Heather Cox Richardson
On Saturday, September 19, the New York Times published an article titled: “Hey, Political Zealots; Listen to a Conversation from 1963.” It reveals the contents of a conversation between President Kennedy and Everett Dirksen, a senator from Illinois, captured on a tape that has recently been released by the JFK Library in Boston. In the recording, the president and Dirksen—and others, including Robert S. McNamara—are discussing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Dirksen, a Republican, counsels Kennedy, a Democrat, on how to sell the treaty to anxious Republican senators, even offering language that would allay those anxieties. Kennedy thanks Dirksen, adopts his suggestions, and the treaty passed.
The article was about the conversation, but its point was to emphasize to today’s political partisans the value of political compromise in achieving important national goals.
The article is of interest to historians because it underscores an approaching sea change in national politics. A political historian watching closely can see a quiet swell of Burkean conservatism in American political language. It is an ideological shift that has enormous implications for the Republican Party and for the nation.
It also has important implications for historians.
As pundits on the right have become increasingly shrill and doctrinaire, more traditional conservatives have begun to push back against Republican Party leaders. Conservative thinkers are increasingly distinguishing between the movement conservatism that endorsed the Republican Party and actual conservative beliefs. In The Death of Conservatism (2009), Sam Tanenhaus explores how the pursuit of political dominance made movement conservatives in the Republican Party abandon their advocacy of the small government and fiscal austerity so important to traditional conservatism. More important, though, he emphasizes that they had abandoned true conservatism, since traditional conservative governance works through compromise to embrace changes demanded by the community.
Tanenhaus was excoriated by right-wing pundits for his observations, but they did not disappear. On his popular blog at The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan hammers daily on extremism both right and left, and calls for political compromise to achieve national ends. As the New York Times piece about Dirksen and Kennedy indicates, such a call is also beginning to crop up more and more often in national newspapers.
And this emphasis on debate and political compromise has begun to show up in the writings of historians. Two new biographies of Henry Clay celebrate him as “The Great Compromiser” and denigrate the shrill partisans who tore his compromises to shreds and brought on a devastating war with their hyperbole and violence.
The growing momentum behind this language change suggests a political realignment, to be sure, but it also suggests that tomorrow’s historians are going to weigh the past with a different scale than their recent predecessors did.