The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party

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The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party. By Michael D. Bowen. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. 254 pp.

Michael Bowen argues that scholars have paid insufficient attention to the fractious nature of Republican politics during the 1940s and 1950s. The result, he believes, is a historical narrative about the rise of the New Right that is inaccurate and overstated. By examining the two main rifts within the Republican Party during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bowen attempts to correct the idea that Barry Goldwater's 1964 nomination was revolutionary. Instead, the author asserts, "Goldwater's defeat was not the birth of a new political movement but, rather, a passing of the torch between generations" (p. 205).

Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft and New York Governor Thomas Dewey headed the two main factions of the Republican Party. The former identified with the conservative Old Guard of the party, while the latter believed the only way that the GOP could survive was by embracing a moderate stance accepting some of the changes to the American political structure that had occurred during the twentieth century. These poles will be familiar to scholars. Bowen argues, however, that the differences between these two men--and the factions they represented--were never as stark as either indicated. In fact, among the political elites who are at the heart of this study, ideology was a rationalization employed to explain factionalism. Securing party patronage was one of the main goals for these elites, and at least in the 1940s and early 1950s, according to the author, personal power was more important than ideology. Over time, however, statements about strong or modern conservatives took on deeper meaning, so that by the late 1950s, the differences between the wings of the party were more noticeable and meaningful.

The Roots of Modern Conservatism is a compact and quite readable book. Bowen's eight main chapters cover the period from 1944 to 1964, although in reality the majority of the text covers the 1944-53 period. …