What, if anything, does political conservatism mean today in the United States? How, for example, do Plato and Augustine fit with Joe McCarthy and Ralph Reed; or Burke, Gibbon, and Dr. Johnson with Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, and Irving Kristol; or original sin with free market theory, or the Ten Commandments with selling machine guns? The crude answer given by many opponents of the movement is that today’s doctrinaire conservatism is simply political opportunism, the pursuit of power by selfish interests through the exploitation of popular frustrations and credulity; the manipulation, in other words, of right-wing populism in its typical forms—nativism, racism, status envy, and so on—disguised as patriotism, traditionalism, and a love of liberty thwarted by illegitimate authority. This is the answer suggested by Michael Lind, a reformed conservative, and, more cautiously, by the British journalist Godfrey Hodgson. But the crude answer is not quite the full answer.
Modern so-called conservatism arises like the traditional kind from the desire for order and certainty, a yearning so widespread among all human types as to seem instinctive but often so reckless in its perverse form as to result in its opposite. Other species are spared this yearning. They buzz, they sing, they mate not because they choose to but because they can’t choose not to. Alone among living creatures, Adam’s hapless seed may, indeed must, choose, err, regret. The history of religions, like the history of despotism, records humanity’s compulsive dependence on deities and dictators upon whom to wish this painful burden. Thus we abandon ourselves to fantastic cosmologies, derive certainties from wishes, and defend our illusions with passionate, often brutal, intensity. Keats said that only geniuses—he was thinking of Shakespeare especially—can be “content with half-knowledge” without “undertaking an irritated search” after improbable certainties. The rest of us tend to stake our lives, and often those of others, on our certain knowledge of which end of the egg to crack.
Yet the uncertainty of everyday life is inescapable. It is not that science is no longer explanatory, but that it can’t explain enough. We are no more likely than our ancestors were to find the straight path or evidence that we are more than a random accident in an in-different universe, soon to die and be forgotten. Nor has prosperity brought its promised comfort, for prosperity teaches that desire is endless, while abundance is not. The promise of abundance and its frequent corollary, political freedom—the promise, in other words, of American life—has been, for all its blessings, a cheat, and not simply for the poor. It has robbed many who are better off of their respect for scarcity, which for millennia joined us in families and tribes and made us balance our books.
From the suburbs of Mecca to the pools of Beverly Hills, there is no wonder that rootless multitudes now yearn increasingly for the absolute and submit to its avatars, who flourish as disorder accumulates. This yearning, now so prevalent in the United States, has resulted not in the classic conservatism of Plato and Burke but in its degenerate form, the intolerant worship of idols and dogma whether promoted by the falsified Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood or the falsified Christianity of Pat Robertson, whose invariable companions are self-deception and the deception of others. True conservatism, on the other hand, demands that the levers of change be placed beneath the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.
Lind and Hodgson show how for the past half century or so a band of quixotic counterrevolutionaries—Jacobins of the right attacking the symptoms of modernity—descended in the North from Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and William F. Buckley and in the South from Strom Thurmond and George Wallace—has attempted to distract Americans from their actual challenges, including their obligations to their own poor and to the solvency of their children and their children’s children, by turning them against a demonized version of their government and toward the recovery of a grossly fictitious golden age, the residue of sermons, films, and editorials in the Wall Street Journal. The result is a puritanical politics of simpering virtue versus hellish depravity, in which the middling condition of actual lives is ignored.
In his very useful survey of right-wing populism in postwar America, Godfrey Hodgson identifies as its three main components anti-communism, racism, and the fear of social disintegration: in other words a reaction to the intrusion of the outside world upon the long-isolated enclave of white male dominance. In a positive sense, one might say that the experience of the American right, as Hodgson presents it, has been its irritable and reluctant awakening from the long dream of exceptionalism to find itself alongside a disreputable and no less irritable bedmate called history, from whom there is no possibility, of divorce, while a century’s dirty dishes are piled in the kitchen below. Whether the bedmates reconcile or prolong their quarrel is an open question. Should the quarrel continue, however, the loser will not be history.
When the youthful William F. Buckley started National Review in 1955, he thrust his toy sword aloft and wrote in his manifesto that his job was to “stand athwart History and shout Stop!”1 Perhaps more optimistically than the evidence permits, Hodgson concludes that Buckley’s ideological descendants may now be ready to face the world more realistically, though he gives no reason to hope for such an outcome and may simply have wanted to end his book on a cheerful note. Yet there is reason to hope, if only to the extent that Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan are not yet the candidates of the party whose ideology they control in the name of their militant horde.
The American right, Hodgson notices, comprises two incompatible components: authoritarian traditionalists, who are usually members of fundamentalist or evangelical religions, and radical individualists, including “libertarian” businessmen, speculators, and their journalistic and academic apologists in departments of economics, particularly at the University of Chicago. Hodgson makes too much of their incompatibility. What binds the two is their hostility to federal regulatory and taxing power or, in a larger sense, their shared conviction that the United States ought to be a largely homogeneous culture, a fairytale version of its dishevelled self, a Disneyland whose brave citizens are free to make their fortunes no matter what the damage to competing interests, where differences are settled man to man, where women sing in church when they are not at their stoves incubating embryos, where overt nonconformists aren’t welcome and the income tax has been repealed. In practice the two groups have joined forces to dominate and perhaps eventually to destroy the Republican Party by alienating it from the complex reality of American life or, in the jargon of politics, the art of the possible; in other words, from history.
Lind’s view is more conspiratorial and simplistic, but not necessarily untrue. Formerly the executive editor of The National Interest, published by Irving Kristol, he believes that members of the business elite and their hired ideologues—including former Marxists like Kristol—have bamboozled the fundamentalist churchgoers into voting against their economic interests by supporting candidates chosen by Republican millionaires. According to Lind, these puppet candidates promise, if elected, to throw the tax gathers and sodomites into the Potomac but, in fact, intend only to cut taxes on the huge incomes of their patrons while dismantling the Democratic programs on which many lower-and middle-income Republicans have long depended. The arrangement seems more likely to have been one of mutual convenience aimed at a common enemy, the IRS. What Burke said of the American colonists is no less true of Americans today: the love of liberty was “fixed and attached on this specific point of taxing,” the question upon which the “great contests for freedom,” in the mother country itself, had been fought “from the earliest times.”
Among Hodgson’s many valuable observations is that it was the attempt by the IRS in 1978 to deny tax exemption to independent Christian schools that brought the Christian right led by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority into politics. The IRS ruling, during the Carter administration, that these schools were in fact segregated in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment
absolutely shattered the Christian community’s notion that Christians could isolate themselves inside their own institutions and teach what they pleased. The realization that they could not do so linked up with the long-held conservative view that government is too powerful and intrusive, and this linkage is what made evangelicals active. It wasn’t the abortion issue; that wasn’t sufficient. It was the recognition that isolation simply would no longer work in this society
—not, at any rate, at public expense.
Paul Weyrich, the right-wing political activist, had seen this possibility eighteen years earlier when the Supreme Court “came down with its decision on school prayer.” He “called…the Republican state chairman for Wisconsin,” and said,” ‘Look, I shouldn’t be doing this, but this decision is a means to ignite people who do not normally support Republicans.’ He thought I was crazy.” In fact he was merely two decades ahead of his times.
Eventually Weyrich and his allies would hit upon many other issues by which to “ignite people who do not normally vote Republican.” Anticommunism had been such an issue for years, but now school prayer would be joined by abortion, gun control, welfare fraud, and many other so-called “hot button issues” to turn the Republican Party into a congeries of fiery eccentrics. The IRS, however, which was seen as a mechanism for transferring funds from wage earners to welfare queens, was perhaps the most inflammatory issue of all since it appealed not only to fear but to greed.
A year after the IRS ruling, the Reverend Jerry Falwell was approached on the plane to Lynchburg by none other than God Himself, who told him “to call the good people of America together to fight…the pornography, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity that under the guise of sex education and ‘values clarification’ “now dominated the desegregated public schools. Weyrich claimed that it was he who named this movement the Moral Majority, which, at its Dallas meeting a year later, offered its votes to Ronald Reagan. It was at this fateful encounter that Reagan, a divorce and fornicator between marriages, shyly admitted, having arrived with the stench of Chasen’s perhaps still upon him, that “I know you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing,” by which he could only have meant operating illegally segregated schools at taxpayers’ expense.
Some sixteen years earlier, when the Supreme Court ruled against school prayer, an Alabama congressman, quoted by Hodgson, put it more bluntly than Reagan would later do. “They put the Negroes in the schools,” he declared, “and now they’re driving God out.” Not long afterward, Falwell preached against Martin Luther King that the church should refrain from politics: “Preachers,” he told King, “are not called to be politicians, but soul winners.” “Now,” Hodgson writes, “the boot was on the other foot.”
The boot had been sitting in the closet for years. As long ago as 1957, Hodgson writes, William F. Buckley wondered in National Review whether
Southern whites would be justified in “taking such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally,” where they did not predominate numerically. “The sober answer,” he concluded, “is Yes—the white community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”2
With respect to this unbecoming sentiment, Buckley too was ahead of his time. “It was as if somewhere, sometime a while back,” Hodgson quotes the television journalist Douglas Kiker in 1968, “George Wallace had been awakened by a white, blinding vision: they all hate black people, all of them. They’re all afraid of them. Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern! The whole United States is Southern.”3 Or, as a Georgia automobile mechanic told Hodgson: “I don’t intend to vote for anyone up in Washington again, and I’ll tell ya why. When I get to thinking about how hard I work, and how damn greasy I get, and I start thinking about how much you-all take out of my paycheck for taxes and all, and I see those people setting on their porches spending my money, why I get so damn mad I just say to myself, ‘I ain’t never going to vote for them sons-of-bitches again.”‘
In an insightful passage, Hodgson argues that but for Watergate the Republican Party would not have had to wait until Reagan’s Dallas visit in 1980: it would have Southernized itself in the mid-Seventies in keeping with the program outlined in Kevin Phillips’s now classic book, in which he identified Nixon’s so-called Southern strategy to capitalize on the racial fears prevalent not only in the South but in many other parts of the United States.4
In the even, the assault on the federal treasury led by Ronald Reagan and his radical ideologues was devastating, though it did nothing either to restore godliness or halt the integration of public schools in the South. Lind notes that under Ford and Carter federal debt had increased by $450 billion, but under Reagan, who cut taxes by 25 percent in three years, and Bush, who raised them insignificantly, it grew by $3.5 trillion, a huge burden on our own and future generations. While federal debt was rising, the proceeds of Reagan’s reckless tax cut were distributed not to garage mechanics in Georgia but in grotesque disproportion to the very rich. According to Garry Wills, citing Reagan’s biographer, Lou Cannon, income for the bottom 10 percent fell by 10.5 percent from 1977 to 1986 while the top 10 percent gained 24.4 percent and the top 1 percent gained 74.2 percent, a disparity exacerbated by a sharp increase in the regressive social security tax. Between 1977 and 1990, Lind notes, “a mere 1 percent of families in the United States received 79 percent of all the income generated…with much of that bonanza going to the top tenth of that 1 percent.” At this year’s Republican convention, one delegate out of five was said to be a millionaire and convention officials struggled to prevent television crews from filming the great nobles alighting from their private jets at the San Diego airport where they had come to demand still lower taxes on their mighty incomes.
Hodgson suspects that greed and the fear of sex, of blacks, of “socialism,” and so on, which hold the radical right together, maybe largely symbolic, that the real source of dread is deeper. Paraphrasing an article written in 1957 by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, Hodgson writes, “People became conservatives when they experienced ‘the horrible feeling’ that a society they took for granted might suddenly cease to exist.” For Huntington the entire source of this dread was the Soviet Union. For the Moral Majority it was the sexuality of desegregated schools as well as the Communists. For George Wallace it was blacks as such, but for all three, Hodgson suggests, it is the elemental fear of trespass, the dread of imaginary monsters pawing the darkness at the perimeter.
In fact, an actual invasion of America had been under way since the early 1960s, one that had nothing to do with sexuality, Communists, or desegregated schools. This was the invasion of foreign goods, which were often better made, cheaper, and more useful than American ones. By the 1970s, this invasion would devastate much of the old industrial economy of the United States, including the high wages for industrial workers which for years Americans had taken for granted. This unprecedented competition, implemented by new technologies in transport and communication, within the once largely impregnable American market, would indeed turn the world upside down for most Americans and contribute to the selfishness and xenophobia of the Republican right. But the structural decline in American economic growth that began in 1973 would not only be ignored, its profound consequences for the United States would repeatedly be denied by the radical right and its publicists even as American productivity growth and hourly wages remained stagnant or fell and federal indebtedness continued to mount.
By the mid-1990s the possibility of national insolvency had become a legitimate if not a popular topic among businessmen and central bankers, a threat magnified by the impending retirement of the huge generation born after World War II, whose members will no longer be contributing their social security taxes to the treasury but who will expect to be paid their promised benefits, for which politicians of both parties, fearful of right-wing demands for further tax cuts, have made no provision. According to the Concord Coalition—a group led by Peter Peterson, Paul Tsongas, was Warren Rudman—among other sources, the unfunded obligation to present and future American retirees is $17 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office forecasts that by 2020, under current retirement policies, federal debt will rise at the rate of $1.4 trillion annually, in today’s dollars.
A solution to the problem of low productivity growth combined with the forthcoming retirement crisis is anything but obvious, and the task is further complicated by right-wing publicists, promoting additional tax reduction, who insist in the Wall Street Journal and similar papers that the problem doesn’t exist. This process of denial may also be found among some liberal economists who believe that an exaggerated fear of deficits is a pretext by which to deny subsidies to the poor. Though both Hodgson and Lind are aware of the long-term decline in American productivity growth, neither has noticed that the most serious consequence of the assault by the far right on the federal treasury has been to preclude congressional debate on this huge problem. It is a problem which, at a minimum, requires serious bipartisan consideration of tax increases and reduced entitlement costs dedicated to debt and deficit reduction for the sake of increased net savings for investment in enhanced productivity growth. The need, in essence, is to discourage excess private consumption for the sake of greater investment in infrastructure, education, and more efficient production and distribution, a position on which both Republican and Democratic centrists might agree. Lind, alas, seems to think that the twenty-year deterioration of hourly wages and gamily incomes combined with mounting federal debt is the result merely of favoritism shown the rich rather than the much greater effect of reduced growth of both productivity and GDP. Thus he overlooks the most pernicious effect of American pseudo-conservatism: its denial of the economic iceberg looming dead ahead.
Lind’s gifts are not analytical. He is at his best when he is most polemical. His work first gained widespread attention when he exposed, in these pages, Pat Robertson’s astonishingly crude exegesis of a Masonic-Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world by creating a system of central banks.5 The strongest, if not necessarily the most closely reasoned, pages of his new book are those that expose the intellectual dishonesty of right-wing publicists, including those Jewish writers who dismissed or minimized Robertson’s anti-Semitism, the mirror-image, Lind writes, of the Stalinist tactic at the time of the Popular Front to have no enemies to the left. Lind is most scornful of the strategy he discerns in which William Simon, the ex-treasury secretary and millionaire speculator, and Irving Kristol have used various foundations to finance a “counterintelligentsia,” whose tendentious arguments are then promoted by the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and similar publications.
The most damaging of these intellectual “hoaxes” has been the so-called Laffer Curve, the crackpot theory that led Ronald Reagan to believe that huge cuts in federal taxes would lead to federal surpluses, when the actual outcome proved to be a cumulative deficit of $3.5 trillion. Kristol, who had promoted this theory, later admitted in the thirtieth anniversary issue of The Public Interest that his “own attitude toward the budget deficit and other monetary or fiscal problems” had been “rather cavalier.” Kristol wrote that “the task, as I saw it.”
was to create a new majority, which evidently would mean conservative majority, which came to mean, in turn, a Republican majority—so political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government.
Lenin—if it was Lenin—on the subject of omelets could not have been more blunt, or less contrite. Now that the usually sensible Bob Dole has embraced his own version of supply-side theory for the sake of “a Republican majority,” Kristol, who presumably has since become aware of “the accounting deficiencies of government,” has said nothing to discourage him. Of such right-wing mischief the most offensive to Lind is the pseudoscholarship of Charles Murray, whose attack on welfare as a stimulus to social disintegration and whose claims that blacks are genetically less educable than people of other colors are “not scientific but…political.” They are propaganda to discourage further spending on the poor or, as Lind sees it, to reduce the tax burden on William Simon and his anti government co-conspirators.
Lind’s polemics against these and similar impostures are the liveliest parts of his book and provide further evidence for his claim that Stalinist cynicism can flourish on the right as well as the left; that the essence of Stalinism is not its brutality but the denial of history carried to the extreme. Neither Hodgson nor Lind, however, notices that the most portentous consequence of this cynicism is the denial that twenty years of deficient growth in productivity and the unfunded obligation to the huge generation soon to retire are the greatest challenge to the United States in its history. This challenge also faces other industrial countries with similar problems of slow growth and aging populations, countries which have so far been able to lend us money to finance our deficits, but which may be unable to do so at bearable rates of interest when their own baby boomers retire. The real damage done by the radical right is to have made it impossible for politicians to confront his challenge constructively and courageously while there are still a few years left in which to do something about it.
October 17, 1996
The tone was disconcerting even to such a would-be conservative as Irving Kristol, who recently recalled how he found the early National Review “simple-minded in its ‘anti-statism’ in general and its contempt for all social reforms in particular.” (The Public Interest, Fall1995, p. 80.) ↩
Hodgson continues as follows: ↩
Compare: “The real trouble is that we hate the Negro. It is not his ignorance that offends us, but his color.” George W. Julian, a radical Republican Congressman for Indiana during Reconstruction, in Kenneth M. Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (Knopf, 1966), p. 105. ↩
The Emerging Republican Majority (Arlington House, 1969). ↩
“Reverend Robertson’s Grand International Conspiracy Theory,” The New York Review, February 2, 1995. In my capacity as a book publisher, I asked Lind to pursue the issues raised in this article in a book on the Republican right. He chose to write the present, somewhat different, book for his own publisher. ↩