HIST 5V22: Conservatism in Modern America

Protest against racial integration of Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas, August 20, 1959 (photo by John T. Bledsoe)

In recent years, there has been an explosion of scholarship on the history of modern conservatism in the United States. In contrast with liberal scholars of the 1950s and 1960s who paid scant attention to conservatism or derided it as marginal and even pathological, historians today take conservatism seriously as a (perhaps the?) dominant force in American political life.

Focusing mainly on the twentieth century, this Master’s level course from Professor Tami Friedman explores the ideas and actions that have animated the conservative movement, along with the larger historical developments that have broadened (or limited) the movement’s appeal.

Along the way, students will learn about the key strands of conservative thought (economic libertarianism, traditionalism, anticommunism, anti-statism); the ways in which race, ethnicity, gender, region, and religion have intersected with conservativism across time and place; and the processes of institution-building, grassroots mobilization, and party realignment that help explain how and why the Right became – and remains – such a powerful force.

course content from Professor Friedman

“I developed this course because of Donald Trump.

He’s such a larger-than-life, polarizing figure that many believe he has almost singlehandedly shaped U.S. politics, society, and culture since the leadup to his election as president in 2016. Of course top political leaders play a pivotal role in shaping history, but as a social historian, I’m more interested in how their leadership interacts with the lives of ordinary people and in how they got the power they wield.

man carries Confederate flag through the White House on 6 Jan 2001
Insurrectionist carries Confederate flag through U.S. Capitol, January 6, 2001. Source: Reuters

We can’t make sense of where we are right now if we don’t understand what came before.

The main goal of this course is to show that the Trump phenomenon didn’t come out of nowhere. It comes on the heels of a much older history of conservatism, including racist demagoguery and the avid promotion of unregulated capitalism, that has very deep roots in the United States.

newspaper article from 1898
Announcement in the Wilmington (North Carolina) Messenger, November 9, 1898, mobilizing white men who carried out massacre and mass expulsion of the city's black population.
newspaper article from 1920
Report in Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, January 3, 1920, on raids against immigrant radicals targeted for arrest, imprisonment, and deportation, orchestrated by U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.
people in white supremacist costumes march in Washington DC in 1926.
Ku Klux Klan parade, Washington, D.C., September 13, 1926. Source: Library of Congress

The course starts in the late nineteenth century, when dramatic changes were taking place in the United States that upended longstanding ideas about economic power, race relations, and the role of government.

We look at how the people who formed the core of conservative ideology (not easy to define in this earlier era) struggled to respond to various upheavals throughout the twentieth century and tried to refine ideas about individualism, personal responsibility, and white domination that have very much left their mark on today’s political scene.

police attack unionized steel workers in 1937
Chicago police confronting striking Republic Steel workers, May 30, 1937. DN-C-8769A, Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection, CHM (from chicagohistory.org)
Billboard from 1940
National Association of Manufacturers billboard, Dubuque, Iowa (photo by John Vachon for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, 1940)
a man stands in front of a map of the United States holding a pointer
U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy presenting on alleged communist infiltration, Army-McCarthy hearings, 1954. Source: Everett Collection
young men holding signs in support of the war in Vietnam in 1967
Young Americans for Freedom members from Pennsylvania on their way to a pro-Vietnam War demonstration, May 13, 1967. Source: Temple University Libraries

At the same time, we look at how anticommunism in the post-World War II era gave shape to a particular kind of conservative movement that really took off in the 1960s and is also pivotal to understanding how we got here.

Some historians argue that we need to understand conservatism as a social movement, not just something that comes from the top. I think that’s a wise approach.

By the end of the course, I hope students will recognize, first, that virtually all the hot-button political issues playing out today in the United States have a long history; second, that despite what looks like continuity, conservatives have grappled with these issues in different ways depending on changing historical circumstances; third, that conservatives were very strategic in developing their movement but also faced a lot of setbacks – in other words, their success wasn’t inevitable; and fourth, that we can’t just frame conservatism as the result of manipulative leaders at the top convincing a gullible rank-and-file to act against their own interests – that’s not just historically inaccurate but also totally obscures what’s really going on.”

Leaflet from campaign against adding Equal Rights Amendment to US Constitution (establishing equal rights on the basis of sex), circa 1972
Leaflet from campaign against adding Equal Rights Amendment to US Constitution (establishing equal rights on the basis of sex), circa 1972
Button advertising Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign, 1980.
President Ronald Reagan addressing National Association of Evangelicals Annual Convention, 1983

Grad students outside of History who are interested in the course are welcome to contact the Professor.

meet the professor

Professor Tami Friedman teaches 20th-century U.S. history at Brock, including the post-1865 U.S. history survey and courses on U.S. foreign policy, the Cold War, the 1960s, women in North America, and class and capitalism in the United States.

Dr. Friedman is actively engaged in all levels of discussion surrounding American politics and their impact on Canadian society. Read and listen to her most recent interviews below.

On the Capitol insurrection:

On the last two US presidential elections and voter suppression:

On the reversal of abortion rights: