Professor’s Book Charts Rise of Conservatism in American Politics

Professor’s Book Charts Rise of Conservatism in American Politics

In his new book, College of Charleston assistant professor of communication Michael Lee examines some of the most influential books on the development of conservative political thought in post-World War II America.

“Creating Conservatism: Postwar Words that Made an American Movement,” is set to published by Michigan State University Press on Aug. 1, 2014. The book is available on Amazon.

Michael Lee

Michael Lee

Lee wrote the initial drafts of the book as part of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Minnesota. But it took him eight years to complete the book because of both the complexity of the topic and the long period of time it covers, he says.

Another challenge was that his topic was a moving target, as conservative politics have continued to evolve in recent years. For example, Lee says that the conservatism that was popular after 9/11 and during most of the George W. Bush years is very different than the Tea Party conservatism of the Obama years.

Lee, who began teaching in the College’s Department of Communication in 2008, recently answered a few questions about his book and shared his thoughts on the evolution of conservative thought and how it might play out in the 2016 Presidential election cycle.

Q: If you had to pick just three of the most influential books on the development of conservative political thought, what would they be?

A: While my book establishes the long-term political influence that a small set of post-World War II books had on conservatives in the United States, a few of these books stand out from the rest in the ways that conservatives have revered them:

  • “Witness,” Whittaker Chambers’ morose autobiography, has been called a “bible” to generations of conservatives more times than I can count.  Many prominent conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, could quote lines from Chambers’ somber book from memory.
  • “The Road to Serfdom,” Friedrich Hayek’s short, readable argument that economic freedom is an essential component of political freedom, also belongs on this short list. Although Hayek never called himself a conservative, his work initially provided conservatives with a way to frame free markets and minimally regulated capitalism as a public good.  More recently, Hayek’s work has experienced a significant revival with conservatives ranging from Tea Party advocates, to Rush Limbaugh, to Glenn Beck singing Hayek’s praises.
  • Finally, Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind,” a voluminous history of the conservative philosophical tradition in America, was perhaps the book most responsible for naming the conservative movement in the 1950s.  Although Kirk’s book is doorstop thick, the author clearly outlines how six conservative principles have been evident in the writings of several famous American political theorists and philosophers. Kirk gave upstart conservatives both an identity and a philosophical tradition.

Q: Who are some of the high-profile political figures in contemporary American politics carrying forward the teachings and philosophies of the books you examined?

President Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan

A: Beyond Reagan, who consumed many of the canonical texts quite studiously, praising canonical texts in awed terms became a frequently invoked rite of conservatism among Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Mitch Daniels, Mark Sanford, Paul Ryan, William Kristol, Grover Norquist, and numerous other conservative pundits, activists, writers, and movement insiders.

Republican presidential candidates, including Michelle Bachmann, Fred Thompson, Pat Buchanan, and others, dropped the names of canonical authors on the campaign trail. To put it flatly, since these books retain their popularity and so many prominent conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation continue to promote these books, I would be surprised if a major Republican candidate was not familiar with at least some of these books.

Read how one College of Charleston alumnus got a front-row seat to the 2012 Presidential election.

Q: You’ve said that the books you examined are remarkable not only because they articulate a range of conservative political positions but also because they serve as instruction manuals for arguing such positions. Can you explain this?

A: Conservatism’s founding books were, in essence, debate handbooks, displays of a style of verbal combat that became essential to the public performance of the conservative political language. Although each book has been a hallowed gateway to conservatism, these gateways have not led conservative readers to the same place. Rather than follow one strain of conservatism, I take an expansive approach to document the wide influence of this conservative canon on traditionalist and libertarian conservatives. Traditionalist conservatives generally believe that government should be based on one moral truth. Libertarians, on the other hand, generally hope that each individual can find their own truths, what works for them. These two groups of conservatives have been in competition, sometimes heated, over the meaning of conservatism since World War II.  Ultimately, all conservatives, both libertarian and traditionalist and otherwise, have turned to canonical works as guidebooks so consistently in periods of triumph, defeat, stability, and division that the canon resembles the dynamic force of the Bible among Christians, an anchor for communal identity and a wellspring of interpretive disagreement simultaneously.

Creating-Conservatism-cover-embedQ: Political polarization in America is as high as it has been in decades. Does your book shed any light on why the country has become so divided along political lines?

A: Absolutely.  Before Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, and a few other writers claimed the mantle of conservatism in the early 1950s, the word “conservative” was not popularly used in the U.S. Before World War II, rhetorical and ideological traditions like classical liberalism offered philosophical guidance to unorganized advocates on the right. There was not, however, any stable body of doctrines organized under a consistent political label; there was no cohesion. So, in the decades since, the conservative movement’s success at becoming both varied and cohesive has allowed the American right to offer a more substantial counter-balance to the left. And, as Republicans are far more likely now than in previous decades to identify as “conservative” or “very conservative,” the right’s leadership is still guided by these sacred texts.

Q: How do you see this divide playing out in the 2016 Presidential election and beyond?

A: By my reading, the Electoral College demographics do not favor conservative Republicans in presidential elections. Some pundits have gone as far as to say that conservatism as we know it is on the way out. I think this fundamentally understates conservatism’s history of flexibility and rejuvenation. My sense is that conservatives, whether reviving a more viable social conservative language or finding a new tone for their small-government economic populism, will find candidates that can compete and win. So while I don’t expect a Republican to win the White House in 2016 (or even 2020), I do expect Republicans to succeed, and perhaps succeed greatly, in Congressional races. All that said, conservatives have bounced back to prove prognosticators like me wrong before.