What Makes the Wingers Flap
December 1, 2008
The problem for conservatives is that they alienate people in direct proportion to how stridently conservative they sound and act. That’s because the conservative movement itself is motivated not by ideas but by emotions, and remarkably ugly ones at that. Neal Gabler explains:
The creation myth of modern conservatism usually begins with Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who was the party’s presidential standard-bearer in 1964 and who, even though he lost in one of the biggest landslides in American electoral history, nevertheless wrested the party from its Eastern establishment wing. Then, Richard Nixon co-opted conservatism, talking like a conservative while governing like a moderate, and drawing the opprobrium of true believers. But Ronald Reagan embraced it wholeheartedly, becoming the patron saint of conservatism and making it the dominant ideology in the country. George W. Bush picked up Reagan’s fallen standard and “conservatized” government even more thoroughly than Reagan had, cheering conservatives until his presidency came crashing down around him. That’s how the story goes.
But there is another rendition of the story of modern conservatism, one that doesn’t begin with Goldwater and doesn’t celebrate his libertarian orientation. It is a less heroic story, and one that may go a much longer way toward really explaining the Republican Party’s past electoral fortunes and its future. In this tale, the real father of modern Republicanism is Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the line doesn’t run from Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush; it runs from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin. It centralizes what one might call the McCarthy gene, something deep in the DNA of the Republican Party that determines how Republicans run for office, and because it is genetic, it isn’t likely to be expunged any time soon.
The basic problem with the Goldwater tale is that it focuses on ideology and movement building, which few voters have ever really cared about, while the McCarthy tale focuses on electoral strategy, which is where Republicans have excelled.
And the core of that strategy is, in essence, riling up the rubes. And while the rubes are frothing about gays coming to steal their kids and Mexicans coming to steal their jobs, the Republicans and their backers get to max out the credit cards and stick the rest of the country with the tab.
During the long nightmare of the Bush Error, I — like other liberals — would try to argue with wingers on their basis of what were supposed to be conservative ideas. If you’re for smaller government, we asked, why are you supporting such reckless expansion of government power? If you’re for caution and restraint, we asked, why are supporting a war based on childishly obvious lies and deception? If you’re for fiscal prudence, why are you happy to see politically connected contractors gorge on public funds in the name of “privatization”? If you’re for family values, why do you support government policies that make it harder for parents to raise and educate their children?
The answers were always an incoherent swirl of anger, submerged racism, attacks on straw men, class resentment and three-card-monte debate tricks. The two most publicly palatable conservatives, William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan, used their immense personal charm to mask the underlying ugliness of their ideas. Take away those facades and what do you get?
You get wingers like this claiming Buckley “kicked out the McCarthy’s [sic] heirs, The John Birch Society, from the conservative movement,” leaving us with the question of whether this winger is truly unaware of the fact that Buckley was a lifelong McCarthy apologist who co-authored the fawning McCarthy and His Enemies and, late in life, a fictionalized biography called The Redhunter. or has simply chosen to follow Sarah Palin’s example and lie about what everybody knows.
You get magic thinking in which the president who allowed the World Trade Center to be destroyed, allowed its mastermind to remain at liberty and played the subsequent “war on terror” strictly for political gain is some kind of national security hero, while the election of Barack Obama means all kinds of bad things are guaranteed to happen.
You get ideological hackery in which the fact that a single accident can bring a family to the brink of ruin is a cause for celebration (and anti-liberal hatemongering on the side).
The problem for conservatives is that Bush was everything they want in a president. And now they have to live with the afermath.