On The Invisible Bridge

I’ve been following some of the discussion about Rick Perlstein’s new book on the 1970s.

I agree with many scholars that the basic problem with online endnotes is the persistent danger of the main text and the sourcing becoming disconnected over time unless there’s a heavily institutionalized plan for any necessary migration of the citations. At this point, there’s really nothing of the sort, so I think both publishers and authors would be well-advised to just stick with putting the notes in the printed text.

I’m guessing that Rick Perlstein might be wishing he’d done just that at this point. It’s not clear that it would have protected him from the basically spurious claim that his new book plagiarizes an earlier book by Craig Shirley, but from the current state of the back-and-forth between the two authors and their various defenders and lawyers, it may be that Shirley jumped to the conclusion that Perlstein had paraphrased him without proper attribution because the numerous attributions were in the online endnotes. It’s more likely, though, that Shirley objected because Perlstein looked at the same things that Shirley did and came to very different conclusions. Following the discussion online and looking at the evidence, I really don’t see anything that I would call plagiarism and not much that I would even call careless.

I’m just starting the book for its actual content, but I’m sympathetic to David Weigel’s suggestion that Perlstein is being targeted because Reagan is a more sacred figure for contemporary cultural conservatives than Goldwater or Nixon. Most of them abjure Nixon as a RINO, if they remember him at all, and Goldwater is at this point as relevant to many of them as Calvin Coolidge. Many current conservatives, however, have a strongly vested interest in not remembering Reagan in his actual context, where he presents some real puzzles in terms of our contemporary moment.

For me, though, the persistent argument I like most in Perlstein’s previous two books applies with more force to progressives than to conservatives. I suspect his new book will continue the general thrust of his analysis in this respect. I think Perlstein shows (and means to show) that postwar American conservatism has surprisingly extensive and complex social roots and that at least some of its social roots have a kind of genuine “from below” legitimacy. This might account for why his previous two books initially received appreciative readings from conservatives, in fact.

In his book on Goldwater, Perlstein documents, among other things, that one of Goldwater’s enduring sources of support was from small business owners, especially away from the major coastal cities. I read Perlstein as being genuinely surprised not only that there was a sort of coherent social dimension to this vein of support but that the antipathy of this group towards the federal government had some legitimacy to it, primarily because as federal authority expanded after the war, small businesses got hit with a wave of regulatory expectations that had a serious economic impact on them.

In general in his books, Perlstein does a great job of careful investigatory attention to the social origins of conservative sentiment and ideology and then couples that investigation to a critical appraisal of how political elites and party leaders reworked or mobilized those sentiments. The layered account he gives of the rise of postwar conservatism explains a great deal about how we got to the point we’re at today. While he’s not at all sympathetic to either the content or consequences of conservatism as he describes it (then and now) what I think his account comprehensively rebukes is the kind of progressive response to right-wing political power that falls back on tropes like “astroturfing” or that otherwise assumes that conservatism is the automated, inorganic response of a dying demographic to the loss of social power, that there is nothing real to it or that its reality is simple and self-interested.

I remarked briefly on Twitter that I think most of Perlstein’s progressive fans miss the implications of his work in this respect (and he replied that this needed more than 140 characters for him to make sense of my point). In a way, I’d see Perlstein’s work as a modern companion to the richer kinds of histories of “whiteness” that Nell Irvin Painter, David Roedinger and Noel Ignatieff have written, none of which encourage us to see whiteness as a subjectivity or social formation that was defined solely by instrumental self-interest or that was constructed entirely “from above” with conscious design.

The implications of an analysis like Perlstein’s for actual participation in contemporary politics would be to first peel apart the sources of historical and social energy within your opposition and look carefully at where there are real and imagined grievances that you can actually appreciate, address or be in conversation with. Communitarians have one axis of sympathy they can try to traverse; liberals and libertarians another.

The second is to never assume the charge of astroturfing does much of anything to advance a meaningful politics or for understanding why things actually happen in elections, in governance, in popular consciousness: that is the move of a largely intra-elite war of position that gains inches at best, not yards. Focusing on astroturfing, even when it is undoubtedly happening and has significance for controlling dominant “framing” narratives that influence politics, is mostly an alibi for not doing the much harder work of understanding what’s happening in the larger lived experience of communities and regions. The astroturfing charge is ultimately a sort of degeneration of an older left belief in ideology, a belief that coherent formations of thought and belief crafted by self-conscious elites then structured consciousness and directed political action outside the elite. Thus you get folks like Thomas Frank thinking that losing Kansas is largely a matter of dastardly hegemons cunningly and deliberately blinding people to their authentic self-interest, rather than a slower organic history in which people connected some existing religious, cultural, and social convictions to an increasing disenchantment with the role of the state in their everyday lives, a connection that they have held to with some degree of deliberate agency.

Third, stop assuming that postwar conservatism’s content is wholly protean or arbitrary. “Big government” in this sense may be in all sorts of ways a really messed-up construction that obscures the degree to which mostly-conservative voting districts are actually the enthusiastic recipients of all sorts of public money, but it’s not a random or senseless trope at its origin point, either, at least not as I read the history that Perlstein so ably distills. Which doesn’t mean that the social reality of its derivation is positive, either, since at least one of the aspects of “government” that had become an issue by the early 1970s in Perlstein’s view, as per Nixonland, is its interventions into the political economy of race and racial discrimination.

Fourth, restore some contingency to the story. Perlstein is very good on this in particular when he’s talking about political elites, politicians and party leaders, that the ways in which the fusion of popular and party agendas happened was full of false starts, unpredictable gambits, and improvisations.

All of which to me imply that progressives today habitually underestimate the historicity, rootedness and local authenticity of what they regard as conservatism, and therefore mostly end up stuck with intra-elite theaters of struggle and debate within familiar institutions and communities, all the while misperceiving those as more than they really are. I’ll be curious to see whether this part of what I see in Perlstein’s history changes as we move in to his “invisible bridge”.

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