The history of American political discourse has been written almost entirely by academics and pundits in the liberal/progressive tradition of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. This is evident from even a cursory reading of American history — wherein conservative leaders and ideas are often described with pejorative adjectives like “extreme,” “hard,” “arch-,” “virulent” and so on, while liberal leaders and ideas are often described as “brave,” “far-sighted,” and “spirited.”
As annoying as this tendentious use of the language is, it pales in comparison to a far greater problem: the systematic tendency to interpret conservatism as a reactionary force in American life and liberalism as its necessary cure. Thus, the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 is understood as a step forward in American history, while the election of Calvin Coolidge in 1924 is but an unfortunate pause. The 73rd Congress that began legislating the New Deal is trumpeted as heroic, but the Republican-run 80th Congress that peeled back many of its excesses is castigated as reactionary. John Kennedy’s narrow victory in 1960 is seen as a shining moment still worthy of celebration some fifty years later, but Dwight Eisenhower’s sweep in 1952 is never given a second thought.
What this bias has systematically hidden from view is the enduring, positive power of conservative Republicanism in American civic life. The public has, time and again over the last 120 years, turned in overwhelming numbers to conservative leaders for two reasons. The first is the recognition that the prosperity of the “common man” depends in large part on the prosperity of American business, which has always had the support of the Republican party. The second is the understanding that while social change is often useful, not all change is, and too much change can damage the social fabric. Progressives and liberals have never understood this, which is what has made conservatives such an attractive option time and again.
And so, far from being reactionary aberrations, conservative victories in 1896, 1924, 1952 and 1980 are as central to understanding the American political tradition as progressive/liberal victories 1912, 1932, 1960, or 2008.
It is particularly important for conservatives to appreciate this, for too often it seems they implicitly accept the liberal narrative of American history, and operate under the false premise that Ronald Reagan was the first of his kind. Not so! And for conservatives to articulate a compelling and coherent agenda for the future, they must come to a fuller understanding of their own, vital role in modern American history.