If conservatism truly seeks to conserve, it would seem that there is a point in time that can be pointed at as the ideal of what is to be conserved. Likely that time will serve not only as a point to be conserved, but it will also serve as an era in which the act of conserving was carried out most properly. This search for that point in time is a common refrain in conservative intellectual thought, with a plethora of eras to choose from. Eras as distinctive (or perhaps similar) as aristocratic Europe, post-Glorious Revolution England, the American Founding, and the Antebellum South (though it is likely there are few defenders of that vein of thought any longer) are thrown around as the gold standard. This series seeks to continue that tradition by adding another era to that list. In fact, the era suggested, the 1950s, is likely not a new suggestion at all. This series’ unique contribution, however, is to present this topic in a way that seeks to understand why the everyday experiences of the common person in the 1950s is indicative of a conservative America.
Before embarking on such a path, it is important for us to understand where we are—to establish a guidepost of sorts. The first thing that must be understood is what exactly we are talking about. For this, a consultation of the title is needed. This series of essays will argue that the 1950s was the height of conservative America—not the height of American conservatism. This is important because this series of essays will not be a discussion of conservative theory or thinkers of the 1950s. In fact, they will be entirely devoid of such discussion. As previously stated, these essays will explore the ways in which the values of everyday Americans reflected a nation that was at the height of its conservatism. These everyday Americans may have not even been aware of the formulation of conservative political philosophy, but they were aware of their own values and experiences.
This was a generation of Americans who had emerged from the horrors of the Second World War, a worldwide conflict against powers of evil that were determined to erase the American way of life from the face of the earth. This was a generation of Americans that was experiencing the genesis of a geopolitical conflict with the Soviet Union that would have moral and theological implications. This was, most importantly, a generation of Americans who understood innately what it meant to be American and embraced that.
Perhaps this exploration is born out of a sense of nostalgia for a “simpler” time in the face of enormous unrest in the United States. Perhaps it is born out of a longing for a national identity in the face of a social fabric that is being shredded, leaving the nation without identity or purpose. Perhaps it is born out of a desire to be a part of an America that shows respect for its history and heritage in a time where those who show that respect are mocked, or worse, persecuted. Perhaps it is all these things and more. But if it is these things, that just shows how far America has strayed from that pinnacle of conservatism. We can all agree that today is not the height of conservative America, so as conservatives it is natural to look back to attempt to conserve the moment that was.
This series will not be arranged chronologically. It will not be arranged by value or by concept or by movement. It will instead be arranged geographically. But not geographically in the sense that you will need a map, but rather geographically in the context of one town, one street. One street in one town, nameless and likely nonexistent, but still stereotypically encompassing every aspect that makes the 1950s the height of conservative America.
Let me present the roadmap of the street we will be traversing together.
- The Church: Highlights a society that largely agreed on a set of moral principles and sought to publicly proclaim those principles.
- The Car Dealership: Highlights the innovation and ingenuity in a recognizable American segment prior to the massive onslaught of government regulations in that segment.
- The School: Highlights a society that valued teaching the American heritage, a love for liberty, and inculcating virtue within their youth.
- The Soda Fountain: Highlights a society that valued social interaction.
- The Home: Highlights a society that valued family.
The loss of these aspects of society has been a huge blow to America. It has been a huge blow to liberty. Through an examination of these brief stops we shall see just what each brought to a conservative American society.
One of the everyday Americans that recognized the values of the 1950s conservative America is Wayne Drayer, a man born and raised in my hometown of Cissna Park, Illinois. Drayer wrote a book entitled Softer than Velvet, Stronger than Steel that also pines for this time. Set in the 1960s, the book follows a student as he deals with personal grief while also learning of the great principles of the American Founding. Drayer understands that the reverence for those principles had already began to be lost in the Sixties, and the protagonist of his novel faces an uphill battle to promote them. But of the 1950s, Drayer says that “[l]ike the ‘amber waves of grain,’ patriotism swayed freely in post-WWII America.”
The lesson of Drayer is the lesson of the 1950s. A patriotic America, in love with liberty. That is the height of a conservative America. That is the America that has been lost. That is the America this series of essays seeks to highlight. Hopefully through the retelling, we can truly conserve, preserve, and reignite those values that America has lost.
About the Author
Connor Kaeb is the Managing Editor of American Discourse.