Home/Articles/The Right Lesson

The Right Lesson

Barack Obama’s victory has left the Republican Party and its allies reeling, groping frantically for a path back to power. Luckily, or not, the conservative establishment already has a handful of recently published critical works to guide its meditations. These include David Frum’s Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again and Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, as well as columns by the New York Times’ house conservative, David Brooks. All of these emphasize the need for a new social direction for the GOP and conservative movement.

These sources teach that Republicans have foundered because they have failed to move with the times. Whether it is Brooks asking us to treat homosexual marriage as an expression of “family values,” Frum exhorting the GOP to ditch the Religious Right on abortion and gay rights—but obviously not on Zionism—or Douthat and Salam pushing for government subsidies for the working poor and “earned legalization programs” for undocumented aliens, the common theme is that the Right and the GOP should downplay, if not concede, contentious social issues and engage more purposefully in income manipulation. This move would supposedly help the Right get into sync with voters.

What is most striking here is that these authors are advocating more of the same. They are trying to push the conservative movement farther in the direction in which it has been going since the mid-1960s. Frum, Douthat, Salam, and Brooks would keep the GOP essentially in its present mold as a provider of social programs, a pale, albeit more militaristic, imitation of the Democratic Party. Yet this trend already belongs to the past. It took off more than 40 years ago, after the crushing defeat of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, a rout that dragged down many Republican congressmen and looked very much like the most recent election.

McCain may hold the Senate seat that was once Goldwater’s, but he is in no way his philosophical successor. The 2008 election was a contest between two varieties of the Left—between an actually left-wing candidate, Barack Obama, and a spurious, one might say “adjusted,” right-winger, McCain. By contrast, 1964 was the real thing. As a critic of the New Deal and a passionate opponent of any attempt to expand it, Goldwater questioned the rationale for an American welfare state. Even more ominously, he combined his known desire to privatize Social Security, the TVA, and other federal projects with a strong Cold War posture. He not only spoke about the importance of defending the U.S. against Communist aggression, he famously—or infamously—wished to support anti-Communist insurgencies, and he hinted at the possibility of using nuclear weapons to end the incursions of North Vietnamese armies into the south. Only in his readiness to resort to force has McCain followed in Goldwater’s footsteps.

The Republican candidate of 1964, significantly to the right of McCain, faced much greater vilification. He had the full power of the press and world opinion arrayed against him. Typical of this hostility was the remark by Martin Luther King, which was seconded by Gov. Pat Brown of California, that “we see dangerous signs of Hitlerism in the Goldwater campaign. All we need to hear [at the Republican convention] is ‘Heil Hitler.’” By fall 1964, when Johnson ran a television ad featuring a small girl picking flowers juxtaposed with images of a nuclear catastrophe caused by Goldwater’s foreign policy, the election was already all but over.

But movement conservative interpretation of the 1964 campaign, as found for example in Lee Edwards’s The Conservative Revolution, is that Goldwater’s landslide defeat was in no way conclusive. Indeed, it became the prelude for much greater things. A Goldwater backer who broke into GOP politics because of his support for the Arizona senator, Ronald Reagan, went on to become president. And Reagan allegedly picked up where Goldwater left off, advancing the “conservative revolution” against the New Deal and achieving victory in the Cold War, which had been Goldwater’s explicit aim. Such movement stalwarts as William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, F. Clifton White, and Milton Friedman moved from backing Goldwater to endorsing Reagan. Certainly some argument for continuity can be made here, even if one hesitates to go all the way with Edwards’s proclamation of an unbroken tradition uniting Reagan and Goldwater to Robert Taft.

In point of fact, however, Goldwater’s defeat did not lead to a “Reagan revolution.” Instead, the fate of Goldwater and his movement in 1964 caused the American Right to move leftward over the next two decades and encouraged the GOP to fall back into its customary country-club avoidance of tough choices. After 1964, as Jonathan M. Schoenwald persuasively argues in A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Neoconservatism, the conservative movement’s leaders came up with a blander, more mainstream version of their beliefs and policies. Because of his leftist bias, Schoenwald presents this process in a positive way, stressing how the post-Goldwater conservatives “deflated their extremism,” “cut off the extremist millstone,” and “shifted from pure ideology to electoral pragmatism.” Thus Reagan, when he became governor of California in 1966, did not make the rash budget cuts that some had expected, and he subsequently signed a very liberal abortion bill into law.

Schoenwald notices that after 1964 conservatives abandoned their opposition to the Civil Rights Act that had passed that year and stopped talking about getting rid of Social Security as opposed to “privatizing” a certain percentage of it. Harry Truman and FDR went from being conservative punching bags to being admired, even worshipped, figures in the ensuing 20 years. While the Right remained anti-Communist, it gave up its earlier postwar anti-Soviet rhetoric and took over certain Cold War liberal themes. These included attacks on the Soviets’ resistance to allowing Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel and long, drawn out comparisons between Soviet and fascist opposition to independent labor union movements.

Such a revamping of the conservative movement, Schoenwald suggests, came before the neoconservative ascendancy of the 1980s and in fact laid the groundwork for it. In 1968, NR endorsed the centrist Republican Richard Nixon as a presidential candidate, someone who supposedly represented “the conservative mainstream.” In June 1969, one of NR’s senior editors, Jeffrey Hart, who this year supported Obama as a “Burkean conservative,” responded in a commentary to both traditionalists and libertarians who had complained about the magazine’s drift into the Nixon fold: “We have got in America what we have got. It is not what we would have but neither is it as bad as what we might have.” When in July 1971 the editors “suspended support of the administration,” their main reason was not that Nixon had embraced affirmative action and highly interventionist economic policies. Rather, they objected to Nixon’s pursuit of détente with Soviet Russia. In the 1980s, neoconservatives could take the commanding heights in conservative institutions because the movement had already embraced a weaker form of their social-democratic domestic policies.

Steps in this direction were deftly hidden by referring to an unchanging conservative substance, in the form of “permanent things” or “values.” Besides, even if the welfare state continued to grow under Republicans and Democrats alike, that would only remain the case—or so the faithful were assured—until conservatives obtained positions throughout the federal bureaucracy. Then right-wing bureaucrats would rescue taxpayers from all the other federal employees. Needless to say, this didn’t happen. Instead, under Nixon and Reagan the rescuers grew fat feeding at the public trough.

According to Larry M. Schwab in The Illusion of a Conservative Reagan Revolution, continuities between the Carter and Reagan administrations were far greater than either liberals or conservatives wished to admit. Reagan’s military budget during his first year in office was only slightly higher than the one passed in the last year of the Carter administration. Far more important, however, Reagan did nothing significant to reduce the size of the welfare state or the entitlement programs that he had inherited from his predecessor.

Admittedly, Reagan achieved some good for the Right by upping the ante on the Soviets and hastening the collapse of the financially decrepit Evil Empire. He also appointed fewer left-leaning federal judges than a Democratic president would have selected, and he made modest cuts in the federal bureaucracy. But he did not reverse the New Deal or the Great Society, and he left us with neoconservatives cluttering the Department of Education and the State Department. And even more fatefully, his vice president and heir apparent, George H.W. Bush, endorsed the Americans With Disabilities Act and a new Civil Rights Act, which came replete with minority quotas and set asides.

After Goldwater, the conservative movement made its peace with the New Deal and the leftward drift of the country. Despite their occasional moments of good sense, Douthat, Frum, and their friends would not change that direction. Indeed, they urge conservatives further and faster down that road. Not that they are entirely wrong when they claim to be offering the GOP a chance to survive. Republicans might benefit at least in the near term by adopting some of their policy suggestions, such as inflation-indexing the tax credits for children, wage subsidies for low-income families, awarding points to immigration applicants for learning English, and the creation of a national identity card. Frum, moreover, is to be congratulated for ridiculing the GOP’s frenzied, sporadic attempts to reach out to black voters. He also notes that it would be counterproductive for Republicans to get behind amnesty for illegal immigrants, a policy that would turn red states blue.

Frum thinks the GOP should be working to hold on to—or recover—the broad middle class by structuring taxes and public benefits in their favor. Douthat looks to a different stratum as the mainstay for a reinvigorated Republican Party. His proposals are aimed mostly at a working poor, but he also wishes to expand exurbia into the “wide open spaces” of the country through government subsidies. Somehow, according to Douthat, moving populations away from urban cores will make them more communal and more likely to vote Republican. Frum’s idea for scoring points among soccer moms and religiously liberal white Christians for the GOP is to adopt more liberal attitudes toward homosexuality and abortion. Republicans apparently don’t need to worry about the Religious Right, whose younger members are moving left with their age cohort and whose older members may have no choice but to go on voting Republican.

There was nothing inevitable about the conservative movement’s leftward swerve after Goldwater’s defeat, however, and there may be alternatives to that course today. Possibilities might include real devolution of power from the federal administration to state and local bodies, abandoning the idea of the “living constitution,” identifying national security with protecting our national borders rather than exporting democracy, and other proposals now coming almost exclusively from the ostracized paleo-Right.

The catalyst for changing course will not come from the compromised conservative movement. Getting rid of what now passes for movement conservatism, with its establishment journalists and D.C. bureaucrats and insiders, and replacing it with a genuine oppositional force would be necessary to reform the Right. There is a moral as well as a practical reason for such a housecleaning: respectable conservatives have been implicated up to their ears in our present politics and have never risen above the role of being shills for the GOP.

There are several signs in this year’s election returns that the Right may be returning to the path abandoned after 1964. Much of the Right in my state of Pennsylvania rejected McCain. They found his saber-rattling and neocon boilerplate about a “league of democracies” to be unacceptable. The 15 percent of Republican voters who went for Ron Paul in the primary did not, contrary to journalistic expectations, return to the fold. My culturally traditionalist, antiwar Mennonite neighbors voted in protest for Obama, other right-wing Pennsylvanians voted for one of the alternative candidates, while some chose not to vote at all. This antiwar and/or anti-neocon Right will not go away, even if establishment conservatives and liberals persist in pretending it doesn’t exist.

This leads me to believe that there may be an opportunity to rebuild the American conservative movement and possibly even the GOP around a new strategy. But the first thing to be done is to abandon the failed precedent of the post-Goldwater epoch. The course the conservative movement pursued in alliance with the GOP after 1964 ended disastrously last week, in a spectacular victory for the radical, multicultural Left.


Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and the author of The Strange Death of Marxism. 

The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.

Send letters to: [email protected]

leave a comment

Latest Articles