Politics and Ideology
To the Editor:
. . . James Nuechterlein [“The Republican Future,” January] is, patently, an able writer, and many of his insights are extremely illuminating, but I remain convinced that the books he discusses in his article, Back to Basics and Post-Conservative America, are largely irrelevant to an understanding of American politics.
In my view, the next national election will be won by the candidate who can convince the American electorate that he can (1) tame the federal bureaucracy; (2) put together a foreign policy that accords with current reality; (3) develop programs that will enable the United States to adjust efficiently to a changing economy; and (4) restore America’s basic institutions. Put another way, no one is in favor of pollution, of crime, of poor education, of constantly rising health costs, of widespread unemployment, or of a foreign policy that changes with every climatic variation.
In short, the American voter is neither a conservative nor a liberal; he is a pragmatist—witness the Nixon and Reagan landslides and Carter’s 1976 victory. These triumphs were not accidental. The candidates won because they said what the voters wanted to hear . . . and still want to hear.
To the Editor:
So as not to convey a distorted picture of the article, I must begin by saying that James Nuechterlein’s “The Republican Future” is on the whole an insightful and favorable account of the rising American Right. One small part of his article, however, has caused me considerable consternation. This is his charge that responsible conservatives like Burton Yale Pines . . . have failed to dissociate themselves from certain unpalatable New Right extremists (Mr. Nuechterlein does not indict the whole New Right) whom Mr. Nuechterlein does not name. Such a failure, Mr. Nuechterlein believes, might discredit the whole conservative movement. He finds the situation analogous to the “popular-front mentality” of liberals of the 1930′s who failed to dissociate themselves from Stalinism.
This analogy, which implies that the innate evil and danger of certain New Rightists is equivalent to Stalinism, is the height of hyperbole. By this analogy, Mr. Neuchterlein would seem to give credence to the Norman Lear image of the New Right bogeyman. . . . Furthermore, not only are New Rightists not comparable to Stalinists, it is highly questionable whether any leading New Right figures are, in any way, so unpalatable as to require repudiation by responsible conservatives.
Mr. Nuechterlein is alarmed not so much by the substance of the New Right’s issues as by the political “style” of some of its members, whom he labels “crazies, zealots, and fanatics.” But he does not make it clear how leading New Right figures diverge from traditional American political practices. (Since Mr. Nuechterlein leaves these unpalatable New Rightists unnamed, it is possible that some may exist of whom I am not aware; but if Mr. Nuechterlein intended to refer to people other than the New Right’s more prominent figures, he should have identified them.)
No New Right figure that I am aware of, for instance, has called for the violent overthrow of our constitutional government or for massive civil disobedience (in contrast to positions take by many individuals of the Old and New Left). . . . New Rightists combine politics with religion, but for years this has been the quintessential position of liberal churchmen.
Perhaps Mr. Nuechterlein finds certain New Rightists guilty of using exaggerated rhetoric. Again, it is difficult to see how New Right political rhetoric exceeds the usual rough-and-tumble of American politics. Comparisons should be made with the rhetoric of Harold Ickes, or even FDR, toward New Deal critics and isolationists; of liberal politicians and commentators toward Barry Goldwater in 1964; and of civil-rights and feminist leaders toward the Reagan administration today. In short, these “responsible,” mainstream liberals have branded their enemies as fascists, racists, warmongers, war profiteers, insane proponents of nuclear holocaust—and have been quite successful politically. Is it reasonable to require the New Right to abide by higher standards?
I do not intend to imply that the American conservative movement should be all-inclusive, or that the New Right is inerrant. Conservatives already correctly separate themselves from extremists of the far Right—neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan. Some of the tactics of certain New Rightists may be politically counterproductive, as Mr. Nuechterlein points out. Perhaps they are even focusing on some wrong issues. But that they may be wrong in some instances should not mean that they should be anathematized by responsible conservatives, much less that any nefarious comparisons to Stalinism should be made.
Stephen J. Sniegoski
Mt. Rainier, Maryland
James Nuechterlein writes:
Since both of my correspondents combine their gentle rebukes with cordial comments, I trust that my response, even where it takes issue with their criticism, will display an appropriately irenic spirit.
Raymond Garmel suggests that I take ideology too seriously. The American electorate is entirely pragmatic, he says, and will respond favorably to candidates who show promise of taming the federal bureaucracy, creating a realistic foreign policy, developing efficient economic programs, and restoring “America’s basic institutions” (I leave the quotation marks in place because I’m not sure what Mr. Garmel has in mind by this phrase). No one, he goes on, is in favor of pollution, crime, unemployment, etc., and voters simply want those problems dealt with without regard to ideological categories.
It is true that most people are more interested in getting problems solved than in maintaining ideological consistency, but Mr. Garmel overlooks two central points.
In the first place, public opinion is led by “opinion leaders” in America’s various subcultures, and all the studies I am familiar with indicate that opinion leaders are more ideologically concerned and consistent than the average citizen. The people to whom ordinary voters look for an interpretation of politics and politicians tend to think in ways that make “problem-solving” an ideological exercise, at least in part.
The second and related point emerges from Mr. Garmel’s suggestion that voters support politicians who can “put together a foreign policy [and presumably a domestic policy as well] that accords with current reality.” But we do not all see “reality” in the same terms, and our various and conflicting realities are inextricably bound up with our ideological preferences. Virtually all politicians think of themselves and their programs as realistic, and we voters, according largely to our implicit or explicit ideological inclinations, choose the “reality” we find most compatible. (I mean no mindless relativism here; some realities are more real than others. But that is another issue.)
We vary, of course, in our degree of ideological purity, but I know of virtually no one who takes a serious and sustained interest in politics who is not, to some degree, ideologically inclined. We do not approach the various discrete problems of public policy in isolated terms. Our definitions as to what the problems are and how they ought to be solved tend to form roughly consistent patterns over the range of issues, and those patterns can be thought of as ideologies. Those people described as “pragmatists” are less often people devoid of ideology than they are people of centrist ideological inclinations. I therefore cannot agree with Mr. Garmel’s suggestion that the general ideological climate is irrelevant to political prospects.
Stephen J. Sniegoski thinks I am too hard on the New Right and too concerned that the conservative movement maintain its distance from New Right extremists.
Let me concede at once that Mr. Sniegoski is right to take me to task for the analogy with Stalinism. In writing that, I said more than I meant and more than was proper. The right-wing equivalent of the Stalinists would be, as Mr. Sniegoski suggests, the neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, and it is unfair to place the New Right, even by implication, in such company.
On the larger point, however, I would hold my ground. A better analogy—and one which I made elsewhere in the article—would compare the relationship between conservatives (and Republicans) and the New Right with that between liberals (and Democrats) and the New Left. I still believe, as I argued in the article, that “conservatives who rightly attack liberals for allowing themselves to be compromised by the New Left should make as clear as possible those things that distinguish them, in style and substance, from the New Right,” and that the New Right could potentially “do the GOP as much damage as the New Left earlier did the Democrats.” Here is a case, in other words, where prudence and principle come together. Conservatism will be diminished if it becomes identified with the “fanaticism, intolerance, and mean-spiritedness” that a great many people—by no means all of them on the far (or even near) Left—associate with the New Right.
One must differentiate between the broad range of Americans rightly concerned with social and moral issues—radical feminist and gay-rights movements, abortion-on-demand, the imposition of racial and sexual quotas, the delegitimizing of any public expression of religious values, attacks on the nuclear family and on traditional standards of sexual morality—and the institutional leadership of the New Right, whose often crudely negative political attacks manage to do conservative causes at least as much harm as good. We should ask ourselves how it was that a left-wing politician like Senator Paul Sarbanes, who richly deserved to lose on his record, managed to attract such a huge sympathy vote by virtue of his being targeted for defeat by New Right leaders.
I am entirely unimpressed, in this context, with Mr. Sniegoski’s argument that the irresponsible behavior of certain liberals in branding conservatives as fascists, racists, and warmongers, thereby justifies parallel behavior on the Right. Irresponsible is irresponsible, and tu quoque has never been a persuasive form of argument or justification.
I understand that politics is coalition and that excessive fastidiousness can breed self-righteousness along with ineffectuality. It is not the primary duty of conservatives and neoconservatives to take on the New Right, but it is their duty—and in their own interest—to create and maintain a political alternative to the Left that cannot plausibly be dismissed, as much of the New Right’s program and personnel can be, as narrow-minded and simplistic. This is particularly true for those who deal in the intellectual side of politics.
If politics suggests coalitions, ideas have to do with distinctions. And as already noted, when distinctions are not maintained, causes can be hurt. I believe deeply, for example, in the pro-life cause and am convinced that some form of legislative action to restrain abortion is necessary. But I am also convinced that to the extent the pro-life position becomes identified primarily with Senator Jesse Helms and the political forces he represents, it will be the less likely to succeed. The point is not that mainstream conservatives should attempt to exclude the New Right from the common struggle against abortion-on-demand, but that they should do everything in their power to demonstrate that the pro-life cause is in no sense the peculiar property of New Right militants.
As with issues, so with candidacies. In 1972, George McGovern could have been a formidable candidate as head of a broad liberal coalition that included, at its outer edges, elements of the New Left. But when he became commonly perceived as the New Left’s agent, he invited his own political ruin. Ronald Reagan should—and I have no doubt will—profit from that example.