Conservatism and the Media in Historical Perspective

 

buckley

William F. Buckley interviewing Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1971 on Firing Line

 

The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondent reports are rolling in this morning!  Here is William Cossen‘s report on a fascinating session on American conservatism.  Read all of Cosseen’s posts from the AHA in Denver here.  –JF

On Friday, I attended an excellent AHA panel, “Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right.”  This panel’s four papers shed new light on a subject of continued importance, especially given last year’s presidential campaign.

The first paper, Nicole Hemmer’s “‘Hatchets with Soft-Covered Sheaths’: Conservative Publishing and the Goldwater Campaign,” examined the birth of an early 1960s trend among conservatives toward independent publishing of paperback books.  Examples of such books include Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo and John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason.  These books and similar titles were at the center of what Hemmer (the University of Virginia’s Miller Center) described as the creation of an unmediated, conservative, grassroots publishing movement.  Conservative bookstores played an important role, Hemmer argued, in serving as “alternative distribution systems” to mainstream publishers.  Why did these independent bookstores and books – which were printed in the millions – appear when they did in 1964?  Hemmer explained that many conservatives had become impatient with a GOP establishment that they felt had become too conciliatory and complacent in the face of growing liberalism.  This provided fertile ground for the rise of alternative conservative media.  “This isn’t just populism,” Hemmer argued.  “It’s populism plus.”

The second paper, Heather Hendershot’s “Firing Line: Steering Wheel and Compass of the Modern Conservative Image,” described William F. Buckley’s important role through his long-running television show Firing Line in making conservatism not only respectable but also “stylish.”  Hendershot (MIT) did a fine job weaving film clips from the show throughout her talk, reminding audience members just how entertaining and informative Buckley’s show was at its peak.  Hendershot explained that the show’s premise was to figuratively place liberals on the firing line.  Firing Line drew a diverse political audience.  Interestingly, many liberals would tune in and then walk away from the show with a deeper resolve to promote liberalism.  However, it also played a critical role in constructing the intellectual framework of the New Right.  Buckley’s urbane, witty manner, which was also evident in his magazine National Review, served, Hendershot argued, as “walking, talking proof of the insufficiency” of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style thesis.

The third paper, courtesy of my Penn State graduate school colleague Paul Matzko (congratulations on your recent graduation, Dr. Matzko!), “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” explored an early 1960s protest against and boycott of consumer items – especially Polish ham – originating in communist Eastern Europe and being sold in the United States.  This protest was led by conservative women and facilitated by religious radio broadcasters, groups often absent from general histories of the rise of the New Right.  Matzko explained that while figures like Buckley played important role in the growth of conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century, radio broadcasters may have had a far larger numerical impact in terms of audience size than Buckley’s National Review.  The rapid spread of right-wing radio stations in the 1950s and 1960s laid the organizational groundwork for the New Right alongside Buckley’s intellectual contributions to the movement, the latter of which were described in Hendershot’s paper.  This growth of conservative broadcasting, coupled with conservative women’s grassroots organizing, came together in response to President John F. Kennedy’s promotion of increased trade with communist countries.  Polish hams came under attack as almost apocalyptic symbols of an alleged communist takeover of the United States.  The ensuing boycott had a massive economic impact.  Matzko recounted a Polish embassy estimation that the protest led to a $5 million loss in trade with Poland – in just a few months in 1962 alone!  Matzko concluded that actions such as the Polish ham boycott were the “stuff” of which modern conservatism was made.  The protest, much like the independent book publishing described by Hemmer, revealed the power that hundreds of thousands of dedicated, non-establishment political figures could have in elections and in the formulation of public policy.

The panel’s final paper, Michael McVicar’s “Surveillance – Dossier – Exposé: The Infrastructure and Technique of the Anticommunist Blacklist,” provided a revealing glimpse into the nuts-and-bolts methods used by conservatives from the 1920s into the 1960s  to infiltrate, uncover, and eliminate what they perceived to be a growing communist threat in the United States, which dovetails nicely with Matzko’s paper.  McVicar (Florida State University) explained that early religious, anticommunist activists built on organizational techniques and classificatory charts pioneered by late nineteenth-century management experts to construct extensive databases that sought to connect liberal Protestants with communism and alleged communist front groups.  These archival materials have been underutilized by historians, and McVicar’s research promises to provide a more nuanced genealogy of the New Right reaching to the years immediately following the First World War.

President-elect Donald Trump’s electoral victory has clearly been on the minds of many historians attending this year’s AHA, serving as the subject of not one but two major conference sessions.  This panel on the New Right was not responding directly to the outcome of election, as it was organized much earlier than November.  Still, the speakers’ contributions to the subfield of New Right history provide many useful insights into how this political movement and its legatees have continued to thrive, and the panel itself was a model of thoughtful organization and planning that brought together four papers complementing each other exceptionally well.