position on issues ranging from the principles that should guide US foreign policy to the legitimacy of student protest on college campuses across the country. Moderated by political scientist Sidney Hyman – a self-described liberal – and filmed in Chicago, these episodes hinged on seeing conservatism as a coherent worldview that would be best explained to viewers by a number of the leading thinkers who not only embraced it, but who saw conservatism as the answer to the problems facing the nation at the end of a highly tumultuous decade.

The question of “what is conservatism” has itself elicited an ongoing conversation as well as a range of strategies by conservatives themselves to define the principles that guide them, the political positions they advocate, the leaders they support, and the communities that constitute their fellowship. In the era of the telecasts in this exhibit, conservatives were a heterogeneous mix of intellectuals, politicians, and grassroots activists who evinced varying political, intellectual, and cultural commitments and who saw multiple paths forward for conservatism, including increasing power within the Republican Party, forming a third political party, launching educational campaigns to disseminate conservative ideas, and organizing at the local level to advance conservatism in local communities.

Taken together, the episodes in this exhibit can be seen as engaged in the project of defining conservatism and, given the diversity of perspectives on display, acknowledging the range of perspectives and tactics that constituted it. In this, the NET episodes enter into a decades long dialogue over “what is conservatism” that has engaged historians and social scientists, as well as conservative intellectuals, politicians, and movement leaders.

As early as the 1950s, social scientists sought to explain the rise of what sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset dubbed “the radical right,” initially referring to followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s domestic anti-communist battle and the conspiracy theories about domestic subversion at its center.16 In a series of essays collected by Daniel Bell in The New American Right (1955), which included essays by Lipset and historian Richard Hofstadter, the rise of the “radical right” was explained through the lens of status politics. If class politics surged at moments of economic depression, then status politics erupted during periods of prosperity. People motivated by status politics were those who feared for the security of their social position and who were afraid that the cultural and political developments that accompany prosperity – such as cosmopolitanism and urbanity – had no place for them. Hofstadter referred to these individuals as “pseudo-conservatives,” because rather than actually upholding tradition, they in fact were projecting their fears onto society.17 Bell would update this volume in his The Radical Right anthology, which included the original essays from The New American Right along with updated essays that took stock of newer iterations of the “radical right,” most notably the John Birch Society, an organization formed in 1958 to combat a perceived communist conspiracy within the United States.

Bell and his colleagues identified the “right” with sectors of US society that held sway, in Hofstadter’s phrase, to a “paranoid style,”18 the belief in a vast conspiratorial network committed to destroying a way of life. By contrast, a range of conservative intellectuals with varying relationships to the “radical right” sought to popularize conservative principles and cohere a conservative movement with the aim of gaining social, cultural, and political power. As George Nash identifies in his seminal The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American Since 1945, postwar conservative intellectuals fell into three distinct strains: anti-communist, social traditionalist, and economic libertarian. Part of the labor of conservative intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s was to find common ground across these groups and to unite them into a singular movement.

One strategy, perhaps best exemplified by Frank Meyer’s fusionism, was to identify fundamental principles shared by all conservatives, such as a belief in an objective moral order, a commitment to circumscribing the power of the state, and a strongly-held belief that communism threatened “western civilization” and the presumed universal values that constitute its legacy.19 Another strategy lay in the creation of conservative media. In addition to National Review, founded in 1955, which published conservative writers who embraced each strain of conservatism, Henry Regnery’s eponymous publishing house distributed books by conservative authors articulating positions perceived to be excluded by or marginalized within the political consensus of the period.20 In addition, radio and television broadcasts, often funded by wealthy conservative businessmen, popularized conservative perspectives absented from the mainstream media (see the Conservatism and the Media section).

If National Review united conservative thinkers under its masthead, in the 1960s it also sought to define the parameters of legitimate and illegitimate forms of conservatism. It particularly distanced conservatism from Robert Welch and the organization he had created, the John Birch Society (JBS). While Welch and his JBS embraced a number of positions identical to those of Buckley and his editors – support for states’ rights, opposition to federal spending on social programs, advocacy for the reduction of regulations on business, and an embrace of a robust anti-communism – what distinguished JBS was their belief in a vast, internal domestic communist conspiracy that hinged on the collaboration, both conscious and unconscious, of the nation’s leaders. Welch, for example, had written a letter, later published as the book The Politician, which accused Dwight Eisenhower of being a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy.”21

In a series of editorials beginning in 1962 and especially in a 1965 dedicated 12-page special feature, National Review separated its brand of conservatism from the JBS. As Meyer wrote in the 1965 issue, “The false analysis and conspiratorial mania of the John Birch Society has moved beyond diversion and waste of the devotion of its members to the mobilization of that devotion in ways directly anti-conservative and dangerous to the interests of the United States.”22 While a number of readers of and donors to National Review vehemently objected to the magazine’s stance on the JBS, Buckley and his editors ultimately deemed it necessary to decry the conspiracism at the heart of the JBS as anathema to conservative politics.23 Such a move aligned with the view of conservative politicians that organizations like the JBS were an impediment to conservative Republicans achieving national political power.

As the conservative movement amassed increasing political power in the 1970s and 1980s, sociologists and later historians would seek to understand how a movement initially on the fringes of political life had moved forcefully into its center. In the process, as they offered origin narratives and schematics as to how to make sense of the rise of conservatism, they implicitly defined the movement’s goals and central preoccupations. In 1990, for example, sociologist Jerome L. Himmelstein took aim at the “status anxiety” thesis that had circulated in the postwar decades, insisting that we should see conservatism as a post-war social movement, one that became a political contender in the 1950s and 1960s and that would dominate US politics in the 1970s and 1980s. For Himmelstein, the growth of the right hinged on what he identified as a “paradoxical combination of respectability and rebelliousness” 24: strong access resources – financial, socioeconomic, and political -- combined with an antiestablishment ideology that made it attractive to a range of communities disenchanted with the developments of the 1960s. Similarly, sociologist Sara Diamond in 1995 examined conservatism as a constellation of four right-wing movements that capably mobilized in response to changes in government policy and via media and education campaigns. Diamond specified that if political movements were defined as groups seeking state power, the right-wing movements at the center of her work were defined not by their relationship to the state but by what functions they thought the state should perform.25

While in 1994, historian Alan Brinkley labeled American conservatism as the “orphan in historical scholarship,” 26 in the three decades to follow historians would work to answer, “what is conservatism,” as well as to account for how it came to be such an important force in US politics. What has emerged have been competing narratives about the who and the why of the rise of the right in the US. While some historians have positioned conservatism as a social movement that inspired grassroots activists – motivated by their antipathy to communism and postwar liberalism – who mobilized locally, others have focused on the development of conservative leaders, institutions, and organizations as critical to shifting the courts, legislatures, and the political center to the right. In some narratives, anti-communism is at the center of conservative mobilizations, while others see racial animus – often articulated in the racially neutral language of individual rights, freedom of association, and property rights – as bringing ordinary citizens over to the conservative movement. Still other histories focus on the politicization of religious communities seeking to resist the liberalization of sexual mores, secularization of the public sphere, and interventionist court decisions that, for example, prohibited prayer in public schools, legalized abortion under the unenumerated right of privacy, and imposed antidiscrimination policies on parochial schools receiving federal monies.27

Perhaps this question of definition was most directly addressed in a 2009 exchange between historians Donald L. Critchlow and Nancy MacLean. Critchlow presented conservatism as an intellectual revolution inspired by the New Deal and its reversal, in Critchlow’s telling, of the “long-standing American tradition that centralized government posed a threat to individual liberty.”28 What emerged, for Critchlow, was a multifaceted movement driven by not only its anti-communism, but its rejection of the liberalism that took shape in the 1930s and evolved over the remainder of the 20th century. Nancy MacLean, in contrast, defined conservatives, as per her title, as “Guardians of Privilege,” a reactive movement that sought to sustain the status quo in the face of efforts to extend full citizenship and social dignity to communities who had been denied them. She read the conservative call for small government and property rights not primarily, as did Critchlow, as a genuine expression of a political philosophy, but as a strategy to resist social justice movements, from African American civil rights to women’s liberation.29

The disagreements over “what is conservatism” perhaps bear out historian Gregory Schneider’s observation that US conservatism is at its core protean. Though Schneider identifies a number of beliefs that unite conservatives, from a defense of tradition and commitment to the rule of law to an embrace of liberty and resistance to expansive state power, he argues that what has made US conservatism so resilient over the course of the twentieth century is its capacity to change and adapt to the shifting exigencies that confront the nation.30

Yet across many of these histories of conservatism is a recognition that the 1960s, a decade frequently defined by activisms of the left, was in fact a divided decade, in which the right and the left took aim at liberalism and what they saw as the failure of American institutions. The NET episodes attest to this. The episodes in this exhibit grapple with this question of definition, of what was conservatism and of what it meant for US culture and politics in the 1960s. To view them together is to see an analogous drawing of lines around presumed legitimate and illegitimate forms of conservatism, and to witness how NET tried to make sense of a movement that it too saw as an important force in American life.

Sources and Suggested Reading

  • John A. Andrew III, The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997).

  • Daniel Bell, ed., The Radical Right: The New American Right Expanded and Updated (New York: Anchor, 1964).

  • Mary C. Brennan, Wives, Mothers, and the Red Menace: Conservative Women and the Crusade Against Communism (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2008).

  • Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

  • Donald T. Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

  • Donald T. Critchlow and Nancy MacLean, Debating the American Conservative Movement: 1945 to the Present (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).

  • Sara Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (New York: The Guilford Press, 1995).

  • Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

  • David Farber, The Rise and Fall of American Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

  • David Farber and Jeff Roche, eds., The Conservative Sixties (NY: Peter Lang, 2003).

  • Jerome L. Himmelstein, To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism (Berkeley: UC Press, 1990).

  • Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

  • Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

  • George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (New York: Basic Books, 1976).

  • William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1996).

  • Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

  • Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York: Nation Books, 2009).

  • Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Scribner, 2008).

  • Kim Phillps-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009).

  • Gregory L. Schneider, The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).

  • Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, ed., Barry Goldwater and the Remaking of the American Political Landscape (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2013).

  • Steven M. Teles, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

  • Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Next: Conservatism and the Republican Party

Russell Kirk, M. Stanton Evans, Milton Friedman, and William Rusher discuss conservatism with moderator Sidney Hyman on a 1970 episode of NET Journal.

NET Journal; The Conservative Viewpoint

Fred Schwarz, founder of the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, was one of the voices of the Right featured in the first episode of The Radical Americans.

The Radical Americans; Voices from the Right

Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, speaks to journalist Jim Fleming in an episode of Regional Report on the John Birch Society.

Regional Report; John Birch Society

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