Eagle Forum Legislative Alerts

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Short History of American Conservatism

A new book called The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History by David Farber describes 20th century politics through separate chapters on five leaders who built the conservative movement: Robert Taft, William Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Phyllis Schlafly, and Ronald Reagan. What distinguishes this book from other recent books on the conservative movement is the author's analysis of the persona of each of those five and how their personalities interacted with their life work in politics: where they came from ideologically, what made them tick, and how they combined their lifestyles with their political activities.

The author correctly identified Robert Taft as the inventor of the modern conservative movement. Long before it was cool to be identified as a conservative, Taft set conservatism on its virtue-claiming course by calling for a society not only with a higher standard of living but with a higher standard of character. William Buckley was pictured as adding an intellectual dimension to conservatism, combining anti-Communism with deference to religious faith, and starting the campaign to make liberal a negative word. Barry Goldwater, whom Farber calls "conservatism's John the Baptist figure," led the conservative takeover of the Republican Party, but that dissipated soon after his 1964 defeat.

The author explains how Phyllis Schlafly gave new life to the conservative movement in the 1970s by energizing a network of grassroot activists who wanted to keep the traditional family safe from the feminist agenda. The chapter on Ronald Reagan describes how his optimistic personality made conservatism popular and conservatives nationally electable.

The final chapter is on George W. Bush, whose personality Farber explains very well, but whose presidency, according to Farber, marked "the end of the conservative ascendancy." Farber never guessed that conservatism could rebound as it did last November, after his book was published.

Listen to the radio commentary here:

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