Marjorie Fortunoff Mayrock Lecture Series presents Jeff Roche (College of Wooster):
Creating Conservatism: Right-Wing Grassroots Politics during the Cold War
March 22, 2007
Why do Americans become conservative? How do Americans become conservative? These questions have been very much on the minds of those who study postwar American politics. Implicit and presumed, yet far too often unexplored, is that a transformation took place. But what if there was no change? What if Americans (or at least some large percentage of Americans) are basically conservative in their political beliefs? What if they have accepted progressive reforms begrudgingly or in exceptional times?
In this lecture, I demonstrate how Americans over time discovered that they were what we would call conservative. It is the story of a process, a process of learning to articulate a set of longstanding political ideals that remained dormant until forced to the surface by different sets of circumstances. Much more than the intellectual and political leaders of the movement, the ideology of conservatism was crafted in countless conversations across coffee tables, at lunch counters, in union meetings, and over feed bags at the co-op. This is not the story of planks in the Republican Party platform as much as itís the story of local battles over textbooks. Itís not the story of Ronald Reaganís popularity as much as itís the story of voters switching their allegiance from Reagan to George Wallace in September of 1968. It is the story of how thousands of ordinary women and men crafted a political philosophy and took over (or created) a vehicle to put their ideas into practice at the local level first.
Looking at American political history through this lens calls into question some very basic beliefs about the way that we organize the past by disrupting the linear progressive narrative in favor of stories that are often unpleasant and almost always messy. The payoff, however, is a clearer understanding of the reasons that Americans have come to accept if not embrace a political ideology that most intellectuals considered moribund just fifty years ago.