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. 😀
“He preferred the communist Soviet Union to the nationalist movements in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine” appears from subsequent comments to be a misrepresentation of Foner’s position, but if it were true would it be “Anti-American”? In the most important war in history, the Soviet Union was one of the Allies, while Bulgaria and Romania were Axis countries, and the other nationalities listed were usually heard of followed by the words “SS unit”. What’s wrong with preferring allies to enemies?
The Wikipedia article linked above states “In Texas the most adamant supporters of the Union were Tejanos and the German Texans “. Well, I imagine that Black Texans were rather hoping for a Union victory. Apart from that, I happen to have a copy of a novel called, “A Bright Ttragic thing” by L. D. Clark, about a mass hanging of Union men at Gainesville, Texas, who seem to have been all Anglos. While Tejanos were the majority of Texas Union soldiers, I believe 4/5 of Tejanos who fought were Confederates. Perhaps there would have been more fighting for the Union if they hadn’t also been Juaristas, so many went to fight in the Mexican Civil War instead.
David, you really should read what Foner said before characterizing in such a cartoonish way. Do you not know what he said, or did you just assume no one else would bother to look it up?
The piece in question is an article Foner wrote in The Nation (February 11, 1991; discussed here), in which he warned about the prospect of reprisals and expulsion of persons of different ethnic backgrounds from the various new republics being formed out of the old Soviet Union. He wrote that
Foner notes that these threats represent a “failure of Soviet nationality policy” that served to “strengthen nationalism in the republics, while the fate of minorities within those political units became extremely problematic.” He also mentions that while new republics like Georgia asserted their right to secede from the Soviet Union, they would not themselves recognize the right of secession of yet smaller, ethnically-distinctive, autonomous regions within their own borders. Remember South Ossetia?
Foner makes the Civil War analogy in in this narrow context, pointing to the successful separation of West Virginia from the Confederacy, and the Confederacy’s suppression of Unionist pockets in eastern Tennessee and the brutal crackdown on pro-Union Germans in Texas. It’s an imprecise analogy, but then analogies always are. It’s also a fair one.
Foner says nothing about “preferring” communist governance, or “liking” authoritarian rule, or that somehow “the Soviet Union was good.” But hey, don’t let mere facts dissuade you from bangin’ that Lincoln-was-a-Marxist drum. Thomas DiLorenzo is proud of you, son.
The real David Hume would no doubt be appalled by the level of analysis in the last comment. Thanks for the link to the article. 🙂
Foner opposed the break up of the Soviet Union. He preferred the communist Soviet Union to the nationalist movements in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine and other emerging states. Foner liked the Soviet Union’s authoritarian rule, and compared communist attempts to keep the Soviet Union unified to Abraham Lincoln’s saving the Union. I don’t know, is Foner convincing people that Lincoln was bad or that the Soviet Union was good?
Perhaps you could provide a reference to this claim. I also don’t see what this has to do with the content of the post.
See The Right Nation by Micklethwait and Wooldridge
I will definitely check it out. Thanks.
I would like to say thank you Kevin for being Politically Balanced. I will sleep better knowing this.
Is it anti-American to believe that we can be wrong, or that we have made mistakes? Wouldn’t pointing out those mistakes in order for children to learn from them be the appropriate task of a teacher? I bristle at the “progressive” texts which try to equate that great American hero Betsy Ross with the Founding Fathers in an attempt to include girls in the early American story. It would be better for girls everywhere to learn that their voices were not honored then, and why. The genius of America, and its promise to the world, has not been in what we were, but what we can be.
As a student who learned from the likes of Eric Foner in high school, I’d like to compare his coverage with a textbook that would be approved by the conservatives that harp on the alleged “liberalism” of textbooks and see how they stack up.
Same here. Paul Johnson’s “History of America” usually gets thrown around as an alternative text that supposedly counters left leaning textbooks, but if you actually go through it you will find very little on the make-up of the modern conservative movement. I think Foner does a much better job of laying out its principles and its many facets.
Other than the Foner text book, are you having students read other articles/passages/chapters on the American conservative movement?
Selections from Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol, Ronald Reagan, to name just a few.
They sound like good selections.