Tweet Thread of the Day: The Historiography of American Conservatism

Buckley and Reagan

Last weekend Politico published historian Geoffrey Kabaservice‘s piece “Liberals Don’t Know Much About Conservative History.”

Kabaservice writes:

The end-of-century victories of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, however, forced historians to realize that conservatism could no longer be dismissed as a mere road bump on the inexorable progression toward a liberal future. The result, over the past two decades, has been a veritable tsunami of historical literature on conservatism. Virtually all of these works have been written by liberals. Nonetheless, historians of this new generation consider themselves to be unbiased and even sympathetic observers of conservatism. Many believe their collective efforts have produced a profound historical understanding of conservatism as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon, and thus contributed in some measure to bringing politically opposed citizens together.

Color me skeptical. I was a graduate student at the beginning of this new wave of conservative studies and I couldn’t help but notice that it coincided with the historical profession’s purge of any scholars who could be described as Republicans or conservatives. Some of the new works on conservatism have been excellent, others awful. But nearly all reveal the pitfalls for liberals writing about a movement with which they have no personal experience. If you’re a historian who has not a single conservative colleague—and perhaps not even one conservative friend—chances are you’ll approach conservatism as anthropologists once approached tribes they considered remote, exotic, and quite possibly dangerous.

The result is that two decades’ worth of scholarship hasn’t contributed as much as one might have hoped to our understanding of conservatism, especially in the age of Trump. This is particularly true of the works that have been most popular with the broader public. That’s a shame, because historians could provide deeper answers than they have so far to the questions many citizens now wrestle with: How did our political system become so divided and dysfunctional? To what extent is the conservative movement responsible for Trump’s rise? What have been the movement’s greatest successes as well as failures, and what relevance do they have to our understanding of ourselves as a nation and a people?

Thomas Sugrue, Director of American Studies at New York University responded to Kabaservice’s piece in a very informative Twitter thread.  Graduate students and advanced undergrads interested in American conservatism should read this thread.  Here it is:

 

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