Were the 90s the Climax of Conservatism?

90s Conservatism

1980 to 2001 was a period of triumph for the conservative movement.

Following up from a lecture at the Institute for Humane Studies on former President Ronald Reagan, historian Marcus Witcher spoke with Ideas in Progress host Dr. Anthony Comegna about his upcoming book on conservativism in the 1990s called: Fulfilling the Reagan Revolution: Clinton, Gingrich, and the Conservative 90s.

Dr. Witcher, scholar-in-residence in the Department of History and the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas, argues in his next book that 1980 to 2001 was a period of triumph for the conservative movement. In the 1990s in particular, there were a series of accomplishments under President Bill Clinton.

Dr. Marcus Witcher

“[Bill Clinton] represented the free market, international trade rights, had supported NAFTA, but he also deregulated the banking industry,” Dr. Witcher said.

Dr. Comegna asked if in the 1990s identity politics impacted the democratic party and voters as a movement. While it did exist, Dr. Witcher said that President Clinton avoided involvement. Instead, he focused on building a moderate coalition of republicans and democrats to get his fiscal policies passed. He was market-focused.

Clinton really embraced that [rights-based] political discourse and he embraced the idea that markets were the best way to organize society.

–Dr. Marcus Witcher

While economically Clinton’s administration was not too dissimilar from Reagan’s, the ideological goal of Reagan to reduce the scope of government never came to fruition.

Dr. Comegna presented methodological questions to Dr. Witcher on the nature of his objectivity to this history.

“I often say that I think that for something to be the proper subject of history, whoever’s writing about it, the historian in question should not have been alive during the time of the events they’re discussing,” Dr. Comegna said. “How do you make sure that you’re not just looking, for example, at one of these presidential libraries and their highly curated collections? How do you know that you’re not just doing some form of propaganda?”

It is challenging for historians to remain completely detached, Dr. Witcher argued, regardless of when in history it occurred. There will always be people that will write, what he considers, the first draft of history. This allows historians to better observe the present and how this will impact the near future.

[History] has two tasks: to understand people in the past, but also to inform important questions in the present. Because if all we do is recount what happened in the past and don’t connect it to the problems of our own day, then I think we’re doing a disservice to our field and also to the public.

–Dr. Marcus Witcher

Through a marketplace of ideas on any given subject, Dr. Witcher said that readers who are trying to discern the truth will be able to do so by absorbing a variety of perspectives.

For the full episode (Episode 26: Marcus Witcher’s Ideas in Progress), visit SoundCloudiTunes, or Stitcher. Each Wednesday, we release new episodes from our Ideas in Progress podcast on divisive topics with contemporary thinkers.

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