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White Protestant Nation

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

Traditionally both academics and political analysts have traced the roots of the American conservative movement to the 1950s or ’60s. American University history professor Allan Lichtman takes a different view in his book White Protestant Nation, and in part it is this longer, more complicated view that has earned his work critical acclaim. 

Released last year, it is one of five finalists for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award, which will be announced Thursday.

“He locates the rise of the American conservative movement not in the McCarthyite paranoias of the ’50s; not in the counter-counter-cultural thrust of those disgusted with hippies, liberals, and radicals in the late ’60s and early ’70s; but rather in the 1920s—that infamous decade more usually taken up as ‘the Jazz Age,’ but which a long cold look might also render ‘The Klan Age,’ writes Maureen McLane in the National Book Critics Circle review. “Lichtman’s history is deeply researched yet lucidly and even spiritedly written.”

Lichtman always has been enthralled by the history of politics, and he wrote the book to fill what he considered a “hole” in the research on the topic.

“Most historians tend to be liberal, and they’ve written extensively about liberals and even radicals, but there had been very little written about conservatives,” he said. “To some extent this gap began to be filled starting in the 1990s, but nobody had put conservatism into the big picture. I felt that by writing the history of the last 100 years of conservatism, you almost are writing all of American political history because conservative ideas and policies and programs and politics touch upon everything.”

Challenged by new immigrants who started coming from eastern and southern Europe in the millions in the late nineteenth century, white Protestants banded together following World War I, Lichtman argues.

“They were threatened by the migration of African Americans from the south, by the new morality of the 1920s, and the new sexuality of the era,” he said. “There were so many ways in which what they saw as their traditional values and domination of America were being challenged. Those interested in conserving white Protestant values as they saw them joined with those interested in conserving private enterprise to form what I call the conservative consensus.”

Conservatives controlled American politics in the ’20s. Three straight Republican, conservative presidents were elected prior to the Great Depression and New Deal, which dealt a blow to the movement. While conservatives made minor gains in the ’50s, liberalism blossomed in the ’60s and ’70s before the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 ushered in the new era of conservatisim, Lichtman said.

After seven years of work, during which he ran in Maryland for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, Lichtman finished the book in 2007. Even before the election of Barack Obama, he predicted the demise of the conservative movement.

“Obviously nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky,” he said. “The conservative era would have to come to an end at some point. I argue it was coming to the end with the end of the Bush era, because the Bush era exposed a lot of fundamental contradictions within conservatism. Conservatism was imploding from within, it wasn’t anything liberals were doing. Liberals weren’t especially inspiring.

“Conservatives have rhetorically said we are for state’s rights, fiscal responsibility, limited government, and balanced budgets. What has George Bush done? Built the biggest, most expensive, most intrusive federal government in the history of the country. He increased spending more in his first four years than Bill Clinton did in his eight years.”

While the movement is in decline, it never will fully disappear, Lichtman said.

“Conservatism is much too deeply embedded in American institutions and ideas to disappear. The truth is even conservatives have no idea where their movement is going. Is it going in a nativist Tom Tancredo direction? Is it going in a libertarian direction, a Ron Paul kind of direction? Is it going to become a strictly business party, like Mitt Romney? Is it going to be a party focused on social conservatism, like Mike Huckabee? That’s why none of these figures are able to unite the party. They represent fragments of the movement.”

An unabashed liberal, Lichtman said he approached the book from the perspective of a historian.

“I approached it from the perspective of someone who knows and respects a lot of conservatives, from someone who thinks conservatism is really important, and from someone who does not believe that conservatism was just a reaction to liberalism,” he said. “They’re not trying to turn back the clock. They’re very forward looking. They believe progress is not going to be based on social security programs and regulation of business and unions. They believe progress is going to be made through religion and business. That’s a perfectly legitimate vision. Might not be my vision, but so what?”