alien & sedition.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
  Republican Futures Past: 1983

In November 1982, during a time of recession and 10 percent unemployment, American voters punished President Ronald Reagan and the Republican party, expanding the Democrats' majority in the House of Representatives by 27 seats.

The following January, as the new Congress took its seats, Commentary Magazine published an essay by James Nuechterlein titled "The Republican Future" [pp. 17-25]. Responding to conservative disappointment, Nuechterlein argued that the results constituted "no realignment, no repudiation" - only a "gentle rebuke." Still, there was no denying the fact that "the Democrats remain the majority party in America."

A quarter-century later, we're accustomed to remembering the 1980 election as the 'Reagan Revolution.' But in the wake of the '82 midterms, Nuechterlein suggested that Reagan had originally earned only a "tentative mandate" - one that Republicans should endeavor to renew despite their midterm defeat. Nuechterlein is clear about the stakes involved:
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. [...]

[Reagan's] political fate will resonate through our political culture with an urgency that no American will be able to disregard.
The starting point for Nuechterlein's effort to divine that fate is his review of a pair of books published shortly before the midterms. The first, by a Heritage Foundation analyst and former Time Magazine writer named Burton Yale Pines, forecast the emergence of a "traditionalist" movement that would, Pines predicted, transform American culture as much as its politics (click here for a New York Times review of the same book). The second appears to have represented an interesting moment in the evolution of Kevin Phillips, the Nixon strategist who has since become a vehement critic of the right.

By "traditionalism," Nuechterlein tells us, Pines meant:
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 ... 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... and an overriding skepticism and fear of government plans to build, by rationalist enterprise, the good society.
The mass evangelical re-entry into electoral politics had only begun recently, during the Carter years, so we might not be surprised that it apparently doesn't quite occur to Pines or Nuechterlein to give this phenomenon the label we know it by today: the Christian Right.

"Fusionism" is another term that neither author uses, even though it is the very concept that frames each author's concerns about the prospects for the future of this new traditionalism. Nuechterlein cites the divide between traditionalists on the one hand, and "conservative and neoconservative intellectuals, corporate executives, and mainline Republicans" on the other. "In Pines's view," we're told, "these two groups seldom communicate." History, of course, tells us that they would learn to communicate quite well before very long.

Still, Nuechterlein is not quite ready to jump in with both feet. While he concedes that the left has unfairly maligned honest conservatives, he points out that
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 ... that the Right is inhabited only by inadequate and unhinged personalities.
He criticizes Pines for the latter's "popular-front mentality" - the idea that "there are no enemies on the right." Conservatives will ruin themselves, says Nuechterlein, "if they do not distinguish themselves from the know-nothing fringe." One hardly need point out the irony of the fact that "no enemies on the right" was the concept behind the "11th Commandment" devised to protect Ronald Reagan himself. For the time being, at any rate, Nuechterlein takes comfort in the "apparent failure of right-wing dogmatists to achieve their objectives" in the '82 elections - especially given how organizations like the Moral Majority had inspired liberal fundraising efforts. The message he wants to reiterate is that "a conservative is not at all the same thing as a radical of the right." Twenty-five years later, unfortunately, that message is not so clear.

In Post-Conservative America, on the other hand, Kevin Phillips appears to have predicted a descent into extremism of a somewhat different sort: "radical reactionary upsurges and the emergence of 'a species of European corporate statism.'" Nuechterlein feels compelled to refute Phillips's thesis, which does indeed come across as overly pessimistic - but which is grounded in an otherwise astute analysis of the dilemma with which conservatives would ultimately be faced. Phillips, it seems, argues that Reagan's coalition of economic conservatives, old-line Republicans, and the social right, cannot hold. Ultimately, Phillips says, social conservatives simply aren't on board with the Reaganite dream of remaking America's political economy. Nuechterlein summarizes:
Reagan's program of budget cuts, monetarist restraint, and reduction in marginal tax rates ... 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 ... made it suspicious of monetarism. [...]

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 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.
Phillips's pessimism lies in how he predicts this contradiction will resolve itself: with Balkanization, radicalization, and "revolutionary conservatism" demanding massive but illiberal government intervention in the economy, leading even to joint government-business central planning. Thus the European-style corporatism he fears, bearing the possibility of authoritarian politics along with it. What Phillips refers to is, essentially, a variety of fascism.

Nuechterlein derides this apocalyptic vision, arguing that there is no reason to believe that the right will disintegrate into radicalism on account of tensions between economic and social conservatives. Defending Reagan against charges of intellectual inadequacy, Nuechterlein says that
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.
And anyway, if social conservatives dislike the president's economic policies, there's no other place for them to go - certainly they won't turn to the Democrats, and any third party would be a waste of their time. Ronald Reagan, according to Nuechterlein, would remain firmly at the head of the conservative coalition. And there was no reason to believe that the project would fail:
The Reagan administration may wind up in ultimate frustration, but Phillips's Chicken-Little analysis simply comes to early in the game for us to believe it is anything but predetermined.
Looking back, certain things do in fact seem to have been predetermined - not by Phillips's analysis, but by economic and political reality. Reagan achieved no consequential revision of American political economy - to echo Nuechterlein, the so-called Reagan Revolution ended in no realignment, no repudiation of the New Deal. As Michael Kinsley has described,
Federal government spending was a quarter higher in real terms when Reagan left office than when he entered. As a share of GDP, the federal government shrank from 22.2 percent to 21.2 percent—a whopping one percentage point. The federal civilian work force increased from 2.8 million to 3 million [even excluding Defense Department employees]. [...]

And taxes? Federal tax collections rose about a fifth in real terms under Reagan. As a share of GDP, they declined from 19.6 percent to 18.3 percent.
For context, Kinsley compares this record to that of President Clinton, under whom the federal civilian workforce shrank, and federal spending grew at half the rate in real terms - and was reduced as a portion of GDP by twice as much - as it had under Reagan. Even during Reagan's term, monetarism was abandoned and Laffer Curves were quietly put away. All in all, Reagan managed some modest cuts in non-defense discretionary spending, but made no dent on entitlements and ultimately racked up massive deficits which forced his successors to raise marginal tax rates, thus wiping out the one Reagan legacy that conservatives have been able to cite as a great triumph of supply-side economics. And, of course, the rise in marginal tax rates under Clinton only fueled the economy.

One might cite Clinton's deceleration of government spending as evidence for a Reagan Revolution that remade the American political context and forced even Democrats to join the small-government bandwagon. Conservatives have often referred to Clinton's pronouncement in his 1996 State of the Union address that "the era of big government is over." This, we are told, is evidence of Reagan's triumph. But the argument mistakes rhetoric for fact (and Clinton's next sentence was a reaffirmation of the need for activist government: "But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.") And the explosion of government spending under the conservative George W. Bush essentially puts the myth of the Reagan Revolution to bed.

The irony of all this is that the failure of the Reagan Revolution turned out to be a good thing for the Republican party. By avoiding significant budget cuts, Reagan was able to retain the support of the social conservatives who have come to constitute the party's base - and who, contra Pines, were always much more interested in culture than in political economy. Thus the right was not forced to split, and Phillips's dark hypothesis was never tested. The conservative movement may have been saved by its own hypocrisy.

True supply-siders are well represented in the ranks of conservative intellectuals and donors. But they have never had a significant electoral base of their own. The latest Pew Political Typology, for instance, finds that so-called "Enterprisers," who are "strongly pro-business" and "oppose social welfare," constitute only 11 percent of registered voters - dramatically underscoring the extent to which Republican fortunes lie in the hands of "pro-government conservatives." As Phillips and others have pointed out, the populist embrace of right-wing economics extends only as far as the occasional tax revolt will carry it. The Friedmanites have developed various coping strategies in response. They've over-idealized the Reagan years. They've blamed Democrats for blocking the conservative economic program. They've searched for silver linings. But over the past six years, they've had little cover for the failure to advance their agenda - and the result has been a series of noisy complaints about their own party - and especially Bush. In fact, the current administration has, with its "compassionate conservatism," sought a way out of the dilemma facing economic conservatives. But that's for the next installment.

The Republican future of 1983 was fraught with promise and peril. Ultimately it neither realized its promise nor succumbed to the peril. The fusionist conservative movement did not in fact achieve a revolution under Reagan, but neither did it disintegrate into fascism. Rather it has perpetuated itself by a kind of mythmaking: overstating both its successes (as exemplified by Reagan and Newt Gingrich) and its supposed powerlessness under Clinton and the first President Bush. The movement has held more political power than it will admit, but it has accomplished less than it would like to believe. Yet this dual myth has benefited conservatives: it has held the movement together and given it impetus, providing a vision of what conservatives might achieve and a hunger to overcome the political obstacles standing in the way.

But in the era of total conservative government, this sustaining myth ran aground. The obstacles to implementation of the conservative agenda were no longer just political, but structural; conservatives, with only feeble Democratic opposition, and the guiding star of the Reaganite ideology showing the way, were forced to navigate waters far more difficult than they had imagined. This was the dilemma that would confront President George W. Bush, and it was in many ways a legacy of a president who proved, in the end, to be a great actor - but not much of a revolutionary.

Cross-posted at Progressive Historians.

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