If Father Knows Best, Is He Right?

Ronald Reagan speaks in front of an American flag

President Ronald Reagan makes a stump speech in front of a large American flag. (Photo by Wally McNamee/CORBIS via Getty Images)

Jeffrey R. Dudas, associate professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, focuses on the history of modern American conservatism in a new book, Raised Right: Fatherhood in Modern American Conservatism (Stanford Law Books 2017). He discusses the development of the mid-20th century conservative movement through the personal histories of three iconic figures and their influence on today’s politics with UConn Today.

Why did you decide to write a book on conservatism?

You can trace the evolution of American politics by seeing how every time a big election is lost, there is this spate of hyperventilating books written from conservatives about how the movement is done. Yet history show us those prognostications are always wrong. Modern American conservatism is not going anywhere. It clearly is durable enough to withstand some losses or failure in governance. It got me to wondering, what is it about this governing coalition, which is in fact made up of lots of different kinds of people with different kinds of goals? What’s the glue that holds it together? How do they manage to reconstitute the whole thing and come back seemingly stronger than ever? What are the things that really unite these people who appear to be very different?

You link three prominent figures in history – William F. Buckley Jr., founding editor of The National Review; Ronald Reagan, President of the United States and Governor of California; and Clarence Thomas, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States – to the core of your book about the importance of strong father figures. Yet none of them had that kind of family history. When did you identify that as the focus of the book?

My argument is that modern conservatives do have something in common and some people they believe in. Those three people were all folks whom movement conservative intellectuals and activists consistently claim as their icons, the people they take to be the most pure and crystalline representatives of what they believe in and who they believe in. They believe that good citizens emerge from stable households constituted in conventional ways with a loving mother and a strong fatherly presence. They claim that these are the laboratories of good American citizens. From these families are said to emerge people who learn to sacrifice, make good choices, discipline their desires, and save money. The linkage, conservatives claim, is fathers who are willing to exercise tough love with children when needed, who are present, who teach the values of hard work and sacrifice and self-discipline; eventually their children will emerge as good citizens.

The lives and views of the Founding Fathers often are used to support these points, including the awarding of citizen’s rights in a democracy. However, as UConn history professor Richard D. Brown notes in his recent book, Self-Evident Truths, the Founding Fathers were talking within the context of the rights of Englishmen, who didn’t recognize women, slaves, and people of color. This is consistent with the conservatism movement, which does not recognize those who fail to meet its criteria for having rights.

It’s a fascination with people like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. There’s been a lot of scholarship in history, politics, and law that portrays the trajectory of American history as the gaining and losing of rights amongst different populations. There is a lot to be said historically for looking at American history as a struggle between people who were originally excluded from visions of rights and those who were originally and always considered fairly secure in holding rights. This dynamic is quite meaningful in making sense of the trajectory of American history. It’s undoubtedly true that enlightenment notions of rights to equality and liberty and property were confined to already powerful groups, in particular propertied white men. The figure of rights, to my mind, rests in our imaginations and our thoughts. To me, that means folks who are struggling for rights are fighting a double battle. On one hand, they are trying to be included in the legal community as having certain protections, which guarantees the ability to do certain things, according to law. But there is also a second battle that operates under the surface and appears to be much more difficult: to have rights is to be understood as a valued member of the community, to have social standing and acceptance. That aspect of rights resides more in the imagination and in hearts and minds rather than as an encoded legal protection that you can use in court to protect yourself with.

You talk in the book about violence during the 2016 Presidential Election, citing how U.S. Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz blamed the Black Lives Matter protests for creating violence and Donald Trump’s comments in his campaign rallies to ”knock the hell” out of protesters. You also recall Reagan’s hard line against student protesters in California when he was governor. Today there is discussion about how public discourse has turned nasty, but conservatives seem to accept it. How are you looking at these developments?

If the valued authoritative figure is this strong father, one school of parenting that seems most attractive to hardline conservatives is this emphasis on discipline, particularly coming from fathers. There are going to be times when kids, who are not yet rational beings who can make fully informed judgments about good and bad, need to be shown what’s right. That can require the stern hand of discipline. The flip side of that with conservatism is this: adults who act in socially, politically, or legally unconventional ways tend to be understood as having not been properly disciplined at home as children. But they are not children anymore, so the time for appeasing them is over. What’s required, according to conservatives, is a stern and even potentially violent response to get them back in order. This is what I hear when Donald Trump encourages people at his rallies to knock the hell out of protesters. We also saw this very clearly when Ronald Reagan was governor of California and how he sought to deal with protesters on the Cal Berkeley campus. It was a logic that made sense to him in the international realm as well. So when he talked about the Contra War in Nicaragua in the 1980s, Reagan emphasized that the Sandinistas were not like our own Founding Fathers but were instead undisciplined, childlike people who came to power and who needed to learn the lessons of life – lessons that his administration was willing to deliver.

What do you want people to take away from this book?

I hope it gets readers to interrogate and think critically about the kinds of beliefs that we tend to take for granted. We accept, for example, that there is a connection between how one is raised and how one behaves as a citizen later in life. That may be true, but also may not be true. It might be true in ways we didn’t imagine are true. I do think it’s interesting and ironic that these three figures, who are by any measure very accomplished, did not themselves grow up in the sorts of households they recommend that other Americans grow up in, in order to be successful. So how did that happen? Don’t their personal histories in and of themselves suggest there are multiple ways to be a successful citizen?

By: Ken Best | Story courtesy of UConn Today

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