That the second half of the twentieth century has seen a dramatic turnaround in American politics is evident, even in the admittedly superficial area of political labels. Around the middle of the twentieth century, the word “conservative” was generally disdained, even by those, like Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, who seemed most clearly entitled to it. By the 1990’s, of course, “liberal” had become the despised label. In THE WORLD TURNED RIGHT SIDE UP: A HISTORY OF THE CONSERVATIVE ASCENDANCY IN AMERICA Godfrey Hodgson traces the historical stages in this turnaround.
To some enthusiasts, the turnaround has been nothing less than a revolution, but Hodgson remains skeptical. He finds the American electorate at the end of the twentieth century still committed to a version of social democracy, if increasingly irritated at having to pay for it. He also finds that liberal blunders, especially on social issues, have made liberalism itself available as an object of the voters’ irritation. He finds further that conservatism has been well placed to exploit these irritations. What he does not find is that conservatism has truly won the American people over to its vision of the good society.
Like George H. Nash in his respected and sympathetic THE CONSERVATIVE INTELLECTUAL MOVEMENT IN AMERICA, SINCE 1945 (1976), Hodgson finds within American conservatism two contrasting tendencies. On the one hand, there are those conservatives who value tradition, community, order. On the other, there are those for whom individual liberty is the highest value. During the Cold War, traditionalists and libertarians could ignore their differences in the light of their shared antipathy to Communism. The question for the future of conservatism is whether the rift between traditionalism and libertarianism will prove as deep, if not necessarily as wide, as that between conservatism and liberalism.
Hodgson offers an informed and readable survey of the major players and events in the conservative ascendancy, even if what he has to say about them is rarely profound or original. His own centrist perspective lends to his investigation a detachment that may vex ideologues of left and right but will impress the open-minded as on the whole just and measured.