Movement Conservatism and Pseudo-Conservatism

The emergence and development of movement conservatism is perhaps the most important phenomenon in American politics over the past half-century. Today, its adherents control all three branches of the federal government. Despite his lack of an internal ideological compass, Trump represents and performs a dumbed-down version of the neo-Agrarianism and cultural populism fused by the New Right. While initially a Ripon Society-style Republican in 1960s Kentucky, Mitch McConnell has long exemplified the power politics tendencies of the New Right. Paul Ryan’s paeans to Ayn Rand, whose economic priors are a purified version of movement conservatism’s, are (in)famous and recent research suggests the Tea Party has had a wider influence on the GOP than previously thought. Finally, with the retirement of Justice Kennedy, the Court’s conservatives all hail from movement (legal) conservatism.

Since Alan Brinkley’s hugely influential journal article on the historiography of the postwar conservative movement and Kim Phillips-Fein’s important 2011 follow-up, scholars, primarily historians — but increasingly political scientists as well[1] — have explored a wide and rich variety of the various groups, men, and women who made and make up movement conservatism. Brinkley’s article, though, was influential in another, less salutary, respect: bringing Richard Hofstadter’s critique of conservatism into disrepute. Brinkley criticized Hofstadter for being “dismissive” of conservatism and reducing the ideology to “a kind of pathology.” Following his lead, many historians set their own interpretations of the conservative movement against Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” The problem with Hofstadter, the argument went, was that he “psychologized” movement denizens in a reductive manner, painting conservatives as “paranoid, marginal, backward looking cranks.” These labels were perhaps suitable for white supremacists or separatist militia groups, but not for “grassroots” conservatives in the Sunbelt, Midwest, and Southern California or evangelicals’ intellectual traditions.

Instead, many historians of movement conservatism focused their narratives on the upwardly mobile “foot soldiers” in “banks, law firms, newspapers” (in the Sunbelt), the engineers in Southern California, or Phyllis Schlafly’s acolytes in the Midwest. How could (say) an engineer in Orange County or his wife who held coffee klatches in their subdivision, the implicit question asked, really be “paranoid”? Indeed, Hofstadter’s reputation has devolved to the point where historian Leo Ribuffo recently argued that Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” was a “catch phrase [that] . . . should be buried with a stake in its heart.” And when Hofstadter has escaped critique from historians, it is largely because many thought he could be safely ignored, an implicitly arrogant avatar of the outdated and heavily critiqued “consensus school” of history that included, besides Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, Daniel Bell, and others.[2]

But in their effort to take movement conservatism seriously — and because of the influence of E.P Thompson’s “history from below” in many history departments — while also taking aim at Hofstadter’s perceived condescension, many of these historians overcorrected. While it is unsurprising that Hofstadter’s assessment of movement conservatism, that is, “pseudo-conservatism,” has not proven correct in all particulars (and Hofstadter’s own thinking evolved while he was alive), revisiting his argument proves it far more useful than not. In fact, contrary to many historians reading of Hofstadter — it often seems his work is more cited than read — one need not focus on extremist or far-right actors and groups (such as the John Birch Society and the white power movement) to see that Hofstadter identified important continuities in movement conservatism.

In short, the argument here is this: Hofstadter saw with remarkable clarity the pathologies of movement conservatism, pathologies that were evidenced in “respectable” forums (such as National Review) from the beginning. Rather than driving “a stake” into Hofstadter, a careful reading of Hofstadter, and the words and deeds of William F. Buckley, National Review, Phyllis Schafly, the Heritage Foundation, Arthur Laffer, George Gilder, and William Rusher (just to name a very few), shows that Hofstadter’s work remains penetrating and necessary. Rather than, as the received wisdom has it, the paranoid style occupying the fringes of conservative thought, it was front-and-center. And these mainstream conservatives influenced today’s generation of conservatives. Thus we cannot understand our current politics without first understanding the paranoid style of early mainstream movement conservatism.

Rereading Hofstadter

The first iteration of the “paranoid style” in American politics appeared in 1955’s The New American Right, a volume edited by Daniel Bell. Hofstadter revised and expanded it in 1962 (published in 1964) under a new title, The Radical Right. Hofstadter’s contribution to this second volume updated his initial 1955 essay on “pseudo-conservatism,” or what today is more politely referred to as movement conservatism.

The paranoid style, Hofstadter wrote, could “be found in practically all classes of society,” though it was more prominent in the ill-educated and then-burgeoning American middle class (emphasis added). Feeding on “emotional intensity,” the pseudo-conservative “imagines that his own government and his own leadership are engaged in a more or less continuous conspiracy against him because he has come to think of authority only as something that aims to manipulate and deprive him.” The pseudo-conservatives “have moved on from anti-Negroism and anti-Semitism to anti-Achesonianism, anti-intellectualism, anti-nonconformism,” while at the same time expressing “incredibly bitter feelings against the United Nations . . . [and] foreigners.” Indeed, Hofstadter saw in movement conservatism (quite correctly), “the emergence of a wholly new struggle: the conflict between businessmen of certain types and the New Deal bureaucracy, which has spilled over into a resentment of intellectuals and experts.”

Besides the animus directed at “the Ivy League colleges and universities, the Supreme Court, and the State Department,” the pseudo-conservative “tolerates no compromises, accepts no half measures, understands no defeats. In this respect, it stands psychologically outside the frame of normal democratic politics, which is largely an affair of compromise.” Hofstadter also prophetically saw the influence of conservative evangelical Christianity in the early 1960s: “To understand the Manichean style of thought, the apocalyptic tendencies, the love of mystification, the intolerance of compromise that are observable to the right-wing mind, we need to understand the history of fundamentalism,” he wrote.

In 1964, Hofstadter both refined and expanded on this earlier thinking in an essay for Harper‘s later published in book format. Contrary to the claims of historians who would later employ Hofstadter as a scholarly foil, he understood that it “is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant” (emphasis added). He continued, “the spokesman of the paranoid style finds [the conspiracy] directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life.” Expanding on this point, Hofstadter presciently wrote:

“America has largely been taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it . . . . The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power . . . The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life.”

But before one immediately jumps to the Republican Party that elected Donald Trump — and one can clearly see the usefulness of Hofstadter for our current politics — it is worth comparing Hofstadter’s understanding of conservatism to some of the more famous, and later quite mainstream, ideological and political entrepreneurs of the Right that were his contemporaries.

Pseudo-conservatism and Movement Conservatism

The inaugural issue of National Review is generally recognized for William F. Buckley’s clarion call that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop at a time when no one is inclined to do so.” Less noticed, however, is “The Magazine’s Credenda” which also appeared in the inaugural issue. The editors of NR decried the “profound crisis” American society faced: the conflict between “the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order.” Conservative “disciples” also faced down the “century’s most blatant force of satanic utopianism”: communism. “We consider ‘coexistence’ with communism,” NR declared at the outset, “neither desirable nor possible, nor honorable; we find ourselves irrevocably at war with communism and shall oppose any substitute for victory.”

What would soon become the premier voice of intellectual conservatism — and one that allegedly policed the fever swamps — continued: “The most alarming single danger to the American political system lies in the fact that an identifiable team of Fabian operators is bent on controlling both our major political parties (under the sanction of such fatuous and unreasoned slogans as ‘national unity,’ ‘middle-of-the-road,’ ‘progressivism,’ and ‘bipartisanship’).” These Fabian operators were “Clever intriguers . . . reshaping both parties in the image of Babbitt, gone Social-Democrat.” The Credenda continued, “No superstition has more effectively bewitched America’s Liberal elite than the fashionable concepts of world government, the United Nations, internationalism, international atomic pools, etc.”

A few years prior, Buckley — who was a self-described “radical reactionary” — had published an attack on American higher education and liberal elites, God and Man at Yale, which made clear that he would “rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty at Harvard University” (a line Justice Antonin Scalia would adapt for use in one of his famous dissents). And in 1954, Buckley co-authored a book defending McCarthyism, pioneering, as Schlozman and Rosenfeld show, the “anti-anti-[ ]” intellectual style that one now sees (particularly in National Review) vis-a-vis Trump. When McCarthy passed away in in 1957, National Review’s obituary was sympathetic: McCarthy had been “tarred and feathered by genteel Ivy Leaguers . . . and by noble princes of the press . . . .”

The pseudo-conservatism of National Review seeped into the thinking of middle-brow thinkers such as Phyllis Schlafly. A conservative Catholic and an ideological entrepreneur of the Right — her talent was “translating” conservative ideas for the grassroots — Schlafly first cut her political teeth on the issue of communism in the 1950s (she is more well-known today for her role in the successful grassroots campaign to defeat the ERA). According to Schlafly, communism was more of a threat to Christianity as opposed to merely the adversary of capitalism. Schlafly characterized communism as an “international criminal conspiracy founded on atheism, materialism, and economic determinism . . . a life-and-death struggle with the criminal underground.”

Hofstaderian conspiracy theories also abound in Schlafly’s manifesto for Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid, A Choice Not an Echo (it sold millions of copies). To Schlafly’s mind, the conservative candidate in presidential contests since the New Deal had been sidelined by “a small group of secret kingmakers, using hidden persuaders and psychological warfare techniques . . . .” In fact, the first half of the monograph is dedicated to a thumbnail sketch of the “kingmakers,” the “eastern [sic] elite,” who reputedly kept the strongest conservative from winning the ticket. In other words, the party nominations had been repeatedly stolen from the true conservatives by this shadowy elite. Schlafly also highlighted with the Eastern elites’ unique ability to create Manchurian candidates: “Kingmaker candidates are brainwashed into acting like they would rather be anti-right than be president.” Indeed, the kingmakers were “quite willing to have their candidate talk like a real Republican when seeking the nomination. But once he is nominated, then a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation takes place, and he switches from a fiery fighter to a milktoast [sic] ‘me too’ candidate.”

Who was to blame for this brainwashing and faux-conservatism? The kingmakers’ “chief propaganda organ” was “the New York Times,” according to Schlafly. The federal government was in on the conspiracy as well: “This hidden policy of perpetuating the Red empire in order to perpetuate the high level of Federal spending and control is revealed in secret studies made by the Kennedy Administration.” (On March 11, 2016, the 91-year-old Schlafly endorsed Donald Trump for president).

But pseudo-conservatism was not simply targeted at “kingmakers” and communism. Right-wing intellectuals and think tanks following in National Review’s wake also demonstrated a knack for pseudo-conservatism. For example, in 1974 the Heritage Foundation — then an upstart conservative think tank that saw the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) as too staid — issued a report titled, “Federal Child Development: What’s Developing?” As one perceptive historian recounts, the report gave “credence to such fantastic claims that ‘maternal separation and deprivation’ can ‘disrupt the action of the pituitary gland, the master gland, causing abnormal growth and metabolism patterns, even dwarfism.’”

Pseudo-conservatism also permeated the economic program of the New Right: supply-side economics. The story of how supply-side economics became the Right’s religion is well-known: the economist Arthur Laffer, a supply-side devotee then teaching at University of Southern California, met Jude Wanniski, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and the latter began to publicize the “Laffer Curve.” Of interest here is how much pseudo-conservatism played a role in this major policy idea. In 1980, the New York Times published an op-ed by Wanniski making the case for supply-side economics and tax cuts. Writing earnestly, Wanniski decried progressive taxation and advocated a return to the gold standard:

“The centrals problems will go away [by implementing the supply-side economic program], and with it the malaise. Will there be a deficit? Maybe not. But if so, so what? . . . . Instead of a society smothered, crushed by disincentives, with all its tensions, there would be air, light and hope. For the individual American, who now spends all of his or her time in this sea of social tension, consumed in survival tactics, the very first dividend for solving this central problem will be a moment of “spare time . . . With moments of spare time multiplied, moments free of tension or anxiety over what The System will do to you next, the drugs and alcoholism and divorce and personal abuses may begin to recede. We will once again feel confident about ourselves as a nation, and the Russians would view us in a different light.”

For Wanniski and the supply-siders, then, it didn’t so much matter what the empirical consequences were (“so what?”), but that this economic program promised “air, light and hope,” “spare time . . . moments free of tension or anxiety” from “The System,” and the potential to make Americans “feel” good about themselves again.

A conservative think tank book hitting on the same economic idea became must-read material in the Reagan White House in the early 1980s: George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty. Gilder had no training as an economist, and indeed the idea that economics should be left to those with expertise and training seemed foreign to him. “The critics [of supply-side economics],” Gilder wrote, “used an idiom of rejection that is becoming familiar in all the social sciences, as they eschew original reasoning and adopt the role of programming and interpreting their computers.” A few pages later, Gilder lamented that the “most sophisticated and interesting economists were incapable of comprehending an economic reality — the greatly excessive marginal tax burden on American income and investment — that was manifest to a former football player trained in physical education, Congressman Jack Kemp.” Gilder’s writing implied — as did Wanniski and Laffer — that economic “reality” was evident to the relatively unsophisticated intellect of Kemp, but eluded those who would rely on their training and statistical techniques.

Pseudo-conservatism also suffuses the work of those conservatives generally regarded as serious intellectuals. After Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, a conservative populism that attacked expertise and technocracy grew more respectable. Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism and founder of the neoconservative journal The Public Interest, identified a conspiracy in the troublesome group of elites he called the New Class:

“This ‘new class’ consists of scientists, lawyers, city planners, social workers, educators, criminologists, sociologists, public health doctors, etc. – a substantial number of whom find their careers in the expanding public sector rather than the private. The public sector, indeed, is where they prefer to be . . . Though they continue to speak the language of progressive reform in actuality they are acting upon a hidden agenda . . . [advocating] an economic system so stringently regulated in detail as to fulfill many of the traditional anti-capitalist aspirations of the Left.”

Kristol, then, was simultaneously undermining professional expertise and government as a source of objective knowledge (in addition to nurturing thoughts of a “hidden agenda”). Yet this was simply a more sophisticated take on conservatives’ long-held complaint about “liberal elites” and the “Eastern establishment.” William Rusher, the publisher of National Review, also formulated his complaint against this group of elites in his influential 1975 book The Making of the New Majority Party: there is “a new class of liberal verbalists, centered in the federal and state bureaucracies, the principal media, the major foundations and research institutions, and the nationwide educational establishment.”

Rusher was also one of “The Polarizers,” who worked and argued for a conservative marriage between Ronald Reagan and George Wallace for a new third party. This was no accident. Wallace was an avatar of pseudo-conservatism who knew the soft spots of Kristol and Rusher’s New Class. As Wallace recounted in his memoir, the voters who “backed me” were “all the little people who feared big government in the hands of phony intellectuals and social engineers with unworkable theories.” The liberal editor of Montgomery’s Alabama Journal, Wallace told one audience, was “one of them Harvard-educated editors that sticks his little finger in the air when he drinks tea and looks down his nose at the common folk of Alabama.” “Workin’ folk,” he told the media covering his campaign, are “fed up with bureaucrats in Washington, pointy-headed intellectuals, swaydo-intellectual morons tellin’ ‘em how to live their lives.”

The examples could be multiplied (indeed, these are drawn from a working paper on this topic), but the prima facie point is clear: pseudo-conservatism and the paranoid style are useful conceptual tools for scholars to understand the evolution and through lines of movement conservatism. While surely in need of some refinement, in order to better understand our current politics we should resurrect, not bury, Richard Hofstadter and the paranoid style.


[1] Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld’s impressive new working paper (just presented at APSA), “The Long New Right and the World It Made,” is the most sophisticated reading of movement conservatism’s evolution and continuities I’ve yet read

[2] I’m painting with a broad-brush stroke here. In addition to Schlozman and Rosenfeld, Michelle Nickerson’s Mothers of Conservatism, Jason Stahl’s Right Moves, Edward Miller’s Nut Country, Paul Murphy’s The Rebuke of History, William Hustwit’s biography of James Jackson Kilpatrick, and Elizabeth McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance all stand out as grappling explicitly or implicitly with Hofstadter on his own terms.

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