Von der Goltz Explores Conservative Movements

U.S. President Richard Milhous Nixon
U.S. President Richard Milhous Nixon (Photo via the National Archives and Records Administration)

September 19, 2017 — History professor Anna von der Goltz is the co-editor of a new compilation of research on postwar conservative movements in the United States and Western Europe.

Inventing the Silent Majority in Western Europe and the United States: Conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s features expert articles on a range of topics dealing with conservative political movements.

Von der Goltz, an associate professor in the Department of History and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, became interested in right-wing political movements during her time studying political movements in modern German history.

“1968 was a powerful moment in postwar Germany history. It was a moment when young people stood up and pointed out all the ways in which the country hadn’t really overcome its past,” she said. “I was writing a monograph on the reaction to this among conservative students and started thinking — what did ’68 look like from the perspective of a young conservative? So I started delving into that question.”

Quickly realizing that there was a dearth of scholarship on conservative movements in Western Europe — especially compared to the seemingly endless libraries on conservatism in the United States and on global liberal movements — von der Goltz saw an opportunity. In 2013, she organized a conference that took a comparative and transnational approach to the study of conservative movements.

“When we think of the global ’60s and ’70s, we’ve really ignored people on the other side of the political spectrum,” she said. “This idea of the silent majority appealed to both Western European and American groups, so we tried to trace when the idea emerged, how it was defined, and why it was so appealing.”

The conference was a resounding success, leading von der Goltz to solicit contributions from attendees for a comprehensive book on the era’s conservative movements on both sides of the Atlantic. She and co-editor Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson of the German Historical Institute carefully selected pieces from a broad range of authors in both subject matter and academic experience.

“There are some very established scholars — Julian Zelizer from Princeton, or Michael Kazin from our history department — alongside some junior scholars, recent Ph.D.s. I quite like that mix, and I think it brings some interesting perspectives,” von der Goltz said.

For Inventing the Silent Majority, von der Goltz grouped together pieces that dealt with similar topics — a section on race, for example, includes articles on both the American George Wallace and the British Enoch Powell, whose rhetoric on race could be strikingly similar. But there’s an overarching theme as well: Each piece in the book deals in some way with the theme of conservative reactions to an era of rapid change.

“The 1960s and 1970s were this period where you saw massive transformations in nearly every social realm — economic shifts, civil rights in the U.S., race resurfacing in a powerful way with mass immigration in Europe,” von der Goltz said. “Those produce a lot of anxieties. Conservatives, seen as guardians of the status quo, tend to benefit from those anxieties.”

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the movements studied in von der Goltz’s book and the “silent majorities” (or, at least, pluralities) who contributed to recent unexpected victories for nationalist movements, like the election of President Donald Trump in the United States and the successful Brexit movement in the United Kingdom. Von der Goltz notes there are obvious differences between the two eras, but she does believe that studying the older movements can be instructive in understanding today’s.

“I quite like the Mark Twain quote, ‘History never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes,’” von der Goltz said. “We’re at a similar moment of widespread dislocation and transformation, and in that sense, the ’60s and ’70s have some real echoes in the present.”

Inventing the Silent Majority in Western Europe and the United States: Conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s is available from Cambridge University Press.

— Patrick Curran