Well, we are getting down to the final few weeks in my AP American History course. It’s always a mad rush in the last few weeks as I have to make sure that I’ve covered most of the major events into the 1990s. Over the past few days we’ve been talking in detail about the rise of the modern conservative movement and given my recent posts [see here and here] on the supposed left-wing conspiracy in our college and high school classrooms I thought I might share a few thoughts about what we specifically look at. According to some I am playing my own small part in this conspiracy as I spew my hatred for America and my denials of American Exceptionalism in front of my students. I guess one need look no further for evidence of this than my use of Eric Foner’s book, Give Me Liberty!: An American History (Norton)
As I was reviewing the chapter it dawned on me that Foner offers a very rich overview of modern conservatism. The title of the chapter in question is “The Triumph of Conservatism” and covers the period from 1969 to 1988. Sub-chapter headings include “The Rebirth of Conservatism,” “The New Conservatism,” “The Conservative Sixties,” “The Rising Tide of Conservatism,” “The Religious Right,” “The Tax Revolt,” “Reagan and American Freedom.” The chapter covers a number of concepts and movements associated with conservatism, such as Libertarianism the Religious Right and includes references to Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, William F. Buckley, “Young Americans For Freedom,” “neo-Conservatives,” Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Jeane Kirpatrick. Court cases that favor a conservative reading of the Constitution include Milliken v. Bradley, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Bowers v. Hardwick, among others. The chapter includes a full-page reprint of “The Sharon Statement” (1960)
Consider Foner’s own interpretation of the “New Conservatives” for yourself:
The “new conservatives” understood freedom as first and foremost a moral condition. It required a decision by independent men and women to lead virtuous lives, or government action to force them to do so. Although they wanted government expelled from the economy, new conservatives trusted it to regulate personal behavior, to restore a Christian morality they saw as growing weaker and weaker in American society.
Her lay the origins of a division in conservative ranks that would persist to the end of the twentieth century. Unrestrained individual choice and moral virtue are radically different starting points from which to discuss freedom. Was the purpose of conservatism, one writer wondered, to create the “free man” or the “good man?” Libertarian conservatives spoke the language of progress and personal autonomy; the “new conservatives emphasized tradition, community, and moral commitment. The former believed that too many barriers existed to the pursuit of individual liberty. The latter condemned and excess of individualism and a breakdown of common values. (p. 1026)
That seems to me to be an incredibly thoughtful, albeit brief, description of the modern conservative movement that gives students a framework for understanding a great deal of recent political and cultural history. It led to a very interesting class discussion today that I hope to continue tomorrow as we move further into the 1980s.
On the rise of the Religious Right, Foner has this to say:
The rise of religious fundamentalism during the 1970s expanded conservatism’s popular base. Even as membership in mainstream denominations like Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism declined, evangelical Protestantism flourished. Some observers spoke of a Third Great Awakening (like those of the 1740s and early nineteenth century)…. Evangelical Christians had become more and more alienated from a culture that seemed to them to trivialize religion and promote immorality. They demanded the reversal of Supreme Court decisions banning prayer in public schools, protecting pornography as free speech and legalizing abortion. (p. 1050)
As I said above, the chapter’s focus on conservatism is incredibly rich and benefits immensely from Foner’s commitment to looking beyond the major figures and most prominent organizations in the movement.
Now, of course, there is room to disagree even with the brief excerpts that I’ve provided here, but can we agree that there is nothing that is blatantly anti-American or biased in favor of a liberal/Democratic view of American history? Actually, if you gave me this book without the author’s name I’m not sure I could nail down the political identity of the author. Than again I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the political affiliation of historians. I tend to judge the quality of their work based on the principles of good history.
Anyway, I hope this alleviates the concerns among some of you that I am feeding my students anti-American ideology.