The Republican Future
What happened in last November’s congressional elections is what did not happen. An apt summary of the election results might read; no realignment, no repudiation.
The Republicans had dreamed that 1982 might be a replay in reverse of 1934, the year in which, following Franklin Roosevelt’s defeat of Herbert Hoover in 1932, the Democratic party consolidated its position as the nation’s new majority party. But as it turned out, the great Republican victory of 1980 had no second act. On the other hand, neither did the voters deal the Reagan administration the massive rebuke the Democrats had looked for and that a 10.1 percent (and rising) unemployment rate gave them plausible reason to expect. Given the nation’s critical economic condition, the Republicans have cause to be grateful that they were able to contain their losses as well as they did.
But if the GOP averted a disaster, that is all it did. The Republicans lost the election. The Democrats’ pickup of 26 seats in the House of Representatives was at the high end of the 15 to 25 seat improvement most observers had predicted for them, and while the Republicans did not lose any seats in the Senate, they did not make the gains that might have been expected in view of the fact that more Democrats than Republicans faced reelection. The message of the election was an ambiguous one, but the Democrats had more reason to read it with pleasure than did the Republicans. The fundamental fact remains: the Democratic party is still the majority party in America.
Yet while the Democrats won, they did not win decisively. The American people rebuked the Republicans, but they did so in a gentle fashion. Indeed, one might best say of the election that it added up to a postponed verdict on the Reagan administration. The voters’ interim judgment on the course the President wants to stay indicates that their patience is wearing thin but is not yet fully exhausted. The results of the election point to no clear policy mandate, and they suggest that the public will not be ready to issue a definitive judgment on Ronald Reagan and his conservative agenda before 1984—if then. The President and his party have been mildly chastised, but they still have time to persuade the American people that the tentative mandate handed them in 1980 ought to be confirmed and extended.
If the political future is as open-ended as this analysis of the 1982 elections suggests, then the two years of political maneuvering we face before the 1984 elections should be of more than ordinary interest. After all, Reagan is no ordinary President. He is our most ideological chief executive since Franklin Roosevelt, and he intends as consequential a revision of our political economy as did FDR. Therefore Reagan’s fate, and that of the party he leads, holds significance beyond that which attaches to the success or failure of any President. Jimmy Carter’s coming and going caused barely a blip on the track of our political history. When he won, and when he lost, it made no real difference because he had no distinctive vision of where America was or ought to be going. His was a faceless and anonymous Presidency. Reagan’s is neither of those things, and his political fate will resonate through our political culture with an urgency that no American will be able to disregard.
Two books published within the past year—one written by Burton Yale Pines,1 the other by Kevin P. Phillips2—offer overlapping but contrasting visions of what is likely to occur over the near political future, and if neither of them presents an entirely persuasive case, they are both provocative in themselves as well as useful in providing avenues into analysis of our political prospects.
Burton pines’s Back to Basics is not, strictly speaking, involved with either Ronald Reagan or the Republican party. Although he concedes that the Reagan administration has “focused and harnessed politically” the traditionalist movement he describes, Pines argues that the movement is mainly “nonpolitical.” Indeed, Pines suggests at the end of his book that if Reagan fails to commit himself fully to the traditionalist agenda, the Democrats could capture that movement and “return to power for another long reign.” But it is difficult to take that argument seriously, or to suppose that Pines does so himself. The fate of the traditionalist movement and the fate of the Republican party cannot be separated, as Pines’s own analysis makes entirely clear. If the Democrats regain full political ascendancy, it will be because they have stifled the traditionalist movement, not taken it over.
Pines inadvertently makes the point himself when, just after asserting traditionalism’s non political nature, he confesses that it leaves “little room for liberalism.” But everyone, Pines surely included, knows that the Democratic party is America’s liberal party, and it makes no more sense to imagine the Democrats converting to conservative traditionalism than it does to conjure up a GOP suddenly enamored of Galbraithian economics or McGovernite politics. The partisan logic of Pines’s traditionalism cannot be avoided: traditionalism’s fortunes will rise and fall in rhythm with the fortunes of the Republican party. (Traditionalism could in theory find expression in third-party politics, but for reasons to be developed later, that seems highly unlikely.)
But what does Pines mean by traditionalism? He means, simply speaking, a revolt against dominant modernist liberal values in virtually every area of public and private life: economics, politics, education, family relations, religion, crime and punishment, and the intellectual world. He means defense of private enterprise; advocacy of growth over redistribution; support of the work ethic; suspicion of Keynesian emphasis on aggregate demand; enthusiasm for high academic standards; preservation of the nuclear family as a cultural norm (which implies, among other things, anti-feminism and repudiation of gay rights); defense of religious orthodoxy and opposition to secular humanism as philosophy and the social gospel as theology; emphasis in criminal justice on just punishment rather than rehabilitation; respect for structures of authority, discipline, and moral order (and accompanying scorn for privatist moral anarchy); belief in a firm foreign policy and a strong national defense, both rooted in patriotic affirmation of American purposes; recognition that a free society values equal opportunity over equal outcomes; rejection of utopian views of human nature and an overriding skepticism and fear of government plans to build, by rationalist enterprise, the good society.
This traditionalist movement (Pines prefers traditionalist to either rightist, which he thinks too political, or conservative, which he thinks too ideological) is reactionary in a literal sense. It is, in Pines’s view, a genuine grass-roots reaction against the excesses of post-60′s liberalism. The people behind the various discrete strands of the movement have been “pushed . . . to the brink” by a liberalism that has been “careening out of control” for the past fifteen years. These people may not yet constitute a national majority, Pines concludes, but their counterrevolution has already succeeded to the point that America’s postwar liberal dynasty has lost the “Mandate of Heaven.” The question for the immediate future is whether traditionalist forces will be able successfully to appropriate that mandate or whether we will continue in our present condition: one in which the mandate remains unclaimed and our politics wanders back and forth in uncertain ideological cross-currents.
Pines understands that the forces of liberalism, though recently on the defensive, still command considerable resources. Liberals lie wounded, but they are far from slain. Aside from the inertial force created by a generation of instinctive looking to Washington for solutions to all imaginable problems, liberalism can expect automatic support from government workers and others dependent on government programs for their livelihood; from intellectuals, for most of whom liberalism remains not so much an ideology as an assumption (part of the world taken for granted); from certain sectors of organized labor, especially the leadership; from mainstream church groups, for whom left-wing politics has become the approved expression of religious piety; and from the national media and other demi-intellectual elements of the New Class, for whom liberalism remains synonymous with intellectual and moral respectability.
Yet for all the forces arrayed against traditionalism, Pines is on balance optimistic about its prospects. And the reasons he points to for his guarded optimism undercut his argument that the traditionalist resurgence is essentially nonpolitical. Back to Basics begins, appropriately enough, with Ronald Reagan’s inauguration and with Pines wondering whether January 1981 marked simply the installation of a new President or the inauguration of a new era. Will this turn out to have been, he asks, a 1952, in which Dwight Eisenhower’s election brought the Republicans out of the political wilderness but left the nation’s course essentially unchanged, or a 1932, in which Franklin Roosevelt’s victory not only restored the Democrats to power after a long absence but also marked the beginning of a political revolution? Pines clearly leans toward the latter interpretation, and his reason for so doing is the “happy confluence . . . of a right man in a right place at a right time.” In other words, Reagan shows, from Pines’s perspective, a hopeful promise of riding the traditionalist (read conservative) resurgence to a national socio-political revival. The traditionalist movement may not have begun in politics, but it has become a highly political, and largely partisan, phenomenon.
If there is anything that clouds Pines’s hope for the future, it is the gap he sees between the two major sectors of the traditionalist movement. On the one side stand conservative and neoconservative intellectuals, corporate executives, and main line Republicans; on the other, the phalanx of ordinary citizens—social conservatives all—concerned over the moral future of the nation. The first group mainly worries about issues of economic policy, foreign affairs, and defense; the second, often—and too loosely—identified as the New Right, is characteristically preoccupied with such matters as education, family policy, abortion, and school prayer. In Pines’s view, these two groups seldom communicate, and when they do they are as likely as not to be at cross purposes. The two groups need each other, he suggests, and they ought to recognize that at bottom their causes are one. Above all they are—or should be—united in their common antipathy to liberal orthodoxy. Those elements of style that separate the two camps should be transcended for the sake of the higher traditionalist good.
Here Pines has raised a major issue, but as is too often true in this book, he does not give it fully adequate treatment. Back to Basics, encyclopedic in coverage, anecdotal in style, middlebrow in analysis, reads like an extended Time cover story (Pines was formerly a Time editor) and tends to uncritical evaluations and premature resolutions. It is just where the problems get interesting and difficult that Back to Basics leaves off. Pines is so eager to see his movement prosper that he is occasionally led to overlook or misconceive the divisions within it. For the gap between the two sectors of traditionalism may exist in somewhat different form, and be more difficult to bridge, than Pines indicates.
Pines himself senses this when, after laying out the differing policy emphases of the two groups, he concludes that those differences are not irreconcilable. In this, he is surely right. The preoccupation of his first group with issues of economics, foreign policy, and defense does not mean that the people in it are indifferent to social issues or that they hold markedly different views on such matters from those traditionalists for whom social issues are of primary importance. And the argument holds in reverse as well. The two groups have differing priorities but not incompatible sympathies.
What, then, remains to divide traditionalist forces? Style, Pines says. His first group “simply is uncomfortable with the direct, insistent, and studiedly unsophisticated manner of the social-issues crowd.” But this matter of style cuts deeper, and in different ways, than Pines suggests.
Indeed, Pines undermines his own cause when he identifies concern over social issues with the political style of the New Right. For a great many people—and not just those on the far Left—the New Right connotes fanaticism, intolerance, and mean-spiritedness, and those negative perceptions of political style have, in many cases, been extended to the substantive issues with which the New Right is associated. It is one of the great virtues of Pines’s book that it demonstrates that most of traditionalism’s causes are reasonable causes and most of the people behind those causes reasonable people. One need not be a crazy or a sectarian zealot to be unhappy with prevailing trends in our society: in the arts, family life, religion, or public morality. It does not require a true believer’s mentality to conclude that moral decay is far advanced in our common social life; it requires only a normally developed awareness of the way things are. Those who find left-wing values out of step with reality and subversive of social order are not necessarily inadequate people driven by the pressures of modernity to irrational protest; in most cases, they are simply people of common sense who have decided that not all change is progress and not all attachment to traditional values comes from obscurantist nostalgia.
Yet there are crazies, zealots, and fanatics on the Right, and there is no greater obstacle to the progress of a responsible conservatism than the perception, carefully cultivated by the Norman Lears of this world, that the Right is inhabited only by inadequate and unhinged personalities. Pines knows that this is not true, and he devotes much of his book to demonstrating it, but he subtly undercuts the case he is building by failing to make some necessary distinctions. He appears to be guided by the conservative equivalent of the popular-front mentality: for him there are no enemies on the Right. But even as liberals and social democrats within the popular front damaged their own credibility by failing to dissociate themselves from the Stalinists in their midst, so will conservatives wreck their own cause if they do not distinguish themselves from the know-nothing fringe.
Thus the question of “style” that divides conservatives goes beyond matters of proper political manners or relative degrees of intellectual sophistication, and it does not coincide with concern for one set of issues rather than another. It has to do at bottom with whether or not one approaches politics as an arena for conducting holy wars and arriving at final resolutions. And the way one sees the political world determines to a considerable extent the way one conducts oneself within it. Those for whom politics is not ultimate—and that surely has traditionally been one of the distinguishing marks of a conservative—should be wary of associating too closely with those who, in the political equivalent of war, will not take prisoners.
One of the benefits for conservatives in last November’s elections was the apparent failure of right-wing dogmatists to achieve their objectives. One wonders what Left-liberal fundraisers will do to raise money now that the New Right’s losses have deprived them of their endlessly-repeated appeal that the fascists are almost upon us. NCPAC and the Moral Majority may have raised large funds for the Right, but they have probably done even better for the Left. This is not to say that everyone connected with the New Right is a dangerous fanatic or that the hysterical charges of the Left concerning, say, the Moral Majority should be taken at face value But 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. Pines would have written a better book if he had helped his readers to understand that a conservative is not at all the same thing as a radical of the Right.
Perhaps because he underestimates the divisions within his traditionalist movement, Pines appears to overestimate—or at least assume too easily—its strength. For him it is clearly the wave of the future (if a conservative movement can ever appropriately be called that). That may be, but it is by no means a sure thing. For those conservatives tempted to excessive optimism, a reading of Kevin Phillips’s Post-Conservative America should provide a sobering antidote.
It would be difficult to imagine a more perverse book of political analysis than Post-Conservative America. Kevin Phillips is a conservative political analyst (and lifelong Republican) who first attracted widespread attention with his late-60′s prediction concerning The Emerging Republican Majority. There he announced the breakup of the New Deal Democratic coalition and the emergence of the Republican party as the nation’s new majority political vehicle. Watergate disrupted the second half of that prediction, of course, but just as it appeared close to fulfillment with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, Phillips began to develop second thoughts.
In this new book, written as the Reagan administration was settling into office in the spring and summer of 1981, Phillips indicated doubts as to the durability of Reagan’s conservative coalition. By the time a long preview of the book appeared in the May 13, 1982 issue of the New York Review of Books, Phillips was ready to announce that Reagan had failed and that the task of political analysis was now to “focus upon the ramifications and dimensions of that failure”—which he then proceeded to do in such a way as to gladden the hearts of the Left and bring dismay to any responsible conservative. After reading the book and the essay—especially the latter, which is more focused, stark, and foreboding—with their presentiments of radical reactionary upsurges and the emergence of “a species of European corporate statism,” the reader can only conclude that if this is conservatism and if it does have any prospects in America, it must be the duty of a decent citizen to do all in his power to crush it.
Phillips would presumably respond to the charge of perversity that it is the job of the political analyst to call events as he sees them, without regard either to his own ideological preferences or to which elements on the political spectrum his analysis provides aid and comfort. Yet the question recurs: what would lead a conservative Republican to write such a relentlessly negative and pessimistic account of a conservative Republican administration barely a few months after it had taken office, and what would make him present conservatism in general as such a reactionary and frightening force? (If Pines denies the presence of extremists on the Right, Phillips often seems to see no one else there at all.) The case would be different if Reagan had suffered a series of early disasters rather than enjoying the string of legislative victories he quickly put together, or if there were credible evidence, as there is not, of the itch for right-wing authoritarianism that Phillips sees looming in our near future. The suspicion arises that Phillips had made up his mind in advance of the evidence. (More on this below.) But no matter: whether he be temperamentally contrary, astutely prescient, or simply wrongheaded, Phillips has written what he has written, and his argument, whatever one may think of it, is worth close attention.
For Phillips, Reagan’s basic problem is that he has charge of a coalition that will not’ coalesce. One part of the coalition includes the traditional American conservatives—businessmen and ordinary rural, small-town, and suburban Republicans (this latter group virtually disappears from sight in the rest of the book). The other element in the coalition brings together the various components of the social, cultural, and religious Right—the so-called New Right—and this group, as Phillips describes it, is driven less by conservatism, as that term is normally understood, than by a cranky populism. This populist, anti-establishment Right is not Republican by habit (much of its political tradition is in FDR’s New Deal) and it is unlikely to find an enduring home in the GOP. Thus there is little prospect, Phillips concludes, that Reagan and the Republicans can put together a stable majority coalition.
Reagan compounded his problems, Phillips suggests, by misreading the nature of his mandate. Rather than attending to the concerns of the New Right groups that provided the essential swing vote in his victory, he focused on economic problems and did so in a way certain to antagonize his social-issue constituency. Reagan’s program of budget cuts, monetarist restraint, and reduction in marginal tax rates, widely regarded as unduly partial to the business community and to the rich (Phillips refers to the program as a kind of Coolidge nostalgia), held little attraction for the populist Right. That group was more interested in reductions in property taxes—the Proposition-13 phenomenon—than in progressive income-tax rates, and its anti-business instincts (the authentic populist touch) made it suspicious of monetarism and unsympathetic to Laffer curves and investment incentives.
Moreover, the populist Right’s generalized animus against big government did not preclude its expectation that the federal pork barrel would remain accessible to itself. While Reagan’s lower middle-class supporters wanted cuts in welfare, Phillips argues, they were not prepared for the widespread reductions in social programs that the administration’s policies called for. So it was that the President’s supply-side package came to be identified by many of the people who had voted for him as an elaborate giveaway to the rich, part of the traditional Republican bias toward the upper classes that had for so long insured the party’s minority status.
None of this would be fatal, Phillips suggests, if the program worked; if, that is, whatever its class and group biases, it provided overall economic growth. But that is not happening, and Phillips seems to think it cannot. He sees monetarist and supply-side policies as incompatible, and he suggests that the administration’s economic program has been in general too ambitious: Reagan’s new economics, he says, has gone “beyond conservatism to adventurism.”
The failure of supply-side prescriptions will lead, Phillips thinks, to renewed pressures for large-scale government intervention in the economy. What we are likely to see, he suggests, is some form of central planning under joint business-government auspices. This will be less liberal than corporatist, an adoption of what Phillips refers to as the John Connally option. The policy focus will be on reindustrialization and on economic growth and security, something along the lines of the first New Deal.
Such an “Economic Security State,” Phillips suggests, offers the best opportunity for big-business conservatives to strike a deal with the populist Right. New Right forces, with their primary focus on anti-elitist cultural and social issues, can live with any set of economic arrangements that provides stability and security. With no deep commitments to Adam Smith and the free market, and with their faith in customary economic models having been eroded by the stagflation of the 70′s, they could be quite amenable, Phillips concludes, to that “species of European corporate statism” he glimpses on the American horizon.
At this point things start to seem ominous to readers, and they only get worse as Phillips develops his portrait of the “Center extremism” and “Middle American radicalism” that characterize the volatile and angry elements of American social conservatism. The tone of Phillips’s analysis is suggested by the David Levine cartoon that accompanied his New York Review essay, which pictured Jesse Helms decked out in the regalia of the Ku Klux Klan, his robes splashily decorated with stars and stripes. Phillips cannot be held responsible for the cartoon, of course, but it in no way does violence to the spirit of what he wrote.
In the introduction to that article, Phillips raised the question whether, in the wake of Reagan’s political failure, Middle American conservatism, “a conservatism that in my view already possesses a strong radical component, [will] not metamorphose into a radicalism of an extreme sort.” Neither in the article nor in the book does Phillips ever give an unequivocal answer to that question, but he certainly gives his readers every reason to answer in the affirmative for themselves. (Phillips is a very careful writer. He paints endless possible scenarios without ever committing himself firmly to any of them. His book is filled with warnings and semi-predictions of the most awful sort, but he always appends the thought that it might not be so—though then again, he characteristically adds, it might well be. By the end of the book, Phillips has spun out so many possible futures that there is virtually no conceivable development that might arise over the next few years about which he could not point to some passage in his book and say, “I told you so.” Yet it does not require a perspicacious reader to get the drift of what Phillips thinks is really in store for us.)
The volatility and radicalism of the social conservatives stem, according to Phillips, from a “two-decade breakdown” in our society so deep that American public life today exists “along a socioeconomic San Andreas fault.” There was one point a decade ago at which things almost got put back together in a fashion likely to restore social order and harmony. But, Phillips says, just as Richard Nixon was about to crush George McGovern and in so doing raise his party up to majority status, Watergate occurred, and even though Nixon still won the election easily, the cloud of the scandal prevented him from carrying Republican congressional majorities with him and effecting the conversion of enough Southern Democrats to the GOP to guarantee a long-term Republican majority.
Following that “stillborn realignment,” American society continued the process of unravelling begun in the 60′s with racial conflict and Vietnam and dragging on through the 70′s in the series of crises and divisions that are by now a familiar litany: oil shortages, inflation, loss of economic dynamism, international humiliation, decline of faith in institutions, political, religious, and cultural splintering. It all adds up, Phillips argues, to the Balkanization of America, and in that Balkanization, the creation of durable governing coalitions becomes next to impossible. The liberals remain discredited from their misadventures in the 60′s, but the various forces on the Right that together might constitute a political majority cannot effectively be welded together. The two-party system, Phillips thinks, may be damaged beyond repair; he talks of a long-term process of political “dealignment.” More generally, he foresees an indefinite period of turmoil and convulsion as America, its days of greatness perhaps behind it, experiences the agonies of imperial retreat and decline.
It is in the midst of such conditions, Phillips suggests, that the politics of Center extremism is apt to flourish. It has all happened before, of course, and for those whose historical memories need prodding, Phillips provides helpful references to “the politics of cultural despair” as well as a series of analogies with European authoritarian and fascist uprisings and an entire chapter comparing America with Weimar Germany. (Phillips has a blithely grand and fanciful way with historical references: my favorite is his portrait of Nixon’s overthrow as a form of “republican regicide” and his subsequent comparison of that experience with regicides in England, France, Russia, Germany, and Spain. In each of these European cases, he warns us ominously, the final result was the emergence of an authoritarian regime.)
Phillips leaves no doubt that It Can Happen Here. The chapter on Weimar lays out the parallels: inflation, skepticism toward political institutions, cultural polarization, and nationalist frustration in the wake of the nation’s first defeat in war. The end of the chapter produces Phillips’s usual process of simultaneous denial and affirmation; at the finish, the conscientious reader can only conclude that America is very much like Weimar and nothing like it at all. Phillips does say clearly that we won’t produce a Hitler (which is a comfort), but a passage elsewhere concedes that we could, under certain conditions, accommodate “a peculiarly American authoritarianism—apple-pie authoritarianism, one might say.” Most of the elements that produced revolutionary conservatism in Europe are already present, in Phillips’s eyes, in America: nationalist pride (and frustration), ethnic and racial hostilities, anti-secularism (intensified here by religious fundamentalism), demands for return to an “old morality,” hostility to big business, suspicion of the existing party system.
Yet when one moves beyond the realm of Phillips’s fertile historical imagination and begins to look for hard evidence of the existence in America of the sort of revolutionary conservatism he has in mind, doubts begin to creep in. Indeed, Phillips’s own efforts to provide such evidence illustrate the tenuous nature of the relationship between his conjectures and American reality. Consider the concluding paragraphs of his chapter on “Middle American Radicalism.”
. . . we should note that American far-rightists, plumbing troubled depths, chalked up extraordinary and unprecedented percentages in a number of [recent] elections: Harold Covington, leader of the U.S. Nazi party, got over 40 percent of the vote in the May 1980 Republican primary for attorney general of North Carolina; Thomas Metzger, leader of the state Ku Klux Klan, won the Democratic nomination for Congress in the June primary in the suburban 43rd Congressional District of California; and former Nazi party member Gerald Carlson, who quit to found the National Christian Democratic Union, won the Republican primary in the suburban 15th District of Michigan, and then scored heavily in the general election as well. In both California and Michigan, party officials were afraid that the radical votes were cast deliberately, and that the more publicity Metzger and Carlson got, the more support they would get.
So to my mind, some of the elements necessary for American Center extremism were in place in the early 1980′s. Besides the increase in the activities of the (still negligible) American Nazis, a clear growth was apparent in the size of the Ku Klux Klan from 1978 to 1981—its membership doubled, and Klans became active on the high school and college levels. Analyses prepared by the Congressional Research Service showed a parallel escalation of violence directed against minorities. Sales of patriotic insignia soared. In California, state Attorney General George Deukmejian described the growth of paramilitary groups as “phenomenal,” and said that “California has become a haven for paramilitary groups and cults, most of which view themselves as separate societies above the laws of the state.” And in November 1980, as the country elected Ronald Reagan President, the Washington Post profiled “the latest and unlikeliest folk hero on American college campuses”—convicted Watergate burglar and Teutonophile G. Gordon Liddy, whose political autobiography, Will, draws heavily on fascist themes: patriotism, leadership, loyalty, will, force. Extolling these, Liddy drew standing ovations on campus after campus. In the meantime, American mass culture, epitomized by Hollywood and the movies, was turning to a kindred emphasis on force, will, power, irrationality, and mythology in a series of sword-and-sorcery movies, beginning with Star Wars in 1977 and then going on to Excalibur, Clash of the Titans, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Conan the Barbarian.
Read any way one cares to, this accumulation of political and cultural trivia adds up to nothing at all. (G Gordon Liddy and Star Wars?) So also with Phillips’s entire thesis that the quasi-fascists (American style) lurk just beyond the gates.
It is only fair to point out that when Phillips is not reaching beyond the evidence and historical plausibility, he has a number of intelligent, perceptive, and provocative things to say about American politics; had it been less ambitious, this would have been a better book. But at it is, it is curiously out of rhythm with political developments. For Phillips has jammed a 70′s thesis into an 80′s book.
There were moments during the 60′s and 70′s when America did seem to be coming apart, sometimes in violent convulsions, sometimes in a process of gradual disintegration (accompanied by fits of absence of mind on the part of the nation’s leaders). During those times, Phillips’s thesis of a Balkanized America and of a politics reflecting that condition made sense. But the election of 1980 changed things. Reagan’s victory and his party’s major gains in Congress may not have transformed American politics, but they did make a difference, and Phillips’s persistent and often tortured attempts to discount the significance of the Republican victory only diminish the argument of his book. What was true of Jimmy Carter’s America was not necessarily true of Ronald Reagan’s America.
Phillips came up with his Balkanization theme in the late 70′s, and one gets the impression that when he set out to write this book, he made the error of forcing the 1980 election results into the framework of his thesis rather than taking the election into account and modifying the thesis accordingly. It is difficult otherwise to account for the premature—even presumptuous—attempt to pronounce the failure of the Reagan experiment almost before it had begun. The Reagan administration may wind up in ultimate frustration, but Phillips’s Chicken-Little analysis simply comes too early in the game for us to believe it is anything but predetermined.
Phillips’s argument is constructed too narrowly out of impersonal historical forces and tendencies. He seems to forget that individuals are as much the makers of their history as they are its products. Ronald Reagan is, for better or worse, the most significant presence in American politics since Franklin Roosevelt (Richard Nixon possibly excepted), and if he succeeds in what he has set out to do, he will leave an imprint on his times comparable to the one FDR left on his. (Can one imagine a satisfactory analysis of the New Deal years that would not give prominent place to Roosevelt?) Even if Reagan fails, he will be remembered in a way that Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter will never be.
It is sometimes argued that Reagan lacks sufficient intellectual depth to have the impact that is here being suggested. But the best evidence on the point indicates that the President’s intellect is more lazy than deficient, and in any case, intellectual depth has never been a requirement of significance in political life. Character and personality carry far more weight, as they ought to. Reagan is certainly no deep thinker, but neither, again, was Roosevelt. It is easy to forget how frequent (and accurate) were the charges that FDR was intellectually frivolous and shallow. But in political terms, the relevant assessment of Roosevelt—and it could apply as well to Reagan—was the famous one offered by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “A second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.”
Reagan has already brought a good deal more coherence into American politics than it has experienced in recent years. He has, first of all, united the conservative movement and turned the Republican party into a vehicle of that movement. Much of Phillips’s analysis assumes the impossibility of effective political coalitions under current conditions. But one simply does not see the widespread signs of political fragmentation which that argument would suggest. Despite the claims that the business/mainline Republican and social-issue wings of conservatism cannot be held together, Reagan continues to command widespread loyalty and support in both camps, and more than once in the past, loyalty to a strong leader has been enough to keep warring factions in line. Besides, as already indicated, the distance between the two groups can easily be exaggerated: for the most part, economic conservatives and social conservatives have sympathy for each others’ concerns. As is also true of liberalism, conservatism is more of a piece than is often understood.
Phillips and Pines both indicate, in different ways, that the New Right social conservatives are not wedded to Reagan and the Republican party, and that they could go their own political way if either pays insufficient attention to their interests. But where can they go? They will never find a welcome among the Democrats (the moral guardians of the New Politics within the party would never allow it) and third-party adventures would take them nowhere. It is difficult to imagine circumstances under which a Jesse Helms would undertake an independent race against Reagan, and even if he did, it would almost certainly be a hopeless effort. Reagan is no more vulnerable to political assaults from the Right than FDR was from the Left, and a conservative third-party challenge to Reagan could expect the same measure of success as that achieved by the Union party against Roosevelt in 1936. As for the 20- to 30-percent chance that Phillips gives the New Right of taking over the Republican party in 1984, those odds look extraordinarily generous, at least if Reagan chooses to run again.
Even as Reagan has effectively united conservatives within the Republican party, he has also inadvertently brought together liberals and Democrats. Democrats are going out of their way to say nice things about each other, and that stems not only from their freedom from the responsibilities of power, but also from Reagan’s ability to concentrate their minds. By providing a distinct ideological focus to national politics, Reagan has acted to clarify political choices and provide politicians and voters with relatively unambiguous alternatives. That is high-risk politics, and it could be highly divisive if the electorate splits evenly, but it follows naturally from the circumstance of having a leader who seeks significant change from the customary ways of doing things. The Democrats may at present have no alternative program on which they can agree among themselves, but they are at least united in their opposition to the President’s ideology.
Overall, there seems to be more ideological unity within each of the major parties, and a clearer division between them, than is supposed to be the case in the American system. The traditional wisdom concerning our two major parties assumes that each will construct as large an umbrella as possible, tilting modestly toward one side or the other of the political spectrum but maintaining a broad and inclusive appeal. But liberals are noticeable by their absence from the GOP—whatever happened to the Ripon Society?—and a similar process in the opposite direction may be seen developing among the Democrats. The general process is somewhat obscured at present because of the widely-perceived rejection by voters of Left-liberal prescriptions. But even if the political Center has drifted to the Right and many Democrats currently avoid too close an identification with the liberal label, the dynamics of the Reagan Presidency will likely result in voters being offered relatively unequivocal choices.
That will provide a delicate problem for the neoconservative intellectuals who already occupy an uncertain position within the Reagan coalition. Just how significant the neoconservatives have been to the conservative revival is a matter of considerable debate. Pines refers to them as being “enormously influential,” but Phillips’s assessment is more ambiguous. He does concede their importance as legitimizers of conservative ideas. Until some fifteen years ago, liberals dealt with conservative thought mainly by ignoring both the ideas and the people who put them forward. But the neoconservatives, most of whom had turned toward the Right only after achieving prominence and respectability while resident on the Left, could not so easily be treated as if they did not exist. As people of intellectual importance according to liberal standards, they could not entirely be written off when they reacted against the directions liberalism took in the 60′s and beyond. Thus they made their presence felt and gave conservative ideas a currency normally denied them in the intellectual community. Recognizing that contribution, Phillips nonetheless suggests that the neoconservatives will probably exercise diminishing influence over the course of the 80′s.
That may be, but a considerable number of neoconservatives have already found places within or on the fringes of the Reagan administration—more of them, one suspects, than would have expected to find themselves in such company a few years ago. Most neoconservatives originally saw themselves as voices of moderation within the liberal community, and few were comfortable with being associated with the Right (which is why they resisted the neoconservative label). They were not Republican by heritage, they had little natural sympathy for the business community, and they certainly did not identify with the New Right.
Yet the course their political journeyings took is not really surprising. Neoconservatism was born in a rejection of New Left/New Politics radicalism, and that original impetus naturally drew neoconservatives toward the Right. For most, their early hopes of making a difference within the Democratic party came to little, since those who establish the guidelines for intellectual and moral respectability within the party tend to consider neoconservatism an exercise either in bad faith or in loss of nerve. Some neoconservatives have maintained an uneasy political existence in a sort of limbo outside either party, but others have drifted, with varying degrees of uneasiness, into at least a quasi-alliance with the Reagan administration. The irony of their situation is that the more influence they attain with the Republicans, the less attention they are paid by their fellow intellectuals, most of whom continue to regard the term “conservative intellectual” as an oxymoron. (Neoconservatives have on occasion been accused of careerist opportunism; only someone ignorant of the mores of the intellectual community could make such a charge.)
The most significant problem Reagan and his party face has nothing to do with ideology: it is, of course, the state of the economy. Phillips’s charge that Reagan paid too little attention to social issues when he took office ignores the reality that he had no choice. Economic problems were so great, and voter concerns over them so overriding, that the President had to focus his energies there. The entire fate of his administration was hostage to his handling of the economy.
That remains the case today. The public simply will not give enthusiastic support in any area to a President who cannot restore some semblance of stability and growth to the economy. He need not solve all the problems, but he must get the indices moving in the right direction.
As noted, the economy is not, directly speaking, an ideological problem. Voters will applaud the supply-side program if it works and reject it if it does not; they are, on this issue, entirely pragmatic. Yet the condition of the economy carries ideological implications. As long as unemployment levels and the number of people below the poverty line continue to increase, the Republicans will remain vulnerable at their weakest point: the traditional suspicion, still lingering from the great Depression and compounded by the administration’s tax and spending policies, that they are the party of privilege and lack genuine concern for the situation of the ordinary American. Reagan can explain the need for budget cuts and investment incentives as compellingly as is in him, but until the economy starts to revive, he will be unable to erase the image of Republican heartlessness that not even his transparently decent personality can contend against. Reagan believes, with John Kennedy, that a rising tide lifts all boats, but if the tide does not soon begin to rise, he will be sunk. Everything else in Reagan’s program—from defense policy to social concerns—depends in considerable part on restoration of the economy. With that, he can get much of what he wants elsewhere; without it, he is likely to get very little.
It must always be remembered, of course, that politics is not a game in which one contends against oneself, even if some politicians and parties do have a habit of inflicting considerable self-damage. The economy aside, much of what happens to the Republicans will depend on what the Democrats do. If they have genuinely learned how much they hurt themselves during the 60′s and 70′s by dabbling in the New Politics, they could provide a formidable opposition. They are, after all, still the majority party. A positive Democratic program, similar to the one suggested by Penn Kemble in these pages last October (“A New Direction for the Democrats?”), and propounded by a candidate who understands that the party must transcend, in Phillips’s nice phrase, “the culture and philosophy of Manhattan, Harvard, and Beverly Hills,” could give Reagan or any other Republican a difficult run in 1984 and beyond. And indeed, Senator Edward Kennedy’s decision not to seek the Democratic nomination makes it more likely than it had been earlier that the party will move in that direction.
Yet one should never overestimate the Democrats’ susceptibility to good sense. There are still a number of liberals within the party—those, roughly, who share Kennedy’s view that “we do not have to call ourselves neoliberals, or cozy up to neoconservatives”—who prefer defeat in the cause of virtue to victory achieved through compromise. And if that New Politics wing of the party gets its way with the candidate and platform, the Republicans could get back in even burdened with a half-crippled economy. (Prior to Kennedy’s announcement, Phillips, who otherwise argued that no party was likely ever again to be able to put together an enduring majority coalition, thought that the Republicans would have one last shot at it if Kennedy were the Democratic nominee in 1984. The Republicans can only hope that a Kennedy surrogate will emerge among the Democrats to take up the banner of unelectable self-righteousness.)
That possibility aside, and taking into account only general factors and those matters over which the Republicans have direct control, their prospects for the short and middle term can be viewed as reasonably good—assuming always at least some improvement in the economy. The basic geopolitical trends in the country lean in their direction. If, loosely speaking, the Republicans are the party of the Sun Belt and the Democrats of the Frost Belt, that works to the Republicans’ advantage. (Phillips makes the interesting point that if Richard Nixon had been running for President in 1980, he could have won by carrying the same states he did while losing in 1960.) On issues, it is dangerous to generalize, but it could be argued that the Republicans, for all their blind spots and all their historical burdens, have shown over the past fifteen years that they understand better than do the Democrats that this is a middle-class country. They must keep a sharp rein on the New Right militants, who, if unchecked, could do the GOP as much damage as the New Left earlier did the Democrats. But most Middle Americans are neither bigots nor fanatics, and Burton Pines’s somewhat idealized portrait of them is closer to the truth than the dark one sketched by Kevin Phillips.
Finally, the Republicans have, in President Reagan, the most effective political leader of recent times. Yet with all due credit to the President’s formidable skills, he and his conservative movement owe much of their political success to their opponents’ excesses over the past two decades, as Pines’s analysis suggests. A politics originating in reaction to ideological ultra-ism always risks ideological extremism of its own. Ronald Reagan is a deeply persuaded conservative, and no one could reasonably expect him to become something other than what he is. He has won being what he is. But governing is the art of the achievable. If Reagan can keep his ideological instincts as his servant and not his master—if, that is, he can govern remembering that he leads a country first, a party second, and only then a political movement—he could become the most successful American President in half a century.
1 Back to Basics: The Traditionalist Movement That is Sweeping Grass-Roots America, Morrow, 348 pp., $13.50.
2 Post-Conservative America: People, Politics, and Ideology in a Time of Crisis, Random House, 261 pp., $14.50.