In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Historiography of Twentieth-Century American Conservatism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Political Science The Historiography of Twentieth-Century American Conservatism
Michael Kimmage
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0080


After a period of relative neglect, the study of postwar American conservatism has recently come to preoccupy historians of the United States. It now ranks among the liveliest subjects in the entire field of 20th-century US history. The historiography breaks into four phases. In an early phase, from the 1950s through the 1970s, conservatism being written into the historical narrative was an act of scholarly will at a time when liberalism and radicalism were much closer to the historiographical mainstream. In a second phase, in the 1970s and 1980s, conservatism was deemed a major historical force in modern America and was characterized as a “backlash” against the New Deal, the civil rights movement, the Great Society, the feminist movement, etc. In a third phase, conservatism was presented as more active than reactive. according to these historians, ideas that had crystallized in the 1950s came into their own politically in the 1980s, in the Reagan era. During the fourth and (for the time being) final phase, accent has fallen on the varieties of American conservatism and on its hybrid nature, absorbing and interacting with trends that could be characterized as liberal or radical. In this article, the relevant historiography is separated into seven branches (arranged alphabetically): anticommunism, the conservative movement, foreign policy, libertarianism, media, race-class-gender, and traditionalism. It has been argued that anticommunism, traditionalism, and libertarianism were fused into a “modern” American conservatism, that disparate ideas were fashioned into a workable ideology, and that this ideology was the tool Reagan used to remake American politics. The classic formulation of this argument is The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (Nash 2006 cited under Monographs), to which there are many revisionist alternatives. Media concerns the changing role of communication, from the intellectual magazines of the 1950s to talk radio in the 1990s, and beyond. Foreign policy encompasses conservative debate on the ideals and practice of American foreign policy, moving among isolationism, realism, and neoconservatism. In the future, scholars will work through other arguments and narratives involving these branches, and new branches will surely be added.

General Overviews

The evolution of research on American conservatism has not been given the attention it deserves. While historians have been delving into the history of American conservatism, the delicate job of theoretical definition mostly remains to be done. Many bridges are still to be built between historical inquiry and political philosophy. The transnational orientation of some of these titles will enrich future scholarship and further expand the subject’s perimeter. As it stands, only one title in this bibliography, Soffer 2009, is a book-length study, much of it devoted to British historiography. The rest of the titles are either essays, books of essays, or edited volumes. Huntington 1957 remains a cogent outline of conservative typology, a fruitful point of departure for any theoretical study of American conservatism. Ribuffo 1992 is less theoretical than Huntington 1957. The value of Ribuffo 1992 resides in its juxtapositions and in Ribuffo’s against-the-grain efforts, c. 1992, to place the Right on par historiographically with the center and the Left. Muller 1997 is a contribution to the theoretical literature on American conservatism in two respects. The book gathers work by canonical conservative theorists (many of them European, a few American), and its introduction establishes key continuities and discontinuities. Berkowitz 2004 continues the work begun in Muller 1997, narrowing its focus to conservatism in America. Burns 2009 (cited under Libertarianism) is a reckoning with what remains the most important book on American conservatism, Nash 2006 (cited under Monographs). Burns 2009 is a theoretical portrait of conservatism in American historiography from the 1950s to the early 21st century. Critchlow and MacLean 2009 is a document collection with a spirited historiographical (and to a lesser extent theoretical) dimension.

  • Berkowitz, Peter, ed. Varieties of Conservatism in America. Stanford, CA: Hoover, 2004.

    This is an edited volume with essays on traditionalism, libertarianism, and neoconservatism/anticommunism. As the title implies, the Berkowitz’s organizational emphasis probes the relevance of Nash 2006 (cited under Monographs), balancing an appreciation of that book’s lasting stature with suggestions for new scholarly directions.

  • Critchlow, Donald, and Nancy MacLean. Debating the American Conservative Movement: 1945 to the Present. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

    A collection of primary sources, from 1961 to 1995, with scholarly commentary from two distinguished historians of American conservatism. Critchlow and MacLean address the question of scholarly attitude—critical distance versus sympathy—for historians at work on American conservatism.

  • Huntington, Samuel. “Conservatism as an Ideology.” American Political Science Review 51.2 (June 1957): 454–473.

    DOI: 10.2307/1952202

    This essay reviews several major theories of conservatism, from Burke to Mannheim to Kirk. The first half maps the various types of conservatism; the second half develops the thesis that conservatism in America has been a “situational ideology,” not a static set of ideas or a fixed ideology wedded to a single class or region.

  • Muller, Jerry Z., ed. Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

    This book is a collection of primary source documents that describe the evolution of conservative thought in Europe and America, from the 18th to the 20th century. Muller’s introduction provides a theoretical and historical overview of his subject in its Euro-American context.

  • Ribuffo, Leo. Right, Center, Left: Essays in American History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

    This is an effort, from a distinguished historian of American conservatism, to think across the American political spectrum. Ribuffo is innovative in his refusal to isolate conservatism from the Left and/or the political center in his conceptualization of modern American history.

  • Soffer, Reba. History, Historians, and Conservatism in Britain and America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A trans-Atlantic study of conservative historians, focusing, on the American side, on Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, and Daniel Boorstin. Soffer analyzes the relationship between conservative principle and the fashioning of a conservative historiography.

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