Via Ross Douthat, I noticed David Frum's review of Allan Lichtman's White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movment -- a review that I hope initiates a serious discussion on the Right about populism.
Now, not having read Lichtman's book, I leave open the possibility that he makes a series of tendentious arguments that genuinely distort the interplay of conservatism, populism, and race during the last few decades. And as an admirer of Frum's work, my instinct is to trust that he wrote the review in good faith. That said, I suspect Lichtman was a bit sloppy at places, while actually gesturing at something real, and was just unfair enough to conservatives that he gave Frum the wiggle room to avoid some hard questions.
To start with, I actually believe the Klan of the 1920s, or second Klan (as distinguished from its post-Civil War and Civil Rights era iterations) is of great use when thinking about conservatism. In part this is because historians have increasingly revised the common view of the second Klan as a group of poor, rural fundamentalists. In fact, Leonard Moore (to take one example) persuasively has argued on behalf a "populist revision" that shows how pervasive the Klan was in the 1920s, how ordinary its members were (which is to say, not the marginalized of society), and how much of their efforts involved legitimate political activity and programs that made them akin to a social club. To simplify, what the second Klan teaches us is that populisms of the right typically are based on identity in a fairly broad sense of the word (as opposed to a more narrow sense of identity with left populisms -- say, the notion of being a "producer" among workers), something that transcends mere racism but is still connected to it. This doesn't mean the racist and anti-Catholic words and deeds of the second Klan were or are very palatable. It just means we might learn something transferable about a particular style of populism from it.
Another way of getting at this is to agree with Richard Hofstadter that "status politics" is a useful concept when trying to understand a certain type of conservatism. Hofstadter, in a very important essay titled, "Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited: A Postscript," argued that his use of status had been seriously misunderstood (in part because he didn't not define it well enough to begin with, in both his Age of Reform and the original essay, "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt"). And so he writes that "the terms 'status' requires supplementation. If we were to speak of 'cultural politics' we might supply part of what is missing. In our political life there have always been certain types of cultural issues, questions of faith and morals, tone and style, freedom and coercion, which become fighting issues."
It is this notion of status -- keeping in mind Hofstadter's view of how the term should be thought of -- that for him connects the second Klan on the 1920s to the conservatism he saw rumbling in the 1950s, and which is among us in modified form today. Notice that this does not mean connecting the second Klan to the post-war conservative movement needs to be done by saying both are racist. Rather, a common explanatory concept allows us to see patterns in populisms of the Right. Those defending a certain status in the 1920s did so as white Protestants; in the post-World War II era this shifted to mean a defense of "Judeo-Christian" values, now encompassing Protestants, Catholics, and Jews of a traditionalist bent. What this might mean today is up for debate -- the very status being defended always depends on circumstance, and as such is fluid. Which means that an impulse giving rise to rank racism in one decade may result in something more subtle and less problematic in another (if still suspect to some) as the status in play shifts.
To what extent Lichtman makes the point I've been gesturing at is something I'll find out when I read his book. What I can say is that there is a very plausible argument, bound up with Hofstadter's notion of status politics, that allows us to think about populisms of the Right in a particular way. For now -- without elaborating too much -- I think adopting my Hofstadter-redux interpretation of populist conservatism allows those on the right to identify and parse a style of politics that both has brought them good fortune but also is on the wane. It is no accident that conservatism -- politically enabled by its populist manifestation -- may have peaked at the moment when the status it was defending was fairly broad-based, neither the last gasp of a Protestant hegemony nor the flailing of one identity among many in multicultural America. Admitting this may mean more of Lichtman's argument is true than conservatives would like to admit, while also showing the real disjunctions between various political moments and the status in play during each moment. As conservatives try to "win the working class" and thus by necessity retool their populist appeals, revisiting Hofstadter's arguments and considering the very nature of populisms of the Right may be of some use.