The Right in the Rearview Mirror

Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater by William F. Buckley Jr., Basic Books, 208 pages, $25.95
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein, Scribner, 881 pages, $37.50
The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 by Sean Wilentz HarperCollins, 564 pages, $27.95
Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s edited by Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, Harvard University Press, 384 pages, $49.95


The left first ignored the American right, then imitated it, and then became obsessed with it.

That pattern is likely to reproduce itself in reverse, even if conservatives are currently stuck in the first stage: They are so persuaded that ours is a "center-right country," to use a phrase Karl Rove is fond of, that they cannot take the center-left seriously. Just as a legion of liberals initially dismissed the resurrection of Richard Nixon and the rise of Ronald Reagan as aberrations, so many conservatives are now dismissing the parlous state of their creed and the Obama phenomenon as an accident of George W. Bush's presidency.

The parallels between 1980 and 2008 are extraordinary. Liberals once asked: How could Jimmy Carter's presidency be held against us, since Carter was no liberal? Conservatives are asking why George W. Bush, whom they now see as a big-government big-spender, should be held against conservatism. Our friends on the right are running away from Bush, a man they once embraced slavishly as the architect of a new conservative era, with embarrassing eagerness.

And if some progressives once thought there was nothing wrong with their movement that a purer doctrine wouldn't cure, so now are many on the right proclaiming that their movement will be saved only by true, full-throated and unembarrassed conservatism.

But facts, as Reagan once said, are stubborn things, and conservatives would do well to consult some of the fine work now being done by progressive historians on the conservative era that is in its final days. If liberals once dismissed the rising right as a bunch of insecure crackpots animated by "status anxiety" and other psychological ills, the right's undeniable successes have forced them to take a more sober and, occasionally, a more respectful view. Serious studies of the right are now an academic-growth industry. One of the great virtues of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, the helpful collection of essays edited by Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, is that it gathers in one place many of the best young left-of-center historians working on the rise of the right. Conservatives will take issue with many of the book's conclusions; they cannot say any longer, as they once could, that the liberal academy doesn't take conservatism seriously.

In his excellent The Age of Reagan, Sean Wilentz certainly takes his subject seriously. Above all, Wilentz grasps the relevance of Reagan's past as a hopeful New Dealer to his success as a conservative politician, when he harnessed Rooseveltian optimism to a creed devoted to undoing FDR's legacy. In the process, Reagan transformed conservatism itself, at least temporarily.

Reagan, Wilentz writes, "had the optimistic temperament and rhetorical skills to turn right-wing Republicanism into Reaganism--no longer a crabby rejection of modern life or a dour Calvin Coolidge?]like promotion of big business (much as Reagan admired Coolidge), but an outgoing, energizing, even sensuous ideal of a bountiful, limitless American future open to everyone who was determined to succeed." You might say that he promised change we could believe in to a country that wanted another rendezvous with destiny.

Wilentz shrewdly notes that Reagan-style conservatism "had nothing to do with veneration of tradition or a fixed hierarchy." Rather, "Reaganism represented a New Deal in American conservatism, aligning, as never before in the nation's history, pro-business economics and regression on civil rights with democratic, even populist, forward-looking political appeals."

Understanding Reagan in this way allows Wilentz to see that the Gipper should not be parodied as an ignorant troglodyte, as liberals are often tempted to do, nor turned into a model conservative ideologue, the Reagan preferred by his right-wing hagiographers. Like all successful politicians, Reagan was complicated, and Wilentz has the mix right when he describes Reaganism as "its own distinctive blend of dogma, pragmatism, and, above all, mythology." The Reagan years, he says, "defy easy definition as ‘conservative,' ‘hawkish' or ‘pro-business,' let alone ‘Republican.'"

Indeed, to the extent that Reagan is still seen as a success in foreign affairs, it may have to do not just with his military buildup and condemnation of the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire but also with his willingness to recognize the opening created by the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. Wilentz reminds us that Reagan's later role as a peacenik enraged many of his conservative supporters. Howard Phillips, one of the stalwarts of the right, denounced him as "a useful idiot for Kremlin propaganda," and The Washington Times likened Reagan to Neville Chamberlain.

When the Prospect's Harold Meyerson wrote the words "I miss Ronald Reagan" a few years ago apropos our current president, he may have been joking, but his point was also dead serious. Compared with the current president, Reagan really was a moderate and a pragmatist. Yes, Reagan did usher in a period of reactionary economic policy with steep tax cuts for the wealthy and his decision to break the air traffic controllers' union, speeding the decline of labor's power. But Reagan could adjust to circumstances. In the face of rising deficits, he was willing to undo some of his tax policy by signing the largest tax increase up to that point in history. Here again was a form of flexibility antithetical to the spirit of the current administration.

Throughout the 2008 primaries, conservatives spoke often about conjuring Reagan's old spirit and finding "the next Reagan." This was oddly out of sync with Reagan himself, who was always a person of his times, whether as a New Dealer or as a conservative. Reagan had no desire to be the next Taft, the next Coolidge, or even the next Goldwater (who, after all, lost). Moreover, to the extent that the Bush Interlude has created nostalgia for the age of Reagan, it is not because Bush was insufficiently conservative but because he lacked Reagan's willingness to cast aside dogma if dogma didn't deliver the goods. Reagan was perfectly willing to abandon flawed policies without looking back--most notably when he cut and ran from Lebanon after 241 Marines were killed by terrorists.

And Reagan, unlike Bush, had a real feel for Democrats and what made them tick. That was true even for liberal Democrats. To the extent that Bush could relate to Democrats at all, it was to Texas' Tory Democrats, most of whom eventually became Republicans. Reagan loved the country club, but he knew the union hall. Bush claimed to be the regular guy who could relate to workers, unionized and otherwise. But for all the brush he cut on his ranch, it was the world of the country club and the boardroom that shaped him, determined his closest political friendships, and defined his domestic policies. Faux populism carried Bush only so far.

Yet if Reagan's stabs at populism felt more authentic, he was no populist. Indeed, except in comparison with Bush, he was no moderate. One of his genuine achievements was to pull the country well to the right, which meant shifting the political center far from where it had been in, say, 1964.

That shift created a real problem for devotees of centrism. During the 1980s, finding the center meant chasing a moving target. As the center moved right, so did the centrists. For moderates and progressives alike, it was a losing game. The conservatives, who struggled for a quarter-century to achieve this outcome, knew what losing felt like.


"I am the founder of a conservative journal which took its place, very soon after its nativity, at the center of conservative political analysis in America," writes William F. Buckley Jr. in Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater, an elegant little memoir published this year shortly after Buckley's death. "Insights and formulations about which we felt strongly were being ignored by others on the political scene--at times suppressed, at times awkwardly misrepresented."

It's difficult now to remember how marginal conservative thought was in the 1950s, when Buckley founded National Review. It was a magazine, Buckley proudly declared, that "stands athwart history, yelling Stop." The journal, he wrote in its opening editorial published on November 19, 1955, "is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation."

Liberals saw the 1950s as sleepy, self-satisfied, and conformist. Buckley saw the 1950s as conformist, too. "There never was an age of conformity quite like this one, or a camaraderie quite like the Liberals'," Buckley writes in that opening essay. And then he goes after one of the era's most prominent liberal journalists, its premier liberal historian, and liberalism's poet laureate: "Drop a little itching powder in Jimmy Wechsler's bath and before he has scratched himself for the third time, Arthur Schlesinger will have denounced you in a dozen books and speeches, Archibald MacLeish will have written ten heroic cantos about our age of terror, Harper's will have published them, and everyone in sight will have been nominated for a Freedom Award."

He concludes: "Conservatives in this country--at least those who have not made their peace with the New Deal, and there is a serious question of whether there are others--are non-licensed nonconformists."

Classic Buckley panache, but broadly true: The founding of National Review was the single most important event in the rise of a new conservatism. It wasn't just a magazine. It was also coalition, a think tank, and a twice-monthly seminar. It brought together the most important strands of right-wing thinking, libertarian, traditionalist, and anti-communist. It consciously excluded certain distasteful elements of the right, notably the anti-Semites, although its views on racial matters were, well, reactionary.

From the beginning, the new conservatism was an unstable creed. Buckley and his chief ideologist, Frank Meyer, struggled with some brilliance to create coherence out of the disparate strands. The result was "fusionism," which brought together Burkean traditionalists who revered religion and old habits and didn't necessarily care much for economic markets, and libertarians, who loved the market, prized freedom over tradition, and did not necessarily care much about God. But Buckley-style libertarians were a special kind, abandoning the non-interventionism (or isolationism) of the 1930s in favor of an aggressive anti-communism. Anti-communism was a primary requirement for baptism and confirmation in the Buckley congregation--an apt enough metaphor since a conservative Catholicism was an important influence on the National Review fellowship. You could occasionally smell the incense on the magazine's pages.

The best one-line description of fusionism's aspirations came from Donald Devine, a political scientist who served in the Reagan administration. Fusionism, he said, meant "utilizing libertarian means in a conservative society for traditionalist ends." If American society was fundamentally conservative, liberty was sufficient to allow Americans to be their traditionalist selves. But what if American society really weren't conservative? If conservatives were actually nonconformists, maybe the whole society was infected with liberalism. That is a problem for fusionism to this day.

Historically, fusionism has worked as long as the right had a clear and powerful enemy (communism, a dominant New Deal, or Great Society liberalism), or if it had a leader who could somehow manage to keep all the camps happy. Reagan was the one leader who actually pulled this off. George W. Bush managed this feat for awhile, embodying within himself his party's two key coalition groups, the evangelical conservatives and the big-business/country-club Republicans, a version of the traditionalist-libertarian alliance. Fusionism also worked well in opposition: All could put aside their differences to fight back against the liberal enemy, the Pinks or the Reds.

But whenever things went badly, the whole rickety structure would fly apart. The theologians and theoreticians of the different strands of conservatism really did mistrust each other, and still do. The libertarians see the traditionalists as fussy busybodies. The traditionalists see the libertarians as decadent libertines. Absent Buckley's charm and magnetism, conservatism and the National Review might well have collapsed somewhere around 1959.

Running a government on conservative principles is hard-going, since some conservatives mistrust the very enterprise of governing. Conservatives who use government spending to prime the machine (whether through the Bush prescription-drug plan or Tom DeLay's love of earmarks) are seen as turncoats, once the payoffs stop working. The disdain for big government starts looking phony when the foreign-policy hawks insist that largesse for defense contractors, security firms, and the military establishment is, somehow, not real spending. Only social welfare expenditures count as real spending.

The end days of both the first and second Bush administrations are revealing. George H.W. Bush was never seen as an authentic conservative, coming as he did from the heart of the old Republican establishment. The first President Bush's father, Sen. Prescott Bush, described himself in the mid-1950s, at the time of National Review's founding, as a devotee of "progressive moderation" or "moderate progressivism," not exactly the creed Buckley was pushing. Prescott Bush was also a strong supporter of Dwight Eisenhower, whom Buckley loathed. The right remembered these things and associated them with the elder Bush. And so, when he behaved exactly as a responsible, old-fashioned Republican would and agreed to raise taxes to cut soaring deficits, the first President Bush was denounced by the conservatives as a traitor. The very sin for which Reagan received full absolution over and over--he raised taxes four times between 1982 and 1984--was unforgivable when Bush committed it once.

Except for his largely rhetorical commitment to "compassionate conservatism," George W. Bush bore no traces of his grandfather's approach to politics and was determined never, ever to make his father's mistake of getting crosswise with the conservative movement. Yet when his administration started sinking, conservatives did not talk about the war that destroyed his presidency or the tax cuts that ballooned the deficit. They talked about the prescription-drug plan, his No Child Left Behind education bill, and "spending"--in the abstract, of course, and not for the war. Being a Bush always means having to say you're sorry to conservatives.

Of course, when Barry Goldwater ran in 1964, conservatives were just coming into their own and did not yet exert that kind of ideological power. The most fascinating revelation of Buckley's account is the extent to which National Review's loyalists were largely frozen out of the Goldwater operation. Buckley uses Flying High to settle a few scores and to pay homage to his brother-in-law Brent Bozell, the ghostwriter of Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative (1960). As Buckley notes, that book "acquired near scriptural authority" among conservatives, although it's not clear that Goldwater ever read the manuscript that carried his name.

Goldwater's campaign was historically significant for two reasons. It marked the capture of the Republican apparatus by the conservative movement, thus setting off the slow purge of the many liberals who still called themselves Republican. And it started Ronald Reagan's political career.

Like Barack Obama (and also William Jennings Bryan), Reagan owed his breakthrough to a single speech. "A Time for Choosing" was presented to a nationwide television audience shortly before Goldwater went down to a disastrous--if, for the right, also glorious--defeat. In one of those fascinating contingencies of history, Buckley describes how the Reagan speech was almost never broadcast because of objections from some of Goldwater's lieutenants. No speech, no Reagan era.

Reagan's oration was red meat for what we now call "the base." ("Last February 19 at the University of Minnesota, Norman Thomas, six-time candidate for President on the Socialist Party ticket, said, ‘If Barry Goldwater became President, he would stop the advance of socialism in the United States.' I think that's exactly what he will do.") The address did Goldwater absolutely no good on Election Day. But it allowed conservatives around the nation to identify whom they'd turn to after Goldwater's inevitable electoral demise. Liberalism was at high tide and the Great Society was roaring forward, but conservatives had the hero to lead them when the time was right.


There was another political figure at least as important as Goldwater to the rise of the right and Reagan. Richard Nixon laid the foundations of what became the Reagan electoral coalition in 1968. He also contributed to the discrediting of government that allowed Reagan's core appeal--"government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem"--to seize the popular imagination. The great paradox is that the fall of Nixon, which initially pushed the country toward the Democrats, actually accelerated the country's turn to the right. Alienation bred by the Vietnam War, rising crime, an exhaustion with the reformist zeal of the Johnson era, and a backlash on race enabled Nixon to win. The further alienation bred by Watergate and then the perceived failure of the centrist administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter gave Bill Buckley's non-licensed nonconformists their chance. For this reason, the politically savvy Wilentz is absolutely right to date the beginning of the age of Reagan to Nixon's fall in 1974.

An objective take on Nixon is almost as hard to find as a dispassionate analysis of the Red Sox by a Yankees fan, or vice versa. Rick Perlstein's Nixonland does not in any way claim to be objective. It is a huge romp of a book--an entertaining narrative that is also a collection of mini-essays on important, interesting, and weird moments that made the '60s the '60s.

If you want to understand why even many people on the left, let alone blue-collar conservatives and future neoconservative intellectuals, became estranged from the incoherent pretensions of the counterculture, consider this proclamation on a poster at a 1967 "Human Be-In" at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park that Perlstein records: "A new concept of human relations being developed within the youthful underground must emerge, become conscious, and be shared so that a revolution of form can be filled with a Renaissance of compassion, awareness, and love in the Revelation of the unity of all mankind."

If you go in for this sort of thing, a better option is Jack Kerouac's original version from On The Road in which he asserts that "the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'" There is a certain Kerouac style of spontaneous composition in Perlstein's narrative that produces an occasional carelessness--to pick just one example, blue-collar Congressman Paul A. Fino was a Republican from the Bronx, not Queens--but also gives the book an infectious energy.

I'm probably a trifle softer on Nixon than Perlstein is, partly for a reason he analyzes so well. If there is a theme running through this book, it is Nixon as the outcast square facing off against the privileged beautiful people. Perlstein describes Nixon as "a serial collector of resentments" and takes us back to his decision to form a counter-fraternity at Whittier College called "The Orthogonians" to face off against "a circle of swells who called themselves the Franklins." The Franklins "were well-rounded, graceful, moved smoothly, talked slickly." The Orthogonians got their name from a word that meant "at right angles," and Nixon said the term meant that to belong to the group meant being "upright" and a "straight-shooter."

No politician was thus better prepared to take on the resentments in the 1960s against "limousine liberals" and the privileged rebellious young. Some might see Perlstein as pushing his metaphor a bit too hard, but he is definitely onto something important. The 2008 Republican campaign against Barack Obama's supposed elitism might be seen as an effort to turn him into a Cambridge?]Hyde Park "Franklin."

Nixon brilliantly played on the divisions in the Republican Party bred by the rise of the Goldwater movement and the decline of the liberal Republicans. Left for dead after his failed run for governor of California in 1962, Nixon became the go-between in a torn party. The moderates and liberals thought he was more one of them than the crazies who rallied to Goldwater, and the Goldwaterites--remembering the Nixon of the Hiss case and his condemnations of Dean Acheson's "College of Cowardly Communist Containment"--had far more faith in him than in the Romneys, the Scrantons, and the Rockefellers.

Nixon also knew which way the wind was blowing. He had, in many ways, been a liberal on civil rights. But he knew that many blue-collar voters in the North and whites in the South were angry about the new civil-rights laws and the liberals who promoted them. It was Nixon who pioneered the now clichéd Republican stratagem of painting all liberals as elitists (those Franklins) and conservatives as the vanguard of the (white) working class.

If Perlstein's book is long, it's because Nixon is a baffling and contradictory subject. In some ways, he was the last liberal Republican, signing all sorts of progressive domestic legislation put before him by a Democratic Congress, mostly because he cared far more about foreign policy than about anything at home. Yet his key strategic moves--the Southern strategy, the appeal to "peripheral urban ethnics" in the North, the attacks on "McGovernism," the counterculture, and "acid, amnesty and abortion"--set the parameters for the strategy of the rising right. He surrounded himself with a gifted, politically diverse crew that allowed him to move toward the center when it suited him and to veer right when such tacking was helpful. But the resentments that Perlstein underscores ultimately got the better of Nixon, and Watergate was the result. Nixon, like the rising right, was engaged in an intricate balancing act. That he fell off the wire was in some ways tragic, in many ways just, and, in retrospect, inevitable.


Liberals and progressives are forever berating themselves for their contradictions, their inability to stand together against the right-wing threat, their perfectionism in policy, and their lack of militancy. Yet in fairness to the right, the center-left is hardly made up of a bunch of patsies, and the second Bush administration has created a hardened, angry, determined liberal opposition.

In so many ways, the rise of Barack Obama parallels the rise of Reagan. It's not just the Big Speech. If the Reagan right built on the philosophical innovations of Buckley and the organizational innovations of the new right in the 1970s described in Rightward Bound, so Obama became the beneficiary of a new progressivism. He took the online creativity of Howard Dean to a new level, much as Reagan mainstreamed Goldwater's mass movement.

If the right developed a broad set of ideas based on smaller government, tax cuts for the wealthy, and deregulation during its time in opposition, the liberal left slowly found consensus during its years in the wilderness around a new agenda of moderately more active government in the areas of health care, retirement security, business regulation, and mobility. And if the right successfully finessed some of its divisions (the big philosophical divide between libertarians and traditionalists and the big policy divide between deficit hawks and tax cutters), so has the center-left eased the tensions between new and old Democrats and tried (with mixed success) to paper over differences on trade and the purposes of American foreign policy.

Like Reagan, Obama has the great advantage of running for president when the other side has presided over stunning failures. Bush's failures are more serious than Carter's were, but the basic pattern is the same. Not only a government but also a party, an ideology, and a way of doing business stand discredited to a large majority of Americans. The conservative project itself is exhausted. If Carter's failures and difficulties created Reaganism's opening, so Bush's blunders have opened up new possibilities.

Oddly, Obama's efforts also parallel those of the man who campaigned so hard against him this spring. Since 1980, Bill Clinton was the one and only Democrat to reach the White House (even if Al Gore would have gotten there absent ballot snafus in Florida and the intervention of conservative Supreme Court justices). Wilentz is friendly to Clinton but honest about his complexity. "Clinton was not one thing or another, but many things at the same time, and somehow they all hung together. … He came across as a bundle of contradictions, eternally tangled up in nuance." Yet Wilentz argues that this allowed Clinton to create "an evolving, sometimes improvised, pragmatic politics, informed by liberal values and worked out on the job."

For Obama, the task is to absorb the lessons Clinton taught and then to transcend them. Clinton, after all, was operating in an environment heavily influenced by conservative ideas and assumptions--smack in the middle of Wilentz's age of Reagan. The politics of the Third Way was its own balancing act. Clinton tried to understand the reasons for liberal failure, accommodate the right when necessary, and push forward when possible. Absent the scandal that dominates the memory of Clinton's critics, he might have made even more progress.

No politician has a clean slate, but Obama has advantages that Clinton lacked: a center-left that is bolder, a Democratic Party united by George W. Bush, a deep consensus for change. He also faces problems in foreign affairs and the economy that are more serious than Clinton faced, and those problems also create opportunities for Obama to break through the resistance to change.

Above all, Obama does not have to worry as Clinton did about an energetic, self-confident, and assertive conservative movement. Bill Buckley's death coincided with the decline of an alliance he did so much to build. Indeed, at the time of his death, Buckley harbored great unhappiness about the war in Iraq. If Bush's stewardship of the country was flawed, so, too, was his proprietorship of the House that Buckley and Reagan Built. That is why progressives have their opening, and it is why hope, a virtue that Reagan briefly incarnated, is now Obama's greatest asset

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