Interviewing Rick Perlstein, author of the mega-book Nixonland, Mark Hemingway of National Review lamented recently that "liberal or popular historians don't seem to be very interested in conservative history and ideology."
Perlstein answered politely, but the correct response would have been, "What planet are you living on?" Indeed, the legend of the rise of the right--as told by and to the left--has become the defining narrative of our political experience. I shouldn't admit this, but I probably own and have read more books about conservative history and ideology than about the civil-rights movement (and I'm pretty interested in the civil-rights movement). From the intellectual roots in Albert J. Nock's idea of "the remnant" (an enlightened few doomed to irrelevance in a liberal age) through the spooky-sounding Mont Pelerin Society, William F. Buckley's "fusionism" of libertarians and traditionalists, then to Barry Goldwater, the movement's emergence into political power under Ronald Reagan, and then the late, decadent phase, it is a fascinating, absorbing story.
For liberals living in the conservative era, conservative history has been more than a story. It has been a template, the closest one available, for what it means to translate ideas into political change. How often have I heard, "We need our Grover Norquist"--someone who would organize the weekly meeting where everyone would get their marching orders? (There is such a meeting now; I'm told it's more chaotic than Norquist's.) Or, "We need a Heritage Foundation for our side"? The Democracy Alliance, a forum for liberal donors, had its origins in a PowerPoint version of the conservative story that urged donors to model their funding on the collaborative structures of the right. Call it the "I'll have what she's having" theory of change, after the famous deli scene in When Harry Met Sally--assuming that if you do the same things, you'll get comparable results.
Even arguments among liberals often focused on differing interpretations of the right's success. Those who thought we needed think tanks, journals, and ideas told the story of the conservative intellectuals and their institutions; others who wanted to see more invested in grass-roots organizing told the story of Goldwater's legions and the Christian Coalition. Those involved in the Democratic Party told the story of the right in terms of the tight coordination between the party and the party line; those who favored a more daring liberalism noted that conservative institutions kept their distance from the Republican establishment. Those who wanted to revive the legal liberalism of the 1970s pointed to the Federalist Society, and those who began to think that conservative forces in the states were at least as important as what happened in Washington, D.C., tried to build analogues to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a network for conservative state legislators and those who lobby them.
Fortunately, the imitative institutions are now far surpassing their role models. If the founders of the Center for American Progress once looked in awe at Heritage, the quick-moving, high-tech, imaginative progressive think tank now makes its conservative analogue look like a once-mighty, now threadbare brand name from the 1970s. (Heritage's daily blast-fax was once an innovation.) The American Constitution Society is now a full-fledged presence at over 160 law schools. And ALEC is reportedly crumbling, while the Progressive States Network has begun to take off.
And so, we're on our own now. There may be more left to the political power of the right, but its narrative arc is complete. With that, we can look at the great political narrative of the latter half of the 20th century with fresh eyes, with the distance of an actual historian, rather than try to plunder it for useful weaponry. More importantly, we can turn back to the history that really matters to liberals, which is not the history of reaction but the history of aspiration to greater levels of equality and justice. My own vow this summer is to stop reading all those books about conservatism and get back to the civil-rights movement. Maybe I'll finish Taylor Branch's trilogy about Martin Luther King Jr. I promise--just as soon as I finish Nixonland.
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