05/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Historical, Hysterical Conservatives

Conservatives have been in a historical state of mind lately, and as the author of a new book on the history of the American political debate (The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be), it has been pretty entertaining to watch.

First came the teabaggers, the faux spontaneous uprising backed by corporate contributors, carefully planned Astroturf consultants, and Fox News sponsorship and promotion night and day. Then we saw the right-wing Governor of Texas casually throw out the idea of secession from the union. Now we see conservatives debating amongst themselves whether to call Obama a socialist or a fascist. (My favorite quote from the story on this is from former Michigan GOP party chair Saul Anuzis: "You've got to be careful using the term 'economic fascism' in the right way, so it doesn't come as extreme.")

Conservatives know this country is at a historical crossroads, and I suspect that what they fear most is that they are just as much on the wrong side of history as their ideological ancestors were in the 1860s when the end of slavery was being debated, in the early 1900s when women's suffrage was being debated, in the 1930s when social security and the minimum wage were being debated, and in the 1960s when the civil rights were being debated. In every single one of those historical debates, conservatives:

-labeled their opposition socialists (and worse)
-called for states' rights instead of a federal solution
-said that they were the true heirs of the founding fathers, and were the keepers of America's traditions and values
-warned that the charges being proposed were frighteningly radical, and would destroy the economy
-that big government would lead to a destruction of all of our most basic liberties

These conservative arguments have always been tinged with more than a little hysteria, just like today. And no matter what, conservatives always insisted they owned the moral high ground. Defenders of slavery argued that slavery was not an evil but in John Calhoun's words, "a positive good," and that Southern society was based on the institution. Those opposing women's suffrage said giving women the right to vote would destroy the American family. Conservatives in the 1930s argued about social security that "never in the history of the world has any measure brought here so incisively designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers, and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people." Southerners violently opposed the end of Jim Crow, arguing that it "encroached upon the reserved rights of the states and the people."

Conservatives have always hysterically opposed progressive change. They have used the same arguments-for tradition and states rights, against "big government socialism" -- in every era. In those past eras, history was not on their side. It is not in our time, either.