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Relationship Between WW2 and the Creation of a “White,” Suburban, Conservative Movement

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The Allied victory in World War I resulted in the downfall of four great imperial dynasties—those in Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Ottoman Turkey—that were the last major bastions of conservatism based on monarchy, landed aristocracy, and an established church. After the war, conservative parties became the standard-bearers of frustrated nationalism in Germany as well as in Italy and other former Allied countries

In a process that began in the 1930s and intensified during World War II, conservative parties across central and eastern Europe were destroyed or co-opted by the totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany.

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The United States of America was deeply affected by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Upending centuries of white privilege and decades of official and unofficial racial segregation, this movement fundamentally reshaped the country’s cultural, social, and political landscape. Change did not come without cost, unfortunately, and one of those costs was white backlash because of the erosion of the privilege they had come to view as their right

The historical scholarship of the past 22 years has shown that this backlash took many different forms, but one thread can be seen throughout: white Americans’ resistance to a changing racial reality seldom was immediate, often was veiled in non-racialized language, and always had justifications that had little to do with race. In general, white backlash stemmed from resistance to an integrative racial order that attempted, at least in spirit, to dissipate white privilege and create a pluralistic and color-blind society. Over the past generation, scholars have investigated white backlash against the civil rights movement. To study the evolution of the scholarship on the topic of white backlash against the civil rights movement, and its effects on the conservative resurgence at the end of the 1970s, eight books will be reviewed here: Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the American Right, Mark Brilliant’s The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941–1978, Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, Kevin Kruse’s White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Matthew Lassiter’s The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, Ronald Formisano’s Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s, Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, and Walter Greason’s Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey.

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At the same time, historians need to keep thinking about the connections between racial and sexual politics and conservative economic ideas. Some work that is critical of the idea of the backlash may come too close to setting up an opposition between cultural and economic politics, when in reality the two can never be fully separated. The work of the historian Nancy K. MacLean and that of the political scientist Joseph Lowndes offer examples of approaches that seek to integrate the narrative of the long backlash against civil rights with the emergence of critiques of the welfare state. MacLean has argued that conservatives in the 1950s and 1960s celebrated an idealized vision of the American South as a bulwark against the centralized power of the federal government. Lowndes suggests that the idea of a “southern strategy” that could join northern businessmen with white southerners has its roots early in the postwar period (Bruce Caldwell, 1988). Both scholars make the case that in midcentury America, expanding the federal government was easily linked to ideas about racial equality in ways that ultimately tied the struggle to maintain racial divisions to the fight against the welfare state. Historians may be moving beyond a straightforward vision of conservatism as a coalition by looking at the underlying themes and ideas that link seemingly separate parts of the movement. On the one hand, this means seeing the ways that conservatives were able to reconcile what might seem to be contradictory ideas about “tradition” and capitalism

But it also requires thinking anew about how ideas about the economy are connected to those about sexual roles and racial hierarchies.

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After all, real project is to see conservatism with a new perspective—to understand its tenacity through the liberal years, its longstanding relationship to the state and to economic elites, and how its history is intertwined with that of liberalism, as well as the ways its ascendance reflected not only its own political dynamism but also broader changes in American society.

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Bruce Caldwell, ed., The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek (19 vols., Chicago, 1988–), II, 211–12.

MacLean, “Neo-Confederacy versus the New Deal”; Lowndes, From the New Deal to the New Right, 68.

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