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Lauren F. Winner
Why America Turned Right
Historians, like most people," Michael Kazin observed in 1992, "are reluctant to sympathize with people whose political opinions they detest." Did Kazin have any particular people in mind? Yes:
Overwhelmingly cosmopolitan in their cultural tastes and liberal or radical in their politics, scholars of modern America have largely eschewed research projects about past movements that seem to them either bastions of a crumbling status quo or the domain of puritanical, pathological yahoos. Thus, over a decade after Ronald Reagan captured the presidency with the active support of the New Right, historians are just beginning to examine the origins of the type of popular conservatism whose standard the disarmingly sanguine president waved so successfully.1
Much has stayed the same in the decade since Kazin wrote those words: the élites of what David Brooks calls "Blue America" continue to regard conservatism with a baffled repugnance. But much has changed—indeed, conservatism and conservatives have become downright fashionable subjects for historians.
Four recent books on postwar conservatism reveal just how different the political landscape looks in 2002. All four are by young scholars and journalists whose political commitments are decidedly left of center: Suburban Warriors, by Harvard professor Lisa McGirr; The Right Moment, by Washington speechwriter Matthew Dallek; A Time for Choosing, by Stanford's Jonathan Schoenwald; and Before the Storm, by journalist Rick Perlstein. All four books center on Ronald Reagan: his gubernatorial election in 1966 and his presidential victory in 1980. How, these books want to know, did Reagan and all he stood for manage to achieve victory?
As recently as December 1964, conservative Republican victories on that scale seemed almost unimaginable to most pundits and political scientists. After LBJ's 1964 landslide, James Reston wrote in The New York Times that Goldwater "has wrecked his party for a long time to come." Presidential historian James ...