American Innocence and the Conservative Culture War

Happy tenth anniversary to University Press Week! This year’s Association of University Presses annual celebration, running from November 8-12, “welcomes all to ‘Keep UP’ with a decade of excellence and innovation.” 

For UP Week’s annual blog tour, today’s specific theme, “Manifesto,” addresses how the first UP week blog tour focused on the question, “Why do University Presses matter?,” and how has the answer changed (and stayed the same) in the 10 years since? We encourage you to visit these fellow UP press blogs today to read all about it: Temple University PressMIT PressManchester University PressUniversity of Toronto PressBucknell University PressUniversity Press of Kansas

The following is a guest blog post by Daniel Robert McClure, author of Winter in America: A Cultural History of Neoliberalism, from the Sixties to the Reagan Revolution. Daniel Robert McClure’s book follows the interaction between culture and economics during the transition from Keynesianism in the mid-1960s to the triumph of neoliberalism at the dawn of the 1980s. From the 1965 debate between William F. Buckley and James Baldwin, through the pages of BusinessWeekand Playboy, to the rise of exploitation cinema in the 1970s, McClure tracks the increasingly shared perception by white males that they had “lost” their long-standing rights and that a great neoliberal reckoning might restore America’s repressive racial, sexual, gendered, and classed foundations in the wake of the 1960s.

Happy Book Birthday to Winter in America: A Cultural History of Neoliberalism, from the Sixties to the Reagan Revolution, officially on sale today!

In 1980, Wolfgang Binder asked James Baldwin about escaping “history and the effects of history.” This question haunted the writings of Baldwin across the previous three decades: what will happen to the United States if the nation cannot fully address the ramifications of its racial history? Baldwin’s reply moved through the European relationship to history and subjugation, eventually settling upon the U.S.: “The Americans have never even heard of history, they still believe that legend created about the Far West, and cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers, and black and white, and good and evil….If the Europeans are afflicted by history, Americans are afflicted by innocence.” Innocence, in this case, finds itself trapped by quaint stories of an ideal past—the romantic adventures of John Wayne’s Far West or the quest for justice in cities by the stoic Clint Eastwood. Sidestepping the documented history of the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and the gratuitous violence toward people of African descent built upon the anti-Blackness of the Atlantic slave system, the stories of innocence first heard in grade school classrooms and the family movie night continue to act as reassuring balms for Americans who up through the twenty-first century continue to deny the violent paths leading to liberty and freedom. 

As we enter the dusk of 2021, turbulence continues to deface the innocence of American history—from debates over the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory to the still-fresh recollection of the January 6, 2021 insurrection. The struggle over history in the present represents another front in the conservative culture war rippling through the U.S. since 1960s social equality legislation began chipping away at white nationalist institutions and laws. White nationalist Southern segregationists hurriedly circled their wagons in the form of “massive resistance” to the extension of social equality to people of African descent. Civil rights legislation also hit the North and West, provoking a similar white resistance against undoing non-Southern, de facto forms of white nationalist infrastructure, including, among other things, the racist policies surrounding the government’s subsidizing of suburban expansion, union resistance to women and people of color, corporate racism, and the ingrained practices of police brutality and a racist criminal justice system. Out of the white struggles against social equality with African Americans, emerged a new rhetorical politics of freedom from government intervention—conveniently connecting government intervention in social equality legislation with the growing corporate resistance against government regulations. This new freedom from government intervention brought the white working- and middle-class together with the interests of conservatives, the wealthy, and business, who for decades sought to fuse their anti-welfare state sentiments with the populist conservative groundswell emanating from white Americans uncomfortable with legislated social equality between white and Black Americans. By 1970, the culture war was in full swing. 

James Davison Hunter defines the culture war as a “competition to define social reality” resulting from the history of “America’s uneasy pluralism.” In short, prior to the 1960s, the United States was both a legislatively and culturally a white nationalist nation, with the prosperous welfare state—immortalized in the fond memories of 1950s prosperity—guiding the way for postwar white families. Significantly, constitutional rights were limited to only white people, and primarily to white men. For conservatives, this core demographic would be vital in their decades-long struggle against the New Deal welfare state: they could not appeal to this group through economic arguments, but perhaps culture could provide a wedge if the right opportunity arose? 

The opportunity presented itself at the dawn of the 1970s, the first decade when white men, especially white men with property, were legislatively forced into social equality with women and people of color. An epochal existential crisis arose out of this perceived federal government betrayal to white men: for the first time in the nation’s history constitutional rights were extended to groups of historically marginalized people, many of whom white men historically subjugated, controlled, and enslaved as a matter of right and civic duty—from slave patrols to lynchings to white-instigated race riots to policing the social boundaries of communities. The crumbling of American innocence started during the documented resistance to the civil rights movement soon became a full collapse as more non-white male historians entered the academy and started producing work shedding light upon the struggles of the historically marginalized. 

The conservative culture quickly mobilized to counter the representation of white people resisting the imposition of social equality via civil rights legislation and civil rights activists—who were beaten and murdered in the name of retaining white nationalism. In addition, a considerable resistance emerged to counter the cataloging of evidence outlining the overall history of populist-violence toward non-white populations—from Westward expansion and Indian Removal to slavery and Jim Crow—a legacy long ignored by previous historians who sought to retain the uplifting narrative of liberty and freedom protecting the aura of American innocence. White resistance to social equality with people of color found recoding as a colorblind act of property rights or individual rights, while scholarship critical of the history written during the golden age of white nationalism—the 1870s through the 1960s—was deemed unpatriotic. This was the core essence of the conservative culture war seeking to retain the “advantage in defining the habits and meaning of American culture,” and thus securing the innocence of the pre-civil rights era’s ideal assumptions of white men. 

Nevertheless, social equality legislation helped pry open the doors for the voices of the oppressed, who slowly entered the halls of American common sense through academia, rewriting the history books written at the height of white nationalism at the same time the public increasingly became multicultural to the horror of many conservatives still seething from the social equality legislation of the 1960s. Using the updated code words of the era, Patrick Buchanan in the early 1990s condemned the loss of “our Western heritage”—long a code word related to “Western civilization” designating the nineteenth-century conception of an Anglo-Saxon racial superiority—as he and many conservatives believed white America was being “dumped onto some landfill called multi-culturalism.” Meanwhile, overtly white nationalist language has creeped into mainstream conservatism through the “replacement theory” (a conspiracy theory suggesting that there are policies aimed toward reducing white America’s political power). Despite these attacks, history outlining the “Western heritage”—from the interconnection of slavery and liberty to the ideas of sanctioned violence to obtain land occupied by Native Americans—continued to be written. By the fall of 2021, however, many conservative states took the desperate measure of simply outlawing the teaching of this history because it was argued it hurt white children’s feelings—in short, it shattered the innocence of Americans. In its place, of course, conservatives sought to construct a “patriotic education,” using ideas of the past largely derived from pre-civil rights history written at the height of white nationalism. Spurred on by the desperate need for historical innocence obscuring the ideas, policies, and material outcomes resulting from the delusion of white superiority, any deviation from the historical narrative found in 1950s children’s books is enough to charge historians with high treason.

For those unable to enter the upper 5% of wealthy Americans, investment in this conservative culture war became a post-1960s Faustian bargain. For an allegiance toward a political party who would back policies targeting historically marginalized people, those backing conservatives saw their votes for issues like “law and order” and the “war on drugs” simultaneously dismantle the very postwar welfare state that primarily benefited white people between the 1930s and 1960s—and generated the emotionally-charged memory permeating the “great” in the 2016 slogan, “Making America Great Again.” Although not empowering the majority of GOP constituents, the policies of neoliberalism and trickle-down economics enacted by conservatives after the 1960s worked magnificently to empower finance and the multinational corporate community at the expense of small communities and small business as the standard of living plummeted. Resentment, it seems, continues to sell in the second decade of the twenty-first century, fueling not only misinformation but the rockets sending billionaires into space as the constituents shielding the wealthy are busy burning—metaphorically for now—the books about a past the nation refuses to take responsibility for. 

Daniel Robert McClure is assistant professor of history at Fort Hays State University.