The Right in the Rearview Mirror

E.J. Dionne

The left first ignored the American right, then imitated it, and then became obsessed with it.

That pattern is likely to reproduce itself in reverse, even if conservatives are currently stuck in the first stage: They are so persuaded that ours is a “center-right country,” to use a phrase Karl Rove is fond of, that they cannot take the center-left seriously. Just as a legion of liberals initially dismissed the resurrection of Richard Nixon and the rise of Ronald Reagan as aberrations, so many conservatives are now dismissing the parlous state of their creed and the Obama phenomenon as an accident of George W. Bush’s presidency.

The parallels between 1980 and 2008 are extraordinary. Liberals once asked: How could Jimmy Carter’s presidency be held against us, since Carter was no liberal? Conservatives are asking why George W. Bush, whom they now see as a big-government big-spender, should be held against conservatism. Our friends on the right are running away from Bush, a man they once embraced slavishly as the architect of a new conservative era, with embarrassing eagerness.

And if some progressives once thought there was nothing wrong with their movement that a purer doctrine wouldn’t cure, so now are many on the right proclaiming that their movement will be saved only by true, full-throated and unembarrassed conservatism.

But facts, as Reagan once said, are stubborn things, and conservatives would do well to consult some of the fine work now being done by progressive historians on the conservative era that is in its final days. If liberals once dismissed the rising right as a bunch of insecure crackpots animated by “status anxiety” and other psychological ills, the right’s undeniable successes have forced them to take a more sober and, occasionally, a more respectful view. Serious studies of the right are now an academic-growth industry. One of the great virtues of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, the helpful collection of essays edited by Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, is that it gathers in one place many of the best young left-of-center historians working on the rise of the right. Conservatives will take issue with many of the book’s conclusions; they cannot say any longer, as they once could, that the liberal academy doesn’t take conservatism seriously.

In his excellent The Age of Reagan, Sean Wilentz certainly takes his subject seriously. Above all, Wilentz grasps the relevance of Reagan’s past as a hopeful New Dealer to his success as a conservative politician, when he harnessed Rooseveltian optimism to a creed devoted to undoing FDR’s legacy. In the process, Reagan transformed conservatism itself, at least temporarily.

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Reprinted with permission from E.J. Dionne, “The Right in the Rearview Mirror,” The American Prospect Online, September 02, 2008. The American Prospect, 1710 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, 12th floor, Washington, DC 20036.  All rights reserved.”