Why has the political environment in the United States veered away from the New Deal liberalism of the middle third of the twentieth century toward an increasingly conservative position? This fine overview offers a well-grounded historical analysis of the process of rising conservatism and related questions. It serves as an excellent introduction to an important and complex topic. William C. Berman takes on an interesting and controversial issues in recent political history, and handles it in a relatively non-biased manner although partisans on one side or the other will probably not acknowledge this.
Berman’s account, which is designed for use in an undergraduate course on twentieth century history, takes a chronological approach to the topic. Beginning with the resistance to the policies of FDR to combat the Great Depression of the 1930s, he offers chapters that deal with “The Politics of Culture and Class, 1964-1974, “The Conservative Upsurge, 1974-1976,” “Jimmy Carter and the Crisis of Liberalism,” “The Triumph of Conservatism, 1980,” “The Reagan Revolution,” “Conservatism in Decline, 1985-1992,” and “The Clinton Center.” This second edition was published in 2001 so there is virtually no discussion of the election of 200o and the presidency of George W. Bush.
Berman emphasizes several benchmarks in the rise of conservatism to its current dominant place in the political life of the United States. The first is the now nearly mythical stomping in the 1964 presidential election by the Democrat Lyndon Johnson of Republican Barry Goldwater, a principled conservative who would rather adhere to his ideals than compromise for the sake of political office. Second, the development of conservative-leaning intellectual institutions that gave haven to thinkers and incubated the ideas that emerged in the 1970s to dominate the political discourse. Those ideas fueled the conservative movement, far more effectively than most people probably possible, during the political fights of the rest of the twentieth century.
Third, Berman emphasizes the rise of Ronald Reagan as a standard bearer not just of opposition to New Deal/Great Society liberalism but also of a coordinated and consistent ideology of what government should be and how it should behave. Efforts to put into place that alternative philosophy of governance and polity in a way that could not be dismantled by a Democratic successor to the Oval Office may have been Reagan’s most lasting accomplishment, certainly Berman’s account of the Clinton presidency suggests that may well be the case. Failing to forge a useful counter to the conservative forces in society and politics, Clinton moved increasingly to the center, some would say center right, to ensure his reelection in 1996.
Finally, and this was my most significant take away from this book, Berman makes explicit how the convergence of conservative economic ideas, conservative political philosophy, and social conservatism created a powerful coalition of strikingly divergent people who did not agree with each other on many issues but could work together toward a common general, if ill-defined, vision of the United States. I have read many other books that talk about this merger of ideas into a political juggernaut, however uneasily the disparate elements may have cooperated, but Berman’s account is both more crisply written and clearly argued than many of these other works. Moreover, his refusal to take sides in the debate is both unusual and refreshing.
While some might see political bias in this book, the reality is that this is one of the most even-handed treatments of this important political movement I have read. Nothing, of course, is totally unbiased, and America’s Right Turn is not either, but William Berman tries hard to offer a balanced perspective and overall he succeeds.