You should, of course, read Norman Ornstein’s review of Grand New Party in the Sunday Times Book Review, but you should also read David Frum’s demolition of Allan Lichtman’s White Protestant Nation, which purports to be a history of American conservatism from the KKK (yes, it's that sort of book) to the present. This passage sums up the essence of Frum's critique, which could apply equally well to some other recent attempts to analyze liberalism and conservatism:
“White Protestant Nation” fails ... because Lichtman lacks the historian’s intuition for change over time. He hails women’s suffrage as progressive and damns immigration restriction as antipluralist and reactionary. Yet many of the most important proponents of suffrage favored immigration restriction — and many of the pro-immigrant groups opposed suffrage. Advocates of racial equality like Norman Thomas could also be adamant isolationists; internationalists like J. William Fulbright could be determined segregationists. Facing this refractory reality, it might make sense to accept that the political alignments of the 2000s cannot easily be projected backward 70 years or more.
Perhaps the single most famous attempt to impose a white Protestant identity upon America was the State of Oregon’s effort to suppress Catholic schools, which culminated in a landmark Supreme Court case named for Walter Pierce, the Democratic governor who signed the legislation. During World War II, Pierce, by then a member of Congress, would favor the internment of Japanese-Americans. He was also a supporter of women’s rights, prison reform and New Deal economic legislation. So: Was Walter Pierce a liberal? Or a conservative? Or perhaps we should accept that once we voyage back in time, we arrive in a different political landscape, with issues not easily assimilated into our present-day controversies. Lichtman, like Gilbert and Sullivan, believes contrary-wise that every child born alive is born a little liberal or else a little conservative.
The question of how to read the current liberal-conservative split back in time is, of course, one of the many strands in Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, a book that I once promised to comment on at length and then - as its author helpfully points out today - never followed through. Mea culpa! All I can say is that haven't forgotten my promise, and still intend to make good on it - and Jonah should be pleased to know that I receive an average of an email a week reminding me that I haven't delivered on that front. Soon, I promise, soon ...
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