Why Teach the History of Modern American Conservatism? Because It’s Fun

December 10, 2012, 3:05 pm

One of Professor Radical’s Dirty Books

I first discovered the pleasure in teaching conservative political history almost a decade ago. A student I had never met before asked me to advise his senior thesis on Ronald Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign.  At this time, political historians were just recovering from the shock and awe of the 1980 Reagan Revolution, and Lisa McGirr had just come out with Suburban Warriors: the Origins of the New American Right (2001).

However there was, as yet, very little to read about the resurgence of conservatism even though the research was well underway and the literature would soon begin to explode.

Therefore, part of the reason we had so much fun in the thesis tutorial was that the research was all about the primary sources. The thesis writer toodled out to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA, paving the way for a new research project I eventually undertook there. Together we searched the internet for books from the 1960s and 1970s which cost five or six times as much to mail as they cost to buy. It turned out that some of these “dirty books,” as we called them (ensconced as we were at a famously lefty college) were quite the investment.  For example, I paid .25 for Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice, Not an Echo: the Inside Story of How American Presidents Are Chosen (1964): the same copy is worth between $20.00 and $70.00, depending on where you look and its condition.

Of course I would never sell it now. I love Phyllis too much, and my students gasp in appreciation when I produce this iconic volume in class.

Needless to say, this student’s work played no small role in launching my interest in contemporary history and in reading every book about modern conservatism that I could get my hands on. I developed a new research project about anti-pornography politics and the state in the 1970s and 1980s. As my interest in the recent political past developed, it produced a book series in recent American history at the University of Georgia Press, edited with my Former Zenith and Currently Oberlin pal Renee Romano; and our co-edited volume, Doing Recent History (2012).

And eventually my interest in the political developments of the past forty years produced a course, The Age of Reagan, which is winding up next week. I am not the only liberal, queer feminist in the country to be teaching the history of conservatism, but because I am the only person writing this blog, I would like to use my bully pulpit to argue for how much  fun it is. I think people don’t immediately understand the fun, however, because to the uninitiated conservatives seem kind of anti-fun: no sex, no gayness, no popular cultural that doesn’t convey strong family values, blah, blah, blah. In the last electoral cycle, it seemed clear that liberals are even funnier than conservatives. I mean, would Karl Rove have come up with the idea of creating a Twitter account for Clint Eastwood’s chair? I think not.

But conservative ideas? They are really fun, and they are fun to to teach.  There are primary sources all over the place now that my first student and I never had access to, thanks to YouTube, which was founded in 2005; the Miller Center Presidential Oral History Project at the University of Virginia; and the National Archives and Records Administration getting so much material in the Presidential libraries digitized. Furthermore, by playing conservative in class (which I often have to do so that we have a “conservative” in the classroom who is willing to argue) I get to explore and inhabit a set of ideas that transfer directly to my research.

And have I told you how much students love Barry Goldwater? Students really love Barry Goldwater.

So on behalf of my students, and on behalf of an expanding academic presence for Barry Goldwater and Mrs. Schlafly, I would like to debunk the five biggest myths about conservative history, myths that may be standing in the way of you putting together a course in this field.

We need conservative history so that we can have more conservative faculty diversifying liberal history departments. Isn’t it interesting that concerns about race and gender equality in hiring have been kicked to the curb in favor of an obsession with ideological diversity? Putting aside the mistaken notion that history departments are bastions of liberalism (anyone who thinks this may never have worked in a history department or been educated in one), it is quite the leap of faith to presume that people who teach conservatism must be conservative.  Or that they ought to be conservative. What is that about? It’s as if no one has ever made a critique of identity politics in the academy.

We need histories of conservatism so that we can “know the enemy” better. I hear this a lot from students, and I always want to say, “Whose enemy? Mine? Yours? And how will we know them when we meet them?” Part of the fun of teaching history is to make the strange familiar and to make what is familiar strange. I also have this crazy idea that if liberals understood the diversity of the conservative movement, and understood what conservatives were talking about, they wouldn’t treat conservatives like they were so st00pid. This, in turn, might produce the kinds of discussion across ideological lines that we keep expecting Congress to be able to accomplish but, unsurprisingly, they can’t, because almost no one else in America can either.

We need conservative history to balance out the liberalism and radicalism of all the intellectual fields that came out of the New Left. Balance may be necessary in news shows, but it isn’t necessary in universities. I am not sure how you would know that you had balance or not unless you gave little ideological litmus tests all the time.  (No, political party affiliation is not the same as knowing someone’s politics or their intellectual position on anything.) Scholars are expected to perform to a high standard regardless of who they pull the lever for on election day. Asking new questions is the ticket, as is finding topics that have not been written about before. Furthermore, once you start conflating everything that isn’t whiteman’s history with the left, you are really treading on thin ice, because  – newsflash! — there are long conservative traditions among women and people of color, and most political history does not fit neatly into contemporary ideas about what conservatism, liberalism and radicalism are. Furthermore, the idea of “balance,” as if a history department were a USDA food chart, is utterly asinine. There is good history scholarship and bad history scholarship.

We need to have classes on conservatism so that conservative students have a place where they can feel comfortable. Mary, please. May I add to the last sentence of the above item: there is good teaching and there is bad teaching.  Any student should feel comfortable in anyone’s classroom, and no student has the right to have their own opinions, feelings, beliefs, traditions and values go unquestioned in a classroom.  So a student has the right to comfort, on one level, which means the right to be treated respectfully and considerately. Within reason, a student has the right to be listened to if s/he doesn’t insist on dominating the discussion. But students that can’t come to terms with disagreement and discomfort at hearing views that differ from theirs are going to have difficulty functioning as engaged political citizens as well.

Conservative students have the right to be taught by conservatives. Who gets to choose who they are taught by? And under what conditions do students really know who we are politically anyway? I certainly never knew much about faculty before I sat down to be taught by them. But that said — any teacher who cannot represent a conservative argument cogently and fairly should not be teaching political history at all.

Now repeat after me: Why do we teach the history of modern American conservatism?

Because it’s fun!

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