Conservatism and American Political Development

By Sobey, Gareth | Melbourne Journal of Politics, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Conservatism and American Political Development


Sobey, Gareth, Melbourne Journal of Politics


Conservatism and American Political Development

Brian J. Glenn and Steve M. Teles

New York, Oxford University Press, 2009. 392pp.

ISBN 0195373936 (pbk)

$24.95

For many American liberals, the years of Lyndon Johnson's Presidency are remembered as the high watermark of twentieth century US politics--that moment, described by Hunter S. Thompson, when 'the wave finally broke and rolled back'. Since then American liberalism has, at least from the perspective of many standing on the left of the ideological spectrum, been seen to be in retreat before a resurgent movement of conservatism. Ushered into a period of dominance in federal politics when Ronald Reagan won the 1980 Presidential election, conservatives reshaped the nation's political landscape over the course of the next two decades, reframing the social policy debate and forcing Democrats to retreat into their own brand of conservatism (Abrams 173). As political scientist Michael Schwarz observed in 1998, conservatism was 'the ideology of the times' (Schwarz 1). Even under the Clinton Administration, federal policy continued along a 'conservative trajectory' that would 'preclude major new social policy initiatives, and limit increases in direct, highly visible social expenditures for working-age Americans' (Pierson and Skopol 4).

It remains far too reductive, however, to regard late twentieth-century American political history as an era of unchecked conservative triumph. One new book that challenges such narratives is Conservatism and American Political Development. Edited by political scientists Brian J. Glenn and Steven M. Teles, the book compiles a series of studies of social policy that draw upon the expertise of a wide range of American political scientists and historians. Examining the campaigns of Washington-based conservatives politicians over an eighty-year period, this collection of studies focuses on their battles within three areas of social policy that has traditionally served as the home turf for liberals: education, social security and environmental policy. While the book documents the undeniable strength and influence of conservatism in twentieth century America, its wide-ranging historical analysis allows the authors to look beyond short-term trends in social policy, observing both the decline of "anti-statist" conservatism in wake of the Great Depression and the entrenchment of federal programs during the 1960s and 1970s. The subsequent transformation of the conservative movement in America, the authors conclude, would depend upon a concession that "further advances would depend upon adapting to the liberal inheritance, rather than directly reversing it". (14)

Structurally, Conservatism and American Political Development divides twentieth century American history into three periods-the first beginning with President Roosevelt's 'New Deal' initiatives, the second with Johnson's 'Great Society', and the last with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. For each of these periods, the editors devote a chapter to a study of the campaigning and public policy initiatives of conservatives in health, social security and education. The detail in which a number of key moments in social policy are documented is often illuminating. …

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