May 18, 2004

If This Is a Conservative Victory...

Matthew Yglesias wonders whether John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge know that they are barking mad, or are so barking mad that they don't even know that they are barking mad?

TAPPED: May 2004 Archives: CONSERVATIVE HEGEMONY? Writing in The New York Times, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge say liberals could learn a thing or two from the American Conservative Union:

This is the type of partisan anniversary that only one side of America pays attention to -- the side that watches Fox News Channel (the host for the evening was that network's Tony Snow). Yet every Democratic politician in the land could have learned a great deal by attending. It would be going a little far to say that the A.C.U. ought to have celebrated under a banner labeled "Mission Accomplished," but it is because of such groups that the right has out-organized, out-fought and out-thought liberal America over the past 40 years. And the left still shows no real sign of knowing how to fight back.

To consider the ground that liberals have ceded, one must look back at the union's founding in a cramped living-room in 1964, a few days after Lyndon B. Johnson had thrashed the first fully paid-up conservative presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. Back then, the self-styled "Mr. Conservative" seemed to come from another planet. "When in all our history," asked the political theorist Richard Hofstadter, "has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus got so far?"

Fast forward to today. A Republican Party that is more conservative than Mr. Goldwater could have imagined controls the White House, Congress, many governors' mansions and a majority of seats in state legislatures. Back in 1964, John Kenneth Galbraith smugly proclaimed: "These, without doubt, are the years of the liberal. Almost everyone now so describes himself." Today, a Gallup poll tells us, twice as many Americans (41 percent) describe themselves as "conservative" than as "liberal" (19 percent).

This is such a piece of entrenched conventional wisdom that I'd probably have to write a whole book to rebut it, but here's the blog-length version. Undoubtedly, since 1964 the GOP has won (or, more recently, "won") a lot of elections, especially presidential elections. But what has this Republican Party that allegedly "is more conservative than Mr. Goldwater could have imagined" actually achieved? Certainly, it hasn't repealed the Civil Rights Act, which Goldwater opposed. The main policy achievement the authors point to -- later in the piece -- is welfare reform, a modification of progressive program that substantially didn't exist until the second Johnson administration's war on poverty.

The largest Johnson-era anti-poverty program, Medicaid, is still with us, as is Medicare for senior citizens, which has only grown more generous (most recently, via a bill passed almost exclusively with Republican votes) since it's creation. Social Security, the centerpiece of the New Deal welfare state, is likewise more generous than it was in 1964. The federal government plays a larger role in funding education than it did in 1964 (and, again, it's role has gotten even larger under the Bush-DeLay regime). Abortion, illegal in 1964, is now legal, anti-sodomy laws were eliminated in the recent past, and today we have gay and lesbian couples getting married in Massachusetts, while civil unions, surely a proposal more liberal than anything Johnson dreamed of, have become the moderate plan.

Indeed, as many people have pointed out (for my money, Nick Confessore's year-old article is still the best on the subject) the Republican Party has essentially abandoned the small-government agenda, a small army of disgruntled conservative think tankers notwithstanding. So while the country certainly does face some serious problems, I don't think some kind of right-wing intellectual hegemony has a great deal to do with it. Likewise, while a better-organized and better-mobilized liberalism would be welcome, the past forty years of conservatism -- an impressive financial, electoral, and communications apparatus that's utterly incapable of achieving its substantive goals no matter how many elections it wins -- is a terrible model to emulate.

Of what Matthew Yglesias has written, all one can say is--in the words of Madeleine Kahn--"It's twue! It's twue!" And it is all twue! Let's take a sampling of what National Review-style conservatives were fighting for back in the early 1960s:

  • The continued disenfranchisement of African-Americans.
  • The defense of the right to discriminate against African-Americans in housing, employment, and commerce.
  • The right to discriminate against women.
  • The outlawing of abortion and of birth control.
  • The reinforcement of the social norm that there's something wrong with a married (white) woman who has a job.
  • The abolition of Social Security--if you're not smart enough to save when you're young, you should be on the edge of starvation when you're old.
  • No significant government role in health care--if you're not smart enough to have saved for your medical bills, you should be dying in the gutter.
  • No oversight of state court decisions by the federal judiciary--no matter how bad the state court record.
  • Abandonment of the crypto-communist "Keynesian" belief that the government has a responsibility to maintain full employment, and to manipulate the budget deficit and interest rates to do so.
  • Homosexuals?

America over the past forty years has given a more complete repudiation of the "principles" of Goldwater's core supporters than anyone could have imagined. It is a much better country for it.

If this is "defeat", I'll take it.

Posted by DeLong at May 18, 2004 06:11 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post
Comments

It's true that the more rabid components of the Republican party have been defeated. It's also arguable that like Clinton, the modern Republican party has been able to capture the center by "triangulating". It's so true that the modern Republican party hasn't given up on some of its kookier ambitions - withdrawal from the UN, abolition of the EPA, social ostracism and reduction of abortion services and service providers, etc.

It's also true that the country as a whole has moved more right than it has left. It's also true that the right is still consistently winning the PR war which some commentators mistakenly call the "war of ideas". Democrats do have ideas. They just sound old and out of touch. Republicans have plenty of dumb ideas, but they sound more pithy and pious.

It's kind of a mixed result, which is why liberals like yourself and conservatives like myself can *both* be aghast at the result. If you would have told me ten years ago I'd be commiserating how the country had gone to hell in a handbasket with a buncha died in the wool *liberals* I'd have laughed you out of the room. I wonder who's laughing now?

Posted by: Oldman on May 18, 2004 06:31 PM

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In the mid 1960's, I commented to my oldest son who was writing the occasional letter of a college student, that Toffler's "The Greening of America" was old news. Those of us who considered ourselves "progressive" had won.

Even as the wolly headed, quasi fasciast, Ayn Randian idealogues have launched a comeback, they start from a different base.

Perhaps it is time to move the base forward a step or two.

Good post, Brad!

Posted by: Sam Taylor on May 18, 2004 06:51 PM

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I have noticed that. It's a hard thing for people to understand because they live in the now and don't compare today to the past. Come to think of it, most of the people out there are young enough that they actually were not alive in the past.
It's not just social attitudes of the majority today that are different. It's economics and economic geography.
I tell people that the Dixiecans are Dixiecrats and that they've always been socialists, and that since they took over the Republican party of course we've gone socialist, and they can't seem to understand it. They think that the huge differential tax subsidies that the North and West give to the South, Mountain and Range states are somehow different from welfare. Telling them that Kansas is Harlem with Senators just doesn't compute.
You go to High School and what you learn there you don't revisit. I asked someone if maybe the Chinese were using the engineers that they graduate to maybe build modern RPV weapons to sell people so they could fight the US on even terms and they just look at me, like they can't believe that China could build better weapons than we could. They aren't even aware that China is graduating more engineers than we are each year, and have been for several years. It's like when the US in 1941 couldn't believe that the Japanese were a modern power and could build decent airplanes, till Pearl Harbor came along and showed them.
It even happens to me. I always thought of Indonesia as oil, rubber, and tin. It came as quite a surprise to learn that they were pushing Australia as coal exporters, and that they were now such a major manufacturing source that they were skewing the sex ratios in the villages on Java as the young women went to work in the factories in the cities.

Posted by: walter willis on May 18, 2004 06:54 PM

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Brad: Absolutely spot-on, from what I can read... but Brad this column is sadly a real hard read with Mozilla, widely used here in NYC. The main column spills over about one inch onto the links on the right. This has been a problem for over a year. Today it seems worse. I dont know MT but in other CMS progs it can be fixed in about 10 minutes by creating a styleMOZ.css based on style.css and then adjusting the look while checking it out on a Mozilla browser. FWIW.

Posted by: fastpete on May 18, 2004 07:08 PM

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wow Brad, that's a really nasty post! In a good way, of course. Actually, I think you're at your best when you're in your true "pull no punches" mode like this one. wow.

Posted by: G on May 18, 2004 07:24 PM

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I have the same Mozilla problem. It seems to be endemic to this site. A quick formatting fix for me is to hit {Ctrl +} and then {Ctrl -} and everything seems to fall into place. Oh, and a quick glance at the Texas Republican Platform will confirm that for many, their agenda remains pretty much unchanged since AuH2O...

Posted by: jim in austin on May 18, 2004 07:36 PM

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We had to read Goldwater acceptance speech in history class. Most of it was hard to know WTF he was talking about. He did get the part about Vietnam and lying about it correct. Then there is the "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Did Goldwater have a domestic policy? Or was it leave everything up to the town council? I cannot imagine a modern politician giving a speech without promising a domestic program.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/daily/may98/goldwaterspeech.htm

I concluded that he lost because no one could understand what he was saying and he didn't offer any domestic programs.

Posted by: bakho on May 18, 2004 07:40 PM

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I agree with "G" - you are at your best when you're in the George "It's a slam dunk" Tenet mode. I can feel the words go SWOOOSH! Great post.

1

Posted by: Patti on May 18, 2004 07:48 PM

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For the folks who expected the relentless march of socialism, the US has moved frighteningly rightward. As Brad well-knows, market economics has won the ideology war.

But on the cultural side, the left has long been winning the war. It's not even close. The right has gotten more shrill as a response, as they feel a tightening cultural noose around their collective necks. That's why they are cocooning in mega-churches and the like.

It's also why the American middle is more "afraid" of rampant liberalism than it is of rampant conservatism. Not because it finds "excessive" liberalism more noxious than conservativism, but because it finds it *more likely*. From its view, excessive liberalism is the present threat while excessive conservatism is remote.

Both conservatives and liberals deeply misunderstand these trends and thus overestimate the rights' influence. When the SCOTUS weakened RvW, the left was sure that abortion would shortly be quickly illegalized throughout most of the US. For that matter, so did the right. Gingrich's revolution was a flop because it wasn't the popular revolution he thought it was.

The political success of the hard right in recent years is a *demonstration* of its marginalization, not proof of its national sway. After repeatedly losing when it pushes its core interests on the national agenda; it's turned to oft-overlooked, local political fora where a zealous minority can have a powerful, disproportionate influence. Maybe the left should emulate those tactics, but not because they're evidence that the conservatives are winning the war. Rather, because they've hit upon a tactic that's winning them a few battles they oughtn't be.

Posted by: Keith M Ellis on May 18, 2004 07:54 PM

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True, the right-wing has failed to achieve its goals, but it has won some tactically important battles, notably by stymieing health care reform. Its tactical success, I think, stems partly from the Democrats' inability to present a coherent program on many issues. Clinton tried, to his credit, in 93-94, but was overwhelmed by the opposition. This all tempts me to vote for Ralph as a wake-up call to the Dems (of course, living in the District of Columbia, that is a nonconsequential choice for me!)

Posted by: Ken on May 18, 2004 07:57 PM

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The conservative party of today is more the product of the followers of Leo Strauss than any 1960's conservative could have imagined. Though some tenents remain the same, the neo-con version is substantively different. When further combined with a fundamentalist religious movement all I can say is: Boil. Boil. Toil and trouble.....you know the rest.
A review of said would make for an interesting symposia

Posted by: NM Puff on May 18, 2004 08:04 PM

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"died in the wool"

Where exactly did this wool die?

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner on May 18, 2004 08:57 PM

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Mozilla has trouble with this site? I find that confusing. I only use Netscape when I surf the web, and I've no trouble with this site. I thought Netscape and Mozilla were sprung from the same project?

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner on May 18, 2004 09:05 PM

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You mean, we've won? Cancel the election!

I agree, great post!

Maybe Bush is so stupid he really believes he's President.

Sorry. You're correct and I'm snarky.

Posted by: John Thullen on May 18, 2004 09:06 PM

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Continuing the off-topic thread - it's not just Netscape/Mozilla that has this problem. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am occasionally required to touch that horrid pile, Impotent Erection. Er, make that Internet Explorer. I've seen the same problem there, and it goes away without warning in all three browsers.

Oh, and I occasionally see it in Firefox as well.

My guess is something is borked or questionable in the css file.

Posted by: Thane Walkup on May 18, 2004 09:30 PM

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Ummm...what about the hugely increasing gap between rich and poor Americans - and world citizens for that matter??

It's true that culturally the Left is "winning" in many ways (e.g. abortion, gay rights), but the effects of regressive economic policies over the last 20 years have had disastrous cultural effects.

Posted by: Julia on May 18, 2004 09:31 PM

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As a Pennsylvanian born and bred now living for some years in Louisiana (thankfully in New Orleans), I think that one of the main differences between 1964 and now is that the Republican party is now run by racist theocrats. I shudder to think where this is going to end up, but at age 66 I worry not for myself as much as for my grandchildren and their children who, on present trends, will live through not only the coming rebirth of Puritan (roundhead) Massachusetts gone nation wide but also the coming new Ice Age. Sigh.

Posted by: Brian Boru on May 18, 2004 09:32 PM

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ooopss...READ before you post!

...*the effects of regressive economic policies over the last 20 years has been disastrous.*

Posted by: Julia on May 18, 2004 09:34 PM

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ooopss..."READ before you post!" I say to myself...

...*the effects of regressive economic policies over the last 20 years has been disastrous.*

Posted by: Julia on May 18, 2004 09:34 PM

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My computer froze up before completing my post, so I'll try the short version. Prof. DeLong's account remains too much at a weakly ideological, rather than a functional level. The "conservative" hegemony of the last 25 years resulted from an alliance between the disciplinary resentment of the hard right and corporate interests, with the latter really in charge. The object was to de-legitimate the public sector and the public sphere, through massive deficits sparked by the tax revolt combined with exorbitant military spending and rampant rent-seeking, so as to disemburden those corporate interests from the constraints of the public sphere, freeing up their strategic capacities and increasing their benefits from the public sector, while displacing their costs onto it. The Democrats, already fairly spineless and losing their Southern wing, were left in the position of defending the remnants of past public programs and cleaning up the fiscal mess. The network of quasi-academic, paragovernmental institutions on the right, financed by corporations and rightwing heirs, was and is a big part of this strategy, but less for its actual ideological productivity than for its ideological cover. We are now in round two of this gambit.

Posted by: john c. halasz on May 18, 2004 10:23 PM

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Who needs safe and sanitary affordable housing? Who needs public health system? Who needs working public schools? Who needs public transportation? Who needs goverment retraining programs for those who lose their jobs? Who needs tax system that rewards (rather than penalizes) hiring the workers in US? Who needs collective bargaining?

Sorry, we do have one big change. We can abort starting at the early age and keep aborting until we die. If this is how you define the victory, we sure left any other developed nation in the dust.

Posted by: a on May 18, 2004 11:21 PM

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Uh. I don't know. What i conclude from brad post is that progress is this way, not that way. Well, ok. They even named them "progressists" after all.

So yes, you can safely attribute any progress to progressist forces, but that says little of the current balance, and nothing about the future, imo.

Maybe more relevant would be to see what was the political balance then, when those progress were made. I'm not expert in your history, but i don't think the political climate was then as skewed right as it is now. I'd guess, at the time, it's a progressive forces push that allowed it.

There's a vision here dissociating short term tactical annoyances, and a more rosy strategical big picture. I don't agree with that : i think past progress just didn't happen out of the blue. I came because the left won "tactically" again and again at this time.

It has apparently stopped to do so. If so, it's only a matter of time the before the country begins to rollback progress, just as the left promoted it in its time.

Posted by: yabonn on May 19, 2004 04:33 AM

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The Greening of America was written by Charles Reich not Toffler, and it didn't come out until 1970. It was remarkable in that most of the trends it discussed ended, or at least diminished, immediately thereafter.

Kind of like the SI cover jinx writ large.

Posted by: matthew wilbert on May 19, 2004 05:03 AM

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Along the lines of Brad's post, I think it's important that we discuss the single most important strategic shift in Party policy in both the Democratic and Republican Parties since the 1970s: The Republican shift not to Christianity, but to the fundamentalist flavor of Christianity.

While there has been a more recent shift on the Democratic side toward a secular, Southern centrist populism (starting with Carter and carried proudly for 8 years by Clinton), there cannot be enough type set and ink spilled discussing the importance of this shift for the Republican side of things.

Though it is a demographic fact that most Americans do self-identify as Christians, most of these self-identifiers are not fundamentalists. So how does one appeal to the zealousness of the fundamentalists and yet still draw in moderate conservatives? Simple: Squash dissent with rhetorical intolerance. If anyone questions the Republican leadership, then they hate freedom of religion or hate Christ or hate Israel or hate "American values" or insert your own folksy-sounding mythical homily here. By creating this "us against them" atmosphere, the Republican leadership has found a way to keep moderate conservatives in thrall while doing the work of the fundamentalists.

The one thing that can break them is the economy, but it will have to get bad...very bad...for this to happen.

Posted by: Five Bellies on May 19, 2004 08:26 AM

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Where's Nixon when you need him: EPA, Title IX, etc.

Yeah, I got nothin agin Republican presidents.
Certainly not as long as they continue to support liberal values.

Posted by: ritchie on May 19, 2004 11:50 AM

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Still to go on our agenda:

Forced abortions.

Abolishment of religion.

Homosexuality mandates in the schools.

LSD for every kid.

Destruction of the family unit.

Welfare for drug addicts.

Banning the bible.

Transfer of national power to the french.

Posted by: Liberal on May 19, 2004 11:47 PM

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A-list academic and his lackeys form lefty groupthink enclave, flagellate selves, and celebrate erosion of property rights.

~yawn~

Posted by: Bob Dobalina on May 22, 2004 10:42 PM

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We have civil rights only for the "deserving"?

13 states permanently disenfranchise felons even after they have served their time. In Florida, non-felon African Americans were marked as felons and therefore disenfranchised. In Massachusetts prisoners had the right to vote until the State Constitution was amended in 2000.

That's not progress in my book.

Posted by: Abby on May 26, 2004 11:04 AM

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Brad DeLong is less than half right factually, and deeply ahistorical, on conservatives in the early '60s. The basic context is that what we now call "social issues" were not generally on the political agenda, and where they were, the people who pushed them most were generally Catholic politicians who were most often Democrat and often known as liberals.

His and Matt Y's argument that the right hasn't really won doesn't hold water. Anyone who can read my book BEFORE THE STORM: BARRY GOLDWATER AND THE UNMAKING OF THE AMERICAN CONSENSUS and make a convincing case that conservatives have not, politically, shifted the tectonic plates of the earth, wins a steak dinner from me.

Brad's list, and [my annotations]

* The continued disenfranchisement of African-Americans. [not true; everyone voted overwhelmingly for the 1965 voting rights act]
* The defense of the right to discriminate against African-Americans in housing, employment, and commerce. [true]
* The right to discriminate against women. [huh? this was not on the political agenda in the early '60s, and one of the most sexist texts of that era was a graduation speech at Smith by Adlai Stevenson]
* The outlawing of abortion and of birth control. [abortion was outlawed, and birth control opponents were mostly Catholics; see above]
* The reinforcement of the social norm that there's something wrong with a married (white) woman who has a job. [This was just a general assumption in the entire culture]
* The abolition of Social Security--if you're not smart enough to save when you're young, you should be on the edge of starvation when you're old. [correct--but isn't the fact that privatization (ie getting rid of) SS is even on the agenda is a profound shift from the time Eisenhower said SS was an essential part of American government?]
* No significant government role in health care--if you're not smart enough to have saved for your medical bills, you should be dying in the gutter. [correct]
* No oversight of state court decisions by the federal judiciary--no matter how bad the state court record. [correct--the Scalia agenda]
* Abandonment of the crypto-communist "Keynesian" belief that the government has a responsibility to maintain full employment, and to manipulate the budget deficit and interest rates to do so. [Goldwater's proposed 1964 tax cut was broadly Keynesian]
* Homosexuals? [Ask Allard Lowenstein or Bayard Rustin if it was fun to be a homosexual on the left in the early 1960s]

Rick Perlstein

Posted by: Rick Perlstein on May 26, 2004 12:10 PM

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IS THAT TRUE???
THAT JOHN SCARY KERRY VOTED AGAINST THE PATRIOT MISSILE SYSTEM WHILE IN CONGRESS IN THE 80'S HE'S SICK THAT'S THE PATRIOT MISSILE SYSTEM THAT IS THE SAME ONE THAT SAVED THOUSANDS OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN FROM DEATH IN GULF WAR IN 1991. HE HAS THEIR BLOOD ON HIS HANDS NOW. IN THE GULF WAR I REMEMBER THOSE PEOPLE WHO BROUGHT FLOWERS AND FOOD TO THE TROOPS WHO WERE SHOOTING DOWN THEM SCUD MISSILES. WRITE IN 4 HILLARY

THANKS
JOHN
SO. ST. PAUL MN.

Posted by: john on June 1, 2004 03:22 PM

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IS THAT TRUE???
THAT JOHN SCARY KERRY VOTED AGAINST THE PATRIOT MISSILE SYSTEM WHILE IN CONGRESS IN THE 80'S HE'S SICK THAT'S THE PATRIOT MISSILE SYSTEM THAT IS THE SAME ONE THAT SAVED THOUSANDS OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN FROM DEATH IN GULF WAR IN 1991. HE HAS THEIR BLOOD ON HIS HANDS NOW. IN THE GULF WAR I REMEMBER THOSE PEOPLE WHO BROUGHT FLOWERS AND FOOD TO THE TROOPS WHO WERE SHOOTING DOWN THEM SCUD MISSILES. WRITE IN 4 HILLARY

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