3.28.2004

GOP Success: It's the Principles, Stupid

Liberals don't get the forces behind the right's rise

By Matthew Dallek, Matthew Dallek is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics."


WASHINGTON — Although conservatives control Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House, liberals in recent months have put President Bush on the defensive. They have stepped up their political organizing and successfully criticized conservative leaders at the highest levels of government.

Financier George Soros, for example, has committed millions to defeating Bush, and the Media Fund political committee has attacked Bush for "eroding the American Dream" in commercials running in 17 battleground states. MoveOn.org, a prominent Web-based organization, is urging Congress to censure Bush for misleading Americans about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Air America Radio will soon broadcast "The O'Franken Factor" on the first 24-hour liberal radio network, giving progressives their long-awaited answer to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. (The network will begin operation in Los Angeles and two other cities on Wednesday.) Meanwhile, a new think tank, the Center for American Progress, led by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, has skewered the Bush White House, generated favorable press in recent weeks and started to articulate bold progressive policies — on matters ranging from taxes and jobs to terrorism and Iraq.

The liberal resurgence is music to the ears of many Democrats. But the progressive left is simply, for the most part, imitating the right's organizational successes and ignoring the ideas and styles that made the conservative counterrevolution possible. While citing reasons for the success of conservatives — think tanks (the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute), media outlets (Fox News, Clear Channel) and pugnacious commentators (Peggy Noonan, Ann Coulter, Limbaugh, O'Reilly) — progressives miss the interlocking intellectual political and social forces underpinning the conservative movement's ascent.

The conservative edge of the Republican Party in the 1950s crafted a political philosophy, adapted it to the social turmoil of the '60s and deepened its popular appeal in the '70s by donning the mantle of political insurgency. When World War II ended, conservatives were isolationist in foreign affairs and adrift on domestic matters. Following Sen. Robert Taft's death and Sen. Joseph McCarthy's demise in the 1950s, they were what Sidney Blumenthal and others have called a "remnant." At the time, liberal commentators described conservatives as crackpots out of touch with modernity and progress.

Conservatives wore such epithets like medals of honor. The National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in the magazine's 1955 premiere issue, "stands athwart history, yelling 'Stop,' at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." Conservatives logged long hours behind the scenes in pursuit of a political philosophy — not policies and electoral strategies. Far from monolithic in outlook, they relished ideological debates among themselves. Leading conservatives gave speeches to business organizations and exhorted fellow travelers at anti-communist rallies. They wrote books called "Witness" and "Up From Liberalism" and "None Dare Call It Treason." In addition to writing in the National Review, conservatives propounded ideas in Human Events and other magazines and pamphlets. "It is not the single conservative's responsibility or right to draft a concrete program — merely to suggest the principles that should frame it," Buckley noted.

Disdaining both Democrats and mainstream Republicans as big-government liberals, conservatives successfully adopted three bedrock beliefs: anti-statism, anti-communism and pro-moral authority. These beliefs formed the foundation of the movement's success over the next four decades.

True, conservatives had some organizational triumphs in the 1960s. They took over the Young Republicans and statewide GOP organizations, including the California Republican Assembly. They established Young Americans for Freedom, a direct-action political organization that supplied shock troops at rallies and stumped for conservative political candidates.

But the right faced an uphill struggle. In the early 1960s, Barry Goldwater joked of lobbing a nuclear weapon into the men's room of the Kremlin. Robert Welch, leader of the John Birch Society, called former President Eisenhower a "dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy." Prone to hyperbole, especially in the struggle against communism, conservatives struck many voters as extremists outside the political mainstream. In the 1964 presidential election, Goldwater lost his White House bid by 16 million votes.

As the '60s progressed, however, right-wing jeremiads aimed at totalitarian ant heaps were replaced by a single-minded focus on public morality and law and order. Running against riots, crime, anti-Vietnam demonstrators and student dissent, conservatives appealed to whites — some racist — angry at Democratic support for civil rights. Conservatives shattered the liberal political order by ostracizing fringe figures like Welch and promising to restore traditional values to schools and streets. In 1966, Ronald Reagan complained that California's city streets resembled "jungle paths after dark." As governor, he had a sign near his office that read: "Observe the Rules or Get Out." In 1968, George Wallace, who had then abandoned the Democrats and was running for president as an independent, used the language of law and order and "values" to win votes in white, working-class communities. Conservatives soon appropriated Wallace's themes, denouncing "acid, abortion and amnesty," as Richard Nixon's running mate, Spiro Agnew, put it, which helped them further refine their populist message.

By the 1970s, conservatives were routinely using insurgent imagery and language to identify with middle- and working-class voters. In 1978, Howard Jarvis spearheaded his "tax revolt," Proposition 13, by attacking the liberal establishment for thwarting people's will and giving ordinary people's money to minorities and other so-called special interests.

In the aftermath of Vietnam, neoconservatives, calling Democrats weak on security, promised to win the Cold War by taking the struggle to communists, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. Appealing to pride and patriotism, conservatives wrapped themselves in the flag. To this day, Democrats still wrestle with this foreign policy critique.

Today, conservatives are entrenched, politically dominant and often intransigent — exhibiting some of the proclivities that predated the liberals' crackup in the 1960s. Against this backdrop, the left's challenge is to stop obsessing over the right's organizing successes. Instead, it should articulate its bedrock beliefs, then unite and figure out which buttons to push to maximize its appeal in a country where "order" — the war on terror — remains a central concern. Liberals must drum out of their ranks figures like Ralph Nader who are now part of the fringe and seek a balance between philosophy and strategy, internal dissent and political cohesion. By taking these steps, they will finally be able to claim Buckley and Reagan's conservative counterrevolution legacy.

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