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The 1970s was a decade of acute existential crisis for the Democratic party, as ‘New Politics’ insurgents challenged the old guard for control of both the party apparatus and the right to define who a true ‘liberal’ was. Those Democrats who opposed New Politics reformism often found themselves dubbed ‘neoconservatives’. The fact that so many ‘neoconservatives’ eventually made their home in the Grand Old Party (GOP) has led historians to view them as a Republican bloc in embryo. The apostasy of the neoconservatives fits neatly into the political historiography of the 1970s, which is dominated by the rise of the New Right and its takeover of the Republican party. Yet this narrative, though seductive, overlooks the essentially protean character of politics in that decade. This article uses the 1976 Senate campaign mounted by Daniel Patrick Moynihan – the dandyish Harvard academic, official in four presidential administrations, and twice US ambassador – to demonstrate that many ‘neoconservatives’ were advancing a recognizably liberal agenda and seeking to define a new ‘vital center’ against the twin poles of the New Politics and the New Right. A microcosm of a wider struggle to define liberalism, Moynihan's candidacy complicates our understanding of the 1970s as an era of rightward drift.

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St Anne's College, Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6HS,
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This article was written with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Rothermere American Institute, St Anne's College, and the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. A previous version was presented at the Historians of the Twentieth Century United States annual conference in Middelburg, the Netherlands. The bulk of the research was undertaken at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, where I was a British Research Council Fellow at the John W. Kluge Center. I am grateful to the staff and fellows of the Kluge Center and the archivists in the LOC's various reading rooms for their support and forbearance. I am also grateful to my doctoral supervisor, Dr Gareth Davies, and to the editors and anonymous reviewers of the Historical Journal for their insightful comments on earlier drafts.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Alan Brinkley , ‘The problem of American conservatism’, American Historical Review, 99 (Apr. 1994), pp. 409–29

Julian E. Zelizer , ‘Rethinking the history of American conservatism’, Reviews in American History, 38 (2010), pp. 367–92

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The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
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