No matter who prevails at the ballot box in November, John McCain or Barack Obama, the four-decade-long conservative counterrevolution is over.
Now that Hillary Clinton has conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, the primaries are over and the general election campaign for the White House has begun. On the Republican side, however, the general election campaign began months ago — and presumptive nominee John McCain has spent much of that time tacking toward the center. He praised multilateralism in a March 26 speech in Los Angeles and in general is trying to appear more like an Eisenhower Republican than a Reagan Republican. True, every four years all major-party presidential candidates race toward the center. But in the last decade, even during the seven-plus years of the Bush presidency, the center of American politics has moved considerably to the left. Whether Obama or McCain wins the White House, liberalism has already won the national debate about the future of the country.
For 40 years, the radical right tried to destroy the domestic and international order that American liberals created in the central decades of the 20th century. The people who are known today as “conservatives” are better described as “counterrevolutionaries.” The goal of Barry Goldwater and the intellectuals clustered around William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review was not a slightly more conservative version of the New Deal or the U.N. system. They were reactionary radicals who dreamed of a counterrevolution. They didn’t just want to stop the clock. They wanted to turn it back.
Three great accomplishments defined midcentury American liberalism: liberal internationalism, middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and liberal individualism in civil rights and the culture at large. For four decades, from 1968 to 2008, the counterrevolutionaries of the right waged war against the New Deal, liberal internationalism, and moral and cultural liberalism. They sought to abolish middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, to replace treaties and collective security with scorn for international law and U.S. global hegemony, and to reverse the trends toward individualism, secularism and pluralism in American culture.
And they failed. On every front conservatives have failed, completely, undeniably and irreversibly. The failure of the right has left the structure of 20th-century American liberalism standing, battered and cratered but still intact.
The counterrevolutionary right failed first in the “culture war.” From the ’60s onward, conservatives lost every major battle. Conservative Republicans paid lip service to opposition to abortion and appointed strict constructionists to the federal bench. But the Supreme Court has not repealed Roe v. Wade and, because of its allergy to repudiating precedent, is not likely to do so. (Yes, even if John McCain appoints the next justice or two.) Nor has it restored prayer in public schools. What is more, in 2003 the Supreme Court struck down anti-gay sodomy laws nationwide. Conservatives responded by successfully supporting many state laws or state constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage, in addition to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) enacted in the Clinton years. The recent state Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in California may yet be overturned by a popular initiative. But many of the goals of the gay rights movement have been achieved far sooner than anyone could have imagined as recently as the 1990s. Meanwhile, conservative campaigns to censor movies and TV and music were doomed first by cable TV and then by the Internet.
While it serves the purposes of single-issue groups on the left to claim that the threat of the socially conservative right is growing, the leaders of the right themselves know better. In the 1990s, Jerry Falwell shut down the Moral Majority and Pat Robertson dissolved the Christian Coalition, whose membership numbers turned out to have been grossly inflated.
In 1999, Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, wrote in a public letter to his fellow social conservatives: “I believe that we probably have lost the culture war … [I]n terms of society, we have lost. This is why, even when we win in politics, our victories fail to translate into the kinds of policies we believe are important.” According to Weyrich, conservatives should admit that they are a moral minority in America and form their own counterculture, like “a band of hardy monks who preserved the culture while the surrounding society disintegrated.” If Weyrich is right, instead of taking back America, traditionalists should ask only for their own reservation, like the Amish or the Navajos. What started as a counterrevolution has ended as a counterculture.
Having lost the culture wars by 2000, the counterrevolutionaries of the right persisted in their radical efforts to repeal the New Deal. The control of both the White House and Congress by Republicans from January 2001 to January 2007 (excepting the brief respite provided by Jim Jeffords) gave conservatives an even better chance to achieve their economic goals than they had experienced during the Reagan era of divided government. Buoyed by War on Terror hubris, aided by inflated Congressional majorities and a distracted public, the Republicans were able to get their counterrevolutionary anti-entitlement agenda on the docket at last — and it died a miserable death.
Beginning in the 1970s, conservative and libertarian think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute devised “free market” alternatives to the American welfare state established by New Deal and Great Society liberals. These schemes were worthy of Rube Goldberg in their insane complexity. Social Security would be abolished and replaced by private savings accounts. Medicare would be abolished and replaced by health savings accounts. Unemployment insurance would be abolished and replaced by … you guessed it, savings accounts. Rejecting the systems of social insurance that all modern countries employ, the reactionary radicals proposed to force Americans to hoard money for every possible contingency.
This is why the destruction of Social Security — the crown jewel of the New Deal welfare state — was of such symbolic importance to the right. If Social Security could be whittled away by partial privatization and ultimately destroyed, then abolishing the rest of the modern liberal state would be a mere mopping-up operation.
Ronald Reagan shrank from attacking Social Security. But George W. Bush, far more of a counterrevolutionary than Reagan, aggressively pushed for partial Social Security privatization. The resulting public backlash in 2004 and 2005 was fierce, with liberal activists threatening to target vulnerable GOP House members with a barrage of television ads. Poll numbers were so negative as details of “privatization” leaked out that the Republicans quickly got cold feet. Republicans in Congress did not even allow a vote on Bush’s proposal. It seems that most Republican voters, like most Democrats, like their Social Security.
Americans of both parties like their Medicare, too. In 2003, public opinion forced a Republican president and a Republican Congress to enact the Medicare prescription drug benefit. For all its concessions to the pharmaceutical companies, this was the biggest expansion in socialized medicine since Medicare was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. That Bush had expanded entitlement became part of the conservative complaint that Bush wasn’t a true conservative. Some of that complaining was a simple desire to back away from an unpopular president who had tarnished two brands, “conservative” and “Republican.” But it was also true that the GOP expansion of Medicare was a major ideological capitulation.
Despite the Medicare and Social Security routs, many conservatives and libertarians continue their unpopular campaign to gut or destroy them. While most are motivated by ideological hatred of government, the smartest enemies of the middle-class welfare state have learned to disguise their radical ideology and pose as neutral experts concerned that middle-class entitlements will bankrupt the country. Their scare tactics are based on falsehoods. If America’s economy-wide healthcare costs are contained, then the influence of aging alone on the costs of Social Security and Medicare will add at most 4 percent to the U.S. government share of GDP over the next century (or less, if today’s wartime Pentagon budget is reduced to peacetime levels in the future). My source for this seemingly complacent analysis? Douglas Holz-Eakin, during his tenure as the director of the Congressional Budget Office. Holz-Eakin, now the chief economic advisor to John McCain, is himself a deficit hawk –but an honest one.
President Eisenhower was right in 1954, when he wrote his brother Edgar: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
So much for the conservative counterrevolution against the liberal middle-class welfare state. The counterrevolution of the right against liberal internationalism failed around the same time, early in George W. Bush’s second term. In Bush’s first term, the neoconservatives, whose influence had been limited in the Reagan years, called the shots. They rejected international law as a trap and argued that only an American monopoly of brute power, not great power cooperation, could achieve peace. The theory of conservative lawyers is simple: If the United States does it, it’s legal, and if the president does it, it’s constitutional.
9/11 provided Bush, Cheney and their neocon allies with an excuse to do what they wanted to do anyway: invade Iraq, shred treaties, and restore powers that were stripped from the imperial presidency after Watergate. We have seen the results: a needless preventive war, illegal under the U.N. charter; torture authorized by the White House; a global system of secret American gulags; claims of unchecked executive power; 4,000 Americans dead and nearly 30,000 wounded; at least 100,000 Iraqis dead and possibly many more; and a long-term cost to the American taxpayer in the trillions of dollars, according to Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes.
Once again, the American people said no to the counterrevolution of the radical right. In the midterm elections of 2006, the voters tossed the Republican Party out of control of both houses of Congress. Since then, the remaining neocons in the administration have been purged or marginalized, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a pragmatic “paleoconservative” internationalist like Bush’s father and James Baker, arrived to act as trustee in bankruptcy for the son’s failed administration. The much-hyped “surge” in Iraq may have succeeded as a temporary tactic, but the right’s global strategy is in tatters. By 2008, the catchphrases of the neoconservatives — “unipolar moment,” “regime change,” “Pax Americana,” “World War IV” — all sounded quaint and retro, if not sinister. The right’s counterrevolution in foreign policy has failed, as even Senator McCain, with his talk of multilateralism, recognizes now.
The counterrevolution is over. For 40 years the radical right has sought to uproot and overturn the American domestic and global order created by centrist liberals of both parties between the 1930s and the 1970s. Liberalism has survived, while the right is not only defeated but also demoralized, dispersed and diminishing.
“In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950 in his introduction to “The Liberal Imagination.” “For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation … the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not … express themselves in ideas but only … in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Almost as soon as he wrote these words, they ceased to be true, thanks to the emergence of significant intellectuals on the right like Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley Jr. and James Q. Wilson.
Today, however, Trilling’s words are true again. The Buckleys and Friedmans have been replaced by Goldbergs and Coulters, and their obsessions — denying the reality of evolution and global warming and blithering about “Islamofascism” and “liberal fascism” — are accurately described as “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
The pattern of American politics since the 1970s has been reversed. From 1968 until the last few years, the right defined the terms of national debate and liberals were on the defensive. Now the opposite is the case. The momentum is with the center left. Conservatives, lacking a program now that the American people have repudiated the policies advocated by Paul Weyrich and Milton Friedman and Paul Wolfowitz and the other theorists of the counterrevolution, must choose whether to be me-too liberals or sullen rejectionists. During the counterrevolution, Carter and Clinton tactically veered to the right. Now that the counterrevolution has been defeated, McCain must engage in an opposite kind of triangulation, tacking to the left on issues like global warming and healthcare and invoking foreign policy multilateralism, at least in rhetoric. In the new era, Republican presidents can be elected, but if they are not to fail miserably they will have to be accommodationists like Eisenhower and Nixon rather than leaders of a would-be conservative counterrevolution like Reagan and George W. Bush. Indeed, Ryan Lizza and Matt Welch have both argued that in this post-Reagan era John McCain is trying to reinvent himself as an Eisenhower Republican.
In 1951, political scientist Samuel Lubell argued that America’s two-party system is divided between a dominant “sun” party and a subordinate “moon” party, writing that “it is within the majority party that the issues of any political period are fought out; while the minority party shines in reflected radiance of the heat thus generated.” Even if there is a Republican in the White House, the major controversies in the next few years, from the debate about deficits and entitlements to the future of U.S. foreign policy, are likely to be fought out not between the parties but among rival wings of the dominant Democratic party itself.
The defeat of the conservative counterrevolution should not inspire complacency among liberals and centrists. By rejecting the radical right, the American electorate has not endorsed bold new initiatives. The public has merely signaled its support of the older New Deal/Great Society/Civil Rights liberalism that the right sought to uproot.
Nor does the defeat of the counterrevolutionary right mean that conservatives may not win victories on some issues, from immigration restriction to the rollback by means of state initiatives and federal court decisions of race-based affirmative action. An increasingly conservative federal judiciary, appointed by a Republican president, might shift public policy toward conservative ideas of deregulation and approve of some state limitations on abortion.
Furthermore, the demise of the counterrevolutionary right could lead to the birth of a far more formidable and competitive version of American conservatism. Liberated from its unpopular libertarian and neoconservative wings, a more populist and “Gaullist” American conservatism might emulate the successful parties of the European right that govern today in Berlin, Paris and Rome and perhaps soon in London. Progressives who demand that the American right abandon its small-government obsessions and its neoconservative foreign policy and look to Europe for models should worry that their wish will come true.
For the moment, however, the prospects for the moderate, reformist center left are better than they have been in nearly half a century. If it is hard for most conservatives to admit that they have lost, it is even harder for many liberals to admit that they have won. But sometimes history forces you to take yes for an answer.
Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation. More Michael Lind.
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