History tells us that American liberals have long underestimated the reach and resilience of the right, repeatedly dismissing it as a lunatic fringe and pronouncing it dead only to watch it bounce back stronger after each setback. That pattern was identified in an influential essay, “The Problem of American Conservatism,” published by the historian Alan Brinkley in 1994. Brinkley was writing two years after the religious right of Pat Robertson had stunned liberals by hijacking the GOP convention from the country-club patrician George H.W. Bush—the same fundamentalist right that had ostensibly retreated from politics after the humiliating Scopes trial in the twenties.
The culture-war convention in Houston was just the most recent example of liberals finding themselves ambushed by a conservative surge. As the afterglow of the New Deal gave way to the postwar boom, the preeminent literary critic Lionel Trilling declared, in 1950, that “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in America. And for a while a string of conservative defeats proved Trilling right: the failed bid of Senator Robert Taft (“Mr. Conservative”) for the 1952 GOP presidential nomination, the censure of Joe McCarthy in 1954, the epic trouncing of Barry Goldwater a decade later. During that Republican electoral debacle, Richard Hofstadter, the historian who would famously stigmatize the right as embodying “the paranoid style in American politics,” wrote in The New York Review of Books that Goldwater represented “a very special minority point of view which is not even preponderant in his own party.” He added: “When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever gone so far?” As it happened, Ronald Reagan, the most enthusiastic and eloquent of Goldwater exponents, would be elected governor of California just two years later.