David Farber

The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism

Princeton University Press 2010

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network November 5, 2010 Marshall Poe

I think that many smart people, particularly on the Left, make a really ill-considered assumption, to wit, that “Republican” means “Conservative.” I don’t mean...

I think that many smart people, particularly on the Left, make a really ill-considered assumption, to wit, that “Republican” means “Conservative.” I don’t mean lower case “c” conservative, as in wanting to maintain the status quo. Nearly all (there are important exceptions) twentieth-century Republicans were conservatives in that generic sense. Rather, I mean capital “c” conservative, that is, pro-religion, traditional family centered, militarily hawkish, arch-patriotic, Constitution protecting, States rights shielding, free enterprise loving, individual responsibility promoting, values matter Conservative. It was only in the 1980s that a goodly number of Republicans endorsed this set of beliefs.

They were believers, it’s just that they believed things that most members of the East Coast commentariat (at least before the rise of Limbaugh, et al.) did not. From the results of the recent mid-term elections in the United States, I think it’s fair to say they still don’t.

In his wonderfully written, witty, and engaging book The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism (Princeton UP, 2010), David Farber tells the story of how Conservatives took over the Republican Party and reshaped American politics. He does so using a devise that I find particularly appropriate for any story of political change, namely, through the lives of the people who founded, grew, and led the movement. Farber, who clearly believes that leadership matters a great deal in democratic politics (I couldn’t agree more), has a talent for linking biography to political history. Farber’s sketches of Robert Taft, William Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Phyllis Schlafly, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush show us the degree to which their personalities shaped the rise (and fall) of American Conservatism. Each vignette is a pleasure to read and full of enlightening and entertaining observations. And though Farber pulls no punches (he does not shrink, for example, from calling a liar a liar), it’s clear that he respects his subjects and suggests that we should respect them too. In his estimation (and mine as well), they were not the collection of benighted, fearful, blinkered, country-bumpkin bigots that you can read about in The Nation. They were believers, it’s just that they believed things that most members of the East Coast commentariat (at least before the rise of Limbaugh, et al.) did not. From the results of the recent mid-term elections in the United States, I think it’s fair to say they still don’t.

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