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The Conservative Ascendancy

How the Republican Right Rose to Power in Modern America


Donald T. Critchlow


Second edition, revised and expanded

Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2011

Paperback. 385 pp. ISBN 978-0700617951. $19.95


Reviewed by Michael L. Krenn

Appalachian State University



The central question raised in Donald T. Critchlow’s revised and expanded edition of The Conservative Ascendancy is deceptively simple: How did the Republican Party (most notably its “conservative” elements) rise to national power in the 1980s and 1990s? Conservative Republicans were in disarray in the late-1940s and 1950s and after the shellacking of Barry Goldwater, Sr. in the 1964 election the idea that conservatives could make any sort of comeback seemed ludicrous. Yet, in 1981 Ronald Reagan, darling of the Republican right, began the first of eight years in the White House. Explaining how the conservative wing of the Republican Party came to dominate the party, then claim the presidency in 1980, and maintain its power base throughout the latter years of the twentieth and early years of the twenty-first centuries forms the core of Critchlow’s narrative.

In chronological fashion, Critchlow begins by laying the ideological basis of the conservative Republicanism that came to power in the 1980s. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, a reaction against what some perceived to be the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal arose: a belief that many of the foundations of American life were under attack. However, the author claims, these early expressions of dissatisfaction were too diverse and diffused to make much of an impact. In addition, even the Republican Party was not a bastion of “traditional” conservative values, dominated as it was by the “East Coast” variety of Republicanism led by Nelson Rockefeller, Thomas Dewey, and the like. With the defeat of Richard Nixon in 1960, the conservative faction of the Republican Party assumed greater and greater control over the party and succeeded in pushing the nomination of the poster child for traditional conservatism, Goldwater, in 1964. His crushing defeat nearly destroyed the influence of Republican conservatives.

By 1980, Critchlow argues, the conservatives were ready to renew their assaults. Focusing on the Great Society programs (more government interference in people’s lives), the Vietnam War (the lack of military strength and willpower by the Democrats), and widespread dissatisfaction with the presidency of Jimmy Carter, Republican conservatives responded with the newest carrier of the Goldwater flag, Reagan. Promising a “new America” based on free market principles, a strong national defense, and a return to traditional social values, conservatives rode the wave of voter anger and frustration all the way to the White House. And while the Democrats were able to mount challenges (Bill Clinton and, more recently, Barack Obama), Critchlow concludes that, “the American public continued to maintain a fervent faith in the founding principles of this nation. This abiding faith in the free market, the rule of law, equal opportunity, and balanced government has enabled conservatives to construct a narrative that appeals to the American electorate” [310].

The strengths of this volume are clear. Critchlow writes in a crisp, engaging style. In telling his story, he introduces us to a cast of characters—intellectuals, writers, political activists, politicians—many of whom are little known to most Americans today. Although the author relies primarily on secondary sources, as well as contemporary newspapers, magazines, and journals, he also digs into a number of manuscript collections, unpublished writings, and interviews to flesh out his narrative.

The book suffers from some serious shortcomings, however. The analysis of the intellectual background to the rise of conservative Republicanism is disappointing. There are some references to Ayn Rand and a few other popular writers, but the development of the conservative ideology often seems oversimplified. This shortcoming, however, might be explained by the author’s desire to maintain a reasonable size for the book to ensure a wider popular readership. Three other problem areas are not so easy to dismiss.

First and foremost is Critchlow’s obvious reluctance to deal with the issue of race. It is not that the author ignores the issue—when he must, he discusses it. However, the main problem is that the book simply will not deal in any substantial manner with the obvious links between “conservative” thinking in post-World War II America and racism. It begins with Critchlow’s tortuous discussion of how conservatives dealt with the race issue during the Cold War period of the 1950s. When the author declares that, “Most leading anti-Communist leaders espoused racial and religious tolerance as a way to unify sentiment against a common enemy,” he is flying in the face of nearly two decades of important works dealing with the issue of race and diplomacy during the Cold War. That literature is unanimous in noting that Southern anti-Communists were quick to make connections between “anti-Americanism” and the civil rights movement. But this was not confined to the South. State Department officials, working with the FBI, hammered away at civil rights spokesmen such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Josephine Baker, labeling them as subversives. Critchlow’s evidence is to cite Robert Welch, co-founder of the John Birch Society, who stated that, ‘”three-quarters of racial and religious divisions in the world was stirred by ‘the Reds’ ” [32]. That is hardly a clarion call for racial and religious tolerance; instead, it signified a wide school of thinking among conservatives that America’s racial problem was largely the result of communist rabble-rousing among African-Americans.

Perhaps part of the problem with the author’s inability to adequately confront the issue of race is his reluctance to consider any non-Republican manifestations of conservatism. He tries again and again to push Southern Democratic conservatives to the side so that he can avoid the civil rights issue, but even his own evidence indicates that the conservative movement had strong ties to Southern segregationists. In the 1964 election, Goldwater carried just six states—five of them in the Deep South. Critchlow finally gets to the crux of the matter when he argues that, “Given the demands by blacks to end segregation, any argument that rested its claim on the need to protect the federal balance between central government and state governments gave the appearance of supporting segregation, even if this was not the intent of the argument. As a result, the states’ rights argument carried heavy political baggage” [47]. The author tries to deflect the argument by arguing, correctly, that the “major opposition” to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “came from southern Democrats, not Republicans.” But as the author also notes, some Republican conservatives were more than willing to pick up the “political baggage” and run with it. An editorial from the National Review declared that, “the attempt to hand over to the Negro the raw political power with which to alter it is hardly a solution. It is a call to upheaval, which ensues when reality and unbridled abstractions meet head-on” [73]. From that point, the author mainly tries to steer clear of the issue of race, although when he points out that “Democratic defeats [in 2010] were particularly severe in the South” [309] one marvels that Critchlow refuses to even consider the idea that Obama’s race might enter into the sound and fury of the so-called “Tea Party” movement.

Despite Critchlow’s impressive research effort, there are several areas where his conclusions are suspect or simply incorrect. On pages 27-29, he evidences an uncritical acceptance of the validity and accuracy of the so-called “Venona files”—transcripts of secret messages from the Soviet Union that were cracked and translated by U.S. intelligence. When the author declares that, “Recent evidence confirms that he [Harry Dexter White] was a Soviet agent,” he does so without noting the intensive criticisms to which the Venona files have been subjected. On p. 142, Critchlow’s analysis of the Vietnam War ends with the argument that North Vietnam, “in clear violation of the Paris Peace Accords of 1972,” attacked and demolished South Vietnam while the Democrat-controlled Congress twiddled its fingers. First, the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, not 1972. Second, the historical record clearly indicates that it was South Vietnam that initiated hostilities after the signing of the Treaty. And, finally, the historical record also makes clear that the fall of South Vietnam was clearly inevitable to Republican administration officials such as Henry Kissinger, who had earlier hinted to the Chinese that if the North Vietnamese would simply observe a “decent interval” between the time U.S. troops left and South Vietnam was crushed the United States could live with that scenario.

And the misreading of the historical record continues, particularly in the author’s doting portrayal of the accomplishments of Ronald Reagan. On p. 193, the author proudly declares that, “The Reagan proposal rejected the longstanding strategy of the McNamara years, known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).” Once again attempting to lay the blame at the feet of Democrats, Critchlow ignores the fact that MAD was a theory developed in the 1940s and brought to full life with the Republican administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower who embraced the theory of “massive retaliation,” which had as its intellectual backbone the idea of MAD: the Soviets, realizing that the U.S. would use massive retaliation with its nuclear arsenal, knew that the outcome of aggression would be MAD. Just two pages later, Critchlow argues that Reagan’s aid to Afghan rebels “resulted in the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989” [195]. It certainly resulted in aid falling into the hands of extremist Islamic forces, such as those led by Osama bin Laden. However, most observers today credit the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in Russia and his withdrawal of Soviet forces from a number of spots around the globe, as the biggest single reason for the Soviet retreat.

These distortions and errors are troubling in and of themselves, but they are evidence of something more problematic: the author’s very clear bias when comparing conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. The latter are almost inevitably cast in the worst light possible. “The Cold War occurred under the liberal administration of President Harry S. Truman,” is a relatively typical example [6]. Critchlow none too subtly suggests that one of the reasons why the Cold War occurred at all was due to Truman’s liberal administration, while conveniently omitting the fact that the Cold War had its antecedents in the post-World War I period and continued, amazingly enough, under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

There is also a tendency to emphasize that liberal Democrats were part of a larger, and more harmful, movement: the Left (which is always capitalized). “The Left had the prestigious Brookings Institution and the liberal academy to influence policy makers and public opinion” [105]; President Clinton was battling the “Democratic Left” [243]. This confluence of Democratic liberalism and a more radical (and amorphous) “Left” is purposeful, for part of Critchlow’s story is the valiant battle of the conservative Republicans to save America from a dangerous and disastrous march toward virtual state socialism. The author rails against the “bureaucratic liberalism that had reigned since the turn of the twentieth century” (since William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt?) [116]; concludes that the Democrats might have contended in the 1980 election if they had “not swung so far left” [186]; and that the Obama administration’s efforts to save the U.S. car industry from collapse had an ominous effect: “General Motors had become Government Motors, and once again UAW [United Auto Workers] had been given privileges at the expense of bondholders.” The economic stimulus bill had been “stuffed with pork by Democratic members of Congress looking to win the hearts and palms of special interests in their home districts.” Even when admitting that the stimulus package “saved around three million public and private sector jobs, it cost $200,000 to create each private sector job” [305]. Critchlow’s conclusion is that the Democrats might have gained more power in the 1990s if they had turned to “[a]dvocacy of fiscal conservatism, a strong national defense, welfare reform, and recognition of moral issues [which] might have enabled Democrats to frame arguments in less heated partisan terms” [204]. In other words, if only the Democrats had become more like the Republicans.

This constant flaying of the Democrats stands in stark contrast to Critchlow’s portrayal of conservative Republicans, particularly Ronald Reagan. The Great Communicator “was faced with a war on two fronts: against liberals in Congress and against institutionalized liberalism within the administrative state” [190]. Yet, even against these odds, Reagan “took conservatives to within sight of the Promised Land” [221]. And what a land it was:

Declining interest rates encouraged Americans to go on a massive shopping spree, buying new appliances like microwave ovens, so that by the end of the decade two out of every three homes had one. More Americans ate out than ever before, dining on a rich variety of ethnic and gourmet foods [McDonald’s and Burger King?]. They shopped at new, trendy stores…. They went to shopping malls.

He does admit that, unfortunately, all of this resulted in “a widening gap between the very rich and the very poor” [216]. Other unfortunate consequences of Reaganism are dealt with in equally cavalier fashion. When bank deregulation resulted in fraud and disastrous over-expansion, the author merely notes that such problems could “not have been foreseen at the time” (although a number of critics at the time suggested that this was exactly what would happen) and was a “necessary compromise to tighten federal control over the entire banking industry to ensure more efficient monetary policy” [189]. The events of the past few years certainly bear out the extraordinary benefits of that policy for the American people. Iran-Contra is portrayed as the inevitable effort of “the White House to circumvent liberal opposition in Congress, as well as the State Department bureaucracy,” with the most alarming result apparently being that it “opened an opportunity for the Left to attack the Reagan administration” [210, 212].

Critchlow’s book is a well written, generally well researched effort dealing with a tremendously important issue. He presents the reader with a clear and precise chronology of the rise of the conservative Republicans to power, introducing us to an array of interesting personalities, institutions, and writings along the way. Nevertheless, the weaknesses of the book—the author’s failure to grapple with the issue of race in any meaningful fashion; the factual errors and distortions of historical events to fit the needs of his interpretation; and the troubling lack of objectivity when dealing with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans—all combine to make his study more frustrating than useful.


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