Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Scholarship on Conservatism

For those of you who do not know, H-Net has a discussion log for American political history called H-Pol. The discussions are usually pretty limited, but H-Pol publishes book reviews, and a top-notch recent review has triggered some excellent discussion.

On February 22, Southern Illinois University professor (and sometime contributor to the blog Liberty and Power) Jonathan Bean reviewed Donald Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade. I will not excerpt from the review, but I will say that it is thorough, fair, and chock-full of important issues. Read it.

The review has led to some commentary, including questions about the directions of the historiography on conservatism in America. Yesterday, Critchlow answered some of those questions in a comment. Once again, there is all sorts of interesting information, but I found this section to be of particular importance:

I see two major areas that need further exploration: the transformation of the South into a Republican stronghold for white voters and state studies of the ERA battle in the 1970s. Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston's The End of Southern Exceptionalism: Class, Race, and Partisan Change in the Post War South (Harvard University Press, 2006) offers an important revision of this political transformation. Historians have seen race, specifically a racial backlash, as the causal factor that led white Southern voters into the Republican party. Through aggregate analysis, Shafer and Richard Johnson challenge this view. Instead they assert that "class trumped race" as the major factor in this transformation.

They argue that the transformation of the South into a Republican stronghold began on the presidential level, but the important shift occurred on the district level in the 1960s. Prior to 1960s higher income whites voted Democratic, while those few Republican votes occurred in lower income groups, whites and blacks. In the 1960s, however, we see a reversal. In congressional elections, upper income groups begin voting Republican, while lower income groups vote Democratic.

Even more revealing is that Carter in 1976 carried 79 percent of those districts that had gone for Wallace in 1968. In 1980, however, Republicans picked up 50 percent of the districts that had gone for Carter in 1976, with one important distinction: The only districts that Carter won a majority were those districts (58 percent) that had gone for Wallace in 1968. What this reveals is that the view that Wallace was a bridge to the GOP is mistaken. As a result, by the time Reagan left office, more southern whites were calling themselves Republican than Democrats. Shafer and Johnston provide the numbers, but historians need to test this interpretation with more detailed political studies.
That kind of challenges some common interpretations. Wow.

It is nice to see that some serious scholarly studies on conservatism are starting to emerge.

1 comment:

dcat said...

A fella by the name of Bill Leuchtenburg in his masterful new book, "The White House Looks South," places race first and foremost in this movement, as does Kevin Kruse in his well-regarded book on Atlanta, "White Flight." Shafer and Johnson may say that "class trumps race" (as if the two are unrelated) but they do not argue that race is not an important factor. Quite the opposite.

Let's see, Bill Leuchtenburg versus Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston, Leuchtenburg versus Shafer and Johnston. On an issue related to modern American political history . . . hmmm. I wonder whose interpretation, especially when buttressed by that of other historians (Kruse, a guy who goes by the name of Dan Carter) I am going to go with, especially when Shafer and Johnston don't deny the power of race.

For what it is worth, I think Shafer and Johnson have made an important contribution, but like most model-happy political scientists, I'm not sure that their number crunching necessarily tells us as much as Leuchtenburg or Kruse, though Kruse goes too far the other way, attributing race as an almost monocausal factor. And let's just say that Shafer and Johnson do not present an exactly readable platform. There is a reason why cliometrics was abandoned almost as quickly as it became hot. I would not dismiss their work in any way, shape, or form. I think that class issues are vitally important and have been overlooked. But in most of these cases, class intersected with race to create a perfect storm. And even Shafer and Johnston differentiate a WHITE middle class emerging, a separaton that seems to scotch the debate just a little bit given that it is a racial distinction. Plus, that we know how a county or district voted does not tell us why they voted how they did. In other words, the evidence might not say what they say it says, especially if we consider that issues of foreign policy that have always exercised the South were very much in play, say, in 1980, and that in the 1976 election, those Wallace voters might simply have stayed with the Democrats, given that Wallace was himself a Democrat and that there was no viable third party candidate. In other wiords, their evidence is compelling. Their analysis of it is up for debate, but it is an important debate, and if it moves us away from presuppositions not based on evidence and from assumptions based on ideology, all the better. No one would welcome more complexity on southern political history than I do.

But I agree both with the larger point -- the exciting developments in political history on conservatism, some of which I am using in my class on liberalism and conservatism -- as well as with the fascination with the H-Pol discussion that Bean's review has engendered.