Histories Right and Left

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In The University Bookman Gerald J. Russello reviews two books I want to read: Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s by Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, eds. and A Conservative History of the American Left by Daniel J. Flynn.

Russello argues that neither book quite captures the complexities involved.  Flynn first:

Flynn has done a significant amount of research, and the text is readable and lively, even if one would wish for more explicit connecting threads. The same ideas—common ownership of property, say, or free love, and odd juxtapositions of science and social criticism—occur throughout Western history. To merely lump them all on “the Left” is as helpful as a different farrago of ideas—monarchy, say, joined with capitalism, hierarchical social classes, and table manners—is when defining the Right. The problem is not that such dichotomies do not have explanatory power; it is that they do not explain enough. Even according to Flynn’s taxonomy, the connections among these various radicals are unclear. The Puritans may have opposed free enterprise, but no one could say they opposed religion or the family. Similarly, one can find in Washington or New York many Republican stalwarts defending free trade, but whose devotion to traditional values of the kind Flynn wants associated with the Right leave something to be desired.

But Rightward Bound even more so:

By and large, however, the contributors are not really up to the task of explaining the Right. They stick too closely to the academic formula, where conservatism is somehow not an authentic cultural position for people who wish to preserve their traditions, but an ideological construct forced upon a supine electorate that is otherwise liberal except when manipulated by well-financed corporate cadres. The collection ignores the bigger stories of those years: why conservatism could not stop the leftist onslaught of the 1970s and later. Despite ferocious conservative opposition in the years following the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 1973, which legalized abortion, the decision still remains the law of the land. Where once mildly controversial television programs and movies would have spurred protest, young men and women from the South and Midwest (traditionally the most conservative parts of the nation) now compete on crass reality programs. What was it about the conservative strategies of the 1970s that, from the point of view of the cultural concerns that motivated conservatives to enter politics in the first place, have been largely failures?

Given Russello’s review, I think I will look to read A Conservative History of the American Left but avoid Rightward Bound for now.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. Is this wave of authoritative histories a recent phenomenon? Books with titles like “A People’s History of the United States” or “A Patriot’s History of the United States” or the ones in your post seem a bit too ambitious for the average writer. The two I listed plus “Rightward Bound” and “A Conservative History of the American Left” seem too loaded with ideological bias to really nail history correctly.

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