Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Conservatism's Mid-Century Crisis

Recently, it has become de riguer to argue that Barry Goldwater's political loss in the 1964 presidential election was a tactical loss but a strategic victory. Rick Perlstein argues in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Political Consensus that while Goldwater lose the election by a sizable margin he ultimately settled on themes and policies that would resonate for years to come for Americans of all stripes, setting the stage for conservative hegemony in the last thirty years or so of the twentieth century. So, what was the general situation leading up to the start of the eventual conservative renaissance in 1968?

In Jonathan Schoenwald's masterful book on sixties conservatism, A Time for Choosing, he argues that there were three main kinds of conservatives in America that emerged out of the post-war consensus. There were traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-communists. Traditionalists favored a normative family structure, remained committed to religious observance, and argued for the maintenance and preservation of institutions. They were mostly conservatives in the traditional Edmund Burke sense of supporting the conservation of long lasting institutions following the premise that what had been made and stood the test of time had some intrinsic value. Libertarians were persuaded by works like Barry Goldwater's ghost-authored The Conscience of the Conservative that the new key value for conservatives was small government, which could liberate the genius of the individual from the yoke of government control while at the same time evading the ills of centralized government on clear display in the Soviet Union and other sites. The third type of conservative, the anti-communist, bought into a more negative ethos of opposition to communism as opposed to a positive believe in the power of either time-tested institutions or the resilient individual.

At the same time that these conservative elements emerged, America was in the midst of real economic advancement. The middle class was rapidly expanding. Substantial government investments in infrastructure and the military were providing the basis for extensive growth. Post-war GI Bill grads found higher education attainable. Yet these heady economic successes were not mirrored in the realm of politics for conservatives, who found themselves on the outside looking in. Joseph McCarthy's virulent anti-communism had made red baiting into a counter-productive political tactic. Robert Welch's accusation in 1959 that Republican Dwight Eisenhower was a closet socialist further stigmatized the public brand of anti-communism. Of course, Welch's accusation represented a natural outcome for conservatism that public policy consensus had painted into an increasingly small corner. The post-war and New Deal consensus took for granted the necessity of a large and bureaucratic state apparatus. Dwight Eisenhower, after all, built the interstate highway system. A Cold War consensus made foreign policy a difficult policy arena to create separation between the now-dominant Democratic party and Republicans.

Further complicating matters was that economic advancement itself posed a subtle threat to traditional institutions. Real economic progress meant less leisure time for some, but more capital to use during said leisure time. As Lisbeth Cohen writes in A Consumer's Republic, modes of conspicuous consumption came to function as a certain kind of citizenship. But with less free time for some, consumption itself had to substitute for other kinds of community life and vibrancy. And consumption and commerce are poor substitutes, lacking the shared and non-ephemeral characteristics of shared public life.

It was not as if all of this happened in a vacuum, of course. A number of conservatives saw the threat of the liberal consensus. Richard Weaver wrote in 1947 in Ideas Have Consequences that the rise of a technocratic political/state apparatus threatened to elide humanity, replacing the human "generalist" who could speak to multiple areas of interest. Weaver feared the sovereignty of the individual posed the greatest threat to traditional institutions; where the individual was lionized above all else, America would become a community of individuals defined solely by their differential existence and not by any sense of shared issues and common interests. Others, like William F. Buckley, sought to organize a conservative intellectual bulwark to counteract what they saw as the progressive technocratic consensus embodied by the emergence of the statist consensus and reinforced by thinkers like Richard Hofstader. to this end, Buckley funded National Review and kickstarted the Young Americans for Freedom. Other thinkers, like Russell Kirk, contributed to Buckley's publication, seeking to constitute a kind of conservative vanguard that could produce arguments opposed to the rising liberal consensus.

However, there was no evidence that shared interests would cause a natural coalescence between these disparate conservative elements, nor that well-crafted essays in magazines would be able to paper over these divides. Libertarianism posed a potentially fatal threat to traditional conservatism because its ideological commitment to individual choice threatened to open up institutions to attack by way of individual achievement and critique. At the same time, traditional institutions operate to hamper and constrain individual choice. Rabid anti-communists who could not go so far as to call the hero of D-Day a red were lost as well, confident that their interests were not represented by the mass public but unsure why.

By the early sixties conservatism faced a crisis. There was on the one hand a critical mass of intellectuals who had thrown their weight and money behind developing a conservative "ideas industry" to act as a counterweight to the liberal consensus. There were also emergent constituencies hungry to identify against the liberal consensus, even as they in many cases benefited from the largesse of government spending. However, no one had yet succeeded in translating the work of the conservative intelligentsia into a set of digestible political idioms, in no small part due to the apparently constitutive rather than contingent ideological divides within the set of potential conservative voters.

Barry Goldwater emerged as the presidential candidate who would attempt to make the first public case for new conservatism. Goldwater, a robust libertarian and anti-communist, was famous for ignoring the needs of his audience in favor of going into partisan screeds against welfare cheats and communist subversives, according to rhetorician J.C. Hammerback. However, Goldwater's seeming extremism was the exact opposite of what conservatives needed in 1964. After all, conservatives were already anxious about their marginal political status. And, many conservatives (and Americans generally) were wary of radicalism in any form, left or right. This was due not only to the persistent political labeling of socialist and totalitarian governments as "radical" and "extremist" but also because the intensity of European fascism did not float far from the American imaginary. Goldwater's comments, like "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice" uttered at the Cow Palace in San Francisco during the 1964 Republican nominating convention, did not so much work as effective utilitarian arguments as they did serve to accentuate conservative worries about appearing to be political outsiders instead of legitimate democratic interlocutors.

To united the disparate groups of conservatives, one could not simply hammer home ideological points about welfare cheats and communist plots, as Goldwater was inclined to do. His hard hits against government programs alienated many voters who were consciously benefiting from them. And his hardcore anti-communism raised the specter of at least foolish red baiting or at worst, resurgent McCarthyism.In short, when your political party is struggling to maintain political relevance, making political arguments that call out the obvious problems with the existing consensus not only fail to gain traction because folks are already disposed towards that consensus because of institutional and identitarian inertia, but it also reminds the constituency that might be friendly to your argument that they are in fact marginalized, and produces a distance between them and your claims based on their perceived radicalism.

In short, early sixties conservatives were certain they existed and had a cause but they were somewhat unsure of what that cause might be, or at least, how they might articulate it in a way that could build a coalition rather than further exacerbate tensions between the factions. In an earlier post on Ronald Reagan I in part addressed how conservatives navigated themselves out of this pickle, and I will hopefully return to that point at more length.

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