[20 April 2008]
Rightward Bound arrives at a prescient moment. Modern American conservatism is far from its political death, but the ruinous legacy of George W. Bush has helped dash Karl Rove’s dreams of a “permanent majority”. Culturally, the story is similar. Annual abortion numbers have remained steady, public acceptance of gay rights continues to increase, and immigration has failed as a Republican wedge issue. So what are the reasons for this mixed record? As co-editors Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer argue, the movement’s “past has much to say about the contemporary condition”.
The most common historical account for America’s turn to conservatism has been the “backlash” theory. This theory holds that Vietnam and the stark cultural changes of the 1960s caused many to ultimately make a hard right turn in reaction. (Some scholars point at economic conditions instead of cultural ones as a primary cause.) More recently, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has advanced a pithy, quite concise explanation of his own: “southern whites started voting Republican”. Krugman finds that racist political tactics—such as Richard Nixon’s infamous “Southern strategy”—created a key turning point.
In contrast, Rightward Bound renders both of the above ideas as oversimplified. The book provides three broad reasons why. First, it demonstrates that the 1970s—and not the previous decade—was when conservatism found long-term success. Second, a variety of factors contributed to America’s rightward turn during the ‘70s; race and economics were important, but so also were gender issues, foreign policy debates, and concerns among white ethnic groups. Third, conservatives gained traction at both the grassroots and within government during the decade. Yet they also struggled against liberalism as well, and those conflicts continue to linger today.
Schulman and Zelizer state in a recent article that these new conclusions largely emerge from scholars who have been able to study the 1970s “with fresh eyes”. Accordingly, some of Rightward Bound’s strongest chapters come from the young historians that they go on to specifically mention. A notable example is Joseph Crespino’s look at private Christian schools in the South. He outlines how controversy erupted when the IRS stripped certain schools of their tax-exempt status due to racial discrimination. As Randall Balmer also argues, the response among conservative Christians was critical to the Religious Right’s formation. In just 16 pages, Crespino does a nice job of summarizing the conflict and its eventual importance to the Republican Party’s message.
Meg Jacobs also provides an outstanding essay. In her overview of the 1973-74 energy crisis, she finds that the Nixon White House had to “create the perception of government leadership” for the public. Yet at the same time, they and other conservatives sought to limit the federal government’s role in regulating energy policies. This strategy failed in the short term, but it allowed the movement to develop an anti-government message that was central to the Reagan presidency. Jacobs writes that the crisis ultimately taught “conservative reformers a valuable lesson: fighting liberalism is hard”. She demonstrates one reason why those reformers remain in battle today.
Elsewhere, the authors of Rightward Bound form a compelling case for how and why conservatives gained power during the ‘70s. Schulman and Zelizer note that “areas of consensus” have emerged among historians concerned with the decade, and the book makes this clear. For example, Crespino’s findings relate to those of both Matthew Lassiter in his chapter on “family values”, as well as Paul Boyer on evangelical politics. Yet thanks to careful editing, the book captures a diverse cross-section of events and influences that ultimately played to the advantage of conservatives. As a result, it serves as a constructive starting point for recent historiography on the subject.
The only essay that I think lacks a convincing argument is Bradford Martin’s study of “singer/songwriters” during the early 1970s. Martin identifies how artists such as James Taylor and Joni Mitchell chose to create “soft” music with introspective lyrics. He contends that this form of songwriting “accommodated” conservatism, even though the artists were themselves liberal. It’s an intriguing claim, but becomes lost to due to both a muddled narrative and insufficient supporting evidence. In particular, Martin could have used detailed analyses for a couple of specific songs to provide more concrete examples.
Rightward Bound offers remarkably little to complain about, however. It is a highly important and useful study, and one that offers scholars a new way of grasping conservatism. Just as importantly, this is a book that will hopefully be valuable to a broader general audience. If the public is to make sense of why the conservative revolution faces an uncertain future, they must look backwards as well, and appreciate its laborious beginning.