Sunday, November 30, 2008

In today's Los Angeles Times, Neal Gabler makes a convincing argument that the real father of modern Republicanism is Sen. Joe McCarthy:
The creation myth of modern conservatism usually begins with Barry Goldwater...who, even though he lost in one of the biggest landslides in American electoral history, nevertheless wrested the party from its Eastern establishment wing...Richard Nixon co-opted conservatism, talking like a conservative while governing like a moderate...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...That's how the story goes.

But there is another rendition of the story of modern conservatism....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...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....

When he burst on the national scene in 1950 waving his list of alleged communists who had supposedly infiltrated Harry Truman's State Department, conservatism was as bland, temperate and feckless as its primary congressional proponent, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, known fondly as "Mister Conservative"....

McCarthy was another thing entirely. What he lacked in ideology -- and he was no ideologue at all -- he made up for in aggression. Establishment Republicans...were disdainful of his tactics, but when those same conservatives saw the support he elicited from the grass-roots and the press attention he got, many of them were impressed. Taft...decided to encourage McCarthy, secretly, sealing a Faustian bargain that would change conservatism and the Republican Party. Henceforth, conservatism would be as much about electoral slash-and-burn as it would be about a policy agenda....

As historian Richard Hofstadter described it in his famous essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," McCarthyism is a way to build support by playing on the anxieties of Americans, actively convincing them of danger and conspiracy even where these don't exist.
Gabler is right: the Republican Party is held together not by any real ideological coherence (it is a collection of incompatible constituencies with radically different interests) but by a shared devotion to aggression. Or, as innumerable bloggers have put it, to Pissing Off the Liberals.

In (rightly) putting McCarthy ahead of Goldwater, though, Gabler neglects the malignant role Goldwaterite ideology did play in this story: its inherent unsuitability to governing led directly to the nihilism of modern conservatism.

As I said back in 1994, when you put government in the hands of people who believe it has no useful function, they don't make the state wither away; they simply use it to benefit themselves and their campaign contributors. People who don't think the government's power should be used for the common good will instead seek power for its own sake. People who seek power for its own sake will do so by any means necessary.

As long as there was a tension between electoral strategy and practical behavior--between the desire to win and the desire to govern, between (for example) the Southern Strategy and Nixon's more benign domestic policy, or between Willie Horton and Bush Sr.'s multi-lateral foreign policy--the Republican Party remained tethered, however tenuously, to reality. What removed any ideological counterweight to McCarthyist aggression, what allowed it to go spinning off on its own, was the abject failure of Goldwaterite ideology.

[Cross-posted at If I Ran the Zoo]

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