Center vs. Periphery: Reexamining the History of the American Right

Thursday, May 4, 2023, 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM

Type: Pre-circulated Paper Presentation

Tags: Intellectual; Politics; Social and Cultural


The aim of this panel is to examine the state of the field of American conservatism, specifically focusing on the relationship between the center and the periphery of the Right. George Nash’s foundational text on the intellectual history of conservatism, The Conservative Intellectual Movement (1976), suggested that, by the postwar period, the center and the periphery of the Right remained distinct. Historians of conservatism in the early 2000s generally followed Nash’s lead, arguing that New Right intellectuals in the 1950s-1960s successfully excommunicated disreputable elements, such as Ayn Rand, the John Birch Society, and overt anti-Semites, thus crafting a respectable new conservative movement. Yet the rise of right-wing populism in the United States—beginning with the Tea Party and culminating in the Capitol Riot in January 2021—forces us to reassess the relationship between the radical Right and mainstream conservatism. Even more recently, the anti-vaccine and gun rights movements that demand individual bodily autonomy at the expense of public health and safety have mobilized at the grassroots, as well as in the halls of Congress and state legislatures. New scholarship has begun to reckon with the interconnectedness of right-wing organizations, funders, and networks, showing how radical and conservative figures have found common cause to pursue right-wing agendas. Examining how right-wing ideas and personnel travel between radical and mainstream spaces will provide us with a better understanding of the role of right-wing groups and ideas in American political, social, and cultural life. Our presenters examine different historical periods spanning the 20th and early 21st centuries, while also investigating how right-wing groups have galvanized around issues as diverse as feminism, religion, military intervention, and health.

Papers Presented

‘State Medicine a Menace to Democracy:’ The Anti-Statist Politics of Alternative Health Networks, 1911-1949

This paper examines the interconnections and points of disconnect between alternative health activists and conservative politics in the first half of the twentieth century. Galvanized by mandatory school vaccination requirements and the proposal to establish a federal Department of Health, a range of anti-statist networks emerged to oppose public health initiatives in the early twentieth century such as the National League for Medical Freedom, the Anti-Vaccination Association of America, the Citizen’s Medical Reference Bureau, and Public School Protective Leagues. These small outfits brought together a broad church of Americans with a range of ideological viewpoints from populists to proto-libertarians. Generally, Gilded Age industrialists bankrolled these groups that were staffed by otherwise penniless alternative health crusaders. These networks also played an outsized role in shaping public health controversies, spreading anti-vaccine sentiment in school communities throughout the country and successfully rallying enough political opposition in the halls of Congress to stymie the establishment of a Department of Health. In this paper, I situate alternative health and anti-public health networks within the broader political landscape of anti-statist and conservative politics of the era. Many prominent backers of alternative health networks were active in other anti-statist and far-right political movements. By using opposition to orthodox medicine as an entry-point into anti-statist politics, however, they also welcomed a more diffuse and ideologically diverse network of people into their ranks whose politics defy neat left/right categorization and calls for a reconsideration of the relationship between anti-statism and conservatism more generally.

Presented By
Julia Bowes, University of Melbourne

No War But The Culture War: Paleoconservatives, Libertarians, and the Anti-War Right, 2002-2012

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was perhaps the most recent genuinely bipartisan moment in American politics. The overwhelming majority of congressional Republicans, as well as over one-third of House Democrats and nearly three-fifths of the Senate Democratic caucus voted for the authorization of military force against Iraq in 2002. Considerable attention has been paid to liberal and left-wing critics of the war, who not only organized massive demonstrations against the invasion across the United States in 2002 and 2003, but still retained influence in formal Democratic politics, culminating in the election of Iraq War opponent Barack Obama as president in 2008. Far less attention has been paid to right-wing critics of the Iraq War. This paper seeks to examine right-wing opposition to the Iraq War, and the project of post-Cold War neoconservatism generally, by looking at the institutions and organizations created by paleoconservatives and libertarians in the early 2000s, ranging from the American Conservative magazine to the libertarian circles associated with Lew Rockwell to websites like Their heterodox positions on the Iraq War stemmed from political traditions distinct from the anti-war left and were unified by a commitment to anti-statism, anti-internationalism, and a specific form of autarkic anti-imperialism. Wedded to this was a political vision which understood the American polity to be fractured and the primary enemies facing the American people internal, not external: liberals, socialists, immigrants, and even the national security state itself.

Presented By
David Austin Walsh, University of Virginia

“The Personal is Not Political”: Libertarian and Civil Libertarians Assert Women’s Freedom of Choice, 1975-1995

In 1993, a select group of libertarian, conservative, and liberal feminists met together to form the Women’s Freedom Network (WFN) in Washington, D.C. The WFN declared itself part of the “larger movement in favor of the free individual,” in its attempt to reclaim feminism from radical feminists. Members of the WFN believed that the feminist movement had come to depict women as victims who needed special protections from the state, thus diminishing their ability to prove themselves equal to men. For WFN members, women did not need government help; they only needed to be given freedom of choice to act within the free market. Individualist feminists thus positioned themselves as different to radical feminists and conservative traditionalists, crafting a new tradition that fit seamlessly into the neoliberal politics of the era. This paper argues that the formation of a free-market, individualist feminism grew out of a unique coalition of libertarian feminists and civil libertarian feminists formed over the course of the 1980s. Libertarian feminists Wendy McElroy, Joan Kennedy Taylor, and Sharon Presley had been activists in the libertarian movement in the 1970s. Ostracized within male-dominated libertarian circles, they joined forces with a civil libertarians that included political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain, ACLU director Nadine Strossen, social critic Camille Paglia, and journalist Cathy Young. Examining how this coalition of individualist feminists formed provides us with insight into connections made between the center and the periphery of the right-wing, as individualist feminists came together from the left, right, and center.

Presented By
Whitney McIntosh, Columbia University

None Dare Call it Christian: God and Conspiracy in American Politics, 1919-1941

In the two decades following WWII, a number of scholars in the United States began studying the fascism and extremism of the preceding decades. Many of these scholars looked to their own “homegrown” varieties of fascism in the interwar period, which they then traced to the rightwing politics of their own time: McCarthyism and, later, the John Birch Society. Though varying in method and scope, these studies isolated what they saw as fringe or extremist movements outside the American political tradition. They were authoritarian personalities, pseudo-conservatives, and purveyors of what historian Richard Hofstadter famously dubbed the “paranoid style.” Recent scholarship has jettisoned the notion that these rightwing movements were aberrations from American politics. And yet the old diagnoses remain. Whether discussing the right of the past or present, scholars and pundits discussing Birchers to QAnon describe their subjects as exhibiting a conspiratorial worldview outside the purview of rational politics. To paraphrase historian George Nash, their ideas, attitudes, and beliefs are to be treated, not debated, in the clinic, not the forum. This paper argues that neither the clinic nor the forum are sufficient to study the American right, and that, instead, a better location is the church. By analyzing the infamous “agitators” of the interwar period and their religious denominations–Catholic, Fundamentalist Protestant, and Mormon, among others–this paper examines how the Manichean and hyper-rationalist worldview the secular academy has labeled “conspiracy” reflects instead Christian conception of the universe, and one which Christians share from the periphery of politics to its center.

Presented By
Austin Jacob Clements, 20th Century Religious and intellectual history

Session Participants

Chair: Angela D. Dillard, University of Michigan
Angela D. Dillard is the Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican & African Studies, History, and in the Residential College at the University of Michigan where she is the Chair of the Department of History. Dillard specializes in American intellectual history, particularly around issues of race, religion and politics on both the Left and Right sides of the political spectrum. Her first book, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Now?: Multicultural Conservatism in America was among the first critical studies of conservative political thought among African Americans, Latinos, women and gay men. Her second book, Faith in the City: Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit, focused on religion and political radicalism in Detroit from the 1930s to the 1960s. She is currently working on a project, A Different Shade of Freedom, about unexpected alliances and intersections between the post-WWII civil rights movement and the rise of the New Right.

Presenter: Julia Bowes, University of Melbourne
Julia Bowes is a Hansen Lecturer in US History at the University of Melbourne. She completed her dissertation, “Invading the Home: Children, State Power, and the Gendered Origins of Modern Conservatism, 1865-1933” at Rutgers in 2018, and was awarded the 2019 Lerner-Scott Prize by the OAH. Her scholarship examines the relationship between gender, the family, and the development of anti-statist politics in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Presenter: Austin Jacob Clements, 20th Century Religious and intellectual history
Austin Clements is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Stanford University. His research focuses on the interplay between religion and political extremism during the first half of the twentieth century United States. His research has been supported by the American Religions in a Global Context hub and the Hoover Institute, both at Stanford. His first peer-reviewed publication, “‘The Franco Way’: The American Right and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-9,” recently appeared in the Journal for Contemporary History.

Presenter: Whitney McIntosh, Columbia University
Whitney McIntosh is a Ph.D. candidate in American History at Columbia University. Her dissertation, “Libertarian Anti-Politics in the United States, 1965-2001,” is a political and intellectual history of the modern American libertarian movement from the counterculture to the Iraq War. For the 2021-2022 academic year, she will be a Silas Palmer Fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University and an Adam Smith Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Her research has also been supported by the Center for American Studies at Columbia University.

Commentator: Kim Phillips-Fein, New York University
Kimberly Phillips-Fein is a historian of twentieth-century American politics. She teaches courses in American political, business, and labor history. Her first book, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan, was published by WW Norton in 2009. She has contributed to essay collections published by Harvard University Press, University of Pennsylvania Press, and Routledge and to journals such as Reviews in American History and International Labor and Working-Class History. She is a contributing editor to Labor: Studies in Working-Class History in the Americas, where her work has also appeared. Phillips-Fein has written widely for publications including The Nation, London Review of Books, New Labor Forum, to which she has contributed articles and reviews. Her 2017 book, Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (Metropolitan Books), was a finalist for a 2018 Pulitzer Prize in History.

Presenter: David Austin Walsh, University of Virginia
David Walsh is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia. His first book, Taking America Back: The Far Right and the American Conservative Movement is under contract with Yale University Press.