Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade
By Donald T. Critchlow
(Princeton University Press, 422 pp., $29.95)
Few living Americans are more deserving of the kind of exhaustive political biography that Donald T. Critchlow has written than Phyllis Schlafly. If political influence consists in transforming this huge and cantankerous country in one’s preferred direction, Schlafly has to be regarded as one of the two or three most important Americans of the last half of the twentieth century. Tireless, committed, strategically brilliant, undeterred: she grew up in the Old Right environment of xenophobic isolationism and helped to transform it into a New Right politics of anti-communism. Had she never been born, the Constitution would now include an Equal Rights Amendment. Without ever serving in the House of Representatives--she ran twice, losing both times--she played an instrumental role in driving moderates out of the Republican Party and replacing them with the hard-right politicians who currently dominate Congress. Tom DeLay owes more to Phyllis Schlafly than she owes to him.
One way to take the measure of Schlafly’s significance is to compare her to Betty Friedan, which Critchlow sometimes does. Betty Naomi Goldstein was born in Peoria, Illinois in 1921, while Phyllis Stewart was born three years later and not too far away in St. Louis, Missouri. Both were educated in part in Massachusetts: Friedan at Smith, Schlafly, for her master’s degree, at Radcliffe. Neither woman could be defined as liberal: Friedan worked with organizations close to the Communist Party, while Schlafly spent her life in one extreme right-wing organization after another. Nor was either a member of America’s Protestant majority: Friedan is Jewish, Schlafly Catholic. One may have defined feminism and the other anti-feminism, but neither woman would be caught dead staying home full time and raising children. Of course they had significant political differences, but the most important point at which they diverged was temperamental. “I’d like to burn you at the stake,” the hotheaded Friedan told Schlafly during a debate in 1973, to which the imperturbable Schlafly replied, “I’m glad you said that because it just shows the intemperate nature of proponents of ERA.”
Friedan has been the subject of two major biographies. Schlafly has only now achieved her second with the publication of Critchlow’s book. (The first, Carol Felsenthal’s The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority, appeared in 1981). Yet despite the fact that Friedan received more attention in the past, Schlafly is likely to get the lion’s share of public scrutiny in the future. To understand Friedan is to know the left, but to grasp Schlafly is to come to terms with America. Friedan’s books will continue to be read--The Feminine Mystique, for all its hyperbole, really is a classic; and no one can say the same of any of Schlafly’s books, including her best-selling A Choice Not an Echo, three and a half million copies of which have been purchased by presumably avid readers. But in politics, actions have a way of speaking louder than words. Friedan, despite being a founder of the National Organization of Women, was never much of an activist. Schlafly raised the art of activism to new levels. Schlafly did more to bring the people with whom she agreed into the political process than Friedan could ever have dreamed.
It was a stroke of considerable inventiveness for Critchlow to persuade Schlafly to cooperate with him. Too bad that the book he produced is dreadful. Critchlow is right to insist on Schlafly’s influence--but influence is a neutral category. It may be a force for good or a force for ill, depending upon the ideas that animate it. Let it be said of Phyllis Schlafly that every idea she had was scatter-brained, dangerous, and hateful. The more influential she became, the worse off America became. But Critchlow can barely bring himself to lift his eyes from the Schlafly papers long enough to examine her views with anything approaching a critical perspective. Critchlow is by no means a leftist academic historian implacably hostile to his right-wing subject. Quite the contrary. His book is fair and balanced, in the Fox News sense of those terms. Not even saints should be admired as much as Critchlow worships Schlafly, and Schlafly is not a saint.
Phyllis Stewart was not quite born a blue-diaper baby. (In those days, red stood for the left, not for the states that vote Republican.) Stewart wore a Wilkie button in 1940, wrote term papers defending the United Nations, and hoped to work for the federal government. When no federal job opened up, she went instead to the American Enterprise Association (later the American Enterprise Institute) and emerged in her early twenties as a full-throated conservative. A year after she started at the AEA, she moved back to St. Louis to work for Towner Phelan, a right-wing banker, editing a newsletter and becoming active in political campaigns. Soon thereafter she married Fred Schlafly, a devout Catholic and a deeply conservative adherent to the Old Right.
Long before William F. Buckley Jr. modernized American conservatism with the National Review, Midwestern America was honeycombed with people who denounced Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saw no role for the United States in the struggle against European fascism, and hated east-coast elites for their cosmopolitanism. The Schlaflys were part of this milieu. The world they idealized was filled with rugged individualists, and it had no place for labor unions, cities, racial minorities, Jews, or liberated women.
Although remarkably uninterested in taking on Hitler while he was killing all those European Jews, adherents of the Old Right became obsessed with the evils of communism in the years after World War II. They denounced Harry Truman for not allowing General MacArthur to cross the Yalu River and wipe out North Korea. They supported Captive Nations Week and the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, a Catholic-oriented anti-communist group named after the priest imprisoned by the Hungarian communist regime and presided over to this day by Eleanor Schlafly, Fred’s younger sister. Joe McCarthy they trusted and admired completely. In 1954, they urged passage of the Bricker Amendment, which would have effectively prevented American presidents from negotiating international treaties, and they were furious when President Eisenhower called for its defeat. They were opposed to summit meetings and bans on the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. General Edwin Walker, who was recalled for distributing materials published by the John Birch Society to troops under his command, was in their view a martyr. They wanted Fidel Castro overthrown. Communism was the incarnation of the devil, and no one, least of all anyone belonging to a Christian nation such as the United States, should have anything to do with it.
Unfortunately for the interests of doctrinal purity, China was quite capable of responding to an invasion of North Korea by sending in massive numbers of troops, and the Soviet Union could neither be dislodged from Eastern Europe nor stripped of nuclear weapons that were capable of wiping out a few American cities. The liberals whom Schlafly and her crowd saw as little different from the communists, moreover, included individuals far more dedicated to protecting American democracy from totalitarianism than blustering right-wing zealots. For one thing, they were willing to tax and spend to do so. Conservatives during the 1950s were free to advocate extreme, and highly impractical, measures, as well as to accuse everyone who disagreed with them of treason, because they had no responsibility for making policy.
They were, almost all of them, demagogues pure and simple, capable of saying anything and doing anything, no matter how damaging to their country, so long as it served their cause. And Schlafly personified the irresponsibility of their politics. In 1952, at the age of twenty-seven, she ran for Congress, urging huge increases in defense spending and aggressive actions in Korea, all the while opposing a draft and calling for a smaller government. Her positions could be so incoherent because no one believed that she would win. (She was, in fact, trounced by the incumbent Melvin Price.)
So long as moderates were influential in the Republican Party, Schlafly and like-minded conservatives would be on the outs; but they obtained a taste of what political power might mean when they successfully pushed for Barry Goldwater as the Republican nominee for president in 1964. The origins of the Goldwater boom could be traced to a meeting between Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon in 1960 when, in return for Rockefeller’s support, Nixon agreed to endorse a civil rights plank calling for “aggressive action to remove the remaining vestiges of segregation or discrimination in all areas of national life.” This was too much for the right-wing activists from the South and Southwest, who were intent on taking over Abraham Lincoln’s party for their own bigoted ends. Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and conservatives such as Schlafly loved him for it. Conservatives maintained that their opposition to the Civil Rights Act was based on a preference for state’s rights over federal power, but no one, least of all their enthusiastic followers, was fooled. Conservatism was in large part a revolt by whites against the aspirations of blacks, and whatever success it enjoyed was a by-product of the backlash that it generated.
Stunned by the size of the Goldwater defeat, moderate and centrist Republicans took back their party, engineering along the way a successful move to prevent Phyllis Schlafly from becoming the president of the National Federation of Republican Women. On the outside throughout much of the 1970s, Schlafly spent considerable time attacking Nixon, whom she had supported for president in 1968. It was not only Nixon’s opening to China that infuriated adherents of the hard right; he also made the dastardly mistake of negotiating a strategic arms limitation treaty with the Russians, as well as one that would limit each nation’s capacity to build anti-ballistic missile systems. “The delusion that America can be defended by treaties instead of by weapons is the most persistent and pernicious of all liberal fallacies,” Schlafly thundered. Her honor roll of liberals included Henry Kissinger and Paul Nitze, both of whom she denounced repeatedly, ignoring Goldwater’s admonition to rightists that Kissinger was more conservative than they were. Even as late as the Carter administration, conservatives were attacking Kissinger as a traitor, this time because he helped to negotiate the treaty that turned the Panama Canal over to Panama.
The only hope the hard right had for taking over the Republican Party--and, after that, the United States--lay in mobilizing all those angered by the cultural transformations of the 1960s. Schlafly’s singular contribution to the conservative cause lay in grasping the opportunity offered by the Equal Rights Amendment. The campaign for the ERA may have begun as a bipartisan way to extend primarily symbolic support to the feminist movement, but by the time Schlafly had gotten her hands on the issue, it was transformed into a subversive move to destroy motherhood, harm children, and wipe out the nuclear family. It proved to be quite easy to take some of the more extreme statements made by feminist activists--there were plenty to choose among--and then to charge that they represented the “real” agenda of the ERA, even though the ERA was supported by such decidedly unrevolutionary Americans as Betty Ford.
The ugliness of American politics today can be directly traced back to Schlafly’s vituperative, apocalyptic, character-assassinating campaign against the ERA. In Slander, her 2002 contribution to American letters, Ann Coulter described Schlafly as “one of the most accomplished and influential people in America” and “a senior statesman in the Republican Party.” Coulter was right. Karl Rove only perfected what Phyllis Schlafly invented. And the wild, filthy rhetoric of Coulter and some of her screaming reactionary colleagues owes a great deal to Schlafly. We are lucky, come to think of it, that Schlafly flourished in the days before cable.
Critchlow runs quickly over the last quarter century of American politics, devoting only a few pages to the rise of Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, and the triumph of George W. Bush. In part this was because Schlafly succeeded so well that she rendered herself superfluous. Why rely on such a divisive figure from the past, when everyone in the Republican Party had become a Schlaflyite? She continued to play a role in American politics--for example, by strongly endorsing Lee Atwater’s use of Willie Horton to scare voters away from Michael Dukakis; and she received her share of recognition, including an invitation to the White House to hear George W. Bush speak against human cloning. Yet it was also true that with the new century, the Republican Party has passed Schlafly by.
The reason for her marginalization is significant. Schlafly’s skill was grassroots mobilization, but the Republican Party has become an inside-the-Beltway machine financed by corporate interests. Still committed to the Old Right’s belief in small government, she is an anomaly in an era of Bushian largesse. Antiimmigrant and hostile to minorities, she has no role to play in Republican outreach to African Americans and Hispanics. Ever a latent isolationist, her speeches do not call for American troops to be sent to Iraq, or for a revival of the draft to help bring democracy to that country. Phyllis Schlafly got the Republican Party to where it is, but she cannot take it any further, and not just because she is in her eighties. All her skills lie in opposition. Governance is foreign to her. She will be lionized by Republicans so long as they remain in power, but her work is done, and George W. Bush’s America is the result.
It would be difficult to write the life of a person as tireless in her energies and divisive in her intentions as Phyllis Schlafly without expressing a point of view. Critchlow’s view is at least consistent. Schlafly is his heroine, and her enemies are his own.
In 1962, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote off the John Birch Society as hopelessly paranoid and destructive to the cause of modern conservatism. It was a defining moment for the right-wing movement, and a number of hard-right conservatives joined with Buckley, including Fulton Lewis Jr. and Fred Schwarz. If conservatism was to be taken seriously in America, they realized, it would have to distance itself from an organization that deemed Dwight D. Eisenhower a communist agent. But the Schlaflys had no objection to such an organization. Robert Welch, who founded the Birch Society, claimed Phyllis Schlafly as “one of our most loyal members,” and Critchlow, while denying that Fred Schlafly joined the group, never challenges Welch’s assessment about Phyllis. Nor did the Schlaflys mind--indeed, they seemed to welcome--the presence of Birchers in the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, despite the fact that increasing numbers of Catholics close to the Church’s hierarchy, including many who once supported the group, had become persuaded that its extremism was not only dangerous to democracy but was on the wrong side of Catholic social teachings. There is simply no doubting the matter: the Schlaflys belonged to the wing of the conservative movement that, by adhering to the dictum of no enemies to the right, threatened the toleration and the pluralism that made American democracy flourish.
Yet none of this perturbs Critchlow, who defends the Schlaflys’ soft spot for the Birch Society at every turn. Buckley and other conservatives, he writes, split with the Birch Society not out of principle, but to avoid being labeled extremist. He reduces the complaints of Catholic critics of the Mindszenty Foundation to a charge of financial hanky-panky and then dismisses them as unfounded. True, the controversy over the role that Phyllis Schlafly played in the Birch Society does arouse Critchlow’s ire--but his passion is directed against the Birch Society’s opponents! Convinced that groups as paranoid and irresponsible as the Birchers were a threat to American democracy, writers such as Arnold Forster and Benjamin Epstein of the Anti-Defamation League wrote Danger on the Right in 1964, to warn against such hard-right extremism. Critchlow’s response is to attack them for not differentiating between violence-prone groups such as the Minutemen and more “populistic” activists such as Schlafly. Critics of the hard right claimed to be protecting democracy, Critchlow writes, but “in reality they were probably more afraid of the political activism that could defeat liberal candidates for office.”
Nor is Critchlow the least bit concerned with Schlafly’s views about racial and religious minorities. Like others on the right, Schlafly was convinced that a cabal of media executives, international bankers, and assorted Bilderbergers and Trilateralists ran the world--but Critchlow notes reassuringly that “she never identified Jews as part of any conspiracy.” Yes, she was attracted to Richard Nixon’s law and order campaign in 1968, and she did indeed write that the 1967 race riots were “organized by outside agitators and armed guerrillas, by various civil rights and New Left groups saturated with communists and pro-communists,” and, to be sure, she was involved with the Willie Horton ads, but, Critchlow gratuitously adds, “race was never an issue in any of her races for Congress.”
Comments such as these betray a depressingly profound ignorance of how racial and religious hatred works in the United States. It is as if Critchlow never heard about code words--those infamous messages designed to be received as racist or anti-Semitic without explicitly mentioning Jews and blacks. He can actually write that Schlafly believed that “America faced an enemy within that threatened the traditional order of a Christian-based society” without pausing to comment that such an analysis writes non-Christians out of the society in which they have lived for centuries.
Instead of calling Schlafly on the carpet for her bigotry, Critchlow again attacks her critics. Invariably, those who pointed out the racism that fueled the hard right are portrayed as “unfair,” “vicious,” “sinister,” and engaged in “guilt by association.” No such language is ever used to describe out-and-out racists: Strom Thurmond is described as “one of the most admired politicians in the South.” There are intolerant bigots in America, Critchlow tells his readers, but they are to be found on the left. It was the supporters of the ERA who engaged in stereotyping, and threatened violence, and practiced the arts of extremism. This would be a powerful point to make if it were true, but consider some of the examples he offers. One of them is an episode of Cagney and Lacey, a television series of the 1980s, in which a deranged psychopath decides to kill an anti-feminist crusader who takes off her left earring when making phone calls. Anyone familiar with Schlafly, who evidently has this nervous habit, would have understood this as an incitement to violence, Critchlow argues. It is a dubious point in its own right, but it is rendered substantially irrelevant by the fact that, due to pressure from the right, airing of the show was postponed for months.
Neither this example, nor an even more irrelevant one of a nut-case witch casting a spell over Schlafly at a conference attended by around a hundred people, deters Critchlow from his conclusion: noble, self-sacrificing, fairminded, Phyllis Schlafly stood there bravely, and unflinchingly suffered the slings and arrows launched by her enemies. And his book descends into utter vapidity when he tries to present Schlafly as a serious defense intellectual, writing scholarly tomes on such subjects as the SALT treaty or the Anti-Ballistic Missile System. In reality, she teamed up with kooky former military officers such as Admiral Chester Ward to write a series of screeds which, if anyone had taken them seriously, would have brought the United States into a full-scale nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The United States, Schlafly and Ward insisted, should build a first-strike nuclear force capable of destroying the Soviet Union, adding, along the way, an ABM system in case the Russians should attack us. Their ideas had a certain intuitive appeal, but only to those completely ignorant of how the world really worked. So long as the Soviets could respond to any attack on our part by launching an attack of their own, and so long as there was even a remote possibility that an ABM system would fail, deterrence, which Schlafly and Ward denounced, was the only strategy available. Published by obscure firms, their books deteriorated in both coherence and sales over the years.
Yet Critchlow presents the views of Schlafly and Ward as if they were part of a responsible discussion about American nuclear strategy. “The debate between the two sides,” he writes, “was technical, with different assumptions brought to the table.... Still, evaluating specific weapons systems allowed much room for honest disagreement on both sides.” This is gibberish. There never was a “debate” between two “sides,” both of which were “honest.” There were foreign policy officials making tough decisions about protecting American lives against Soviet missiles and there was, off in the far corners of the lunatic fringe, a group of embittered reactionaries writing furious diatribes taken seriously by no one--except, that is, Critchlow. It is true that in the late 1970s and early 1980s critics of deterrence emerged who entertained ideas of “nuclear warfighting” and “nuclear victory”; but they were genuine defense intellectuals, whatever the merits of their arguments, and Schlafly was a raving amateur. Kissinger on the Couch, her second-to-last collaboration with Ward, a paranoid fantasy that reduced Kissinger’s ideas about foreign policy to his outsized psychology and was filled with elementary errors, is described by Critchlow as having “presented their most sophisticated analysis of American defense policy.” He may be correct, but it is very faint praise.
Everyone, in Critchlow’s view, misunderstood this poor woman. Journalists frequently identified her as part of the “New Right,” but this was incorrect; Schlafly hung out with New Rightists, he argues, but she was not one herself. Moderate Republicans--with neither irony nor quotation marks does Critchlow characterize them as the “Pharisees of the GOP”--did not like her extremism, but their real fear may have been that she and her followers “were too observant in their belief of what constitutes principled conservatism.” And liberals hated Schlafly because she not only beat them in the ERA campaign, but did so with a kind of grace under pressure that liberals could never muster. Some people, nearing the end of lives filled with contention and discord, write apologetic autobiographies designed to shed the best possible light on their actions. Phyllis Schlafly will never have to do that; she found a reputable historian to do it for her.
In one of his footnotes, Critchlow offers an explanation of why he fell under the spell of Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly, in his view, embodies a form of conservatism closely tied to the concerns of ordinary people. “The grassroots Right,” he writes, “believed that political change could occur through the democratic process and had nothing in common with the extremists, who called for revolutionary change through violence.” Like other historians, Critchlow believes that the extremist groups such as the Minutemen or the Ku Klux Klan are beyond the pale, but that people such as Schlafly, who rely on the ballot box and win by out-organizing their opponents, are not only legitimate, but frequently admirable. They are part of an American tradition called populism. If you do not like what Schlafly believes, then you do not like what millions of Americans believe, for all that Schlafly did was to tap into widespread feelings of discontent throughout the American heartland.
Schlafly performed a special service, Critchlow adds, by contributing to the politics of gender. The women whom she attracted to the Republican Party possessed what he calls a “unique sensibility.” Active in organizations such as the National Federation of Republican Women and the Daughters of the American Revolution, they held to the twin goals of “a libertarian espousal of the virtues of small government and individual responsibility with a faith in traditional values and divine moral authority.” To dismiss such women as little old ladies in tennis shoes is to miss how central their moral perspective was to the shaping of contemporary American politics.
Critchlow’s points may sound reasonable, but none of them stand up to close examination. Fellow-travelers exist on the right just as they once did on the left, and the relationship between violence-prone groups and those that focus on electoral tactics are closer than Critchlow acknowledges. Schlafly knows this, even if Critchlow does not: had she denounced the John Birch Society for its extremism, she would have lost the support of hordes of angry Americans who gave her dollars and signatures. When Goldwater announced that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he made clear to all concerned that he shared Schlafly’s opportunistic relationship with the lunatic fringe. One does not need to endorse violence to endanger democracy; one need only to refuse to condemn the violent while benefiting from the discontent that they tap.
It may well be the case that Schlafly performed an admirable public service by bringing into politics the voices of conservative women. Yet Critchlow never addresses the issue of gender in any comprehensive way. Did it matter that Schlafly was a woman? Most likely it did, since an anti-feminist campaign led by a man would have lacked credibility. But who were her supporters, and why were they attracted to her cause? Critchlow deals with these questions only by dismissing a once-popular theory that conservatism appeals to those left behind by modernization. In this he is correct, but the point raises more questions than it answers. Why would women whose incomes were rising and whose position in life was secure be attracted to a politics so hostile to a feminist movement seeking higher incomes and greater security for women? Critchlow does not say. Issues involving women, especially the ERA, play a prominent role in Critchlow’s book, but women themselves rarely do, at least in part because the movement to which they were attracted remained dominated by men.
Even the actual woman known as Phyllis Schlafly hardly shows up in Critchlow’s biography of her. How did someone so strongly committed to the role women ought to play in private life feel about her intense involvement in public life? What did Fred Schlafly, whose views on women were suitably retrograde, think of the travels and the commitments of his wife, who was also the mother of his six children? Indeed, who were those children, and how do they feel about their mother? These, too, are questions Critchlow ignores, and his book suffers for it. Surely conservatives would not agree with the leftists of the 1960s that the personal is the political--except that in fact they do. They insist that religion, which in America is intensely personal, teaches proper respect for gender differences, a question that is profoundly political. If it is true, as Schlafly maintained, that women benefit from a “Christian tradition of chivalry” based on the notion that men should work to support their families, was Phyllis Schlafly’s political involvement consistent with her moral and religious principles?
Populism, Critchlow writes in his determination to justify almost everything Schlafly and her like-minded friends said or did, was not an opportunistic stance on the part of conservative activists, but “a sincere expression of their belief that they represented the common person against the political elites.” He could not be more wrong. Schlafly was in fact highly selective in her populism, willing to arouse public opinion on matters in which it accorded with her beliefs, but just as willing to deny the importance of public opinion on issues that did not. Perhaps the single major fault of Critchlow’s book is that he completely swallows the currently fashionable idea that the rise of conservatism in American politics is a backlash against the elitist and haughty policies of outof-touch liberals. This idea is not in all cases false: on abortion, and to some degree on gay rights, liberals, relying on the courts, have indeed gotten so far in front of public opinion that a backlash from the right became inevitable. Yet the tired cliché that conservatives are populists taking advantage of liberal arrogance is spectacularly misapplied to the very issue that made Schlafly famous, and that consumes more pages in Critchlow’s book than any other. I refer to the Equal Rights Amendment.
The ERA passed both houses of Congress by huge majorities: 84 to 8 in the Senate, 354 to 23 in the House. It was then approved by 35 of the 38 state legislatures necessary for ratification, before losing political steam. You cannot get more democratic than that. Liberals who are denounced by conservatives for relying on undemocratic courts are almost never praised by them when they do exactly the opposite and take on the rigorous work of passing a constitutional amendment. Schlafly had her reasons for opposing the ERA, but, having set herself so resolutely against a measure that had such widespread support, populism could hardly have been one of them. Yet never once in discussing the ERA does Critchlow mention the elitist nature of Schlafly’s opposition to it. If anything, he portrays the anti-ERA activists as just folks, “middle-American women,” in his words, “down-to-earth and not given to airs of sophistication.”
Going once more out of his way to defend Schlafly, Critchlow points out how consistent she was, for not only did she oppose the ERA, the brainchild of liberals, she also opposed a constitutional amendment to balance the budget supported by conservatives. Schlafly, he writes, feared that a constitutional convention, once brought into existence to balance the budget, could be taken over by liberals for their own ends. Such consistency would be a credit to her if it were true, though it would add one more nail in the coffin of her populism. Not only was Schlafly opposed to the democratic zeal that a convention could unleash, she also joined with the liberal “elitists” she so frequently attacked, including the ACLU and the People for the American Way, to stop it.
But Critchlow’s insistence on Schlafly’s consistency is not true. For one thing, the ERA and the Balanced Budget Amendment are not comparable. The ERA got as far as it did by the alternative route allowed under the Constitution: passage by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures. (No amendment has ever been ratified through the convention process.) More, Schlafly was a vigorous advocate for including, in the Republican platform in 1984, a commitment to adding a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution, and if, in her more recent opposition to gay marriage, she has come out against the Musgrave Amendment, which would ban it in all states, Critchlow never mentions the fact. Clearly this is a woman who put her ends first and worried about the means later--and so could be a populist here and an elitist there, an opponent of the amendment process on some issues and a defender of it on others.
Selective in its indignation, inconsistent in its analysis, unbalanced in its evaluations, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism is a great opportunity missed. The left in America has not paid as much attention to the right as the right has paid to the left, and the result has been a huge hole in the number of serious books by historians and political scientists dealing with people such as Phyllis Schlafly. As Critchlow rightly remarks, historians who write about American conservatism tend to concentrate on intellectuals, missing along the way the important contribution made by those more preoccupied with winning adherents to right-wing ideas than formulating them. “We taught ‘em politics,” Schlafly says of her own ability to get people on her side involved in campaigns.
But what kind of politics did Schlafly teach ‘em? In this regard, the problems with Critchlow’s book have little to with ideology and a great deal to do with naïveté. His research is exhaustive and his subject is important. He just does not understand that some people--in America these days, far too many people--use politics to divide and destroy. There really are activists out there in the United States so blinded by prejudice, so hostile to their fellow citizens, and so ignorant of how the world works, that they constitute a great danger to their society--far greater, given their numbers, than any threat now posed by the left. Telling the story of how one of their most energetic members transformed America in her image should not be an occasion to celebrate how well democracy works. It ought more properly to serve as a lament for a lost political world characterized by tolerance, bipartisan cooperation, an appreciation of complexity, and (imagine this!) a respect for reality.
Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor atThe New Republic
By Alan Wolfe