Creating Conservatism: Postwar Words that Made an American Movement, by Michael J. Lee. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, Rhetoric and Public Affairs Series, 2014, 316 pp., $34.95 paperback.
A scholarly study of this caliber is always a good thing to see, but in light of the potential for biased and unfair polemics inherent in its subject, Michael J. Lee's analysis of right-wing ideas and rhetoric is doubly welcome, for it reassures one that impartial inquiry and fair-minded treatment of fraught topics are still being produced in the American academy. The study is thoroughly researched, sensibly organized, clearly written and dispassionate in tone and attitude. "My goals in this book are expository, not critical," the author states in the prologue, and the book lives up to this modus from dedication to index (p. 10). This volume belongs in the library of any research institution and will be of particular value for those who teach or study in schools of government or departments of political science, rhetoric, communication and American studies.
Lee focuses on modern American conservatism's genesis in the years between the end of WWII and Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful presidential campaign of 1964. The formative "postwar words" referred to in the title are found in the canon of books that Lee identifies as the foundational texts of this movement, along with several not-quite-canonical-but-still-important texts. Readers familiar with the currents of thought on the American right will find no surprises in the list of canonical authors, which includes Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Robert Nisbet, Frank Meyer, Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, Friederich Hayek, and Whittaker Chambers. These authors still occupy pride of place in the world of right wing media, political punditry, academic organizations and think tanks. One finds them in lists of books to read that are posted on conservative web sites, including those aimed directly at students and professional academics.^
Although Lee's choices are well-known within conservative circles, they are probably less well known within the academy, including fields where political thought is directly relevant. This is ironic when one considers that the authors work in these fields provided the impetus and intellectual sustenance for the rightward shift of American politics in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Conservatives have often pointed out that the academy leans to the left both in its personal predilections, and also, more troublingly, in too much of its professional conduct. In relation to fields where politics and ideology have actual relevance for pedagogy, curriculum or research, conservatives have charged that the American professoriate demonstrates indifference, condescension or overt hostility to right-leaning politics. An interesting development in recent years finds leftist and left-leaning academics not only admitting the truth of this charge, but calling for the academy to take steps to remedy the problems presented by such bias, which, it must be admitted, in certain fields of study amounts to a willful ignorance (see for example, Cardiff & Klein, 2005; Haidt, 2011; Lilla, 2009; Lyons, 2009; and Tierney, 2011). As Mark Lilla (2009) has put the matter, "The unfortunate fact is that American academics have until recently shown little curiosity about conservative ideas, even though those ideas have utterly transformed American (and British) politics over the past 30 years." Lee's work, then, represents an important intervention in this needed area. Creating Conservatism serves as an accessible but by no means dumbed down introduction to the works of influential right wing thinkers. At a...