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“Break On Through (to the Other Side)”: An Overview of The Historiography of U.S. Conservatism in the Sixties

Par Aurélie Godet : Maître de conférences - Université Michel de Montaigne - Bordeaux 3
Publié par Clifford Armion le 30/04/2012

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Since the 1990s, a new generation of American historians has been exploring the “other,” counter-countercultural side of the 1960s, focusing on either the higher echelons of conservative power, the work of conservative militants at the grassroots, or on the ideas of specific conservative thinkers. This article aims to review some of the existing literature, while providing insight into what a comprehensive history of the conservative sixties should also include.

Introduction: The Other Side of the Sixties

When people think of “the sixties,” they commonly associate the era with civil rights protests, with the student, antiwar, and feminist movements, and more generally with a critique of the “liberal consensus.” Two insurgent organizations are generally seen as representative of the decade: the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), which in 1960 became the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Though the importance of these two organizations cannot be underestimated, there was another side to the sixties. That side was not a mere reaction to the supposed excesses of the decade as some politicians of the 1980s and 1990s (Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, etc.) would have us believe, but a set of concrete conservative ideas that excited millions of Americans even before those supposed “excesses” occurred. Lee Edwards, a founding member of the 1960-born conservative organization called Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), remembers that other side very clearly:

For me, as for most young conservatives, the ‘60s were the decade not of John F. Kennedy but Barry M. Goldwater, not Students for a Democratic Society but Young Americans for Freedom, not The New Republic but National Review, […] not Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society but Ronald Reagan’s Creative Society, not a “meaningless” civil war in Vietnam but an important battle in the protracted conflict against Communism[1]."

Since the 1990s and the end of the so-called “Reagan revolution,” historians have finally been willing to shed their lopsided view of the 1960s as a decade of radical, left-wing movements and to consider the ideas of the conservative movement seriously. Hence a series of books with such significant titles as The Other Side of the Sixties (Andrew III), The Conservative Sixties (Farber and Roche), Turning Right in the Sixties (Brennan) or A Generation Divided: The New Left, the New Right, and the 1960s (Klatch)…

 These studies all undermine the hypothesis according to which conservatism disappeared after McCarthyism before re-emerging in the shape of a “silent majority” at the end of the 1960s. In other words, they help to demolish the supposed distance between “Old” and “New” Right. They also show that American conservatism cannot be reduced to a defence of the status quo. If the Left subverted the prevailing politics and culture in the 1960s, so did the Right.

Beyond this common message, however, the dozen books I have selected for this overview of the historiography of the conservative 1960s differ in their methodology and scope[2]. While some of them – using official documents stored in presidential libraries, newspaper reports, or personal files belonging to key actors – concentrate on the higher echelons of conservative power and electoral politics, others focus on conservatism at the grassroots – using interviews of conservative militants or local archives. Yet others are studies of conservative thinkers who have articulated the formal strategy and concerns of the conservative movement and thus laid the groundwork for electoral success.

After carefully reviewing each of them in turn, I will argue that, thoroughly valuable as they are individually, these books fail to produce a comprehensive narrative of conservatism in the sixties and that a focus on conservative economic ideas and think tanks is necessary to bring the three tiers of our classification together.

1. The Higher Echelons of Conservative Power

As far as national politics is concerned, the most spectacular conservative event in the 1960s undoubtedly was Barry Goldwater’s bid for the presidency in 1964. On that subject, journalist Rick Perlstein has written a lengthy book that garnered excellent reviews from both right-wing and left-wing journalists when it came out in 2001[3].

1.1 Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, by Rick Perlstein (2001)

Despite its full title, Before the Storm is not exactly a biography of Barry Goldwater: its ambition is to tell the whole story of the rise of the conservative movement in the 1960s, how it captured the Republican Party and ultimately transformed the Democrats’ “solid south” into a Republican bastion. It also aims at showing that Goldwater’s crushing defeat in November 1964 nonetheless laid the foundations for later victories, including the capture of the White House by a series of Sun Belt Republicans.

In this narrative, characters like Clifton White, William Buckley, and Ronald Reagan are as well developed as Goldwater himself. Perlstein thus underlines that while Goldwater was the front man for the movement, he hardly was its catalyst.

The first two parts of the book tell two intertwined stories:

  • The first one is the rise of the conservative movement from something that was really marginal in American politics in the 1950s to a movement that had basically taken over its own political party, the Republicans, by 1964.
  • The other braid in the argument is how America changed in the process, from a country dominated by consensus – or what at least prominent people believed was consensus[4] –, to one that is divided against itself. This story ends with Kennedy’s assassination, which, Perlstein explains, changed everything in politics.

The last two parts of the book are devoted to a blow-by-blow account of the Republican primaries, the Republican national convention in San Francisco – at which Goldwater won a surprise nomination – and the 1964 presidential election, in which Johnson literally trounced him.
Perlstein does a good job at demonstrating why Goldwater wasn’t a good candidate:

  • His straightforward rhetorical style made him look like an extremist, especially on foreign policy. Though he was a good speaker to conservatives, he never managed to articulate the conservative message to a general audience. Therefore, Johnson managed to make him look like a war-monger, even as he himself was preparing a full-scale war in Vietnam, and to turn the 1964 race into a referendum on nuclear policy.
  • What’s more, Goldwater remained a reluctant leader of the conservative movement, so reluctant that the team who orchestrated his nomination kept their plans secret from him for many months. After the 1960 Republican convention, which marked his emergence as standard-bearer of the conservative movement, Goldwater did little to help organize the movement or turn its ideals into legislation.
  • Goldwater relied on his own cronies instead of seasoned professionals. Once the nomination was secured, Goldwater turned from Clifton White, whom he felt was using him for purposes more his own than his, to the “Arizona mafia” headed by Denison Kitchel to run the campaign. That was a huge tactical error, as Goldwater later admitted in his autobiography.

Other factors, of course, were involved in Goldwater’s defeat, including:

  • A hostile press.
  • A particularly difficult context. The circumstances of the Kennedy assassination (which was exploited by the press and the Democrats to discredit “Right-Wing Extremism”) created a climate in which the Goldwater experiment could only fail. The electorate was, as Perlstein says, “martyr-besotted.”

Perlstein ends his story just after election day – which is a shame – and leaves it to the reader to find the connection of Goldwater campaign’s to more recent events. What he implies is, of course, that the message of Goldwater – smaller government, individualism, and duty to the strict interpretation of the Constitution – stuck, ready to be taken up by better orators with similar policy ideas.

The story of how the conservative wing of the GOP methodically, and somewhat surreptitiously, became a dominant force in national politics by gaining control of the Republican Party was well worth a book in itself. That book now exists thanks to Mary Brennan, a professor of history at Texas State University.

1.2 Turning Right in the Sixties, by Mary Brennan (1995)

Turning Right in the Sixties chronicles the conservative capture of the Republican Party from 1960 to 1968. In doing so, it effectively addresses one of the central questions in modern American politics: how conservatism transformed itself from an obscure fringe movement into one of the most powerful political forces in the country.

The book begins in the 1950s, when the Republican Party was dominated by moderates such as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Vice President Richard Nixon, and President Dwight Eisenhower. Conservatives, who at the time were a minority in the party, felt that their beliefs were not represented and decided to join or start numerous organizations outside of their party to articulate their views. The most well-known of these was the John Birch Society, a controversial organization that was strongly anti-communist and advocated extreme conspiracy theories.

In the 1960 presidential election, conservatives tried to exert their growing influence by attempting to get Barry Goldwater named as Richard Nixon’s vice-presidential nominee. The spot on the ticket went to Henry Cabot Lodge instead, but conservatives continued their grassroots efforts, and were able to nominate Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. In this election, conservatives had several major problems that ensured a victory to President Lyndon Johnson. One of them was that Goldwater’s staff and his key supporters were generally inexperienced. Another was that Goldwater’s rhetoric made it easy for Johnson to paint him as an extremist who was out of touch with mainstream America.

In spite of their defeat in 1964, conservatives continued to push the party towards the right. When Richard Nixon was again nominated, and this time elected, in 1968, he knew that he could no longer ignore the conservative wing of the party. Twelve years later the conservatives’ goals were finally recognized, as they were able to elect conservative Ronald Reagan to the White House.

Much of this is well known, but Brennan recounts it cogently. What she adds to our understanding is how conservatives transformed themselves into successful political organizers. One can merely regret that she does not put more emphasis on the role of conservative youth organizations such as Young Republicans or Young Americans for Freedom, which were instrumental in Goldwater’s nomination in 1964. Fortunately, this shortcoming is remedied by John Andrew’s excellent book called The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans For Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics.

With this book, we enter the field of “organizational” studies, which can either be described as a category of grassroots social history (since organizations usually recruit members locally) or as a category of “national” political studies (since political organizations usually try to exert influence at the highest level).

1.3 The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans For Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics, by John A. Andrews III (1997)

What is most original about The Other Side of the Sixties is that its author does not hesitate to acknowledge the “radical” character of conservative organizations like YAF. Like SDS and SNCC, Andrew writes, YAF “challenged the status quo [...] and [...] believed that the path of change lay through grass-roots organization and activism.” Also like SDS and SNCC – albeit from a right-wing perspective – YAF “emerged to offer an ideological and structural critique of the reigning liberalism.”

The brainchild of William F. Buckley Jr. and a few other prominent conservatives (including National Review publisher William Rusher, conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans, and Republican fundraiser Marvin Leibman), YAF was designed to combat the bland, centrist, “modern Republicanism” of Eisenhower, Rockefeller, and even Nixon. Specifically, Andrew writes, it “sought to place conservatives in control of the Republican Party, and to inject conservative politics into the mainstream of American political life.” The group officially came into existence in late 1960, after Buckley invited more than 100 boys and girls he considered “outstanding youth leaders” to a meeting at his estate in Sharon, Connecticut.

Two years before SDS's famous “Port Huron Statement,” YAF came out with its own angry manifesto, the “Sharon Statement.” Largely written by M. Stanton Evans, it was pitched to young idealists who saw danger in creeping governmental centralization. “Foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of […] free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force,” Evans wrote. At the same time, the statement invoked Cold War containment politics that suggested national interests could be placed ahead of individual rights (“The forces of international Communism are, at present, the single greatest threat to these liberties […]. The United States should stress victory over, rather than coexistence with, this menace”). As Andrew notes, this mix of individual liberty and collective response was not particularly stable and would in fact lead to significant splits within the organization[5]. But he also notes that “more than anything else [...] their anticommunism bound them together and made possible agreement despite the conflicting strains of conservative thought.”

The Other Side of the Sixties then details YAF's activities during the early 1960s, especially its significant contribution to Goldwater's nomination. Members testified before Congress, published essays and op-eds excoriating every manifestation of liberalism, proselytized on college campuses, and pulled the GOP rightwards by lobbying for hard-core conservative candidates and issues. Dues-paying membership probably peaked around 30,000 in 1964 and YAF was considered important – and subversive – enough to be kept under close watch by the federal government. But, Andrew argues persuasively, the group's real contribution cannot be measured in numbers. Indeed, although never able to transform electoral politics during the period, YAF provided a training ground for people who would later become influential in conservative politics, including fundraiser Richard Viguerie, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, and Moral Majority and Conservative Caucus co-founder Howard Phillips.

If The Other Side of The Sixties has a significant failing, it is that the book – much like Perlstein’s Before the Storm – basically stops with the electoral blowout of Barry Goldwater. While this authorial decision is understandable (there is no central manuscript archive for either YAF, hence the archival limitations), it means that the rest of the story of YAF in the 1960s is not told. Fortunately, some elements of it can be found in Rebecca Klatch’s A Generation Divided: The New Left, The New Right, and the 1960s.

2. Conservatism at the Grassroots

2.1 A Generation Divided: The New Left, The New Right, and the 1960's, by Rebecca Klatch (1999)

In her book, Klatch, who is a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, brings an interesting perspective to the 1960s by interviewing and contrasting YAF and SDS members then tracing their personal histories up through the late 1990s.

Klatch’s work was actually inspired by Karl Mannheim’s essay “The Problem of Generations,” in which the great sociologist argues that within people of the same age group, there exist separate and even antagonistic generation-units, which form a dynamic relationship of tension. In other words, people can live through the same events and interpret them in radically different ways. Klatch applied Mannheim's model to those who came of age in the ‘60s, interviewing 74 veterans of SDS and YAF.

Though the book contains a lot of the life stories you would expect (SDSers who became professors or therapists, YAFers who took a direct route to DC jobs), the lesson drawn by Klatch is that organizations like SDS and YAF were far less homogenous than they seemed. The difficulties experienced by YAF after 1964 (which is where John Andrew’s book stopped) are especially well described by the interviewees. It seems that by the late 1960s, the ideological divisions in YAF between conservatives and libertarians could no longer be masked by an overriding commitment to anti-communism. The Vietnam War actually split the organization. Conservatives felt the Cold War legitimized conscription; libertarians saw the draft as slavery.

 At the 1969 YAF convention in St. Louis, a heated debate broke out over the group’s position on the draft. Conservatives eventually agreed to call for the replacement of a conscripted force with a voluntary one. When YAF’s Libertarian Caucus pushed for a resolution advocating draft resistance as a legitimate form of civil disobedience, conservatives refused. When a member of the Anarchist Caucus denounced the war as an imperialist adventure and burned his draft card, all hell broke loose. The convention evolved into a shouting match between conservatives and libertarians. The latter were derided as “lazy fairies” and essentially run out of the organization. Following this purge, some of them joined SDS, with whom they shared a celebration of individual liberty. This new alliance shows that “left” and “right” were not monolithic in the sixties. We get an impression of young people trying out ideas without much regard for rigid categories.

Though very thoughtful and well-written, Klatch’s study of the conservative milieu faces tough competition from two other books: The Conservative Sixties, edited by David Farber and Jeff Roche, and Suburban Warriors, by Lisa McGirr. These truly rely on a grassroots historical approach.

2.2 The Conservative Sixties, edited by Jeff Roche and David Faber (2005)

In their introduction, Farber and Roche argue that while historians have taken up the challenge of writing the history of American conservatism, they have done so in a limited way. Specifically, they assert that historians have been too focused on what they call “overview” and “organizational” studies. This, according to the editors, has led to a historical neglect of “studies of the conservative movement at the grass roots.” Thus, the essays chosen for the book are designed to remedy this perceived lack of attention. Through this focus on everyday conservative activists, the editors argue that a clear narrowing between the “Old” and “New” Right can be seen – with a focus on the 1960s revealing “a clear continuity in conservative philosophy."[6]. Moreover, by establishing this continuity through the various essays, the editors argue that there was no real fragmentation of the conservative movement. Rather, “anticommunism, extremism, Goldwaterism, Reagan Democracy, religious fundamentalism, and ‘law and order’” merely became the various ways activists developed at the local level “to communicate a deep-rooted set of beliefs”.

Michelle Nickerson, in her examination of conservative women's grassroots activism in California, argues that these women did not fit the stereotype of the apolitical fifties and sixties housewife. Rather, they made up the activist base for many conservative campaigns, including Barry Goldwater’s. The 1960s conservative housewives’ political power came not only from their status as “moral mothers” but also from their respected position as “experts by virtue of their intense study.” Here, Nickerson persuasively challenges Elaine Tyler May’s view of the fifties “politics of expertise” as one which undermined political action by grassroots activists.

Likewise, the essay by Donald Critchlow on the early career of Phyllis Schlafly (pre-ERA opposition) shows how it was her education and expertise, as much as her position as wife and mother, which allowed her to lecture across the country on issues ranging from education to defence policy. The books she authored were devoured by grassroots conservative activists, who used them to develop their own political philosophies. Taken together, the essays by Critchlow and Nickerson not only re-frame how historians should view conservative activism in the sixties, but also how we should view women's activism during that same period.

Focusing on these two essays should not detract from the other fine pieces in this volume. Specifically, the remaining essays could all be employed in classes on the conservative resurgence. David Farber's essay will help students see the commonalities among political activists on the left and right during the sixties. Jonathan Schoenwald’s and Evelyn Schlatter’s essays on the more “extreme” elements on the political right (the John Birch Society, the Minutemen) will introduce readers to facets of the conservative movement that modern conservatives like to obscure. The essay by Kurt Schuparra provides a concise look into Ronald Reagan's early career. Finally, the essay by Michael Flamm is excellent in detailing the use of “law and order” as an organizing issue for local activists.

 Taken together, these studies add greatly to our understanding of conservatism in the sixties. They also confirm the hypothesis advanced by Lisa McGirr in 2001: that conservatives were motivated not by status anxiety, but by ideological concerns that were rational and coherent, if not always logically consistent.

2.3 Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, by Lisa McGirr (2001)

One of the most important books in the recent wave of scholarship on the rise of the New Right in the 1960s, Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors focuses on the conservative stronghold of Orange County, California, in an attempt to understand the social and economic reasons for its fervent embrace of Goldwater-Reagan republicanism. As such, Warriors “seeks to illuminate the world of the men and women who rejected the liberal vision and instead championed individual economic freedom and a staunch social conservatism. In short, then, this book explores the Right as a social movement.”

McGirr traces two conservative influences at work in the formation of Orange County, despite the federal largesse required first to develop and later to maintain the region. First, the early influence of conservative Protestantism had given Orange County a reputation for a strict, individualistic moralism even by the turn of the century. Second, the defence boom of WWII encouraged the influx of culturally conservative, anti-government speculators and defence contractors.

All this tinderbox of cultural conservatism required was a spark to set it alight. That spark was anticommunism. Anticommunist organizations ranged from anti-ACLU school board gatherings to the John Birch Society, and were led primarily by recent immigrants to the area, who shared “not only relative wealth but also the experience of social mobility that affirmed their faith in the possibility of individual achievement”. These organizations formed the skeletal structure of what would later become the Goldwater grassroots in Orange County.

The experience of the Goldwater campaign proved a double-edged sword for Orange County conservatives. On the one hand, it propelled them onto the national arena. On the other, the landslide victory of Johnson in 1964 seemed a convincing repudiation of conservatism on the national level. Despite this setback, Goldwater's army soon found a more capable standard-bearer in Ronald Reagan and vaulted him to the governorship of California in 1966.

As demographic trends (such as the rise of the Sunbelt) coincided with the difficulties of liberalism (most notably with regard to civil rights and Vietnam), the conservative movement shifted anew. Anticommunism faded into the background and single-issue movements – against pornography, sex education, abortion – came to the fore. In addition, fuelled by “a middle-class counterrevolution against 1960s ‘permissiveness’,” evangelical Christianity gained a wealth of new converts in the late 60s and 70s. This new conservative message worked to propel Ronald Reagan once again, this time into the presidency. After only twenty years of organizing, the Right’s moment had come. In conclusion, McGirr discovers that, despite the prevailing elite notions that conservatism is antimodern and that the spread of education and modernization should have further marginalized it, conservative forces have instead flourished, and especially in areas considered the least conducive to them (until the 1970s at least): suburban regions...

2.4 From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, by Dan T. Carter (1996)

Until the 1990s, the role of race in the emergence of the New Right had not been given much attention. Fortunately, historians like Thomas and Mary Edsall, Thomas Sugrue and Dan T. Carter have made it a central focus of their research.

The question of racial justice organized much of the formal domestic political fireworks in the 1960s. It played out most spectacularly in regard to political jurisdiction with white southerners. However, by the late 1960s, outspoken whites in communities in all regions had become bitterly opposed to the idea that the federal government had the right both to set the standard of racial justice and to intervene in Americans’ neighbourhood schools, union locales, places of business, and housing choices.

During the 1968 presidential race, Alabama governor George Wallace most successfully blended traditional southern states’ rights rhetoric with a principled-sounding conservative defence of local political self-determination. He insisted – against all prior evidence – that he did not intend to push for racial segregation and never acknowledged that many whites’ anger at big government was not driven by abstract political philosophy but by their government’s decision – via the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent legislation – to make racial discrimination in unemployment, public accommodations, and housing a federal crime.

The major conservative political leader of the early 1960s, Barry Goldwater, reorganized the electoral efficacy of this equation of conservatism with the individual right to be a racist employer, a racist businessman, or a racist property owner, even as Goldwater was, personally, not a racist.

At the grassroots in the sixties, multitudes of northern urban whites started to fight against what they perceived as African-American incursions into their communities. They made it clear to local politicians and to black urban migrants that they meant to preserve their neighbourhoods as whites-only communities. Driven by the older dream of local control and local standards based on culturally authentic, traditional values, by the late 1960s the New Right was born.

3. The Ideas of Conservatism

Grassroots studies are essential to our understanding of the conservatism of the sixties. But it is at least as important to look at the ideas of the movement. After all, intellectuals are the ones who have articulated the formal strategy and concerns of the conservative movement and thus laid the groundwork for electoral success.

Few syntheses of conservative ideas exist, apart from George Nash’s famous Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, first published in 1976. It seems that historians prefer to focus on the ideas of one particular conservative thinker, whom they deem representative or, on the contrary, unique.

The biographical approach, though less ambitious in scope, is an excellent way of looking at the conservative movement in America. Indeed, it allows the historian to trace the origins of conservative ideas in the conservatives’ personal lives, encounters, and reactions to particular events. There is of course no genetic predisposition to conservatism. The conservative impulse comes from the social challenge before the theorist, rather than the intellectual tradition behind him. Each individual statement of the conservative position comes, therefore, from personal experience.

What is more, the biographical approach to conservatism permits to destroy any illusion of homogeneity that the conservative movement or its enemies might cherish and/or foster. The history of US conservatism is a history of tensions, conflicts, clashes between strong personalities, and the biographical genre undeniably is the most convenient to tell such a story.

 Since 1999, several biographies of conservative intellectuals have been published, among whom John B. Judis’s biography of William Buckley, James Person’s biography of Russell Kirk, Kevin Smant’s biography of Frank Meyer, Daniel Kelly’s biography of James Burnham, and Jennifer Burns’s biography of Ayn Rand. What all these biographies have in common is their emphasis on the sixties as a defining moment in their characters’ lives. Indeed, it was the decade when conservative intellectuals came together and tried to produce a creative fusion of their ideas.

 In the 1950s, American conservative intellectuals were deeply divided between three main schools of thought. There were, first of all, the “traditionalists,” men like Peter Viereck and Russell Kirk, who were shocked by what they saw as a rootless mass society around them. Then, there was a second tribe of conservatives, the “libertarians,” who emphasized not order but freedom as their supreme value. Finally, there were the anticommunists like James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers, who did not disagree with the others on ideas as much as on priorities.

 In the early 1960s, the idea that it was high time for conservatives to see whether they could resolve the contradictions that divided them gained ground rapidly. The critical people in this negotiation were William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review, and Frank S. Meyer. In his 1962 article “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism,” Meyer began to plait together the strands of libertarian and traditional conservatism by writing that “the belief in virtue as the end of man’s being implicitly recognizes the necessity of freedom to choose that end.” What he meant was that freedom may be the goal in the political realm; but in the moral realm, freedom is only a means to a proper end, “which is virtue.”

To demonstrate that his “fusionist” synthesis was not a fantasy, Meyer edited an entire anthology, What Is Conservatism?, in 1964, with both sides contributing essays. In an optimistic conclusion, Meyer claimed to discern a true consensus within the conservative intellectual community. First, all of the contributors believed in “an objective moral order” of “immutable standards by which human conduct should be judged.” Second, they unanimously opposed liberal attempts to use the State “to enforce ideological patterns on human beings.” They were deeply suspicious of “planning” and attempts to centralize power. Third, they joined in defence of the Constitution “as originally conceived” and shared an aversion to the “messianic” Communist threat to “Western civilization.”

In the following years, fusionism received fire from various intellectuals (Wilmoore Kendall, Brent Bozell, Buckley’s brother-in-law). And yet, rather surprisingly, by 1966 the tumult began to subside. Three factors account for this success. First, many conservatives adopted fusionism because, one suspects, they wanted to. They wanted to believe that they had found a base in principle. Second, fusionism was immensely assisted by the cement of anti-Communism. Finally, when conservatives turned away from rarefied theoretical disputes about theology or historical genealogy and considered the day-to-day conservatism, they often found that it was not so difficult to identify what they stood for after all.

 Fusionism brought into existence a new American conservative consensus. And it made possible the building of new conservative political institutions, in particular ones that could attract a new generation of educated young conservatives. What is more, it released the energies of the conservatives from intellectual dissension and debate for action in the political world. At the end of the sixties, the gap between ideas, grassroots organization, and national politics could finally be bridged.

Conclusion: what remains to be told

At the beginning of The Conservative Sixties (2003), David Farber and Jeff Roche argue that historians of modern conservatism have shunned “grassroots” studies in favour of what they term “overview” and “organizational” studies. To me, the problem with the field today is not that it is not studied at the grassroots, but that it still ignores some key happenings in the highest realms of conservative power. For instance, where is the essay in Farber and Roche’s volume about corporate elites who were planning at this time to undermine the political economy of the New Deal? What about the article on the University of Chicago’s economics department and its key role as a site of conservative intellectual formation during this period? What about the small group of wealthy conservative families who began in the sixties to pour money into a media and policy infrastructure – one which now dominates the United States? What about the American Enterprise Institute, the Mont Pelerin Society? Should not all of these be included in an account of the “conservative sixties”?

Moreover, even when essays in the volume have a chance to explore this type of business or intellectual power, they do not. For instance, Michelle Nickerson’s essay briefly mentions that a Republican running for California state educational superintendent in 1962 was funded by “oil company executives, bankers, and real estate giants” without going into detail as to their motives. They are cited in one sentence and then she goes right back to describing the motives of the rank-and-file activists. Likewise, Donald Critchlow briefly mentions the role of a right-wing think tank in changing Phyllis Schlafly’s philosophy from moderate to hard right – but again, this is only briefly mentioned and the project of the think tank is not discussed further. Thus, even when given the chance, scholars are not scrutinizing the high power of the conservative resurgence in the same way they are the grass roots.

I do not mean to suggest that this work is not being done at all (for examples of studying the history of conservative business and intellectual power, see Elizabeth A. Fones-Wolf’s Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-1960; John L. Kelley’s Bringing the Market Back In: The Political Revitalization of Market Liberalism or Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado’s No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda). But it is clearly a much smaller subset of the scholarship – especially when compared to the plethora of grassroots social histories on the rise of the right. And I am not arguing in favour of an either/or proposition towards the study of modern conservatism. Rather, I am arguing that scholars need to draw on both approaches, that which examines the grassroots and that which allows us to examine the happenings in the high echelons of power. Such a project is important not only for historical accuracy but also for those of us who are concerned about the political implications of giving the vast majority of the attention to the grassroots. Namely, by making this our focus to date we have helped reify the half-true notion that conservatives “won out” in the end because they were better organized and because their ideas were more powerful and persuasive. This focus also gives a false aura of equality to political movements on the left and right – thus implicitly denying the huge financial advantage conservatives had when organizing. Finally, by slighting the elite conservatives and their actions, we ignore the fact that it has been their economic policies that have been the most triumphant – not the social policies which tend to animate the conservative grass roots. (Thomas Frank makes this point most persuasively in What's the Matter with Kansas).

I would argue this suggests a new and important avenue of study for historians of modern conservatism – one that seeks to bring our perspective back into balance. In other words, one that gives the grassroots their due without minimizing the high reaches of conservative power organizing at the same time to create the world in which we now live.


Needless to say, the title is an ironic allusion to one of The Doors’ most popular songs, released in 1967. To Jim Morrison, “breaking through to the other side” mostly meant reaching new states of consciousness through the use of mind-altering, psychedelic drugs. To historians of conservatism in the 1960s, it has meant getting free of the numerous clichés that have distorted our vision of the 1960s in order to uncover the “counter-countercultural” side of the decade.

[1] Lee Edwards, “The Other Sixties: A Flag-Waver’s Memoir”, Policy Review 46 (Fall 1988): 58.

[2] Among the criteria that were used in the selection process were originality, perceived importance to the field, and availability.

[3] William Kristol, writing for the New York Times Book Review, and William Rusher, writing for National Review, were at least as enthusiastic as David Kennedy, who wrote on the cover that Perlstein’s book was “a must read for anyone interested in the intertwined fates of conservatism and liberalism on the politics of the last half-century.”

[4] The association of conformity with the 1950s was established and reinforced by the consensus school of historians who came to prominence in the 1950s. In American Political Tradition (New York: Knopf, 1948), Richard Hofstadter argued that American history was dominated by a set of guiding principles that included belief in private property, individualism, and capitalism. Hofstadter did not view this consensus uncritically, but many of the consensus historians who followed him (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Louis Hartz, and Daniel Boorstin) were far more celebratory. Not until the 1970s and the "bottom-up" social history of Herbert Gutman and the cultural approach of Warren Sussman did a new interpretation of the 1950s as a period filled with tensions rooted in race, class, ethnicity, and gender, emerge.

[5] The Old Right was a conservative faction in the United States that opposed both New Deal domestic programs and U.S. entry into World War I and World War II. Most of its members were business-oriented conservatives associated with the Republicans of the interwar years led by Robert Taft, but some were ex-radicals who had moved sharply to the right, like the novelist John Dos Passos; still others, like the Southern Agrarians, were traditionalists who dreamed of restoring a premodern communal society. They were called the "Old Right" to distinguish them from their New Right successors, such as Barry Goldwater, who favoured an interventionist foreign policy to battle international communism.

[6] At the 1969 YAF convention in St. Louis, for instance, a faction of rebels consisting of radical libertarians or anarchists, most of them belonging to Karl Hess IV’s Anarcho-libertarian Alliance, decided to split off from the organization entirely.


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Pour citer cette ressource :

Aurélie Godet, "“Break On Through (to the Other Side)”: An Overview of The Historiography of U.S. Conservatism in the Sixties", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), avril 2012. Consulté le 20/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/les-grands-courants-politiques/break-on-through-to-the-other-side-an-overview-of-the-historiography-of-u-s-conservatism-in-the-sixties