Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Conservative Exceptionalism

Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, a couple of history professors, are about to publish a book they edited titled "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the Seventies." Here they give the gist of how they see it.

Without agreeing to everything, I find certain trends here exciting. One is the emergence of the 1970s from the enormous, bloated shadow of the 1960s:

A quarter-century after the fact, historians are starting to recognize the centrality of the 70s. New scholarship suggests that the 70s transformed American economic and cultural life as much as, if not more than, the revolutions in manners and morals of the 1920s and 1960s. The 70s reshaped the political landscape as much as did the 1930s. In race relations, religion, family life, politics, and popular culture, the 1970s were a watershed in modern U.S. history.

That was bound to happen over time, of course; history (the academic discipline, not the thing itself) is constantly reinventing itself as fresh generations of graduate students investigate what was overlooked by their elders. But, as a survivor of the Class of '78, I'm glad I lived to see it.

Here's another long-overdue development in revising the received wisdom about the 1960s in America:

Joseph H. Crespino, an assistant professor of history at Emory University, recently published In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton University Press, 2007), an investigation of segregationist politics in Mississippi that undercuts the conventional 60s-focused portrait of white resistance to civil rights. Instead of seeing white Mississippians as "pariahs within a larger liberal nation, one that finally made good on its centuries-old commitment to equality for all its citizens," Crespino sees them as crucial actors in a broader reshaping of American politics in the closing decades of the 20th century.

If that vague statement means what I think it does (I don't have Crespino's book), it may be that something I've been preaching in the wilderness for a few years now might finally get heard. If it gets some academic legitimacy, perhaps I won't be so readily dismissed as a racist for pointing out the complexities of rural Southern white America.

Then there's conservatism itself:

The reality of "conservative" America is that the federal government remains a large presence in American life. When disasters strike, we turn to government. When we retire, we turn to government. When we face external threats, we turn to government. Republicans failed to curb the growth of federal spending between 2001 and 2007, when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. In fact the Republican leadership developed new forms of government, ranging from the No Child Left Behind Act in education to a sweeping domestic-surveillance program.

The professors have their own explanation for why this happens, and it's rooted in the 1970s.

But what strikes me as exceptional about American conservatism is what it isn't -- and hasn't been for a long, long time. There is no American version of the statist conservatism that has characterized right-wing politics in Europe for the past two centuries, sometimes with chilling and horrific results.

That is the unresolved tension that tore apart the GOP under Bush: The trend of events and the impulse of the leaders under Bush has been toward statist conservatism. But that is anathema to the conservative movement in America. If something like the 9/11 attacks had happened in France in 1880 or Britain in 1930, how different the result would have been! People who make their bucks writing about fascist America overlook this: This was a period when many a nation would have drifted into right-wing statism. It's not happening here, and not because of the brave resistance of MoveOn.org or the steely spines of Reid, Pelosi, et al.

What happened to statist conservatism in the U.S.? I still don't know. It was the most powerful force in the government in the decade after the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton embodied it down to his toenails. It was dynamic, hopeful, confident, and in charge. It died with the Federalist Party, but the question is why it never revived in another guise.

The answer to that is a book or 20. But I like to remember what killed it. Jefferson's victory over Adams in the 1800 election. Which was one of two presidential elections in U.S. history (1828 was the other, coincidentally deposing Adams' son) decided by the notorious "three-fifths" clause in the Constitution.

That boost to the political power of the slave states has attracted far more obloquy than it deserves, especially based on its practical impact. It gave the South more representatives in the U.S. House, but the political clout of the South lay in the Senate (the advantage there, I think, was based on the nature of the planter aristocrats who could devote themselves entirely to politics, while their Yankee counterparts had to keep going home to make money).

Yet thanks to the slave-inflated vote in 1800, America swerved away from a dangerous authoritarian statism. And 28 years later, the three-fifths clause beat down the gatekeepers and threw open America to "pure democracy" that we claim to revere today, forgetting how much the Founders loathed it.