The conservative movement was forged by a series of defeats, any one of which could have destroyed the fledgling Right, argues St. Louis University historian Donald Critchlow in The Conservative Ascendancy. A failed presidential campaign—Barry Goldwater’s 1964 effort, crushed in a landslide by Lyndon Johnson—marked the beginning of the modern political movement. But even before that, the nascent Right suffered dispiriting losses in 1960 and 1952, when standard-bearers Goldwater and Robert A. Taft fell short of the Republican nomination. In 1976, the GOP Right failed once again when Ronald Reagan lost to Gerald Ford.
Yet Reagan won the nomination, and the presidency, in 1980. And while conservatives came to regret their support for Richard Nixon and both Bushes, the Right played an indispensable role in electing them. In 1994, the Republicans campaigned as the conservative, smaller-government party and won both houses of Congress, keeping them, but for a brief interregnum in the Senate, for the next 12 years—the longest Republican run since the Great Depression.
These victories, seized from the ashes of earlier defeats, are only the most obvious signs of what Critchlow and American Spectator publisher Alfred Regnery call the conservative ascendance or ascendancy. Over the last half-century, the Right has also revolutionized print, television, and radio, not only making its own voice heard but transforming America’s media in the process. The Right gave birth to political talk radio, reviving the moribund AM spectrum in the late 1980s. And long before there was Fox News, programs like William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” on PBS and “Crossfire” on CNN reinvented political discourse on television.
Forty years ago, conservative bestsellers like the three that supercharged the Goldwater movement—Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice, Not an Echo, John Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason, and Goldwater’s own Conscience of a Conservative—were published by tiny independent presses, even as they went on to sell millions of copies. Today, New York publishing megaliths such as Penguin, Crown, and Simon and Schuster have their own dedicated conservative imprints. (Indeed, Regnery’s Upstream is published by one of them, Simon and Schuster’s Threshold Editions.) Meanwhile, Regnery Publishing, built by Alfred Regnery’s father, Henry, and once virtually the sole conservative publisher, has become a powerhouse.
In the academy, conservatives had less success. So they built alternatives to the universities: think tanks and policy shops as well as such micro-institutions as the Federalist Society and thousands of student newspapers within the university world. These parallel structures laid the rails for conservatives’ ascent to power.
Critchlow and Regnery tell the story from different angles. Regnery’s book is the better institutional history, providing behind-the-curtains insights into the men and organizational machinery that made the movement. As the son of one of the movement’s early benefactors and an influential editor and publisher in his own right, Regnery is well suited to this task. Critchlow, the author of a sympathetic biography of Phyllis Schlafly, gives a non-hostile scholar’s account of the Right. Despite the authors’ different backgrounds, the stories told in both books converge into a grand narrative. Significantly, neither volume locates the roots of conservative success in the racial politics that left-wing writers typically invoke to explain the rise of the Right.
This is not to say that Critchlow and Regnery shy away from the controversial elements of conservatism’s origins. Both acknowledge the instrumental role of the John Birch Society in the burgeoning Right of the 1960s. “Although the John Birch Society is today usually dismissed as a right-wing fringe group with little impact,” Regnery writes, “it in fact played a much greater part in the conservative movement than is generally held, having organized the grassroots nationally as never before.” The society was important enough to Goldwater that he didn’t dare denounce it, as Buckley did—though Goldwater, like Buckley’s colleagues William Rusher and Frank Meyer, may not have been eager to anathematize the group anyway. Critchlow corrects the widely held misapprehension that the society was explicitly anti-Semitic or racist, noting that JBS founder Robert Welch, in his three-day training seminar on Communism, “devoted an entire lecture to an explanation of how ‘three-quarters’ of racial and religious division in the world was stirred up by ‘the Reds.’” That was the problem for Buckley: the John Birch Society saw Reds behind everything, including President Eisenhower.
Critchlow and Regnery both emphasize the importance of émigré European intellectuals such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek in laying the intellectual foundations for the postwar Right. But the authors also highlight the contributions of lesser known, less intellectual figures. In the 1950s and early 1960s, when mainstream television and radio all but ignored conservatives, the lecture circuit was a crucial avenue for right-wingers to reach broad audiences. Ex-New Dealer Raymond Moley was one popular conservative speaker; others included Congressman Walter Judd, former Notre Dame law school dean Clarence Manion—who became the prime mover behind Goldwater’s 1960 campaign, commissioning Bill Buckley’s brother in law, Brent Bozell, to ghostwrite The Conscience of a Conservative and drafting the reluctant senator into the race for the Republican nomination—and Gen. Albert Wedemeyer, a close associate of Chiang Kai-Shek. Regnery provides helpful sketches of these individuals and others.
For his part, Critchlow relates the lecture-circuit appeal of former FBI agents Herbert Philbrick and W. Cleon Skousen, the authors, respectively, of books titled I Led Three Lives—which became a much-watched television program—and The Naked Communist. Critchlow reminds readers that the emergence of the Religious Right in the 1970s was not the first time Protestant leaders had become involved in conservative politics. Fred Schwarz’s Christian Anti-Communism Crusade and Rev. Billy Hargis’s Christian Crusade earlier enlisted the faithful in the Cold War against Communism. By the 1960s, Hargis was heard on some 500 radio and 250 television stations—though later he would fall afoul of the IRS and be brought down by allegations of impropriety with both sexes.
As popular as they were, Schwarz and Hargis did not cultivate the grassroots networks from which real political movements grow. “Hargis did not form local chapters,” Critchlow observes, while “Schwarz’s national organization consisted of his wife and one assistant.” Before 1964, the John Birch Society was practically the only mass-membership group on the Right. But the Goldwater movement changed that. The Arizona senator’s campaign transformed both the Right and modern American electioneering. “Until the 1964 campaign presidential elections were financed exclusively by large contributions from wealthy contributors, corporations, lobbyists, and other special-interest groups,” Regnery writes. Goldwater’s funds came from small donors: while only 44,000 people contributed to Nixon’s 1960 campaign, “over one million middle-income people contributed to Goldwater’s campaign,” Regnery reveals.
And for every person who donated, many more volunteered. According to Regnery, “As many as 3.9 million Americans may have worked for the campaign at some point, more than any political campaign in history.” Goldwater tapped into unprecedented reservoirs of activist talent, whose influence would be felt for decades to come.
The lessons learned in the 1964 campaign propelled the conservative movement beyond the pages of National Review and the works of thinkers like Russell Kirk and Friedrich Hayek into the arena of practical politics. A young conservative named Richard Viguerie, who had been involved with the Goldwater campaign and the campus organization Young Americans for Freedom, compiled a list of Goldwater donors from records on file with the House of Representatives. With that list, and others he later acquired, Viguerie widened the scope of direct-mail fundraising, turning it into an instrument for raising millions of dollars and bypassing the established media to reach a mass audience. Direct mail “provided cash, on a consistent basis, to hundreds of conservative grassroots, lobbying, and advocacy groups, as well as to the think tanks that emerged in the 1980s and to candidates running for state and local offices and Congress,” Regnery writes.
Funds raised through direct mail gave conservatives the wherewithal to challenge liberal Republicans—the “Eastern Establishment”—for control of the party. Direct mail also facilitated the construction of conservative mass-membership groups outside the GOP, including the organizations of the Religious Right. And small individual donations became the lifeblood of the Right’s think tanks: “In recent years,” according to Regnery, “the Heritage Foundation, the largest conservative think tank, reported that over twice as much of its money came from individuals as from foundations, 59 percent to 27 percent.”
The think tanks of the Right changed the way politics is practiced in America—and the nature of conservatism. “The development of think tanks marked an important shift in the history of conservatism,” Critchlow contends, “A kind of ‘managerial conservatism’ arose that reoriented conservative thinking on actual governance toward a more ready acceptance of the exertion of federal government power acting within the broad principles of conservatism.” The American Enterprise Association, founded in 1943 and later re-christened the American Enterprise Institute, was the first conservative think tank. It had languished until the early 1950s, when William Baroody, the son of a Lebanese immigrant, joined the organization and pushed it deeper into policy research. After assisting the Goldwater campaign in ‘64, Baroody redoubled his efforts to raise AEI’s profile and revenue, bringing in scholars such as economist Murray Weidenbaum and jurist Robert Bork—both of whom would quickly be recruited by the Nixon administration—and later such neoconservatives as Irving Kristol, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Michael Novak, and Ben Wattenberg.
The social-science background that these scholars brought to AEI was notably different from the humanistic learning of earlier conservatives. Think-tank scholarship of the sort produced by AEI promoted policy, not philosophy; later organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute conformed to the AEI pattern. Closely tied to the development of think tanks was the rise of the neoconservatives, ex-leftists who had turned right in reaction to the upheavals of the 1960s. The neoconservatives “sought to displace liberal expertise, which they described as ideologically based, with their own, empirically based expertise,” according to Critchlow. “In effect, they offered managerial conservatism at a time when bureaucratic liberalism was under attack.” Regnery notes that neoconservatism and its exponents did not find favor with many older figures on the Right, such as National Review senior editor Frank Meyer, who once told Irving Kristol, “You, sir, are no conservative. You are nothing but a g–damned Tory Socialist.”
Critchlow’s chapter on think tanks and managerial conservatism is his best. From there, The Conservative Ascendancy surveys the last 40 years of American presidential history, relating conservatives’ disappointment in Nixon and the Right’s near extinction after Watergate, the wilderness years of Ford and Carter, followed by the triumph of Ronald Reagan and further disillusionment under the first Bush. Critchlow emphasizes that at several points the GOP Right might have been annihilated as a political force: not only after Goldwater’s loss in 1964 and following Watergate, but with the end of the Cold War—anticommunism having served for so long as conservatism’s least common denominator—and with Bill Clinton’s outmaneuvering of the Republican Congress during the government shutdown of 1995. Yet in Critchlow’s account the Right always bounces back, reaching the zenith of power in the Bush II years. Too bad that Critchlow’s story ends here, dating his book badly. Today, Bush looks set to leave office with the Democrats in charge of both houses of Congress and probably in possession of the presidency too—a remarkable reversal of the conservative ascendancy.
Critchlow’s book is perhaps the best scholarly overview of the conservative movement in print. But Regnery’s volume is more than that. He covers much the same history as Critchlow while also revealing the architectonics of the movement. As part of the movement himself and the son of one of its founding fathers, Alfred Regnery has keen knowledge not just of the Right’s history but of how the movement’s diverse institutions fit together.
Regnery only lightly colors his account with vignettes from his own experiences—though readers do get some charming asides, learning, for example, that conservative philosopher Richard Weaver had an inordinate fear of cats. What’s most valuable about Upstream, however, are not Regnery’s personal anecdotes but his sense of the movement’s internal dynamics. This is best displayed in his discussion of the Right’s judicial strategy from the Reagan era to the present. He makes a compelling case that Ronald Reagan set out to transform the judiciary, a project more evident in Reagan’s lower-court appointees than in his successful nominations to the Supreme Court, though failed high-court nominees Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsberg give some hint of what Regnery believes was on Reagan’s mind. The Federalist Society, a training ground for young conservative lawyers, plays a crucial role in the judicial strategy Regnery maps out, a strategy that culminates in the showdown over George W. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court in 2005. Almost as one, conservatives arose against Miers’s appointment, demanding a more philosophically reliable nominee. (They got one: Samuel Alito.)
“Had the president had his way,” Rengery writes in his concluding chapter, “there is little doubt that he would have nominated his friends and fellow Texans Alberto Gonzalez and Harriet Miers to the high court.” But “instead, conservatives had the resources to be able to virtually dictate that there would be no second-rate justices, but that only top-notch conservative candidates would be on the short list, and that when nominated, they would be confirmed.” The episode offers a case study in the marshaling and deployment of conservative political influence.
Upstream and The Conservative Ascendancy are both more concerned with who and what than with why or how, and readers looking for psychological or theoretical insight into the Right will not find it here. Neither book hints at what may be in store for the future, nor what answers conservatives will have to devise for an economy mired in governmental and personal debt and addicted to federal spending. Conservatives’ Reagan-era triumphs in cutting taxes and increasing military expenditures have contributed to a situation in which the country is in hock to unfriendly powers in the East, and as yet the conservative movement has been as slow to respond to this problem as the Left has been to rethink Keynesian economics. But Critchlow and Regnery do not set out to dissect policy—their aim is to tell a story that most academics have overlooked, and they succeed admirably. Critchlow’s book is a fine work of scholarship, while Alfred Regnery’s Upstream is both a lucid history and a schematic for understanding the design of the conservative movement.