Rick Perlstein’s first book on Barry Goldwater, Before the Storm, made him one of the most celebrated young historians in the country. Surprisingly, Perlstein’s unabashed progressive political activism did not prevent his scholarship from generating praise from the right. Indeed, Before the Storm received glowing reviews for its scholarship on conservatism from perspectives as various as that of William F. Buckley Jr. and Markos Moulitsas. Picking up largely where Before the Storm left off, Perlstein’s new book, Nixonland, grapples with the seismic political shifts occurring on the right and elsewhere between Johnson’s triumphant Democratic victory, and Nixon’s overwhelming reelection.
National Review Online’s Mark Hemingway sat down with Perlstein to discuss the historical terrain covered by Nixonland, as well as the import of conservative history for scholars of a variety of political dispositions.
NRO: You wrote a book about Barry Goldwater, and now you’ve written Nixonland, which deals with conservative history in 1960s, the factors that that led to Nixon’s success, the southern realignment, etc. It’s my general sense that liberal or popular historians don’t seem to be very interested in conservative history and ideology. Why are you?
Perlstein: That was true 10 to 15 years ago, but if you went to a decent graduate history program like Columbia you’d see that half of the people who are working on “modern American history” are working on conservatism so it’s not true anymore. I build my work on this very strong foundation of completely unsung scholarly monographic work on the right. There are also a lot of young historians who really have done the archival work. All my stuff on Frank Rizzo, for example, the Philadelphia mayor who was one of Nixon’s big conservative Democrat backers – that’s all from a master’s thesis by Jeff Decker, a graduate student at Columbia. If it ever was true, it’s not true now.
NRO: Well even if perception is changing in academic circles, the notion that is still prevalent among the left is that somehow Reagan and the religious right sprung from the skull of Athena fully formed in 1980 and there wasn’t a lot of movement conservatism preceding that. So if progressive historians like yourself are revising the popular narrative of the 1960s, what impact does that have on the current understanding of the political landscape and how can that help liberals?
Perlstein: Liberals have a very distorted history through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and even to some extent the 90s, of patronizing and condescending to conservative sentiment in America. They’ve always been blindsided. In 1966 when Ronald Reagan comes to the fore running for Governor, these jokes appear in Esquire which quip that maybe he’ll nominate Elizabeth Taylor as Superintendent of Public Instruction which was a really funny joke back then because Elizabeth Taylor was this super sex symbol. This idea she’d be teaching children was slightly risqué. Saw a lot of that in the 60s, a lot of that in the 70s, some in the 80s. I remember reading some TNR articles in the early 1980s that had the same kind of hooting derision at the notion of Ronald Reagan being president. . . At least in my circles in the progressive movement, that’s the not the case any more. Now I see more of that kind of sense of entitlement, condescension, and arrogance directed at liberals. When a movement has been in power for a while, it’s hard to achieve perspective.
NRO: That said, do you think there are any specific fundamental historical misunderstandings that have shaped progressive politics that still persist? That need to be addressed? Certainly you’re writing this book from your political perspective to fill a need.
PerLstein: Not so much. Again, I’m basing this on a pretty solid body of roughly liberal or liberal pluralist work on the right over the last 10 or 15 years. Are there any common misperceptions that are left? There are lingering ones like any scholarly endeavor, and achieving mature understanding is what Lenin called a combined and uneven development. But for the most part, I doubt you’d find a serious liberal writer today who would describe the conservative movement as an anomaly in American history or American life. I could come up with some picayune thing that people don’t get but the main contours of the story are already pretty strong. I think it would be hard for people to accept my work as they had, if the trail had not been blazed pretty well already.