History

Soundbite: Flip Your Whig

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"Historians have long ignored the tradition of conservative politics in America–the development and shaping of a key set of principles and affectations that eventually led to political activism and the capture of a major political party," notes Gregory L. Schneider in his recent Cadres For Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Right (New York University Press). Schneider's highly readable and accessible study of YAF, the student group founded in 1960 by William F. Buckley, M. Stanton Evans, William Rusher, and other right-wing eminences, seeks to redress that imbalance. Cadres for Conservatism extends and enriches recent books, including John Andrew's The Other Side of the Sixties (1997), which similarly seek to explain the post-1960s swing to the right by exploring conservative goings-on in a decade mostly remembered for left-wing activism. Executive Editor Nick Gillespie spoke with Schneider, an assistant professor of history at Emporia State University in Kansas, via telephone.

Q: Why have historians ignored nonliberal traditions in American history and politics?

A: Partly because a Whig model of history still prevails: Historians tend to see everything as leading to the current moment of "triumph." Among contemporary American historians, the typical view is that everything leads to the buildup of the state and its grand solutions to social problems. The New Deal solved the problem of the Depression, goes this line of thought, and the Great Society solved the problem of poverty. Of course, they didn't. But they're seen as noble attempts to at least deal with those issues.

Q: You write that historians "are beginning to recover" conservative and other traditions. Why now?

A: For myself, I started with the question that if liberal history is correct, then how do you explain Ronald Reagan? I discovered that there is a conservative tradition, one that extends back at least as long as the one that brought about contemporary liberalism. But going to college in the 1980s, I never heard anything about it, never even heard about Barry Goldwater in the classroom. Reagan's rise was attributed to something like a conspiracy.

Q: What was YAF's biggest contribution to American politics?

A: It served the role of forming political cadres for conservative causes. For the most part, that activity was embodied by anticommunism, but it also included support of limited government and candidates like Reagan. YAF was the political wing of the conservative movement. It provided the staffers in the Reagan administration and influential people in a wide variety of other institutions and areas.