The Radical Roots of Modern Conservatism
by John S. Huntington
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Pub Date 29 Oct 2021 | Archive Date 12 Oct 2021
Donald Trump shocked the nation in 2016 by winning the presidency through an ultraconservative, anti-immigrant platform, but, despite the electoral surprise, Trump's far-right views were not an aberration, nor even a recent phenomenon. In Far-Right Vanguard, John Huntington shows how, for almost a century, the far right has forced so-called "respectable" conservatives to grapple with their concerns, thereby intensifying right-wing thought and forecasting the trajectory of American politics. Ultraconservatives of the twentieth century were the vanguard of modern conservatism as it exists in the Republican Party of today.
Far-Right Vanguard chronicles the history of the ultraconservative movement, its national network, its influence on Republican Party politics, and its centrality to America's rightward turn during the second half of the twentieth century. Often marginalized as outliers, the far right grew out of the same ideological seedbed that nourished mainstream conservatism. Ultraconservatives were true reactionaries, dissenters seeking to peel back the advance of the liberal state, hoping to turn one of the major parties, if not a third party, into a bastion of true conservatism.
In the process, ultraconservatives left a deep imprint upon the cultural and philosophical bedrock of American politics. Far-right leaders built their movement through grassroots institutions, like the John Birch Society and Christian Crusade, each one a critical node in the ultraconservative network, a point of convergence for activists, politicians, and businessmen. This vibrant, interconnected web formed the movement's connective tissue and pushed far-right ideas into the political mainstream. Conspiracy theories, nativism, white supremacy, and radical libertarianism permeated far-right organizations, producing an uncompromising mindset and a hyper-partisanship that consumed conservatism and, eventually, the Republican Party.
Ultimately, the far right's politics of dissent—against racial progress, federal power, and political moderation—laid the groundwork for the aggrieved, vitriolic conservatism of the twenty-first century.
John S. Huntington is Professor of History at Houston Community College.
"Historians have inherited a paradigm which holds that before American conservatism could win power, it had to purge its extremes. Works like John S. Huntington's are shattering it: he establishes that ultraconservatives were the point of the spear. This is a thorough and thoughtful revision of what it meant to be 'conservative' in twentieth-century America."
—Rick Perlstein, author of Reaganland: America's Right Turn, 1976-1980
"It is well past time for a serious exploration of the roots of the far right, and in this deeply researched, thoughtful, and smartly argued book, John S. Huntington delivers it. The topic is, of course, extremely timely: the far right has more political power, and is receiving more journalistic attention, than at any time in recent memory, with consequences that will reverberate for decades to come. But apart from its timeliness, the subject is an essential component of the history of conservatism, one that not only needs more attention but needs to be put more explicitly in conversation with a historiography that focuses perhaps too much on 'respectable conservatism.' For these reasons, Far-Right Vanguard is essential reading."
—Nicole Hemmer, author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 4 members
A must read for those interested in understanding the roots of today's acerbic, populist conservatism. John S. Huntington, a professor of history at Houston Community College, offers an in-depth revisionist history of ultraconservatism in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. Traditionally, academics have attributed the success of the modern Republican Party beginning in the 1980s to the ability of mainstream Republican leaders to hold in check extremist elements within the party. Thus, the party's recent extremist turn in the twenty-first century was seen as an aberration or as a novel development without precedent. In Far-Right Vanguard, Huntington challenges this traditional narrative of the modern Republican Party by detailing how over the decades the party's platform, agenda, and strategies have been shaped by the far right, even as earlier mainstream leaders tried to distance the party from ultraconservative's most xenophobic and racist views. Just as Qanon, far-right media commentators, and militia groups have forced so-called "respectable" Republicans today to grapple with their concerns and in the process incorporate them into mainstream politics, so too did the campaigns of earlier ultraconservative groups, such as the John Birch Society, Christian Crusade, and For America shape mainstream conservatism. This conservatism, which initially crossed party lines, by the end of the 1960s found an exclusive home within the Republican Party. Dixiecrats, social traditionalists, evangelical fundamentalists, and other ultraconservative groups felt betrayed first by Roosevelt's promotion of social welfare programs in the 1930s and later by the Democratic party's increasing embrace of unionism and civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s. With the Republican Party's 1964 nomination of ultraconservative Barry Goldwater, some conservatives within the Democratic Party, including South Carolina's Strum Thurmond and Texas's J. Evetts Haley, switched allegiance to the Republican Party. Explaining his decision, Strum Thurmond declared that the Democratic Party had "invaded the private lives of people" while fostering "lawlessness, civil unrest, and mob actions." He also described Lyndon Johnson as a "traitor to the South." This heated rhetoric found its way into countless 1964 Republican Party pamphlets, not to mention became the subject of numerous best-selling paperback books (sold at airports and on newstants) by conservative pundits of the era, including those by Phyllis Schlafly (A Choice, Not an Echo) and by John A Stormer (None Dare Call it Treason). Obviously, there was no internet or social media at this point, so the reach of these vitriolic texts was not as widespread as it would have been today. But the extreme rhetoric contained in these texts was eerily like that heard during and following the 2016 and 2020 election cycles. When Johnson defeated Goldwater by a landslide, contemporary commentators described his defeat as the death knoll for extreme conservatism in the United States, and for a decade this seemed to be the case. But as Huntington notes, Johnson's landslide victory obscured from view the fact that ultraconservatism was growing in the United States, even if it could not yet win elections. The 1964 election witnessed the emergence of a new generation of far-right activists who had solidified their influence over the Republican base and over party machinery. Not to mention for the first time since the Civil War, the Republican Party carried several Southern states. The defeat, rather than discouraging the far right, excited them, because roughly 27 million Americans had voted for a far-right candidate. Huntington does an excellent job of showing the connections between far-right conservatism of the mid-twentieth century and the far-right conservatism that increasingly determines the direction of the current Republican Party. As Huntington elucidates, once the Republican Party became the party of conservatism, moderate leaders despite multiple efforts never succeeded in marginalizing extremist elements because ultimately, they drew from the same ideological well. Thus, while they tried to tone down the rhetoric of the far right, that is, white supremacy, social traditionalism, and xenophobia, they never disavowed these ideologies. In short, the only thing that has changed in the twenty-first century is that ultraconservatives within the party now have a firm grip on power. Rather than spewing their vitriol from the margins in hopes that some mainstream Republicans would translate their positions into policy, ultraconservatives now advance their conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccination, the 2020 election, and the January 6th insurrection from within the halls of government.
If you wish to read a micro-history of far-right extremist thought this is your book. For me, it was only tedious and boring. My advice-- skip it.
In coming to a rating for Far-Right Vanguard: The Radical Roots of Modern Conservatism by John S Huntington I was torn between basing it strictly on how enjoyable the read was and how well the history is presented or also including how important I think this information is for people to understand right now. Because of the value I place on it I bumped it up slightly. Many of us have made comments along the lines of how what passes for conservative thought right now is an anomaly and not indicative of "true" conservative thought. Or how there has been a gradual shift, considerably less gradual over the past few decades, to the right so that what was once well right of center is now just to the left of center, which we sometimes blame on the left not standing together enough to stop the insanity. This book lays out the history of how the right has always held these extreme views but tempered them for public consumption. In fact, they have made a point of showing how they don't incorporate their fringe elements while also including the basic concepts those fringe elements advocate. This is not a "microhistory," this is a detailed history of one of the two major political parties in the United States. Anyone making it sound too narrow is being dismissive because they support those fringe elements. Such as a faux educator on one website who regularly posts one and two star reviews that serve as nothing more than proof that he did not read or engage with the text and holds the far right's beliefs close to his rotting heart. This is an actual history, something that is often missing when we talk about how and why things are going as they are. These are verifiable facts and well known connections, with quotes that will drop your jaw, though they are just as likely to be heard now as they were in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. If you want a better idea of how we got here, if you don't mind knowing that your parents' and grandparents' conservatism wasn't nearly as rational as they claim, you need to read this book. The irrationality and cruelty did not start with Reagan or even Trump, it just reached new depths with them. It has been a steady progression ever since FDR and the New Deal scared them into thinking that everyday people might gain the rights they think they already have. Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
I think most political history buffs will find this book engaging enough. It is a little hard to read as Huntington is most excellent at presenting us with fact after fact, but is seems to be on shakier ground when trying to craft the narrative. There are times when Far-Right Vanguard reads a bit like a history book.