New Book by Historian Allan Lichtman Explores Roots of Conservative Movement

White Protestant Nation: The Rise
of the American Conservative Movement

By Allan J. Lichtman
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008
$27.50 (hardback)

Allan Lichtman, a veteran journalist and political historian at American University, takes his readers on an in-depth tour of the American conservative movement in White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement. Starting with the Roaring Twenties, Lichtman traces the twists and turns of the movement's organizations and leaders through the present day. An important aspect of Lichtman's book is its focus on the centrality of anti-pluralism to the movement, from anti-immigrant xenophobia and racism in the early parts of the century to anti-gay beliefs today. His basic thesis is that at the heart of American conservatism is "an antipluralistic ideal of America as a unified, white Protestant nation."

Lichtman argues that the conservative movement arose in the 1920s "out of a widespread concern that pluralistic, cosmopolitan forces threatened America's national identity." The movement was multifaceted but extremely biased, with some sectors specializing in racism or anti-Catholic xenophobia (especially the 1920s Ku Klux Klan) while others were anti-Semitic, attacking Hollywood. Other parts of the movement were entirely focused on economic issues, but willing to work with anti-pluralist groups in exchange for financial benefits.

Lichtman claims that early conservatism was rooted in what today would be called a white nationalist vision: "Both religion and race have mattered for conservatives who view nationhood as anchored in white, native-stock peoples and their distinctive culture." This vision has repeatedly resulted in prejudicial treatment of non-whites or given rise to extreme antigovernment movements. "Since World War I, conservatives have been cultural, religious and at times racial nationalists, dedicated to protecting America's superior civilization from racially or culturally inferior peoples, foreign ideologies, sexual deviance, ecumenical religion, or the encroachment of a so-called one-world government," writes Lichtman.

Especially useful for readers of the Intelligence Report, Lichtman provides a tremendous amount of information on what would now be seen as the disreputable right: thinkers such as Willis Carto, whose anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby had several hundred thousand subscribers until Carto began to push Holocaust denial in the late 1970s, and Lawrence Dennis, a supporter of fascism who was the preeminent political strategist behind opposition to the New Deal (and a hero to the radical right today). Lichtman also delves deeply into the role of the John Birch Society in building up conservative ranks during the Goldwater era and afterwards.

Again and again, Lichtman shows that conservatives have decided to play ball, sometimes quietly, sometimes openly, with extremists (some of whom they personally disagreed with) to build up their ranks. It was not a mistake, he writes, that Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, which was marked by the GOP's embrace of the Southern strategy, held its first event in support of "state's rights" in Philadelphia, Miss. Given that that is where three civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — were murdered in 1964, Reagan's pandering to the white, Southern vote was clear.

In many ways, the evolution of William F. Buckley, which is covered extensively in White Protestant Nation, parallels the conservative movement's shift away from extremism in the past few decades. In the 1950s, Buckley's National Review supported segregation and notions of black inferiority. Over time, racist and other anti-pluralist ideas were ditched. In 1997, National Review even took a stand against anti-immigrant extremism, cashiering out Peter Brimelow, who wrote the virulently anti-immigrant book, Alien Nation (Brimelow, who still writes for The Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch, would shortly thereafter set up his own anti-immigrant hate site, VDARE.com), and John O'Sullivan, the editor who encouraged Brimelow's work.

Unfortunately, extremists keep popping up at key moments in the conservative movement. It is still somewhat shocking to think that the man behind most of the dirt dug up by the Arkansas Project, which was run by the conservative magazine, American Spectator, to sully the Clintons, was Jim Johnson. In his earlier life, Johnson headed the segregationist Little Rock Citizens Council and he is currently listed as serving on the editorial advisory board of the newsletter Citizens Informer, put out by the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, the direct descendant of the White Citizens Councils.

But things have changed in the last 10 years as open racism has led to public humiliation and GOP disavowal of prominent conservatives, including former Senators George Allen and Trent Lott. As Lichtman points out, pandering to anti-pluralist views is hard to do "without alienating centrist voters" who are key to electoral victory.

Lichtman's book has been attacked by prominent leaders of the conservative movement, in particular former Bush speechwriter David Frum, for over-emphasizing conservatism's nastier strands. While it is true that moderate conservatives like Frum, who is openly pluralist and advocates a tolerant, big-tent GOP, are a world away from Willis Carto or the conspiracymongers of the John Birch Society, the anti-immigrant outburst seen in the 2008 GOP primaries and the anti-gay rhetoric of the Christian Right — views that have been reiterated by some prominent GOP leaders — show that anti-pluralist beliefs are alive and well in certain sectors of the conservative movement.

— By Heidi Beirich