A (Very) Short Historiography of the New Right in America
The New Right’s rise to political prominence, in the final third of the twentieth century, has occasioned a lively debate amongst historians. Richard Hofstadter’s pioneering studies of the “extreme right” provide a vivid sketch of the embryonic revolt that remains indispensable to the field, although most scholars now consider his pathologizing analysis–rooted in the assumptions of the “consensus school”–an interpretive dead end. The 1980 presidential election, which transformed the American political arena into more of a Sunday school than Hofstadter would have dreamed possible, provided the impetus for a more thorough exploration of this dramatic cultural shift. Scholars such as Robert Zwier and Randall Balmer have undermined the consensus school’s portrayal of “pseudo-conservatives” as hopelessly out of touch with American realities by stressing the movement’s continuities with the history of civic Protestantism in this country. Lisa McGirr, on the other hand, identifies right-wing activists (Christian and libertarian alike) as the purposive architects of a new political order founded upon the emergent power of the suburb. Most recently, D.G. Hart has argued that the coexistence of moral fundamentalism and technological development is neither (as in Hofstadter) impossible, nor even (as in McGirr) incongruous, but is, in fact, implicit in the cultural logic of protestantism/capitalism.
The series of essays in Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics dramatize the evolution of the Consensus School’s position on the emergence of the New (or “extreme”) Right, between 1954 and 1965. In the eponymous piece, the author discusses the pervasiveness, throughout American history, of “paranoid” eruptions that–momentarily–channel the public’s resentment of what Hofstadter identifies as the culture’s “mainstream” tradition of political compromise. “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt–1954” introduces the key (although somewhat ambiguous) distinction between “interest politics” and “status politics” as a tool for making sense of American politics in periods of affluence. A decade later, Hofstadter resumed his analysis, with the object of explaining how a “fringe movement” had captured the Republican party in 1964, and what its future might hold.
In “The Paranoid Style”, Hofstadter reduces the New Right, in its McCarthyite phase, to a byproduct of the liberal-democratic process. He sees the movement as merely the latest in a long line of regrettable, but unavoidable, expressions of frustration with the complexities of government based upon a system of checks and balances. For Hofstadter, “style has to do with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated, rather than with the truth or falsity of their content” (5). The controlling metaphor of paranoid political expression is the “vast conspiracy”, the sin qua non of impatience with “the usual methods of of political give and take” (29). The
paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms–he traffics in the birth or death of whole worlds, whole political orders. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy (29).
For Hofstadter, this style is always to be deplored, regardless of its political objective. The content of political debate is beyond his purview. The guiding principle of consensus ideology was an ironic awareness of the strengths and limitations of liberal-democratic institutions. These scholars conceived of politics as the adjudication of competing interests, and they invariably construed efforts to disturb the process (even–as in Stanley Elkins’ Slavery–protests against the “slave power conspiracy”) as pathologically motivated.
Hofstadter rechristens the opponents of the New Deal order “pseudo-conservatives” (a term borrowed from Theodore Adorno), arguing that their posture is, in fact, a radical one (or, rather, would be radical, if it were not delusional) (44). He suggests that “pseudo-conservatism is, in good part a product of the rootlessness and heterogeneity of American life and, above all, of its peculiar scramble for status and its peculiar search for stable identity” (51). At this point, he introduces the distinction between “interest politics” (which furnishes the stuff of democratic politics-as-usual) and “status politics” (which brings in a host of concerns that do not lend themselves to compromise). In effect, Hofstadter accuses those who succumb to the lure of status politics of seeking to transform a pragmatic mechanism, built to service the needs of a diverse community, into a kind of ego-ideal that supplements deficiencies in their psychological make-ups. He attributes the viability of status politics in the 1920s and the 1950s to the booming economies of these periods, which helped to mute the government’s role in brokering rival class interests.
Hofstadter’s mid-1960’s work reveals an increasing uneasiness with the growth of the New Right, and betrays misgivings that the country (or, at least, the consensus) might not be capable of surviving the persistence of economic prosperity. He remains convinced of the demographic marginality of the Right, but the group’s effectiveness in securing a major party nomination for Barry Goldwater in 1964 causes him to reassess their potential for disrupting the party system itself (the chief pillar of consensus political order). He examines the ideological content (as opposed to the style) of the revolt for the first time, emphasizing its moral fundamentalism, and its corresponding hostility to the relativizing discourse of “secular humanism” (especially in the academy). Nevertheless, he concludes his analysis on a pathologizing note, asserting that
the far right has become a permanent fixture in the political order because the things upon which it feeds are also permanent: the chronic and ineluctable frustrations of our foreign policy, the opposition to the movement for racial equality, the discontents that come with affluence, the fevers of the culturally alienated who practice what Fritz Stern has called in another connection “the politics of cultural despair”. As a movement, the far right flourishes to a striking degree on what it has learned from the radicals (140).
Writing in 1965, Hofstadter could not conceive of the “far Right” in power. The permanent role he accords to this force is oppositional in character, and the task of coming to terms with the possibility (and the reality) of a complete reversal of the binary he constructs would be deferred to the next generation of scholars.
The 1980 presidential election was roundly interpreted as, among many other things, a dramatic refutation of the consensus school’s portrait of American political culture, particularly its inadequate understanding of Christianity’s role therein. As Robert Zwier notes, in Born-Again Politics, all three of the candidates (Carter, Reagan, and Anderson) that year courted the Christian vote. The matter becomes all the more complicated when it is recalled that Carter, the first president of the twentieth century to self-identify as a born-again Christian, and an opponent of the New Right movement, may have played a larger role than anyone in refocusing the major parties’ attention upon the large numbers of evangelical Christians that had, historically, abstained from the political process. Zwier contends that
by wearing proudly the label of a deeply religious man, Carter was able to attract voters who were looking for an end to the era of Watergate and corruption at the highest levels of government. Candidate Carter drew attention to his religious convictions and argued that these beliefs would influence his behavior in the Oval Office…when the votes were counted and analyzed, it was clear that Carter had captured strong evangelical support (29).
This was an extremely significant event, because it convinced many prominent figures on the religious Right, such as Jerry Falwell and the other leaders of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, that the future of their movement lay not so much in converting the existing electorate to their point of view, but in “getting out the vote”. For Zwier, Falwell himself exemplifies the shift in evangelical consciousness–from withdrawal from a sinful world to active engagement in the project of restoring the “City on a hill”–which occurred during this period (39).
Carter’s failure to address the concerns of his newly-politicized evangelical constituents–chiefly the “moral drift” of American society, as demonstrated, most notably, in their eyes, by the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion and changing gender roles–played directly into the hands of the New Right, and its chosen vehicle, the Republican party. Zwier’s chapter on the election itself demonstrates, quite conclusively, through the use of statistics, that the Right was extremely successful in winning over these erstwhile Carter-supporters (71-82). This was a decisive factor in the “Republicanization” of the South, a region which consensus ideologues had largely ignored, thanks to its long period under the tutelage of the Democratic party.
Given this “re-christianization” of the American electorate, and the ascendancy of a morality-centered discourse over the class(“interest”)-based give-and-take of the New Deal order, it was perhaps to be expected that scholars would recast the Christian Right as a movement with an historical pedigree and a positive agenda, rather than merely a vehicle for the expression of paranoid discontent. Randall Balmer’s Blessed Assurance, which stresses the continuities between contemporary and seventeenth-century jeremiads, is one of the many books to take this approach. This book surveys many of the same peculiarities that Hofstadter had taken note of (the war against a vast conspiracy; history as a tale told by the devil, which the Godly must bring to a conclusion; foreign policy imbroglios as punishments for moral lassitude), but sees them as rooted in theology rather than sickness.
Balmer is a great deal more interested than Hofstadter had been in the specific targets of Christian Right invective:
For politically conservative evangelicals in America, the world of the late twentieth century is replete with dangers. The most striking characteristic of the demonology I have just described–evolution, abortion, homosexuality, television, the eclipse of “family values”–is its diversity. Thirty or forty years ago, most politically conservative American evangelicals could trace the world’s ills to a single source–liberalism, or more specifically, Communism… If only what Ronald Reagan would call the evil empire could be vanquished, then righteousness and Christianity and American probity–the three being virtually indistinguishable–could flourish (95).
Balmer attributes the Right’s somewhat diminished political fortunes in the 1990s to the lack of a viable sparring partner, in the wake of a dualism-sapping “victory” over communism. This situation, he contends, “forced [the Religious Right] to focus upon the enemy within. One might say that the collapse of the Soviet Union transformed the Cold War into a culture war” (98). This is an odd claim, given that the shift toward an assault upon domestic moral dry-rot and “secular humanism” is generally taken to have been one of the keys to the political strategy that paved the way to Reagan’s victory at the polls in 1980. In fact, scholars have argued that over-reliance upon anti-communist rhetoric was an inhibiting factor in the development of an effective New Right coalition.
This is one of the driving insights of Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors, a book which examines the worldview and tactics of the grass roots conservative activists who helped to reshape the Republican party’s agenda in the post-Eisenhower era. According to McGirr, the limited appeal of Senator McCarthy’s and John Birch Society founder Robert Welch’s “hard anti-communism”, in addition to the glass-ceilinged success of the Goldwater campaign in 1964, taught these ideologues a lesson that Hofstadter understood quite well–i.e. if any consensus truly existed in Cold War America, it was the certainty that international communism must be opposed in some fashion. The key to overturning the New Deal order lay in discovering a more efficient constellation of wedge issues that could be used to break the Democratic party’s stranglehold upon the electorate. The explosion of campus radicalism and the “new permissiveness” upon the national stage furnished these ideologues with a perfect opportunity to do just that.
McGirr tells her story against the historiographical backdrop of the “white backlash thesis”–as propounded by scholars such as Jonathan Rieder (“The Rise of The Silent Majority”, in Rise & Fall of New Deal Order, 243-268)–which held that the liberal consensus was eroded by populist revulsion against the government’s failure to convert the power it had arrogated to itself into tangible results. McGirr does not dispute the fact that “white backlash” (in the “Solid South” and amongst “white ethnic” northerners) had something to do with the reversal of political fortunes in the 1980s. However, she does contend that a far more proactive group of middle-class populists, primarily based in the suburbs of the “sunbelt”, were responsible for setting the agenda of the party that would reap the benefit of this whirlwind. Her book examines the process by which these Orange Countians nationalized their concerns, and her most interesting contribution to the literature on this period may be the shift in focus away from the Goldwater campaign toward Ronald Reagan’s successful California gubernatorial run in 1966.
McGirr also problematizes Hofstadter’s “interest politics”/”status politics” binary by blurring the distinction between the two terms. She argues that
the strong emphasis on a market order combined with social conservative values that celebrated family values, morality and religion validated conservatives’ own lives and success, provided an explanation for their discontents, and gave them a strong sense of cohesion and community. They were thus able to avoid examining the internal contradictions within their ideology, the ambivalence and the tensions between a strong embrace of the free market order and the way n which free markets often assaulted family, community, and neighborhood norms (162-163).
Is this status politics or interest politics? Hofstadter would undoubtedly see it as the former, and there certainly are psychological factors involved in furthering the process, but there can be little doubt that an America with a suburban self-image also redounded to the benefit (i.e. economic self-interest) of these white middle-class activists. The seemingly impossible alliance between libertarians and moral authoritarians comes into focus when it is remembered that both groups had (and have) an important stake in maintaining their inherited economic privileges. This argument also exposes the flaws in Hofstadter’s “pseudo-conservative” thesis, demonstrating that, while it is undoubtedly true that the American Right has exhibited very little of the reverence for government typical of conservatism in other countries, its aims are, nevertheless, consolidatory in nature. The elements of the New Right coalition have more to fear from an interfering, social-justice minded federal government than from each other.
D.G. Hart’s That Old-Time Religion in Modern America takes up the challenge of discovering an even deeper harmony between the proponents of a dynamic capitalist order and moral stasis than the powerful argument from economic self-interest. Hart contends that the contradiction between religious fundamentalism and material progress which structures McGirr’s suburban narrative is, in fact, no contradiction at all–or, at the very least, that it is a contradiction which has been built into Protestant theology from its inception. He approaches the problem through the lens of evangelicalism’s relationship to popular culture in contemporary America:
On moral issues they seek to reflect biblical ethics in the nation’s laws; on domestic and international issues evangelicals vote overwhelmingly for candidates who advocate free markets and a strong national defense. On the other hand, evangelicals have become one of the largest markets in the United States’ already crowded entertainment industry. Christian contemporary music alone accounts for $747 million in annual sales, a figure which means that seven evangelical CDs are sold for every ten country music disks (202).
Hart parallels Protestant sectarian verve with the entrepreneurial ethos and the proselytizing spirit with modern marketing strategies in order to support his claim that “traditionalist Protestantism” is, in effect, an oxymoron. God rewards his Elect with material success and expects them to resist its attendant temptations.
Protestant affinities for new media and technologies have been a part of the movement’s history from its beginnings, with the advent of the printing press. The evangelized Christian’s challenge is to plunge into the world of work and popular culture without becoming corrupted by it. The late twentieth century can be seen as a period, somewhat akin to the 1830s and 1840s, during which these figures have endeavored to go beyond even that lofty goal–by re-sacralizing the state and everything within its boundaries. In its purest form, capitalism–with its vertiginous logic of endless process–fairly necessitates a fundamentalist moral base in order to keep the mechanism from running amok.
Many scholars have striven to account for the New Right’s startling trajectory from the periphery to the center of American discourse in the past fifty years. The incipient movement played an important role, as a negative example, in the Consensus School’s attempt to define “mainstream American thought”. History itself refuted the assumptions which undergirded this project, and the succeeding generations have had no choice but to examine the triumphant New Right from a different perspective. Their investigations have yielded a portrait of American political culture that is, in many ways, the negative image of that which was presented by the consensus school. The centrist New Deal order celebrated by the likes of Hofstadter has given way to a “status-based” political discourse that has served the economic interests of much-derided “pseudo-conservatives” perfectly. The question which now preoccupies scholars of the New Right is not whether it is an aberrant phenomenon on the American scene, but whether the movement’s internal contradictions threaten to derail it, or are, in fact, the fuel that keeps it running at a full head of steam.
Balmer, Randall. Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelism in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
Bromley, David G. and Anson Shupe, eds. New Christian Politics. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1984.
Conzen, Kathleen Neils, Harry S. Stout, E. Brooks Holifield, Michael Zuckerman. “Forum: The Place of Religion in urban and Community Studies.” Religion and American Culture, Vol. 6, No. 2. (Summer, 1996), 107-129.
Fraser, Steve and Gary Gerstle, eds. The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.
Hart, D.G. That Old-Time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1965.
McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton: Princeton UP: 2001.
Stout, Harry S. and D.G. Hart, eds. New Directions in American Religious History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
Zwier, Robert. Born-Again Politics. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1982.