Dec/Jan 2011

Right from the Start

The roots of the conservative grievance industry

Kim Phillips-Fein


It would surely trouble John Boehner to hear it, but Karl Marx's old aphorism about history happening the first time as tragedy, the second as farce has rarely applied with as much force as it does to today's conservative movement. The GOP wave that swept Boehner into the House speakership in November struck pundits as a historic departure, but it's actually part of the broader half-century conservative revolt against the idea of government. Fifty years ago, when Ronald Reagan was jaunting around the country giving speeches for General Electric, he denounced progressive taxation as tantamount to socialism, while the loyalists of the John Birch Society were sure Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Communist. Of course, the ultras of the 1950s were wrong; midcentury liberals were inveterate Red hunters, and socialism was the furthest thing from their ambitions. But at least when Reagan was whipping up local chambers of commerce and the Birchers were holding their interminable kaffeeklatsches, top marginal income-tax rates were near 90 percent, the War on Poverty was about to begin, and national health care would soon be extended to the elderly and poor. In other words, there was an activist government for conservatives to complain about. Today, the right's fulminations about the expansion of the state seem wildly, vastly out of proportion to the rather tepid actions of the Democratic Party in power, which cannot even agree about repealing the Bush tax cuts. It is as though the tamer liberals become, the more vigorous and vicious the denunciations of the right.

The late Richard Hofstadter famously described "pseudo-conservatives" as dwellers in an unreal world, practitioners of a "paranoid style" of politics. They were, he argued, downwardly mobile lost souls, at sea in the mass-consumption economy of midcentury America, who turned their economic rage into an irrational attack on the intellectuals and liberals they believed responsible for their problems. They were victims of the American dream who did not know "who they are or what they are or what they belong to or what belongs to them." Out of their desperate search for status came a striking penchant for a Manichaean politics of good and evil, which scripted the elitists of Washington as the insatiable persecutors of virtuous small-town America. Ever since Hofstadter wrote his essays, historians have been criticizing his dismissive tone and his interpretation of conservatism as something akin to mental illness; in retrospect, Hofstadter's detractors have argued, he erred badly by making the right seem a declining force in American life at the very moment it was poised to sweep into power. But for all the obvious condescension in Hofstadter's argument, he captured, as few others have, the sheer strangeness of the conservative movement, and the way its rage manages to concoct a shadow America always on the brink of revolution or worse. Have modern scholars been able to do much better?

Take, for example, David Courtwright in No Right Turn. Unlike many historians of conservatism, who stop with the election of Ronald Reagan as if it were the end of the story, Courtwright takes us up to today. His book makes the case that there has been no real conservative revolution in American politics. Economic conservatives have "failed in their ultimate objective, to unravel the New Deal and bring federal spending under control," while moral conservatives have not been able to "wring permissiveness from the 1960s-saturated culture." Of the two, though, the economic right has gotten more of what it wanted. The ethos of the market went nicely with the permissive society advanced during the social upheavals of the '60s. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Courtwright suggests, Americans were "measurably more tolerant, foul-mouthed, obese, and slovenly," while "sexual partnership became a carousel. Those who did not like their ponies stepped off and waited for others to come around." Conservatives won at the polls, but the party of the free market had little interest in undoing the sexual and moral revolutions. As Courtwright puts it, "When disenchanted white Evangelicals left the Democratic Party and climbed aboard the GOP bus, they discovered that it was bound for Market Square rather than Church Street."

Conservatives, Courtwright claims, seek to unite free-market enthusiasts with Christian traditionalists—an intractable problem, because capitalism tends to erode the values that religious conservatives hold dear. There is no way the two sides of the movement can win at once, and the result is that the moral right will always be sputtering and fuming at the depredations the businessmen commit against the culture, even as they find themselves voting, like it or not, for the economic right. "Whatever sins the moral revolution had visited upon America, libertarians like Ronald Reagan, David Stockman, and Rupert Murdoch were not the ones to purge them," writes Courtwright.

Dominic Sandbrook's swashbuckling, capacious account of 1970s populism—aptly titled Mad as Hell—offers another view. Sandbrook (a British historian) opens his book by recounting the famous scene in the movie Network in which the deranged anchorman Howard Beale tells people to "get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out, and yell: 'I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!'" It began in the movies, but soon there were reports of students on college campuses sticking their heads out the window at midnight to shout the magic phrase in concert. The success of the right, Sandbrook argues, was intimately linked to this broader populist anger, with its revulsion at distant government, snooty intellectuals, and know-it-all experts. In Kanawha County, West Virginia, for example, Alice Moore, the mother of four, started a campaign against sex education in local public schools that quickly expanded to encourage the removal from school curricula of a wide range of books—including the Iliad, Crime and Punishment, and Paradise Lost—as well as poems by Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot, which were all deemed too morbid and depressing. Before long, thousands of children were being kept home in a school boycott, two schools were firebombed, one more dynamited, two people were shot on picket lines, and fifteen sticks of dynamite exploded at the school board's offices just minutes after the end of a meeting (no one was killed). In Boston, blue-collar white workers took to the streets, yelling racial epithets and staging sit-ins in a grotesque parody of the civil rights movement, to try to stop a court-ordered busing plan to desegregate the local public schools. In California, Howard Jarvis, former semipro baseball player, traversed the state, often speaking to "just six people in a suburban living room" at a time, in order to build a movement to demolish property taxes. The issues were different from place to place, but the anger and resentment were the same.

Sandbrook's book captures one side of the '70s—the inchoate fury that seemed to permeate the nation. He's less successful, however, in evoking the era's mood of depression and disillusionment and in pointing up the ways that '70s liberalism frustrated the expectations of the baby boomers. For a generation, Americans had come to anticipate that they would own homes as adults; that every year, more people would have health insurance and pensions; that living conditions would steadily improve. The experience of the '70s suggested that such optimism was badly misguided. True, for some few lucky people American society would deliver riches beyond imagination, but the game was rigged against the rest. Although Sandbrook discusses the financial difficulties of the '70s , he stops shy of fleshing out the mounting desperation of the decade's economic casualties. The book offers striking vignettes from the rise of a populist insurgency but doesn't give a sense of how or why that uprising coalesced into a conservative movement that realigned American politics for a generation. Meanwhile, Sandbrook's depiction of the frenetic energy of the '70s misses something larger that still haunts our politics: the way that feelings of disappointment and loss—not just anger—have animated the country's rightward shift.

Do such historical accounts offer any illumination of today's back-from-the-dead conservatism? For many of the polemicists of contemporary conservatism, contra Courtwright, there is no hard and fast line between religion and economics. They see the economic world as laden with values and moral meaning, and faith as inextricably linked to capitalism. For the most fearful of these conservatives, the state is not just overreaching its bounds, stifling the economy, or limiting free enterprise—it's part of what the values-mongering right calls a culture of death. Government cannot be representative or democratic; it is a malevolent, vampiric force, preying on the people of the nation. This melodramatic vision of the evil and parasitic state transcends the neat divisions that Courtwright suggests. Nor is it entirely a populist trope, since for the populists, the uprising of the people could at least in theory reclaim a righteous political order. Two new books aimed squarely at the Tea Party show just how closely today's right hews to this quasi-apocalyptic vision of government.

Even in the less stark evocation of the new right's foundation myth, The New Reagan Revolution, Michael Reagan—the adopted son of the fortieth president—abandons his father's legendary bonhomie in order to offer an inflamed account of today's political scene: "Just as my father predicted, we now live in a socialist state." He warns of a shadowy conspiracy inspired by the ideas of poverty scholars Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, hell-bent on economic redistribution and massive government regulation. "The 'climate change' agenda," Reagan suggests, "may well be the biggest, wealthiest and stealthiest of all the tentacles of the Cloward-Piven octopus." But even though the younger Reagan depicts a country on the brink, he argues that by returning to Reaganite orthodoxy it can be saved. He rehearses the arguments in favor of the Laffer curve: "Reaganomics is not voodoo—but it is kind of magical." And he exhorts Tea Party sympathizers to remain within the Republican Party instead of jumping ship for a third party. The book interlaces Reagan's recollections of his father with its political polemics—a calculated sentimentality that results in an oddly upbeat tone, as when Reagan urges his readers to build their grassroots movement by becoming "storytellers" and learning to speak in the folksy parables favored by the Great Communicator himself.

More systematic and also far darker is J. R. Dunn's Death by Liberalism. This tract, released by a new HarperCollins conservative imprint called Broadside, gives a sense of just how bleak things have become in some quarters of today's right. Dunn is no conspiracy theorist. Instead, he is the intellectual descendant of Friedrich von Hayek, whose 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, made the argument that liberal efforts at reform inevitably result in the creation of a totalitarian state, regardless of the best efforts and most virtuous intentions of the reformers. But where Hayek argued that the welfare state would result in totalitarianism because of the centralized planning it seemed to involve, Dunn takes a much more direct approach, arguing that "liberalism kills." The liberal persuasion, he says, is "one of the largest-scale killers active in our time, easily outdoing most deadly diseases, and exceeding terrorism by several orders of magnitude." In the late 1990s, several French academics published The Black Book of Communism, which was an attempt to tally up the total number of victims of Communist regimes worldwide. Death by Liberalism aims to do the same for our softer version of the left.

How does Dunn manage to run up the death toll of a political faith identified with the ineffectual likes of Adlai Stevenson and Michael Dukakis? For starters, he includes all those murdered in the United States in the forty years following the Supreme Court decisions that gave those accused of crime the right to legal representation (among other rights)—that's 263,568 people killed by liberalism, in case you were wondering. He counts all those who have died of malaria, which Dunn suggests could have been wiped out were it not for Rachel Carson's mad crusade against DDT. The regulation of auto emissions—which made lightweight cars more desirable—has resulted in anything from 41,600 to 124,800 deaths, since crashes involving smaller cars are more likely to be deadly than those involving Hummers (at least in comparison with those in the Hummers). He also blames liberals for homelessness—because of their critiques of the problematic conditions in mental institutions and also because of their advocacy of rent subsidy—and its attendant deaths. Terri Schiavo makes an appearance. And of course, the body count cannot help but swell when we factor in the "millions of unborn children" who have been killed by abortion. In the end, Dunn arrives at a figure of about 400,000 to 500,000 Americans—he leaves out the unborn babies, and he doesn't try for an international account—who are, he says, the victims of "democide," i.e., the systematic destruction of human life by the state.

There are, needless to say, a number of logical problems with this approach—for starters, the question of what exactly determines causality in accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths. But Dunn's book is significant, because it points to a broader political phenomenon beyond the rickety terms of his argument: the steady infusion of libertarian and antigovernment ideas with an extraordinarily harsh morality. Antiabortion is no longer simply a Christian mobilization—it is also a libertarian campaign against the power of the state. Government regulation is not only about the market—it is, literally, a matter of life and death. Barry Goldwater exhorted his followers to be willing to die to protect freedom. For Dunn, if you don't fight for freedom you will die. The well-meaning liberals are coming to get you and gun you down.

Much ink has been spilled describing the modern conservative movement as an uneasy, restless coalition, joined more by its opposition to Communism and liberalism than by any underlying vision of the world. While there's some truth to this portrait, Dunn's book suggests its inherent limitations. For people on the right, opposing state power has always been freighted with the moral weight of a jeremiad. The crusade against government is perennially bound up with some sense of protecting a world ordered by divinity. The market and the church are close companions in a single vision that reviles any conscious, collective effort to shape society. Back in the 1970s, Jerry Falwell could quote Milton Friedman as comfortably as the Bible. But what really makes someone like Dunn unusual is not his passion, but rather the absence of any positive vision; he is writing not out of a drive to defend a world in danger of being lost, but simply against a state bent on destruction. There are no family values, no Christian truths of the sort invoked by Courtwright. Now, in the hothouse world of the right, government appears a precursor not only to despotism but to mass murder, in a vision stranger and more extreme than anything that appears in the pages of either Courtwright's or Sandbrook's historical account. To get a sense of how today's conservative movement has transformed the fringe vision of a rapacious, violent state that Hofstadter chronicled at midcentury into a mainstream political refrain, it's not enough to read about the right—you've got to go straight to the source.

Kim Phillips-Fein is the author of Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal (Norton, 2009). She teaches American history at the Gallatin School of New York University.

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