Seeking a New Majority: The Republican Party and American Politics, 1960-1980

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Seeking a New Majority: The Republican Party and American Politics, 1960-1980. Edited by Robert Mason and Iwan Morgan. (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2013. Pp. [viii], 238. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8265-1889-7.)

If martians had tuned into the 2012 Republican presidential debates, they surely would have wondered, "Who is this Ronald Reagan they speak of, and why isn't he running?" Indeed, the invocation of "the Gipper" has become de rigueur for aspiring GOP candidates. Though political historians hardly engage in the Republican Party's ancestor worship, they also pay Reagan too much heed. This, however, was not always the case. Twenty years ago, Alan Brinkley termed American conservatism a veritable "orphan in historical scholarship" ("The Problem of American Conservatism," American Historical Review, 99 [April 1994], 409-29 [quotation on 409]). In the intervening years, specialists have remedied this gaping chasm and penned volumes about Reagan and his movement, but the problem remains that conservatism never belonged to the Gipper.

Robert Mason and Iwan Morgan recognize the dilemma of a Reagan-centered historiography. In Seeking a New Majority: The Republican Party and American Politics, 1960-1980, they have gathered eleven top scholars to address this imbalance. The authors have penned essays that reveal the contingent events, personalities, and issues that produced the Reagan revolution. As editors and authors, Mason and Morgan are superbly equipped for their task. Eminent scholars of contemporary conservatism, they have helped blaze the historiographical trail of the modem Right.

The pair's introduction sets the volume's scope and parameters. In the popular mind, and in much of academia, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War paved a linear road from 1964 to 1980. Mason and Morgan argue that the conservative path to victory was anything but preordained. Scarcely master of its own destiny, "the Republican Party's history between 1960 and 1980 mirrored the broader tumult that the United States experienced" (p. 4). With the keynote struck, the additional chapters buttress this primary theme.

If the introduction provides the tone, then Donald T. Critchlow establishes the broad outlines in which to understand modem conservatism. A pioneer in the study of modem conservatism, Critchlow deftly depicts "the rise of a self-identified conservative movement, which would turn the Republican Party into a voice of conservatism" (p. 13). Conservatives capitalized on the era's tumult and liberal foibles and followed a pragmatic path to power.

The volume's additional chapters address an array of subjects ranging from race and ethnicity, to foreign policy and social issues, and finally, to Reagan. Timothy N. Thurber, Joe Merton, and Catherine E. Rymph tackle race and ethnicity and effectively battle conventional wisdom. According to Thurber, the postwar GOP's failure to woo black voters was less about bigotry than it was about electoral math. …