America through Euroweenie Eyes
This is the story of the rise to power, and future prospects, of the American New Right, i.e. the Christian/capitalist Right (as opposed to the anti-Christian/anti-capitalist European New Right); more narrowly, as manifested in the trajectory of the Bush dynasty; and more broadly, as it manifests America's peculiar civilization and national characteristics. I began reading it regretful that "America has failed to produce a xenophobic 'far Right' on anything like the same scale as Europe has" (p. 12). By the end, I was regretting that America has no secular and egalitarian Left. What the authors reveal about the "liberal" ~ "progressive" Left is largely inadvertent, because they share too many of its prejudices; but they have just enough detachment to make their book worth reading.
The New Right was primarily the brainchild of Bill Buckley, whose National Review, founded 1955, formed a nucleus of anti-Communist, traditionalist (primarily Catholic), and libertarian intellectuals into a self-styled "conservative" movement. In the authors' account, the mass base for it was prepared by the the shift of America's center of gravity from the liberal Northeast towards the more dynamic West and the restive white South. These three forces coalesced in the candidacy of Barry Goldwater, the very model of a modern conservative, a Westerner, and an opponent of the Civil Rights Act (on limited-government, not white-supremacy, grounds; but the conflation of the two was old hat in the "states'-rights" crowd). What they overlook is the generational dimension, which transcended both ideological and regional differences.
The three-pronged assault on mid-century America was first launched in 1964. On the Right,
Goldwater's troops...quietly took over the party's moribund machinery in the South and created machinery where none had previously existed in the West, flooding the Republican convention in San Francisco with Goldwater delegates. "What in God's name has happened to the Republican Party?" Henry Cabot Lodge [of Massachusetts] exclaimed, leafing through the list of delegates: "I hardly know any of these people." [p. 55]
Goldwater's radical "conservatism" was decisively rejected -- except in his native Arizona, and five states of the Deep South, which had been solidly Democratic for as long as the Democratic Party had existed; harbingers of things to come.
What was so wrong with America? The economy was booming. The government was solving social problems. Communism was being held at bay abroad. This faith was shaken in the next few years as the country began to spin out of control. The other handmaiden of modern conservatism was the man who thrashed Barry Goldwater at the polls -- Lyndon Johnson. [p. 62]
In the Center, the triumphant mid-century liberals just couldn't leave well enough alone. The Civil Rights Act, whatever its own merits, presaged the "Great Society" that, whatever its intentions, ended up
dividing the country and shattering the Roosevelt coalition. When Johnson left the White House in January 1969, he handed over the key to the Republicans. Western conservatives -- some admittedly more conservative and Western than others -- held the White House for twenty of the next twenty-four years. [pp. 63-64]
After the well-meaning but counter-productive efforts to impose racial equality from above, the most immediately divisive issue was our escalating yet indecisive involvement in Vietnam.
For many activists, the Vietnam War was the greatest evil of the day -- and the counterculture was a natural accompaniment to a life of protest. For many rank-and-file Democrats, however, the anti-war movement was an abomination....The antiwar protesters, most of whom would be given student deferments rather than being sent to fight, were even more unpopular than the war itself. Far too many of them seemed [sic] not just hostile to this or that American policy, but to America in general. [p. 66]
In 1968, the Democrats fractured, with die-hard segregationist George Wallace reaching out to working-class whites in the North. When Nixon took over, his historical role was to provide damage control. His Administration was not conservative, in the new, ideological sense.
Hard-liners moaned that Henry Kissinger practiced a brand of realpolitik that drained foreign policy of any moral content. What most of the world interpreted as smooth operating -- disengaging America from Vietnam and striking a deal with China -- they saw as appeasement. [p. 70]
On the Left, the Democrats proceeded to launched their own equivalent to the Goldwater candidacy, which proved a Godsend to the Nixon Administration.
The 1972 Democratic convention that nominated George McGovern was a world apart from the one that sent Johnson into battle against Goldwater in 1964. Reformism had mutated into radicalism, with something of [sic] an anti-American bent. Four-fifths of the delegates in 1972 had never attended a Democratic convention before. The place was full of postadolescents [emphasis added]....All the while, the country was falling apart. [p. 67]
The Great Society's most significant and damaging long-term consequence, however, was mass immigration, which the authors implicitly consider an act of God, not of policy. This did not become an issue until 20 years or so after Nixon wiped up the floor with McGovern, only to spend his cut-short second term trying to provide damage control for the misdeeds of his own underlings.
The New Right continued to gather strength from the general revulsion against the Great Society and the New Left, which finally made it credible and viable, being the only halfway-coherent alternative. The authors pay due attention to the "neoconservatives" (i.e., old-school liberals), "social conservatives" and Evangelical Protestants, Southern whites and the California tax revolt, as well as an inordinate and invidious account of the conservative paymasters (in contrast, they only make passing allusions to how the Democrats get their money).
This was the movement, led by Ronald Reagan, that swept into government and turned the country around.
Reagan's record was not quite as perfect as conservative nostalgia suggests....Some conservatives grumbled, but who on the Right could really doubt that Reagan's big successes -- winning the Cold War, revitalizing the country's economy and restoring America's sense of pride [Reagan did little, if anything, for morality, but did wonders for morale] -- outweighed such failures? [pp. 92-93]
The election of Bush I was essentially nothing more nor less than a referendum on the Reagan legacy, and Dukakis was as hapless as Mondale or any of the Republican sacrificial lambs that had gone up against FDR. For two years he coasted on the strength of that legacy, and then he blew it.
Here is how the authors summarize the Bush I Administration:
A decent pragmatist shepherded the Atlantic Alliance through the traumatic [sic!] end of the Cold War [well, for the Commies it was traumatic, I guess], punished Saddam Hussein by mobilizing the United Nations [then left him alone to crush rebellions we'd encouraged, and thumb his nose at us for the next 12 years], moderated the excesses [?] of the Reagan era and laid the groundwork for the long Clinton boom by making unpopular decisions [i.e., breaking his election-year promise of "No New Taxes"]. That view is the one that most Americans and Europeans now share, and Bush's approval ratings have risen steadily since he left office. But it is decidedly not the view of the conservative movement.
With the son's installation in the White House in 2001, it was easy to forget how much the father was loathed by the Right. [p. 96]
Pat Buchanan's challenge in the '92 primaries, however, did not merely chastise Bush for his betrayal of doctrinaire conservatism, but raised new issues. He became the first Republican in generations to return to the party's protectionist roots. "With the Cold War over, he argued, America needed to keep out of imperial entanglements" (p. 102). He also sounded the alarm over mass immigration, which earns him the authors' snide dismissal.
The 1992 election was one of a kind: the choice between a weak incumbent, an ostensibly moderate Democrat, and a non-ideological spoiler only goes to show how thoroughly the Reagan Revolution had changed the world, and the most noteworthy accomplishment of Clinton's first administration was the Republican takeover of Congress, which reined in the short-lived Democratic resurgence.
(Incidentally, the '92 election was the first time I ever paid any serious attention, and even actually voted. Jimmy Carter being the first President I remember, my own preference was not for the Republican, but against the party of Jimmy Carter -- and so it would be until 2004. Buchanan's message certainly resonated with me, but I could not take the pundit seriously as a candidate. In retrospect, I prefer Perot, if only because he ran against the deficit and NAFTA; but he was just too freakish. Richard Brookhiser had him pegged as "an angry old toddler.")
The immigration issue did not die: it was taken up by another champion, this time from the moderate wing of the GOP. Pete Wilson, Governor of California, was unreliable on issues dear to the heart of the Yahweh/Mammon Axis; but coming up from behind in a tough race for reelection,
he fought an unyielding rearguard action that focused on two issues -- capital punishment and immigration. In particular, Wilson, who had long grumbled about the amount of money the state had to spend on on illegal immigrants, supported Proposition 187, which sought to suspend welfare payments to illegal aliens. The result was short-term success: white voters passed Proposition 187 (though it fell foul of the [liberal] courts) and reelected Wilson comfortably in 1994. One in four Latinos [sic] actually supported the proposition. [Of course, that means three out of four Mexicans were in favor of giving public handouts to people who shouldn't even be in the country in the first place.] But the long-term cost to the Republicans of being identified with Proposition 187 in a state as multicultural as California proved immense. Two years later, Bob Dole managed to win only 6 percent of the Latino [sic] vote, compared with Ronald Reagan's 45 percent in 1984. [p. 124]
Let us pause in amazement at the tortured logic of this argument. First of all, Wilson won, despite opposition from the vast majority of Mexicans; and in doing so, proved two things: (1) immigration control is a winning issue, and (2) "Latinos" are Mexicans first and Americans last -- if Americans they are at all, in any meaningful sense. Ronald Reagan's vaunted 45% was a landslide loss in the same year that he won a landslide victory among the population at large.
If Hispanic voters are such a dubious constituency for the GOP, the only intelligent strategy is to stop even more of them from getting into our country and our voting booths. But of course, the authors have the interests of neither the GOP nor the USA at heart. Unfortunately the Republican establishment has been stupid enough to follow the lead of Bush II, who (the authors approvingly note) was busy "wooing Latinos, not vilifying them." The result? "George Bush won 43 percent of the Latino vote in 2000" (p. 240). In other words, for all his sucking up to foreigners, 57% of them still voted against him.
The most telling detail the authors inadvertently offer, without comment, is this quote:
"We were being called lazy and loafers," says Gregory Martinez, a Los Angeles-based writer. "There is no more antiwelfare voter than a Mexican immigrant."
Which they demonstrated -- how? By identifying themselves with, and voting in favor of, foreign parasites.
And, as even the authors admit:
This is not to say that Latinos are like to move en masse into the Republican fold. The flow of poor South American immigrants into low-paying jobs will always provide a flow of recruits into the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, the likelihood is that the Latino vote will split increasingly along class lines, as the more established Latinos follow the pattern of Italian-Americans [whose influx was restricted, by Republicans, in 1925]. There is no reason why the Republicans cannot make inroads into the Latinos provided they don't shoot themselves in the foot by supporting restrictive policies on immigration [even though continued immigration "will always provide a flow of recruits into the Democratic Party"]. Bush, who won one in three [woo-hoo!] Latino votes in 2000 (compared with Bob Dole's one in five in 1996), is certainly aware of this. [p. 241]
Why are Republicans stupid enough to swallow this bullshit? In a word: "values," which is to say, culture, which is to say, ethnicity.
Something even more important than ideology holds the Right together: culture....The Right Nation relies on rallying like-minded people around culturally charged questions of one sort or another. These questions sometimes seem opaque and sometimes downright silly but they all boil down to one bigger question: "Are you one of us, or one of them?" [p. 196]
For all his pandering to Mexicans, Bush II came across to the Republicans' conservative white core as "one of us," as opposed to "one of them," i.e. liberal whites. The authors credit this mostly to his personal mannerisms -- precisely the sort of thing that grates on the Left Nation's nerves, for equal and opposite reasons -- and particularly his old-fashioned religiosity.
For one reason or another, the central battleground of the Culture War is abortion. This is fitting, since the issue is purely symbolic. It suffices for those on either side to grandstand for their respective core constituencies and vilify each other, puffed up with moralistic outrage that is simply fraudulent: like it or not, abortion is here to stay, so for all practical purposes it's a non-issue. The main consequence is that it divides Americans in the face of the Mexican invasion. Wilson "supported abortion choice"; the Bushes were "antiabortion." To champion the civil rights of fetuses, the Republicans tacitly chose to give their country away.
So much for the division within white America. What about black America? Again, the issue is purely symbolic, i.e. fraudulent -- in this case, because black Americans are so monolithically Democratic. The Democrats can take their support for granted, but (though one is tempted to paraphrase James Baker's perhaps apocryphal, but certainly incisive comment about the Jews: "Fuck them. They don't vote for us anyway") Republicans can't simply write them off:
The politics of race are particularly complicated ... probably less to do with winning black votes than holding on to moderate white votes....Respectable people fear the charge of racism just as keenly as they used to fear the charge of loose morals. This is a problem for a party with deep roots in the South. [pp. 262-263]
"Probably"? You think?
Despite George W. Bush's many concessions to multiculturalism ... the Republicans plainly have a problem with blacks. In 1960 a [whopping] third of the black electorate [woo-hoo!] voted for Richard Nixon. In 2000, scarcely one in ten of a much richer black population voted for Bush. [p. 271]
This gap is accentuated by the fact that basic Republican policies often carry, from a black point of view, at least [emphasis added], a racist edge....Meanwhile, the more the Republicans woo black voters the more fiercely the Democrats defend their patch, often accusing their rivals of racism. [p. 277]
As long as black America is stuck in a mental time-warp where white supremacy is still a live issue, this can never change. On the other hand, as the authors also note, "there are plenty of independent voters (of all colors) who moved to the suburbs to escape things rightly or wrongly associated with black America ... the reservoirs of goodwill toward black America are hardly limitless" (p. 262). It will be interesting to see what happens now that the balance of power has been tipped from black Americans to Hispanics (primarily Mexicans) as America's biggest minority.
This long diversion from the main narrative reflects the stalemate of the Culture War, which was abruptly transformed by 9/11 and its consequences. For those capable of seeing what was right in front of them, the terrorist attack on American soil showed that open borders are literally life-threatening. For the country at large, at least short-term, it called forth the will to strike back at our enemies abroad. The authors' analysis of this response is perhaps the most worthwhile part of the book.
In the decade after the fall of Communism (and hence the obsolescence of anti-Communism), the conservative movement had wavered between two alternatives: Pat Buchanan's "America First" and Bush I's "New World Order." The election of '92 put the Republicans in the opposition, relieving them of responsibility for America's role in the world. The Clinton Administration pursued a typical Democratic policy of intervening anywhere in the world that our national interest was clearly not at stake.
The authors' Introduction does not entirely neglect the third leg of the New Right stool: patriotism, particularly expressed in a unilateral approach to national security and in "militaristic nationalism." "But how can you trumpet a strong military and a vigorous foreign policy and then insist on small government?" they ask (p. 15), in their irritating, archly ingenuous manner. Gee, I wonder: how can you support a bloated welfare state and then emasculate the military?
Be that as it may, Bush II came into office with three factions jostling for influence on foreign policy:
"democratic imperialists" like the neocons; "doveish [sic] pragmatists" like Powell; and "assertive nationalists" like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, who agreed with the neocons about America's need to look after its own interests more aggressively but who had no patience with nation-building, spreading democracy and the like ... after September 11, the neocon message, for better or worse, struck a mighty chord with the rest of the Right Nation. A neoconservative foreign policy soon became a conservative one. [pp. 202-203]
It must be said at once that the "neoconservatives" referred to here are not exactly the same as those referred to previously.
The current generation of neocons is the intellectual (and in many cases the biological) progeny of the disillusioned Democrats who founded neoconservatism in the 1960s. But there are also big differences. Few of the younger neocons had any roots in the Democratic Party in the way that the first generation did....Rather than seeing themselves as half conservatives, like the first neocons, those of the current generation see themselves as hyperconservatives, insisting that their party should be driven by principle, not expediency. [p. 205]
However, the authors don't even begin to explain how "neoconservative" somehow came to be used interchangeably with "Straussian." For my part, I like the label "democratic imperialists," because it's unambiguous and precisely descriptive, getting right at the core of what those people are about, and what's wrong with them. As the authors elaborate:
America's neoconservative foreign policy was not so much so much a question of conversion, let alone hijacking. Rather, the views of one hitherto eccentric part of the coalition suddenly coincided with the movement as a whole....
As far as the Right Nation was concerned, only two things mattered. The first was that America was in danger....The second was that America was now engaged in another battle between good and evil....
Rather than reacting with alarm to Bush's new "neocon" policies of unilateralism and preemption, the footsoldiers were relieved that they had finally found a set of ideas they agreed with....But the second "transformative" part of the neocons' solution -- not just exercising American power but spreading its values -- was always going to be a tougher sell ... fairly soon after Saddam was toppled, the gap between "democratic imperialism" and "assertive nationalism" began to emerge again....
For the assertive nationalists, every American body bag and every dollar spent showed the danger of foreign entanglements. [pp. 209-219]
For this "assertive nationalist," the turning point was in January 2004, when Bush II set the "War on Terror" on a back-burner in favor of officially opening our borders to practically anyone who wants to get into the country: a big "fuck you" to all of us concerned about national security (let alone cohesion), and the very opposite of the kind of galvanizing response to crisis that brings on an epochal realignment.
The link between immigration-restriction and national security would perhaps be more obvious if here, as in Europe, most immigrants were Muslim. The authors barely touch on this aspect of the rise of the nativist "Far Right" there (pp. 349-350). They also observe, with no hint of irony, that "Europeans do not feel in al-Qaeda's sights to the same extent that Americans do; and many think they would be safer if their leaders did not confront radical Islam in the same way that America has done" (p. 391). But, like the appeasement of fascism in the 1930s, present appeasement of Islam only postpones the inevitable clash, so that it will have to be faced in more desperate circumstances.
As for us, we find ourselves still stuck what the authors aptly call "The Fifty-Fifty Nation," in the throes of the Culture War between the two great tribes of white America (while black America sulks in the Democratic corner and Hispanics grow ever more numerous and obtrusive). The authors conclude with the illustrative contrast between
the two people who, in other countries, would be the nation's prime minister and its leader of the opposition: Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker, and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader.
The two typify the political clash we have followed throughout this book....Revealing even more of the country's political differences are the districts these individuals represent....Hastert's [in suburban Illinois] is as resolutely middle class as it is cheerfully middle American....San Francisco, by contrast, looks more like an aristocratic society. The city is home to some of the wealthiest people in the country....Yet the city also hosts one of the biggest concentrations of homeless people [i.e., bums], with between 8,000 and 16,000 people, many of them drug-addicted or mentally ill, living in the streets. [pp. 374-377]
Surely, the ingenuously scandalized observer would think, it is only rational to ameliorate such a condition.
Yet the left-leaning city has defiantly resisted aping the heartless conservative tactics of Rudy Giuliani in New York City. Far from being shown zero tolerance, homeless people [i.e., bums] in San Francisco get a monthly stipend from the government and free food from religious organizations. A recent ballot initiative [i.e., democracy in action] suggesting that the homeless be given care rather than cash was struck down [by the same unelected, liberal judiciary that blocked Proposition 187] on a legal technicality. [p. 379]
Let us pause to note that Giuliani, aside from being a stalwart champion of public order, is somehow still a liberal -- and in particular, pro-abortion; which for him, as for Pete Wilson, foreclosed any Presidential aspirations.
Traditionally, America has addressed the problem of inequality through material abundance and opportunity, rather than social leveling.
Unsurprisingly, by most measures, America is the most unequal of the world's developed countries. One study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the gap between the top 10 percent and the bottom 10 percent in terms of income was bigger in America than in any other country....Interestingly, the reason America was so unequal by this measure was not because its poorest 10 percent were particularly badly off...; it was because America's richest tenth had far higher median incomes....Social mobility is higher in America than in other countries, with 50 percent to 80 percent of the people in America's bottom quintile pushing themselves out of that bracket within ten years. [pp. 307-308]
As we have seen most vividly in San Francisco, liberals' idea of helping the poor is to cultivate a permanent underclass.
Here is how the authors sum up the Left Nation on the eve of the 2004 election:
Many modern Democrats do not simply disagree with George W. Bush: they loathe everything about him from (as they see it) his Neanderthal views to his self-satisfied smirk.....So there is no doubt that there are plenty of liberals in America. There is equally no doubt that those liberals are desperate to get the Republicans out of power. But liberalism as a governing philosophy is dead. [p. 356]
Nowadays, American liberalism has fragmented into two remnants: a collection of single-issue pressure groups (the teachers' unions, abortion rights activists, etc.) and an inchoate leftist protest movement, furious about the Right Nation's advances. It is no longer a self-confident governing philosophy capable of rising above the self-interest of those pressure groups or the self-indulgence of the angry Left. [p. 383]
Early on, the authors prepared to argue "that the stage is set for a possible realignment of American politics, to make the Republicans the natural party of government in the same way that the Democrats once were....Another Bush victory victory would cement their lock on power" (pp. 22-23). Towards the end, they ask pointedly: "What if the Democrats win the presidency in 2004?" (p. 357) and answer themselves: it wouldn't really matter. As it turned out, of course, another Bush victory didn't make much difference either.
It seems safe to say that the GOP's midterm gains in 2002 and the narrow but decisive re-election of Bush II were largely a reaction to 9/11, and thus only a momentary blip in the overall pattern of the Fifty-Fifty Nation. Subsequently, of course, John McCain (AKA Bush III) and the GOP Congress collapsed ignominiously in '08 -- which only let in another ostensible moderate who, just as promptly if not as thoroughly as Clinton, handed Congress back to the Republicans.
It took the conservative movement only 16 years to recover from Goldwater's defeat, and thereafter consolidate its gains. After more than 46 years, liberalism has yet to recover from Johnson's victory.
© 2011 by Karl Jahn