Patrick Allitt


On his book The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History

Cover Interview of February 26, 2010


I finished the book shortly before the 2008 election and it came out shortly afterwards, when the American conservative movement had suffered a severe check with Obama’s victory and the Republican Party’s defeat.  Reviewers and interviewers have all asked me what I make of the current situation, whether Sarah Palin is the future of the GOP, and what will happen next.  My answer is: the more you study history, the more you realize how hopeless it is to try to predict the future.

I have also often been asked: who are the real conservatives?  There is no simple answer to that question.  You could take the view that nothing has done more to transform the world in the last 200 years than industrial capitalism, and that to describe its supporters as “conservatives” is an obvious contradiction.  But most defenders of capitalism do call themselves conservatives, largely because they see their job as to defend it against various forms of economic collectivism.  My job as an historian is to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.  If the champions of capitalism do in fact call themselves conservatives, my job is to explain why, rather than try to contradict them.

Another question I face nearly every time I write and speak on this topic is: are you a conservative?  The answer is a mixture of yes and no.  On the one hand I grew up in Britain during its long flirtation with socialism and always believed in the essential rightness of the National Health Service.  That makes me a lefty by American standards.  On the other hand I became a passionate anti-Communist after reading the work of Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s, and I believe equally strongly in the essential rightness of free-market capitalism, which has done more than anything else to enrich the world and liberate the masses from misery and poverty.  That makes me a conservative, at least of a kind.  So does my skepticism about the perfectibility of human nature.  I agree with many of the people I wrote about that we are all sinners and that we need to live with institutions that recognize this reality and impose necessary constraints on us.

© 2010 Patrick Allitt