The ‘Old Right’ from the Early to Mid-20th Century
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Old Right was an informal designation used for a branch of American conservatism that was most prominent circa 1910 to the mid 1950s but never became an organized movement. Most members were Republicans, although there was a conservative Democratic element based largely in the Southern United States. They were called the “Old Right” to distinguish them from their New Right successors who came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. Among the latter were Barry Goldwater, who came to prominence in the 1960s and favored an interventionist foreign policy to promote democracy and battle international communism.
Above all, the Old Right were unified by opposition to what they saw as the danger of domestic dictatorship by Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt and The New Deal program. Most were unified by their defense of natural inequalities, tradition, limited government, and anti-imperialism, as well as their skepticism of democracy and the growing power of Washington. The Old Right typically favored laissez-faire classical liberalism; some were business-oriented conservatives; others were ex-radical leftists who moved sharply to the right, such as the novelist John Dos Passos. Still others, such as the Democrat Southern Agrarians, were traditionalists who dreamed of restoring a pre-modern communal society. The Old Right’s devotion to anti-imperialism was at odds with the interventionist goal of global democracy, the top-down transformation of local heritage, social and institutional engineering of the political left and some from the modern right-wing.
The Old Right per se has faded as an organized movement, but many similar ideas are found among paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians.
History and Views
The Old Right came into being when the Republican Party (GOP) split in 1910, and was influential within that party into the 1940s. They pushed Theodore Roosevelt and his liberal followers out in 1912. From 1933, many Democrats became associated with the Old Right through their opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and his New Deal Coalition, and with the Republicans formed the Conservative Coalition to block its further progress. Conservatives disagreed on foreign policy, and the Old Right favored non-interventionist policies on Europe at the start of World War II. After the war, they opposed President Harry Truman’s domestic and foreign policies. The last major battle was led by Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, who was defeated by Dwight D Eisenhower for the presidential nomination in 1952. The new conservative movement later led by William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan adopted the domestic anti-New Deal conservatism of the Old Right, but broke with it by demanding an aggressive anti-communist foreign policy.
Historian George H. Nash argues:
Unlike the “moderate”, internationalist, largely eastern bloc of Republicans who accepted (or at least acquiesced in) some of the “Roosevelt Revolution” and the essential premises of President Truman’s foreign policy, the Republican Right at heart was counter-revolutionary. Anti-collectivist, anti-Communist, anti-New Deal, passionately committed to limited government, free market economics, and congressional (as opposed to executive) prerogatives, the G.O.P. conservatives were obliged to wage a constant two-front war: against liberal Democrats from without and “me-too” Republicans from within.
The Old Right emerged in opposition to the New Deal and to FDR personally; it drew from multiple sources. Hoff says, “moderate Republicans and leftover Republican Progressives like Hoover composed the bulk of the Old Right by 1940, with a sprinkling of former members of the Farmer–Labor party, Non-Partisan League, and even a few midwestern prairie Socialists.”
By 1937 they formed a Conservative coalition that controlled Congress until 1964. They were consistently non-interventionist and opposed entering World War II, a position exemplified by the America First Committee. Later, most opposed U.S. entry into NATO and intervention in the Korean War. “In addition to being staunch opponents of war and militarism, the Old Right of the postwar period had a rugged and near-libertarian honesty in domestic affairs as well.”
This anti–New Deal movement was a coalition of multiple groups: business Republicans like Robert A. Taft and Raymond E. Baldwin; conservative Democrats like Josiah Bailey, Al Smith and John W. Davis; libertarians like H. L. Mencken and Garet Garrett and mass media tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and Colonel Robert R. McCormick.
In his 1986 book Conservatism: Dream and Reality, Robert Nisbet noted the traditional hostility of the right to interventionism and to increases in military expenditure:
Of all the misascriptions of the word ‘conservative’ during the last four years, the most amusing, in an historical light, is surely the application of ‘conservative’ to the last-named. For in America throughout the twentieth century, and including four substantial wars abroad, conservatives had been steadfastly the voices of non-inflationary military budgets, and of an emphasis on trade in the world instead of American nationalism. In the two World Wars, in Korea, and in Viet Nam, the leaders of American entry into war were such renowned liberal-progressives as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. In all four episodes conservatives, both in the national government and in the rank and file, were largely hostile to intervention; were isolationists indeed.
Jeff Riggenbach argues that some members of the Old Right were actually classical liberals and “were accepted members of the ‘Left’ before 1933. Yet, without changing any of their fundamental views, all of them, over the next decade, came to be thought of as exemplars of the political ‘Right.'”
While outsiders thought Taft was the epitome of conservative Republicanism, inside the party he was repeatedly criticized by hard-liners who were alarmed by his sponsorship of New Deal-like programs, especially federal housing for the poor, and federal aid to public schools. The real estate lobby was especially fearful about public housing. Senator Kenneth Wherry discerned a “touch of socialism” in Taft, while his Ohio colleague Senator John Bricker speculated that perhaps the “socialists have gotten to Bob Taft.” This distrust on the right hurt Taft’s 1948 presidential ambitions.
The Southern Agrarian wing drew on some of the values and anxieties being articulated on the anti-modern right, including the desire to retain the social authority and defend the autonomy of the American states and regions, especially the South. Donald Davidson was one of the most politically active of the agrarians, especially in his criticisms of the TVA in his native Tennessee. As Murphy (2001) shows, the Southern Agrarians articulated old values of Jeffersonian Democracy. Mursphy writes:
Instead, they rejected industrial capitalism and the culture it produced. In I’ll Take My Stand they called for a return to the small-scale economy of rural America as a means to preserve the cultural amenities of the society they knew. Ransom and Tate believed that only by arresting the progress of industrial capitalism and its imperatives of science and efficiency could a social order capable of fostering and validating humane values and traditional religious faith be preserved. Skeptical and unorthodox themselves, they admired the capacity of orthodox religion to provide surety in life.
- Rothbard, Murray. The Betrayal of the American Right (2007)
- Allitt, Patrick. The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History (2009), chapter 6
- George H. Nash, “The Republican Right from Taft to Reagan”, Reviews in American History (1984) 12#2 pp. 261–65 JSTOR2702450, quote on p. 261; Nash references David W. Reinhard, The Republican Right since 1945, (University Press of Kentucky, 1983)
- Joan Hoff (1975). Herbert Hoover, forgotten progressive. Little, Brown. p. 222.
- James T. Patterson, “A Conservative Coalition Forms in Congress, 1933–1939”, The Journal of American History, Vol. 52, No. 4. (Mar., 1966), pp. 757–72. JSTOR1894345.
- Rothbard, Murray. Swan Song of the Old Right, Mises Institute Archived May 12, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
- By Troy L. Kickler, “The Conservative Manifesto” North Carolina History Project
- George Wolfskill, The Revolt of the Conservatives: A History of the American Liberty League 1934–1940 (1962)
- Mencken, H.L. (2012). Diary of H. L. Mencken. Knopf Doubleday. p. 28.
- Garet Garrett and Bruce Ramsey, Defend America First: The Antiwar Editorials of the Saturday Evening Post, 1939–1942 (2003) excerpt and text search
- David Nasaw, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (2001)
- Richard Norton Smith, The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, 1880–1955 (2003)
- For others see Gary Dean Best, The Critical Press and the New Deal: The Press versus Presidential Power, 1933–1938 (1993)
- Prospects of Conservatism, p. 111, in Conservatism: Dream and Reality, at Google Books. Accessed: 26 November 2012.
- Riggenbach, Jeff. “The Mighty Flynn”, Liberty January 2006 p. 34
- David W. Reinhard, The Republican Right since 1945, (University Press of Kentucky, 1983) pp. 28, 39–40
- Murphy p. 124
- Paul V. Murphy, The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought (2001) pp. 5, 24
- Robert Morse Crunden (1999). The superfluous men. Isi Books.
- Cole, Wayne S. America First; The Battle Against Intervention, 1940–41 (1953)
- Doenecke, Justus D. “American Isolationism, 1939–1941”, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Summer/Fall 1982, 6(3), pp. 201–16. online version
- Doenecke, Justus D. “Literature of Isolationism, 1972–1983: A Bibliographic Guide” Journal of Libertarian Studies, Spring 1983, 7(1), pp. 157–84. online version
- Frohnen, Bruce; Beer, Jeremy; and Nelson, Jeffery O., eds. American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (2006)
- Murphy, Paul V. The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought (2001)
- Radosh, Ronald. Prophets on the right: Profiles of conservative critics of American globalism (1978)
- Raimondo, Justin. An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (2000)
- Raimondo, Justin. Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (1993)
- Ribuffo, Leo. The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War. Temple University Press (1983)
- Rothbard, Murray. The Betrayal of the American Right (2007)
- Schneider, Gregory L. ed. Conservatism in America Since 1930: A Reader (2003)
- Schneider, Gregory L. The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution (2009) pp. 1–38
- Scotchie, Joseph,. The Paleoconservatives: New Voices of the Old Right (1999)
Originally published by Wikipedia, 11.18.2005, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.