(Phillips-Fein 2011) Conservatism: a state of the field

Phillips-Fein, Kim. Conservatism: a state of the field. Journal of American History. 2011 Dec; 98(3):723–743.

Phillips-Fein surveys historical scholarship on the conservative resurgence in the USA since 1980. Early work in this field tended to accept the framework of Nash’s The conservative intellectual movement in America since 1945 for intellectual history, and Hofstadter’s 1950s theory of resentment and status anxiety for the social history of the conservative mass base. Nash had portrayed intellectual conservatism as a difficult “fusionist” synthesis of three fundamentally disparate strands: economic libertarianism, religious and social traditionalism, and anti-Communism. Hofstadter had seen mass conservatism as a fundamentally emotional populist backlash against the relative social decline of working-class whites, essentially devoid of intellectual content.

More recent scholarship has tended to view conservatism as a more intellectually and socially unified and less marginal phenomenon than the theories of Nash and Hofstadter would suggest. Its social base has been at least as much affluent and suburban as working-class, and its path to political power has not been a spontaneous backlash but the slow, steady growth of a grassroots movement facilitated by a sophisticated network of institutional organizations and informed by the work of conservative intellectuals. The strained tension between libertarianism and traditionalism that Nash observed when considering them as comprehensive political theories has not generally been reflected in the fundamental assumptions or social practices of the conservative mass base, which more closely approximate the fusionist synthesis ultimately arrived at by conservative theorists. Conservatives tend to see the capitalist market as the natural expression of the individualism, work ethic, rationalism, self-reliance, and emphasis on private property that tradition itself ordains for the economic sphere. They see economic laissez-faire as perfectly compatible with hierarchy, authority, privilege, conformity to tradition, and anti-rationalism outside the economic sphere.


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