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Moderate Republicans in the Conservative Rise:
The Ripon Society, 1962–1982

Adviser: Robert Sean Wilentz

Andrew G. Kilberg


“You should not be afraid to pursue an adviser whose views differ from yours.”


For me, the senior thesis was a culmination of not only my time at Princeton, but also my earlier schooling in northern Virginia and countless experiences both in the classroom and out. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by both history and politics, and the Department of History gave me the opportunity to pursue the convergence of these two disciplines. Political history is fascinating to me partly because there are so many historical explanations of political trends and events that have taken root in American public consciousness that should be challenged.

My thesis challenged one such orthodoxy of political history. A prevailing myth about the Republican Party is that contemporary conservatism began with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy and lay dormant until Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory. Through geographic and demographic changes and a quasi-racist appeal to the South, Republicans capitalized upon a philosophy, which Goldwater, William F. Buckley, and Russell Kirk founded in the 1960s and upon which newly powerful conservative think tanks expanded. By relating the history of the Ripon Society—a moderate, policy-oriented Republican group founded in late 1962—I argued that though conservatism triumphed, it relied heavily on the moderate Republicans of the 1960s and 1970s. The Goldwater-to-Reagan framework, I wrote, smoothes over the turbulence within the GOP in the ’60s and ’70s and underestimates the power of the moderate wing at that time.

I decided to write about the Ripon Society at the beginning of the summer before my senior year. My to-be adviser, Professor Sean Wilentz, agreed to entertain my request for him to advise me, but told me I had to bring a viable topic to our meeting. The Ripon Society was the first idea that came to mind—most likely this was because both my parents were members of the society when they were in law school. Choosing to write about a group with which your parents were involved has both great advantages and great disadvantages: I had easy access to many others involved with the group, but I also had to separate myself from them and their opinions and critically assess the society, its success or failure, and its place within the history of the GOP. These lessons apply to all humanities and social science theses: Choose a topic that is accessible both in terms of your comprehension and ability adequately to identify and obtain sources; and every few days (or, as it may be, every few hours), stop and ask yourself if your facts and analysis are objective. What are my assumptions? Are those reasonable? Is that my opinion or is it the opinion of the subject of my latest interview? Do not be afraid to alter your conclusions as you progress or introduce new research questions into the mix, though it is important not to try to address too much.

My research encompassed firsthand and secondhand interviews, books published by the society, documents culled from the Cornell University archives, and context-providing secondary sources. Interviews are not appropriate for many topics, but for mine they proved to be indispensable sources of facts, motives, and opinions not transmitted through available documents, as well as fountains of color commentary and anecdotal flourish. Interviews always, however, must be used with a grain of salt—as hard as we all try, people are naturally subjective. I did not use much historiography, but instead utilized secondary sources that provided much-needed background. I wanted my topic—the Ripon Society itself—to challenge the common story line, rather than getting lost in a sea of scholarship and contemporary accounts of politics in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

I had a very productive relationship with my adviser, Professor Sean Wilentz. Try to get to know your adviser before senior year. Your chances of getting whom you want are a lot higher if the professor has taught you before; and your work and your happiness will both benefit from prior exposure to the methods and habits of your adviser. I knew as soon as I declared history my concentration that I most likely wanted to write my thesis about 20th-century American political history. Professor Wilentz was a good fit, so I decided to take a seminar he was teaching on Reagan. Afterwards, I asked him to advise me on my spring junior paper and then approached him about staying on to see me through my thesis. Of course, most people are not so sure of their general area of research interest so early, but it is a good idea to keep professors’ research interests in mind when choosing classes. Take seminars! Not only do you get to know professors better than in big lectures, but also you better learn how to delve deeper into a topic and produce longer papers with more interesting conclusions. Also, you should not be afraid to pursue an adviser whose views differ from yours. I was president of the College Republicans, and Professor Wilentz wrote an article for Rolling Stone questioning whether George W. Bush was the worst president ever. Yet our conflicting political opinions actually made the thesis experience more enjoyable and more fruitful.

Though I wrote much of my thesis in my carrel on the B floor of Firestone Library, my friends kept me sane and I returned the favor. The ability to step away from the library and enter a comforting social environment cannot be underestimated in the timely and successful completion of the thesis. For me, I made frequent trips from Firestone to the Tower Club, where I lived senior year. Whether it’s walking to Starbucks to get another latte, going to a movie or a meal, or just surfing Facebook for a little while, do not let the thesis turn into a 20-hour-a-day endeavor. You will write less substance and it will show, and your physical and emotional state will suffer.

The senior thesis was an incredibly rewarding experience. There is nothing quite like the feeling that you have come as close as possible to mastering a specific topic. It was a challenge for me to keep the broad conclusion in mind while reading about the minutiae of a late 1960s policy proposal on welfare, for instance. But the intellectual reward for drawing a valid, interesting, and original conclusion out of such detail far exceeds any other academic experience at Princeton. Surprisingly, the most difficult part of the thesis was writing the conclusion. It may seem like the easiest part of most papers to write, but crafting a conclusion that successfully integrates your sometimes quite disparate chapters and ideas into a cohesive and persuasive few pages (mine was 10) is pretty hard. I wholeheartedly endorse rewriting your conclusion completely the week before your thesis is due. That way you can view your project in its entirety, reconsider exactly what you want to say, and ensure that all the component parts fit together properly.

In the end, I believe that I contributed a morsel of original knowledge to the study of American political history, but I know that I will look back on my thesis experience fondly for the rest of my life. It puts all other classwork and educational experiences in perspective. Who else can tell you that they were required to write a short book in order to graduate from college? That’s right: just the other current and former residents of the Orange Bubble.

Moderate Republicans in the Conservative Rise:
The Ripon Society, 1962–1982

Andrew G. Kilberg

Robert Sean Wilentz

George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History

“I hoped that Andrew’s thesis might be able to fill in some of the gaps.”

Sometimes, you can tell, but sometimes you can’t.

One of the toughest decisions for any senior thesis adviser is whether actually to agree to serve as adviser for a particular thesis. For those students who have studied with you in the past, or whose interests plainly match your own expertise, it’s simple. But there are those whom you’ve never seen before, even in the back of a lecture hall, yet who want to work with you on a topic about which you know practically nothing because, a) you’re supposed to be the perfect adviser, even though the reasons are a little hazy; b) supposedly, there’s nobody else in the department who can possibly do the job as well as you, which you are apt to point out is highly debatable; c) the student actually has no idea of any topic, and the department rep has suggested he or she see you; d) the faculty member the student really wanted as an adviser either is on leave or has already taken his or her full quota of seniors. Reasons c) and d) are the most common. And so, mustering pride in our professionalism, we ask some questions, look at their junior papers (JPs), and decide if it makes any sense at all.

Andrew Kilberg was one of the easy choices. He already had taken several of my courses, would take more in his senior year, and already had written his second-semester JP with me. His interest in contemporary American political history was one of mine as well. His JP—a study of what might be called the social anthropology of the U.S. Senate and its hidden nooks and crannies of power—had worked out well enough, but suffered from a lack of authoritative primary source material. His proposed thesis topic, though—the Republican Party’s Ripon Society of the 1960s and after—struck me as a winner. When he told me of the abundant primary sources available, including veterans of the society whom he could interview, I was sold.

Having recently completed a book of my own on recent American politics, including the rise of Reagan conservatism within the GOP and then its rise to national power, I had been struck by how little historians had written on the Ripon group. Founded in and around Harvard in the wake of the civil rights movement’s rise and amid the expansion of the Goldwater Right’s power among Republicans, the Ripon Society was a frankly liberal effort to square Republican principles with the impulse for racial equality, and to resist the party’s conservative wing. I recalled it from my own youth as a standard-bearer for the kinds of moderate and liberal ideals upheld by the likes of Nelson A. Rockefeller and William Scranton—ideals that, in the long run, were doomed to lose out in Republican conclaves. Yet in my own research, I had never run across a detailed and lengthy account of the society, how it had fared in the aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964, and what had become of it during the years when the conservative darling Ronald Reagan emerged as the great modern Republican leader and hero. I hoped that Andrew’s thesis might be able to fill in some of the gaps.

I tend to ride herd on those advisees about whom I have any doubts, but take a fairly laissez-faire approach with those who, like Andrew, have a good idea of what they want to find out and where they will go to do so. Through the fall semester, he came to me with occasional updates on his progress in exploring the society’s surviving papers and publications, as well as in interviewing former Riponites. Only when he got down to writing after the Christmas break did I start asking him to come more regularly, so that we could go over outlines and then drafts, and so that I could help him shape his arguments into a coherent whole.

Andrew’s findings were particularly striking with regard to the society in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Nixon administration is generally remembered as a conservative one, with a streak of recklessness and even lawlessness that grew and eventuated in the Watergate affair. Yet Andrew found abundant evidence of how, early on, Richard Nixon and his aides reached out to the Ripon Society, in part to help rally the party’s disparate elements following the Goldwater debacle in 1964, in part because Nixon had some genuinely moderate and even liberal instincts, and in part because at a time when youth seemed to be mobilizing against the establishment, Nixon wanted to bring as many organized young voters as he could on board. What was truly surprising was that the figure who pushed hardest for including the Riponers was Patrick Buchanan, whose hard conservative politics had not, at least at this point, overruled his political savvy. Only slightly less surprising were the large numbers of Ripon loyalists who found jobs in the Nixon White House and executive agencies.

Following Watergate, Andrew found, the Riponers following a number of very different political courses. A few, disenchanted by the party’s renewed march to the right, abandoned the Republicans, some becoming independents, and some actually becoming Democrats. Yet large numbers stayed true to their Republican loyalties. In one of the other fascinating portions of the thesis, Andrew demonstrates how the Riponers’ basic commitment to Republican economic policies—which might be described as more libertarian than either conservative or liberal—kept many of them from jumping ship. Thanks to Andrew, I began to understand better why many Republicans who had cut their teeth as admirers of Nelson Rockefeller could end up comfortably ensconced in the party of Ronald Reagan and, later, George W. Bush.

The thesis more than vindicated my confidence in its author and in its subject. The experience suggests what might at first seem a paradox, but really is not. It is certainly never too early for students to think about what they might want to work on as a thesis topic, to find a topic about which the source material is rich, and which can be framed in a historically significant way. But it is just as true that a JP that doesn’t quite come together as hoped is not necessarily a sign of things to come. As with everything in historical scholarship, at every level, confidence, an open mind, and persistence are foundations of success. Keep at it, seek out your adviser, don’t be afraid to take risks that may not pan out right away, and you’ll at least have the kind of attitude that makes for a rewarding experience—for advisers as well as students.