Now, among the latest entrants to the growing list of books on the right comes David Farber’s The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History, new from Princeton University Press. At age 15, Farber canvassed Chicago neighborhoods for George McGovern’s presidential bid, and he is known for his work on a decade that few would call conservative: the 1960s. A professor of history at Temple University, he has also written on the Iran Hostage controversy and (with his wife, Temple historian Beth Bailey) sex and race in World War II Hawaii.
In his new book, he traces modern conservatism back to a revolt against the New Deal’s remaking of liberalism. Told through the stories of key figures in the movement—Sen. Robert A. Taft, William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, Phyllis Schlafly, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush —it argues that central currents run throughout the decades: hostility to restraints on markets, a grounding in religious faith, devotion to social order, and concern for political liberty. Farber also shows how the movement created discord in civil society, developing outside established parties and institutions and politicizing the public.
As the title indicates, the book ends with the election of Barack Obama, and what Farber sees as the fall of conservatism. Talk about timing. No backlash against Obama covered; no Tea Party; no election of conservative Congressional figures to once key liberal seats. Farber does conclude, “Contemporary conservatism is not moribund. Conservatives are not without power and presence in American life.” He adds, however, “Still, the way forward for the conservative movement remains uncertain.”
One thing that seems certain is that books on conservatism will keep coming.—Karen Winkler