Roundtable Studying the American Right, Center, and Left—All at the Same Time!

AHA Session 74
Friday, January 4, 2013: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Roosevelt Ballroom II (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Leo P. Ribuffo, George Washington University
Donald Critchlow, Arizona State University
Jennifer Delton, Skidmore College
Angela D. Dillard, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor
Michael Kazin, Georgetown University
Leo P. Ribuffo, George Washington University

Session Abstract

As recently as twenty years ago scholarly books and articles about American conservatism broadly conceived were rare.  Over the past decade they have become as ubiquitous as Starbucks skim lattes.  Twenty years ago scholarly books and articles about liberalism broadly conceived presented the default narrative of American politics and society.  Recently this subject has become so unfashionable that one of our panelists, Donald Critchlow, suggested at an AHA session in 2011 that historians need to rediscover the history of liberalism.  The study of radicalism broadly conceived has drifted even further from historians' attention.   In our roundtable we plan to build on the positive aspects of these developments  and compensate for the defects by discussing the twentieth-century American Right, Center, and Left in relation to one another.  Although such an approach may seem obvious, as panelist Michael Kazin commented when he was recruited, this is hardly the first time that the obvious runs counter to prevailing historiographical trends.

In their individual 10 minute opening remarks (sketched in more detail in the statements accompanying their biographies), the panelists will both suggest ways in which studying the Right, Center, and Left at the same time casts each of these "persuasions" in a fresh light and raise questions about the usefulness of  the spectrum as currently conceived.  Examining government as well as social movements, Critchlow will discuss how and why liberalism and conservatism have changed since the 1930s.  Simply put, liberals have increasingly emphasized non-economic issues as a result of constituency pressure while the realities of  controlling Congress and the presidency have forced conservatives to modify in practice their commitment to a smaller federal government.  Angela Dillard believes that application of the Right Center Left spectrum especially oversimplifies the African-American experience. To illustrate forgotten complexities, Dillard will trace the transition from Left to Right by a major civil rights organization, the Congress of Racial Equality, and  a prominent activist, James Meredith.  Overlapping with Critchlow and Dillard, Jennifer Delton will offer a favorable re-evaluation of Cold War liberalism and interpret contemporary conservative "color blindedness" as evidence of a real sea change in white racial views. Looking back to the era before the current spectrum  became standard, Kazin will discuss the diverse collection of  conservative big businessmen, socialists, agrarian radicals, and southern white supremacists who opposed American entry into World War I.  Leo Ribuffo will address the forgotten ideological disputes from 1930s to the early 1950s which led to replacement of  the prevailing way of conceptualizing politics--"the people" versus "the interests"--by a new framework in which a virtuous Cold War "vital center" warded off  dangerous "extremes," the framework that remains dominant today. 

As their  biographical entries show, all of the participants have written about aspects of all of the "persuasions" across the spectrum.  In keeping with AHA policy, the  panel represents diversity in  race, gender, and generation.   Moreover, we are also diverse in worldview, stretching from conservatism through "vital center" liberalism to social democracy.

See more of: AHA Sessions