Conservatives: Half Full? Half Empty?

Is the sky falling? Do conservatives think it is? I’ve been pondering these questions since Prof. Seth Cotlar asked about them recently in a tweet. When it comes to schools in twentieth-century America, if I had to pick one word (okay, two) to capture the heart and soul of conservatism, I’d pick “common sense” over “decline.”

cotlar tweet conservatismProf. Cotlar wondered,

According to every conservative since Burke, has ‘the west’ ever not been declining?

The question and several answers made me wonder about the specific tradition of educational conservatism. By and large, my research convinces me to side with Prof. Corey Robin, who pointed out that there has also been

An optimism, if you will, at the heart of the right.

When it comes to education and schools, certainly, the educational conservatives I studied were extremely optimistic or at least hopeful that they could reassert sensible control over their local public schools. Failing that, educational conservatives have generally been confident that they could open and operate their own schools, schools in which the terrible trends of progressive education and politics could be removed.cotlar tweet conservatism Corey Robin

Over and over, conservatives have built their campaigns on a deep and abiding optimism that their beliefs were merely common sense. Yes, conservative activists have often asserted, duped or devious progressives may have taken schools in terrible directions, but by and large conservatives insisted that their ideas were the true middle, the obvious common-sense educational program.

In the 1970s, for example, in the textbook controversy that engulfed Kanawha County, West Virginia, conservative pundit Elmer Fike didn’t quote Spengler or Burke or Burnham. Rather, he insisted that conservatism was the side of mainstream common sense. It was overreaching progressive bullies who had abandoned the center. For proof, Fike turned to the National Education Association’s 1918 Cardinal Principles report. In a full-page ad in a Charleston newspaper, Fike made the following claims:

We believe that the legitimate purpose of education is to promote the widely accepted Seven Cardinal Principles—command of fundamental processes (the three R’s), health, worthy home membership, vocational preparation, civic education, leisure time activities, and ethical character.  We believe that many of the controversial texts fail to promote these principles.  Rather, they tend to undermine the ethical character and social values of home and community accepted by a large majority of the people.

We believe that the continued use of these controversial books will result in antisocial behavior, further deterioration of social standards, increase in crime, and delinquency.

We believe that these books do not promote, in fact, are an attack on, the American system that has made this country the envy of the world.

While we abhor violence and shun demonstrations, we believe that the affect of these books is of sufficient consequence to warrant the use of any and all available legal means to have them removed.

Or consider the plans and prophecies of California’s Max Rafferty. Rafferty was a one-time State Superintendent of California’s public schools and a popular syndicated columnist.

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…he didn’t win.

He wrote in 1970 that his “California philosophy . . . has Deweyism in nationwide retreat.” It could be so successful, Rafferty insisted time and time again, because it was built on common sense about the true nature of education. Progressives simply misunderstood humans. It was conservatives who knew what to do. As Rafferty wrote in 1964,

Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In the 1980s, too, Reagan’s second ed secretary William Bennett pushed his reforms as mere common sense. Though voters may think that education is controversial, Bennett liked to say, there was in fact “an American consensus” about what school should look like. Bennett specifically rejected pessimistic thinking, or, at least, he tried to stick progressives with the Chicken-Little label. As Bennett wrote in 1988,

Apocalyptic analyses and Chicken Little stories about an onrushing wave of ‘unteachable’ students should be rejected. In fact, the analyses and stories themselves—and the attitudes they reveal—belong at the top of any short list of real problems now facing American education. [Emphasis in original.]

For Bennett, as for Fike, Rafferty, and a host of other conservative educational activists in the twentieth century, hope sprang eternal. Yes, schools may be in bad shape, ideologically.  But in every decade, conservative pundits and parents rallied around the notion that their ideas represented beleaguered common sense.

How bout it? If you had to pick one word (or phrase) to capture the essence of conservative thinking, what would you use?

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Why Not Go All the Way?

Is Trumpism a monstrous reality-show perversion of true conservatism? Or has Trumpism merely exposed the true racism and anti-intellectualism lurking in the heart of American conservative thinking? Historian Seth Cotlar raised these questions again in a recent Twitter thread. Can Never-Trump conservatives like David Frum take bitter solace in the notion that Trumpism has trumped true conservatism? Or must all conservatives recognize that Trump is nothing more than their movement’s Smerdyakov? The back-and-forth highlights a fundamental truth about conservatism—and political punditry in general—that doesn’t get enough attention.cotlar tweet

Let’s start at the beginning: Professor Cotlar draws attention to the fact that conservative thinkers did not suddenly in 2016 start to mouth muddle-headed and shamelessly demagogic notions. As Cotlar shows, back in the 1990s Newt Gingrich was fond of taking obviously ridiculous positions for political gain. And Cotlar mentions the longer history. Back in the 1950s, Cotlar notes, conservatives were making similar Trumpish noises.

All true and fair, IMHO. Not only for conservatives, but for progressives as well. Not only since the 1950s, but throughout the twentieth century, conservatives and progressives both struggled to define themselves. Conservatives and progressives both wondered how to draw meaningful boundaries around their movements. Was it “progressive” to support Stalin’s purges? Was it “conservative” to indulge in feverish conspiracy theories about the Warren Court?

Indeed, instead of ever thinking about “true” conservatives (or progressives) fighting against “pretenders” or “RINOs,” we need to recognize the obvious historic fact that there IS no such thing as a single, real conservatism (or progressivism).

All we have ever had is a cacophony of contenders for the label. At some points in history, say in the mid-1950s or mid-1990s, conservatives might have rallied around a particularly charismatic or compelling vision of what they wanted conservatism to look like. In the end, however, the history of conservatism is only a history of a battle to claim the mantle of “true” conservatism in the face of the many contenders.

Consider just a couple of examples from the twentieth century. In the 1920s, for example, the revived Ku Klux Klan made a serious play to represent mainstream conservative thinking. As I argue in my book about educational conservatism, national leader Hiram Evans hoped to use the mainstream issue of public education to transform the reputation of the Klan. Yes, the group was racist, xenophobic, and bigoted. And yes, plenty of Americans felt uncomfortable with the Klan’s reputation for vigilante violence and secret ritual. In spite of that reputation, Imperial Wizard Evans hoped—with good reason—that he could reshape the Klan’s reputation as the bastion of “true” conservatism.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

Is this “real” conservatism?

In the 1950s, too, conservatives battled for the right to be considered the “real” conservatives. Time and time again, radicals such as Allen Zoll warned residents of Pasadena, California that left-wing conspirators planned to brainwash children in public schools. As Zoll wrote in one widely circulated pamphlet,

We had better stop smiling. There IS a conspiracy.

To non-conservative journalists, Zoll’s hysterical, bigoted rhetoric captured the tone of American conservatism. They assumed that Zoll’s claims to be a conservative spokesman should be taken at face value. So much so that they were often surprised to meet different types of conservative thinkers. For instance, one of the conservative leaders of the 1950s school controversy in Pasadena was Louise Padelford. Padelford was no less strident than Zoll when it came to combatting progressive trends in education. Her tone was worlds removed, however. As one journalist wrote in surprise when he met her, Padelford had

clear blue eyes that look out at the world with wide-open frankness; her ear is keen, her wit quick, and her smile enchanting.

The journalist’s surprise might seem silly to anyone familiar with the true complexity of American politics. There’s no reason why a conservative can’t have a quick wit and an enchanting smile. At the time, though, to one journalist at least, to be “conservative” meant to be Zollish and trollish.

Time and again, conservatives throughout the twentieth century battled to claim the title of the “real” conservatives. Was it mild-mannered but strident Ivy-League PhD Louise Padelford? Or was it rabble-rousing pamphleteer Allen Zoll?

As Professor Cotlar points out, it has always been both. Not just since the 1990s, but throughout the twentieth century. And if we want to make sense of the tension between self-proclaimed Never-Trump conservatives and foolhardy Trumpish demagogues, we need to go all the way.

Namely, we need to recognize that there has never been—NEVER—a single true conservative movement. Not in the offices of the National Review. Not in the hard drive of David Frum.

Conservatism, like all keywords, has always only been a prize up for contention.