On the Right
To the Editor:
In her critique of the New Right and its political proposals [“Why the New Right Lost,” February], Jeane Kirkpatrick objects that “the New Right theory of American politics” is mistaken “because it is based on an oversimplified conception of ideology in contemporary American politics.” Oversimplification is an easy charge to lay at the door of almost any generalizer, but it is amusing to note how blithely Mrs. Kirkpatrick has fallen into the very error for which she condemns “Phillips, Buchanan, Rusher, Whalen, and their allies.”
What we named four have in common is primarily a perception that liberalism as an ideology no longer commands the allegiance of a majority of American voters; that it is, in fact, in disorderly retreat, under heavy attack by various new combinations of forces and ideas. What is to be done about this important fact—which principles ought to replace liberalism, and by what means, and to what end—are matters of sharp disagreement among the four of us, not to be glossed over by lumping us all indiscriminately under some convenient rubric such as the New Right.
If, for example, Patrick Buchanan has ever gotten around to anything more than a casual flirtation with the idea of bolting the GOP, it has escaped my notice. Mrs. Kirkpatrick herself describes him as “the most ‘Republican’ of the leading conservative intellectuals,” and, so far as I can see, Buchanan’s long marriage to the Republican party is in little danger of going on the rocks. Richard Whalen, conversely, as she accurately notes, has tended to believe that “conservatives might be more comfortable in a Democratic party led by Henry Jackson.” As for Kevin Phillips, he has at least intermittently shared my conviction that neither of the two present parties is likely to prove the most effective vehicle for the expression of those sentiments broadly called “conservative.” But Phillips has tended to regard the neo-populist (or, as I prefer to call it, the “social-conservative”) sector of the electorate as capable of waging and winning, all by itself, the battle for control of the central levers of American society—and thereafter operating those levers for its own sweet benefit. I, on the contrary, believe that conservatism can constitute a united and fully effective majority in contemporary America only if the “social conservatives” (many of them former Democrats) can be effectively allied with the “economic conservatives” (most of whom are presently Republicans) in a new political vehicle reflecting, as any major party in this country must, not only broad areas of agreement but others on which compromise will be required.
I insist on these distinctions because my own view spares me the trouble of defending all sorts of dubious propositions that Mrs. Kirkpatrick understandably enjoys demolishing but which form no part of my own conception of the political landscape. Thus, whatever Buchanan or any other strictly Republican conservative strategist—e.g., Ronald Reagan—may think, I certainly do not hold the view (which Mrs. Kirkpatrick rightly dismisses as a myth) that there is a conservative majority in this country ready to spring to the support of any Republican presidential nominee willing to sound a clear enough conservative note on his trumpet. The Republican party suffers from fatal defects of both image and structure, and for these reasons it has repeatedly failed to win significant numbers of social conservatives to its banner, no matter how conservative its candidates. Vast numbers of such conservatives stayed with Johnson in 1964, bolted to Wallace in 1968, and rejoined the Democratic party when it nominated Carter in 1976. The election of 1972 was the only one in which these voters went Republican, and that, as Mrs. Kirkpatrick correctly observes, was solely because the Democrats had nominated McGovern—a blunder we can scarcely expect to be repeated very often. The conservative majority, I submit, is very much “there,” but large parts of it are far from comfortable in the GOP, and it is therefore well-nigh impossible to unite it permanently under the Republican banner. (This is particularly true if conservatives intend to compete effectively with the Democratic party for control of Congress.)
Mrs. Kirkpatrick necessarily relies heavily on the brilliant but (perhaps inevitably) exaggerated insights of Phillips into the social structure of modern America to fortify her contention that “the postulated ‘new’ conservative majority . . . could come into being if and only if the economic issues on which the traditional political cleavages were based remained less salient than the social and cultural cleavages of the late 60′s” (which, she implies, were transient). But were many of the social cleavages underlying the politics of the late 60′s really so much less economic, in their fundamental characteristics, than the class rivalries so skillfully exploited by Roosevelt’s New Deal? I do not understand even Phillips to be saying so; he has spoken vividly of the “Knowledge Industry,” even of the “Communications Establishment”—terms that would surely be intelligible to the most devout economic determinist. What does the phrase “the welfare rip-off” imply if not a (widely held) perception that transfer payments from the producing to the non-producing sectors of our society have gotten seriously out of hand? That is precisely why I have steadfastly emphasized, in my own analysis of the relevant fracture-line in our contemporary politics, the patently economic struggle between producers and non-producers.
But enough of the points on which Mrs. Kirkpatrick and I tend not so much to collide as merely to pass in the night; we have our serious disagreements as well. She is at some pains to argue that the compromise I deem essential (between social and economic conservatives) is for all practical purposes impossible. She recites the familiar litany concerning the supposedly irreconcilable desires of the two groups: the loyalty of economic conservatives to laissez-faire economics versus the support of many social conservatives for “an active role for government in the economic sphere.” I am tempted to dismiss such allegedly insuperable obstacles to union with the reminder that Mencken described the Democratic party of his own day as “two gangs of natural enemies in a precarious state of symbiosis.” But the truth is that, even as Mrs. Kirkpatrick labored over her critique, the once-imposing edifice of working-class support for big government has been crumbling on every side. If there is one idea that is selling at a fire-sale discount in America today, it is the notion that government intervention is a very plausible cure for anything at all. Not even the AFL-CIO advocates price controls any more, and Humphrey-Hawkins is for all practical purposes a dead letter. Nobody, of course—certainly no likely member of the new-majority party I contemplate—would advocate a return to the era of the robber barons, or the abolition of Social Security; but compromise on the real economic issues is getting easier every day. Despite Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s glib assumption to the contrary, a compromise on the remaining economic differences between economic and social conservatives, under the aegis of a new party, would be far easier to achieve, and far more profitable once achieved, than the debilitating compromises that the conservative majority in the GOP is forever being compelled to make, on economic and all other issues, with the party’s liberal minority—compromises toward the Republican Left that serve only to prevent the consummation of a far more fruitful union with the non-Republican Right.
Lastly, Mrs. Kirkpatrick is simply out of date in arguing that new-majority theoreticians “misunderstand the nature of political organization.” Presumably she is referring thereby (she doesn’t say) to the musty fabric of courthouse politics and neighborhood social allegiances that has served as the subject of so many doctoral dissertations on the two venerable parties to which it is still arguably relevant. But nothing is more certain than that, for the foreseeable future, the decisive forward steps in American politics are going to be initiated from the top and carried through by the organized personal followings of plausible and charismatic national candidates in close touch with the real issues; they are not going to ooze upward from the primordial slime of the clubhouses and precinct, workers of yesteryear.
The New Right’s strategy for 1976 (or at any rate my version of it) failed not for any of the reasons listed by Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but simply because the one such candidate who could have made it succeed—Ronald Reagan—lacked the political imagination to seek the Presidency under any banner save that of the Republican party. (When that die had been cast, John Connally—whatever else he is, an extremely shrewd judge of practical politics—offered the following assessment during a television interview in January 1976: “If Governor Reagan had said, ‘I’m not going into the Republican party; I’m going to lead a third party movement in this country,’ I think he could have had an enormous influence, not just this year but in the years to come.”)
As matters turned out, Reagan failed to win even the Republican nomination he sought—despite his all too inevitable last-minute attempt to appease the party’s liberal minority with Senator Schweiker. The Democrats, however—who are not about to die on anybody’s barricades, including liberalism’s—had meanwhile nominated Carter, who naturally sought to generalize his appeal but whose victory over Morris Udall, Hubert Humphrey, et al. can only be understood as signifying, in relative terms, a major rightward shift on the part of the Democratic party.
Confronted with a choice between Ford and Carter, the American conservative majority split once again, with a sizable part of its social-conservative component—especially the Southern and Border Protestants among them—choosing Carter. As long as Carter and his Democratic successors remain attentive to the serious demands of this bloc, they can materially impede, and perhaps even indefinitely thwart, the unification of the nation’s conservative majority. Conservatives, though, may console themselves with the reflection that they have exacted, in return for their disunity, an impressive price: the implicit abandonment by the Democratic party of its forty-year commitment to passionate programmatic liberalism.
In addition, you may be sure that the search will go on—indeed, is already under way—for new conservative leaders capable of outbidding Carter and uniting social and economic conservatives in a powerful coalition of “producers” well able (and well entitled) to guide America. Such leaders may not be as far off as one might at first suppose. As a matter of fact, I see a cherub that sees one.
William A. Rusher
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . Those of us who desire to see the triumph of conservatism in national politics do not . . . envision the elimination of the two-party system. If that were the case, we obviously would be sadly disappointed by the defeat of first Reagan and then Ford in 1976. Not to “lose” for us means, rather, to become a viable force in national politics—an accepted part of the political landscape—one which will draw unashamedly vast numbers of voters who currently believe as we do but who, for various reasons, . . . vote for individuals who pursue non-conservative goals. When conservatism becomes part of the political landscape, its triumph will not be manifested by repetitive electoral victories by the Conservative, or Independence, or Republican, or whatever, party, any more than the triumph of welfare-state politics precluded the subsequent Presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, or Gerald Ford. . . .
Liberalism, or, more loosely, welfare-state politics, achieved its temporary victory in the last four decades by so influencing both major parties that presidential elections descended to the level of the proverbial Tweedledum vs. Tweedledee. . . . In the same manner, conservatism will triumph when it becomes so attractive to everyone that major contenders in the future will offer some variants of its creed. Indeed, Jimmy Carter, in his more lucid moments, sounds like a traditional conservative of the Russell Kirk variety.
Did the New Right really lose? Mrs. Kirkpatrick herself answers that question when she writes that, in one form or another, “it will remain with us for a very long time to come.” That’s half the victory right there.
Allen G. Weakland
Cranford, New Jersey
To the Editor:
. . . I find it surprising that Jeane Kirkpatrick displays almost no awareness of how religious inclinations and loyalties were at work in the complicated scene she described in her article.
This country is, for good or ill, “a nation with the soul of a church.” Nixon managed to tap that soul. So did Carter. In fact, one could build an argument to the effect that the New Right failed to win in 1976 simply because it never got a clear and sure focus on Jimmy Carter as a religious figure. Writers like R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., plainly detested that side of Carter and mistrusted it completely, whereas elsewhere on the New Right, Carter’s religiosity appeared to inspire a kind of covert, grudging admiration, and still does.
In other words, the religious factor is able both to summon a consensus and to shatter one, and all at the same time. It should not be discounted.
New Orleans, Louisiana
To the Editor:
. . . Jeane Kirkpatrick . . . lumps into one category a number of highly disparate individuals, calls them collectively the New Right, and compounds the error by labeling them all conservative. . . . (Let me pause here to make a distinction that too often is either not known at all or is lost sight of: it may be said that all conservatives are men of the Right, but it may not be said with accuracy that all men of the Right are conservatives.) If one accepts Hannah Arendt’s definition of ideology (as good as any I have found) as a closed thought system rooted in a premise that is sui generis, usually obeying some “historical imperative,” and embracing a beginning, a middle, and an end, then any true conservatism—and I admit immense definitional problems here—is anti-ideological: diverse conservative intellectuals and spokesmen have been laboring for decades to make at least that much clear. Now, if one considers carefully the examples Mrs. Kirkpatrick subsumes under the rubric New Right, the conclusion forces itself upon one that there is no such entity as a monolithic ideological New Right and, further, that the term conservative does not by any means apply across the board. Kevin Phillips, for example, is not a conservative, he is a neo-populist who, quite inadvertently I would argue, finds himself on the conservative side of the ledger on some issues—neo-populism is quite at odds with the mainstream of American conservative thought. . . . Even if all the people Mrs. Kirkpatrick discusses were conservative and wanted to form such a coherent whole as she envisions, they couldn’t do it: homogeneity and conservatism are mutually exclusive phenomena. . . . No matter who exactly does or does not comprise it, a New Right, any New Right, cannot and will not succeed. Mrs. Kirkpatrick is correct. I would, however, expand her list of reasons.
Essentially, any such enterprise must fail because it represents, at best, a mere accumulation of interests—by its nature, a very unwieldy as well as a temporary set of arrangements. . . . There is no “center” that can “hold.” Interests, as opposed to principles and values (not to be considered the same as ideology), change with the wind, are blown away to be replaced by new interests if they are not satisfied rather quickly, and—here’s a paradox—if satisfied, they cease to exist as cohesive political agents the moment satisfaction is achieved. In either case, the new interests that must come rushing in to fill the resulting vacuum are more likely than not to be such as would fling any New Right party or its like into fractured atoms.
Finally, there is one fundamental reason for inevitable failure, one with much broader implications, not touched upon by Mrs. Kirkpatrick. New party formulations, whether of the Right or of the Left, or for that matter attempts to “fix up” existing formulations, constitute . . . an act of self-delusion—a failure to perceive or an unwillingness to face up to the real issue, which is that the necessary conditions for the functioning of democracy in all likelihood no longer prevail. These political manipulations are, in other words, acts of desperation, attempts to cure by what I would term the politics of pastiche a but-dimly-apprehended political malaise that is actually merely a symptom of a profound social breakdown. . . . Throughout history certain specific preconditions have been understood as being absolutely necessary to the viability of democratic institutions. . . . As for the United States, I do not believe Tocqueville’s thesis has been or can be much improved upon. An examination of prevailing circumstances, set against the background of Tocqueville’s test (and this is only one of many tests that could be applied), ought to convince one that the situation in America is analogous to . . . pre-revolutionary France; that the socio-religious foundation for democracy, the ground for consensus if you will, that Tocqueville determined must exist, and thought so secure here, has long been crumbling. Whether the crumbling process has advanced beyond the point of recovery is perhaps still a debatable question. But the debate ought to be focused upon that question. . . . Fulminations regarding the formulations of parties, without assuring that there is, if I may change my metaphor, a solid framework of democracy within which parties can operate, constitute activity worthy only of some political version of the Academy of Lagado.
Neil G. Barclay
Salt Lake City, Utah
Jeane Kirkpatrick writes:
William A. Rusher is not enthusiastic about my discussion of his variant of conservative politics. Mr. Rusher’s principal objections appear to be that I underestimate the “sharp disagreements” among himself, Phillips, Whalen, and Buchanan; that I overestimate the difficulties of unifying economic and social conservatives; and that I, not he, misunderstand the character of political organization. I will comment briefly on each of these criticisms.
Concerning Mr. Rusher’s dissatisfaction at being “lumped” under the same rubric with Phillips, Buchanan, and Whalen, I note simply that in focusing on some areas of agreement among these activist conservative intellectuals I did not intend to imply that there were no disagreements among them. In fact, I mentioned a few. I am quite aware that Buchanan is most strongly attached to the Republican party, that Whalen is most friendly to Democrats and to the welfare state (though not to its accompanying bureaucracy), that Phillips is most sanguine about the electoral potential of the socially-conservative neo-populists, and that Rusher is most deeply involved in the schismatic organizational politics of the Right. Had I been writing a book or a monograph on the conservative intellectual movement, or an article on differences among conservative intellectuals, I would have spelled out these and other differences. My purpose, however, was not to analyze the political writings of particular persons, but to discuss a political perspective. The practice of focusing on “schools” or positions is common enough. Mr. Rusher may object to being discussed under a single label with persons with whom he does not wholly agree. I wonder if he would have been similarly bothered by a discussion of, say, Theodore Roszack, Herbert Marcuse, and R. D. Laing as examples of the New Left. These three share views on “linear” reason, empirical social science, capitalism, and the university, yet disagree on the role of technology in human liberation, on schizophrenia, and on various other subjects.
I suspect that Mr. Rusher’s discomfort in being identified for any purposes with persons with whom he does not wholly agree reflects a tendency on his part to be more impressed by ideological disagreement than agreement. This tendency is, of course, a principal cause of the sectarianism which afflicts conservative politics and diminishes its political effectiveness by making compromise and aggregation so difficult.
Concerning compromise—I did not (as Mr. Rusher asserts) either argue or assume (glibly or otherwise) that it would be impossible to forge a union between normally Democratic pro-welfare-state social conservatives and normally Republican economic conservatives. I only emphasized that it would be difficult, and I noted that persons whose political activity is motivated only by ideological incentives have special difficulty making the kind of compromises required to forge political alliances with persons of different perspectives. Ideology was not the glue that held together political alliances of the sort which Mencken described and to which Rusher alludes. Neither did ideology hold together the Democratic party that elected Jimmy Carter President. That Democratic “party” comprised a loose coalition of activists and voters, some of whom were motivated by ideology, some by party identification, some by regional loyalties, some by religion, some by personal attraction to the candidate, some by hostility to the GOP, and so forth. My point about the difficulty of forging a conservative party with broad enough appeal to win elections is just this: given what we know about the diversity of reasons for actual political preferences, it seems not impossible, but unlikely, that a party which relies chiefly or exclusively on ideological appeal can attract broad enough support to win national elections under conditions of normal political competition.
Mr. Rusher is mistaken if he imagines that courthouse politics are the only alternative to ideological parties headed by charismatic leaders. The facts established by a substantial body of research (in and out of doctoral dissertations) indicate otherwise. Most party organizations in the U.S. today comprise groups of citizens who for varying reasons carry out in the name of their party such diverse, necessary, and unglamorous tasks as collecting funds and signatures, getting out votes, manning telephone banks, keeping party lists current, and selecting candidates for minor offices to run in contests which pose no ideological issues. Mr. Rusher’s characterization of the bases of traditional politics as “primordial slime” illustrates better than I could the difficulties he and like-minded persons will encounter in building and sustaining a political alliance broad enough to be effective in electoral politics.
I suspect there may be more life in the traditional parties than Mr. Rusher believes. It is true, of course, that both major parties have been weakened by technological developments—notably computerized direct-mail campaigns and the electronic media—which make it possible for candidates to by-pass party organizations. The Democratic party has also been debilitated by rules which hamstring party leaders and weaken their capacity to maintain the party, and Republican strength has been eroded by demographic and cultural changes that limit its traditional appeal. The Goldwater, McCarthy, McGovern, Wallace, and Reagan campaigns illustrate how an effective candidate can mobilize issue-enthusiasts to support a candidate-centered rather than a party-centered campaign, and, more impressive still, President Carter’s pre-convention campaign demonstrated how an “outsider” could mobilize support and win his party’s nomination without an issue or an issue constituency. But it is worth noting once again that though McCarthy, McGovern, Wallace, Goldwater, and Reagan were able to muster intense support among a minority of voters, no candidacy based on a relatively narrow ideological appeal has so far won the support of a majority of the electorate.
I agree with Allen G. Weakland that losing an election does not prove that all is lost for either a cause or a candidate. And if “not to lose . . . means, rather, to become a viable force in national politics,” then the new conservatives did not lose. Indeed, I would not have bothered to write about this perspective if I did not regard it as interesting and significant. Apparently Mr. Weakland is not much concerned with electoral victories and therefore should have no difficulty avoiding the conclusion that his side has “lost.” If he can be content with awaiting the effects of a glacial movement toward the Right, then his happiness appears secure, since the slowly increasing influence and prestige of perspectives that can be reasonably termed conservative seem to me a clear feature of the intellectual history of our times. But while ideas indubitably have consequences, electoral success is not among those consequences unless the idea is translated into the kind of organization which is successful in democratic politics.
I also agree with Barbara Nauer that religion played a significant if somewhat ambiguous role in the 1976 presidential election. I suspect that Carter’s evangelical identifications enhanced his appeal to other evangelicals (though it is worth recalling that he did not win the votes of a majority of white Southerners). Carter’s evangelism may have enhanced his appeal to “black Baptists” while creating anxiety among some Catholics, Jews, and secularists, although its precise effects will not be known until the detailed data of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies become available. Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that both candidates were widely known to be serious, active Christians and that some evangelical leaders split religious ranks to proclaim public support for then-President Ford.
I sympathize with Neil G. Barclay’s desire to give a fixed meaning to ideological labels, and I am, of course, familiar with the tradition to which he alludes when he describes conservatism as having an anti-ideological, anti-populist, anti-organizational orientation which values custom over ideologizing, excellence over popularity, diversity over homogeneity, and so forth. But the sad truth (explored in this magazine’s symposium on liberalism and conservatism—“What Is a Liberal—Who Is a Conservative?” September 1976) is that the labels liberal and conservative, Left and Right, have no fixed referents. Their meaning is wholly relative (a person or position is “conservative” not in the abstract but in relation to some other person or position) and contextual (a person or position is “conservative” at a particular time and place and in relation to specific policies and persons); the terms depend as well on the usage of the period and the place. The most that I can say in defense of my use of these labels is that the persons whom I discussed—Rusher, Buchanan, Phillips, and Whalen—were generally termed conservative in the context of 1976 presidential politics.
I find rather curious Mr. Barclay’s belief that political alignments based on interests are more volatile than those based on ideas and values, especially since the mass media have rendered culture so susceptible of manipulation and politics so vulnerable to style and fashion. While I share Mr. Barclay’s respect for Tocqueville, I am less certain than he either that we understand the “specific preconditions” for democratic government or that the “necessary conditions for the functioning of democracy in all likelihood no longer prevail” in this country. And I see still fewer grounds for believing that the situation in the United States is analogous to that of pre-revolutionary France. Although respect for authority and confidence in government have declined in the last two decades, there are no fundamental disagreements among significant groups in this country over questions of legitimacy, and new political groups (whether based on “interests” or “principles”) have the kind of easy access to government that the Third Estate lacked. If we can construct or preserve political parties responsive and strong enough to channel popular demands, capacious and tolerant enough to accommodate diversity, cohesive enough to govern, and restrained enough to live within the Constitution, we need hardly worry about preconditions of democracy.