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An Interview with George Hawley, Author of “Conservatism in a Divided America”

George Hawley is associate professor of political science at the University of Alabama. He is the author of a number of books, including Making Sense of the Alt-Right, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, and White Voters in Twenty-First Century America. The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish his newest book, Conservatism in a Divided America: The Right and Identity Politics (November 2022). He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.

George Hawley

When did you first get the idea to write this book? 

This book was a natural extension of my previous research, which focused on both the mainstream conservative movement and its right-wing opponents, especially those opponents calling for a more aggressive variety of identity politics. I wanted to examine at how the conservative movement has historically approached these issues. Conservatives today insist that they reject all forms of identity politics, usually emphasizing their commitment to classical liberal values. I find that this is not really true. At the same time, I reject the idea, promoted by many progressives, that conservative rhetoric has never been anything but a cover for maintaining unjust privilege. The story is more complicated than that. The claim that “all politics is identity politics” has some merit, but identity is a complex phenomenon. It is made even more complicated by the fact that partisanship is increasingly its own form of identity.

Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

I will be happy if readers will find this is an honest book that treats its subject fairly without shying away from the less admirable elements of the conservative movement’s history. Progressives looking for a ferocious denunciation of conservatives will not find it here, nor will conservatives looking for a vigorous defense. People across the ideological spectrum will likely disagree with parts of my analysis. I nonetheless hope that all readers learn something and feel that I made a good faith effort to dispassionately examine the subject, accurately depicting the ideas and figures I discuss. These issues are not going away, so I hope this book provides some useful historical perspective and gives readers a few things to think about.

How did you research this book?

Much of this book involved reading primary texts from the conservative movement’s history, as well as works by right-wing radicals. I also examined the best recent research on political psychology, especially as it relates to questions of identity.

What did you learn while writing it?

Writing this book reminded me how old some of these questions are. Discussions about race and civil rights, feminism, national identity, and the place of the radical right in the broader conservative movement are certainly not new. However, it is interesting to see some of the same debates repeated over and over again among people on the right. For me, the most interesting thing I noticed in my research was just how little early conservatives thought about immigration at all. To the extent that they talked about it, they mostly focused on how the issue fit with Cold War politics. 

I suppose I found the most surprises while writing my chapter on conservatism and feminism, mostly because it was not a subject I had considered before. I learned that there has always been some ambivalence and disagreement on the subject among conservatives. There were and are conservatives that are social traditionalists, believing in clearly-defined gender roles. However, the economic conservatives often emphasize that free-market capitalism has helped liberate women—and in some sense they view themselves as the most effective promoters of feminism. In my view this really underscored the tension between economic and social conservatives

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

Starting a book feels like a daunting task. Over the course of seven books, I learned the following lesson: attack your first 10,000 words with gusto. After you reach that point, you feel like you are on your way and the rest comes more easily.

Who would you like to read Conservatism in a Divided America and why?

I obviously hope fellow scholars will read it and find something useful, even if they disagree with my perspective. I also hope I wrote it in understandable language that will appeal to a more general audience. I will of course be delighted if people engaged in practical politics read the book and think seriously about the questions I raise about the nature of partisan politics in contemporary America.

What books are you currently reading?

Right now I am reading The Right, by Matthew Continetti, The Republicans, by Lewis L. Gould, and Quakers and Politics, by Gary B. Nash.

What book or project are you working on next?

I am now getting started tentatively titled, The Republican Voter. I will look at the history of the GOP’s electoral base, but mostly focus on Republicans today. It will be an attempt to combine my qualitative and quantitative research skills in a single project. I am in the process of conducting interviews with ordinary Republican voters across the country, as well as Republicans more involved with the practical side of politics. I plan to supplement this research with a statistical analysis of election results, public opinion data, and demographic and economic data.

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