Why the Right Went Wrong: ConservatismFrom Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond (2 page)

BOOK: Why the Right Went Wrong: ConservatismFrom Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond
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It is a mark of the success of the Goldwater movement that in the ensuing decades, it did more than simply drive liberals and then moderates out of the Republican Party. It also beat back alternative definitions of conservatism that were more temperate, more inclined to shape rather than resist cultural change, and more open to a significant role by government in solving problems.

One of the central purposes of this book is to argue that there was a road not taken by American conservatism. It was a path laid out by Dwight Eisenhower and the like-minded Republicans of his time. The moderation that characterized their approach is precisely the quality that American conservatism is now missing and badly needs. It is a disposition that the historian Clinton Rossiter described simply but insightfully, writing
when the right was at its turning point in the 1950s and 1960s. Conservatives, he said, have the obligation to “steer a prudent course between too much progress, which throws us into turmoil, and too little, which is an impossible state for Americans to endure.” Rossiter viewed conservatism’s “highest mission” as fostering “the spirit of unity among . . . all classes and callings” in the name of “preserving a successful way of life.” That Eisenhower and the Modern Republicanism he preached are now regarded as moderate or even liberal is a sign of how far to the right American conservatism has moved. Joe Scarborough, the former Gingrich-era congressman and television host, is one of the few contemporary conservatives to grasp that it’s a mistake for conservatives to view Eisenhower
“as a bland moderate, a figure of safety and accommodation, even a Democrat in Republican golf cleats whose conservatism could never equal that of Nixon or Reagan or George W. Bush.” On the contrary, Scarborough argues, Eisenhower “knew how to win elections and how to govern conservatively. . . . We should learn from his example.”

This book explores the history of contemporary conservatism to make the case that to move forward, today’s conservatives must revisit and reverse the wrong turn their movement took fifty years ago. Understanding the long
trajectory of the American right is also essential to understanding the severe constraints faced by those who would reform the conservative movement and revise its ideology.

As it has developed in the years since Goldwater, conservatism has come to operate almost exclusively on behalf of older, culturally conservative whites and a new class of wealthy Americans who see any impositions upon them by government as the work of a “taker” class intent on tearing down capitalism. This worldview is reinforced by an increasingly closed right-wing media system that disciplines those who depart from orthodoxy and screens out dissent, and also by an increasingly powerful donor class that the conservative writer David Frum has called “the
radical rich.”

As a result, the Republican Party is no longer the broad coalition of diverse groups that it once was. It has become instead what the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have called
“the insurgent outlier in American politics.” Compromise becomes impossible when it is equated with selling out principle. Tactics such as government shutdowns and threats to the nation’s credit in debt ceiling battles become routine. The opposing party’s legislative achievements are neither accepted nor reformed. The contrast between the Republican Party’s response to the enactment of Medicare and its reaction to the passage of the Affordable Care Act could hardly be more dramatic. Republicans rapidly came to terms with Medicare, even if they have in recent years tried to pare it back or partially privatize it. Obamacare, on the other hand, has been under constant attack from the right—on the floor of Congress, in the courts, and in many of the states Republicans control. Republicans talked of “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act, but all their efforts focused on wiping it off the books.

If the United States had a multiparty system, the existence of a strong right-wing party drawing a substantial share of the vote would not be a problem for governing. The system itself would require such a party to reach coalition agreements with more moderate allies to produce a governing agenda. But in a two-party system with separated powers that frequently produces divided government, the radicalization of the right produces a zero-sum game. If it cannot take power, the GOP is committed, on principle, to preventing its adversaries from governing successfully.

The radicalization of conservatism is thus not solely an issue for the Republican Party, or for the movement itself. It is a problem for our efforts to reach compromise and common ground. It is a problem for how we govern ourselves. It is a problem for all of us. Reforming American conservatism is one of the most important tasks of our time.

It is not surprising that liberals are troubled by conservatism’s current form.
But radicalization is also creating long-term problems for Republicans themselves because their party has alienated the young, the country’s rising Latino and Asian populations, and African-Americans.

It is one of history’s ironies. The civil rights, cultural, and moral revolutions of the 1960s created the backlash that helped the conservative movement grow between 1964 and 1988, prompting the shift of white southerners to the GOP, the rise of the Reagan Democrats, and the birth of the religious right. Now conservatives are paying a price for these earlier victories. Over time, what might be termed “sixties values,” in a more moderate form, have largely won in the broader culture. More openness about sexuality (and particularly the triumph of gay, lesbian, and transgender rights), racial and religious tolerance, environmentalism, gender equality—all have prevailed. They are nearly hegemonic among those under thirty-five years old.

When the Supreme Court declared marriage equality the law of the land in its historic decision of June 26, 2015, there were certainly protests on the right. Yet these seemed surprisingly muted when contrasted with the widespread celebration in the LGBT community and among the young—and also with the quiet acceptance of the decision among so many other Americans. Opposition to same-sex marriage did not disappear, and opponents fought rear-guard actions, defending local officials who refused to grant licenses on religious grounds. But the country broadly shared Justice Anthony Kennedy’s view that same-sex marriage had come to represent another expression of “equal dignity in the eyes of law.”

Southern states embraced the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to Civil Rights in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the decades that followed,
conservative politicians were loath to challenge its prominence as part of southern state flags or in front of state capitols. These conservative leaders knew well that many on the right, particularly in the South, revered a standard that African-Americans saw as a symbol of slavery and racism. Then, in June 2015, nine African-American churchgoers were gunned down in a hideous massacre at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The killer was a white racist who had had posed proudly in front of the flag of secession. Less than a month later, with the full support of the state’s Republican and business establishments, the Conferederate banner that had first been raised in 1962 was lowered from its staff and removed from the South Carolina Capitol grounds.

It was a symbolic triumph, but a powerful one. It reflected, first, the power of African-American Chritianity and its witness on behalf of justice. But the lowering of the flag also spoke to the limits of the “southern strategy” Republicans had deployed since Goldwater’s time to rally whites resistant to the advances of civil rights. It was the act of a nation that wanted to move on and move forward.

The gay marriage outcome and the Confederate flag episode demonstrated something else: that generational change could disrupt entrenched attitudes and habits, forcing the hands of even the most cautious politicians. A conservatism defined by the events and the arguments of fifty years ago is losing the battle for the loyalty of the young.

The Millennials are the only generation in which polls consistently find self-identified liberals matching or outnumbering conservatives, and they are driving a growing social liberalism among all Americans. A Gallup survey in May 2015 found that 31 percent of Americans described their views on social issues as liberal. It was the first time in Gallup’s records that social liberals had achieved equality with social conservatives. As recently as 2009, social conservatives had outnumbered social liberals, 42 percent to 25 percent.

All of this reflects a central fact of American politics: the conservative movement is aging rapidly, a striking change from the relatively recent past. When conservatism was on the rise, it could count on a strong support from young Americans—the Reagan generation as personified by Michael J. Fox’s character on
Family Ties.
No longer. In 1987, the Pew Research Center found that
only 39 percent of conservatives were over fifty; in 2014, 53 percent were.

Demography is not always destiny, but over the long run, a party and a movement dominated by older white voters will face a significant handicap as the nation becomes increasingly non-white and as younger and less conservative voters join the electorate in full strength.

The dominance on the right of a sharp-edged ideological conservatism is also out of step with a fundamentally moderate country. “Moderation” has itself been seen as a bad word on the right since Goldwater demonized it in his 1964 speech to the Republican National Convention. And Republicans called “moderates” these days are, with a very few exceptions, quite conservative, moderate only in relation to their Tea Party colleagues and in their skepticism of extreme tactics such as government shutdowns. The clash between Tea Party and “Establishment” forces should thus not be mistaken for a fight between conservatism and moderation.

It’s true that party stalwarts shrewdly managed the 2014 primaries to prevent extreme Tea Party candidates from spoiling the party’s chances of retaking the Senate, as far-right nominees had in both 2010 and 2012. But in winning what was sometimes described as a civil war in the party, the Establishment paid the price of settling the ideological battle largely in the Tea Party’s favor. The conservative writers Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru christened the Tea Party’s ideological triumph with the
revealing term “Establishment Tea.” The Establishment had accommodated the right. It was no longer moderate and, in truth, no longer much of an Establishment. As the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote after the 2014 elections, “based on voting records, the
current Republican majority in the Senate is far more conservative than the last Republican majority in the 2000s.” They noted the tendency of veteran conservative Republicans to be relabeled as “moderate” only because of their standing relative to the new hard-liners. “The long-timers aren’t really moving left,” they wrote, “they’re being left behind as their party moves right.”

But if Republicans and conservatives have moved so far from the political center, why did they do so well in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014? After 2014, why did Republicans find themselves with more members of the House of Representatives and Democrats with fewer state legislative seats than at any time since 1928?

These elections did, indeed, demonstrate the Republican Party’s staying
power in Congress and in the nation’s statehouses. The gerrymandering the party was able to execute after its victories in 2010 strengthened its hold on legislative districts at all levels. The Republicans are further advantaged because of the concentration of Democratic voters in urban districts, which Democrats win by landslide majorities. They thereby “waste” votes the party would prefer to have in more competitive districts. To understand the impact of this combination of gerrymandering and the geographic factors, consider that Barack Obama received some 5 million more votes than Mitt Romney did in 2012 yet carried only 209 House districts. Romney carried 226.

But more than maps and residential patterns were at play. Precisely because the Democrats overwhelmingly win the ballots of the young, African-Americans, and Latinos, they rely upon an electorate far more likely to turn out in presidential years than in midterm elections.
Republicans won in 2010 and 2014 because some 40 million fewer Americans vote in midterms than in presidential elections, and a substantial majority of those 40 million is inclined toward the Democrats. Under a president who insisted that there was only one America, the growing demographic differences between the Republican and Democratic coalitions embedded two Americas into our political system: the America of presidential elections and the America of midterm elections. The 2014 elections confirmed what the 2010 elections had suggested.

This electoral pattern will only aggravate the country’s difficulties in governing itself. A right-leaning Republican Party is in a strong position to rally a coalition of discontent among older white Americans who dominate the electorate in the off years. But absent a change in its approach, the conservative coalition is threatened with long-term minority status in presidential elections, where a younger, more culturally and ethnically diverse electorate holds sway.

BOOK: Why the Right Went Wrong: ConservatismFrom Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond
7.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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