The early 1950s may have been the nadir for modern American conservatism. Conservative hero Robert Taft had lost the Republican nomination for President to a more moderate candidate for the third time, many in the Republican Party had moved to accept some of the most popular New Deal programs, and a moderate, internationalist consensus had taken hold in the country. Yet, from these ashes, conservatism rose to become a potent political force — maybe the driving force — in the United States over the last half century. This seminar explores the contours of that rise, beginning with infrastructure laid and coalitions forged in the 1950s. We will see how conservatives built upon this infrastructure to overcome Barry Goldwater’s crushing 1964 defeat to elect one of their own, Ronald Reagan, president in 1980. Reagan’s presidency transformed the public philosophy and helped shape subsequent American political development. Our study of conservatism will also include the struggles that conservatives confronted in trying to enact their ideas into public policy, and the repercussions of those struggles.
We will explore conservatism’s triumphs and failures politically, as well as the cultural changes that have helped, hindered, and shaped its rise. In many ways, this class is a study in the transformation of American politics and in American culture over the last sixty-five years. Its focus is on the hows and the whys of the rise of conservatism from the low point of the early 50s to the rise of the Tea Party and Trumpism in the 2000s and 2010s. In many places, we will discover a surprisingly complex story. This complexity means that we must grapple with clashing interpretations as to why and how conservatism developed, why conservatism appealed to many Americans at various points in time, and even whether there was an agreed upon conservative vision unifying the forces pushing America rightward.
The seminar will be oriented chronologically to the degree that it is possible, spending several weeks on each decade between the 1950s and the 2010s, Yet, we will also focus on several themes and relationships throughout the class. These include the role played by certain pivotal political figures, the ideas that propelled conservatism and bound the conservative movement together, the relationship between conservatives and the Republican Party, and the tensions within the diverse Reagan coalition (which have spilled over with increasing regularity, especially during the 2010s). We will ask critical and often difficult questions involving topics such as the role of racism and bigotry in the rise of conservatism. We will also consider the big picture—is the United States really any more conservative in 2020 than it was in 1950? If not, why do many consider conservatism to have risen politically? At the end of the semester we will ponder whether some of the current conservative divisions are new, or continuations of fissures that have long existed and we will consider the big picture in American politics: are our divisions too big to foster functional governance?