Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s op-ed in the New York Times marks the whimpering end of an unholy alliance. The letter itself was a ham-handed attempt to capture the 2016 evangelical vote before Sen. Ted Cruz does. But the very crudity of his piece revealed that the union at the heart of Movement Conservatism is ripping apart.
In his op-ed, Jindal undertook to explain to business leaders how Movement Conservatism works. Its political strategy, he lectured, “requires populist social conservatives to ally with the business community on economic matters and corporate titans to side with social conservatives on cultural matters.” The governor is right: Since the 1980s big business interests have managed to secure policies that have concentrated wealth at the very top of the economic ladder, and they have managed their coup only with the help of the votes of social conservatives.
But Jindal’s hyperbolic posturing as he warns “any corporation” “bullying” social conservatives into accepting same-sex marriage to “Save your breath,” reveals a touchstone moment: This grand alliance is over.
Its end has been a long time coming. The toxic amalgam of economic and social reactionaries that Jindal identified began to mix after the Second World War. Americans in that era rallied behind the New Deal consensus. Reactionary businessmen loathed business regulation and taxation, but had no luck convincing voters to turn against the policies most saw as important safeguards against another Great Depression. Then, in 1951, a wealthy young writer suggested that social issues might be the way to break popular support for the New Deal. William F. Buckley, Jr. advanced the idea that unfettered capitalism and Christianity should be considered fundamental American values that could not be questioned. According to him, anyone who called for an active government or a secular society was an anti-American collectivist in league with international communism.
Few Americans paid much attention to an argument that equated even Republican President Eisenhower’s wildly successful capitalist economy with communism. But desegregation gave Buckley’s Movement Conservatism the popular social issue it needed to turn Americans against an active government. The year after the Supreme Court handed down the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation, Buckley launched his National Review, which quickly tied business regulation to unpopular desegregation of public schools. Buckley hired Virginia newspaper editor James Kilpatrick to assure readers that an active government that protected the rights of black Americans undermined American “freedom.”
According to the National Review, Eisenhower’s 1957 use of the troops to desegregate Little Rock High School illustrated the New Deal’s destruction of America itself. The troops escorting black students into white schools were paid with tax dollars. This, in the formulation of Buckley and his allies, was a redistribution of wealth. Congress levied taxes on white people, forcing them to pay their hard-earned money into the treasury, which government officials turned around and used to give unearned advantages to poor blacks. Desegregation enabled Movement Conservatives to describe American “freedom” as a marriage of social conservatism to unfettered capitalism.
This odd formulation, in which equality became inequality and fairness turned into unfairness, slid into the fringes of the Republican Party with the rise of Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona as a national figure. His supporters launched his 1960 candidacy for the presidential nomination with a declaration of Movement Conservative principles, ghost-written by Buckley’s brother-in-law. "The Conscience of a Conservative" maintained that government protection for African-Americans was unconstitutional. It undermined property rights by redistributing tax dollars, and thus destroyed “liberty.” Goldwater captured the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, but voters revealed the unpopularity of his ideas when he carried only his home state of Arizona and the five states of the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. It seemed the union of big business and social conservatism had collapsed.
But, over the next 20 years, that alliance would strengthen until it came to dominate American politics.
One of Goldwater’s key supporters in 1964 was an actor and spokesman for General Electric: Ronald Reagan. In a folksy televised speech just before the election, Reagan called out a dangerously intrusive government run by out-of-touch elites. America faced a clear choice. On the one hand was “individual freedom;” on the other, “the ant heap of totalitarianism.” When Reagan made a strong push for the 1968 presidential nomination, and George Wallace ran on a third-party ticket, Eisenhower’s far more moderate vice president Richard Nixon had little choice but to promise Goldwater voters in the Deep South that he would bow to their racial prejudices. This was the “Southern Strategy,” as Republican political operative Lee Atwater later explained in a vicious 1981 interview in which he deployed the n-word freely. Rather than explicitly invoking racism, he said, Movement Conservatives talked about desegregation, states’ rights and cutting taxes. Economic language didn’t create the same backlash because it was far more abstract than racial slurs, but it accomplished the same thing. It equated an activist government with the redistribution of white wealth to minorities.
Nixon’s troubled presidency required more than white racism to prop it up. To rally support behind his sliding popularity, he pulled more voters into the conservative social coalition by dividing Americans into “us” and “them.” When National Guard troops killed four people at Kent State in May 1970, Nixon took refuge behind the argument that a “silent majority” of Americans opposed the “vocal minority” that was trying to impose its views on the rest of the nation by protesting in the streets. It was imperative to hold the line not only against African-Americans, but also against young radicals and feminists. In 1971, Nixon set up a straw man as a dog-whistle for social conservatives. Unspecified “voices,” “detractors of America,” were urging “disadvantaged groups” to “take the welfare road rather than the road of hard work, self-reliance, and self-respect,” he claimed. Time noted that “middle Americans” were rapidly swinging against “angry minorities” who were sucking up their hard-earned tax dollars, while they seemed to have less and less influence on American policies.
No one made better use of this growing link between economics and culture than Ronald Reagan. In 1980, when he launched his general election campaign just miles from where civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964, Reagan announced: “I believe in states’ rights.” He personified the link between race, sex, and taxes with his “Welfare Queen,” who was a Cadillac-driving, unemployed moocher who “has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands…. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and is collecting welfare under each of her names.” Reagan claimed to speak for what he called “the majority of Americans” — hard-working, white taxpayers — against “special interests,” those lazy Americans, people of color and women, who wanted government handouts. As Rosalyn Carter said of Reagan, “I think this president makes us comfortable with our prejudices.”
Reagan urged Grover Norquist, who had been an economist for the Chamber of Commerce, to bring together big business, evangelical Christians, and social conservatives as a voting bloc to pressure reluctant congressmen into supporting tax cuts. “Traditional Republican business groups can provide the resources,” Norquist explained, “but these groups can provide the votes.” Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform opposed taxes in any form, since taxes funded “social welfare schemes” that redistributed wealth. In 1989, Norquist’s friend Ralph Reed cemented evangelicals behind big business by pulling them into the Christian Coalition, which set out to spread both religion and unfettered capitalism. Movement Conservatives could win control of the country, Reed explained, only by addressing “the concerns of average voters in the areas of taxes, crime, government waste, health care,” abortion, and homosexuality.
President George W. Bush made the link between business and religion in government official. During his administration, White House officials met weekly with Norquist and a hundred leaders from religious, social and economic groups that made up the Movement Conservative coalition. “There isn’t an us and them with this administration,” Norquist boasted. “They is us. We is them.” A request by the Bush administration could marshal hundreds of thousands of constituents led by the members of the White House meetings. Their voices were amplified by talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who insisted that Congress must slash taxes and “begin an emergency dismantling of the welfare system, which is shredding the social fabric” and “gutting the work ethic, education performance, and moral discipline of the poor.”
And so the marriage of big business and social conservatism to control government was consummated. But its stability depended on convincing evangelicals and social conservatives that slashing taxes and destroying business regulation served their social ends. Since 1980, those economic policies have concentrated wealth upward and left values voters with less and less. Rumblings of discontent have disturbed the coalition as real wages have stagnated and tax burdens have shifted down the ladder. Movement Conservatives continued to be able to rally support from evangelicals as they limited women’s reproductive choices and attacked minorities and immigrants as lazy criminals, but their power has slipped as the programs they slash increasingly harm values voters. Same-sex marriage marks the beginning of the divorce. Big business Movement Conservatives were happy to pay lip service to right-wing populism so long as it kept Republicans in power. But supporting it now will do the opposite, as most Americans swing behind non-discrimination.
Jindal’s op-ed offers Republicans a great opportunity. It employs the same rhetorical techniques Buckley did in 1951 — turning the popular majority in favor of equal rights into “the radical left,” for example — but now those techniques seem transparently, almost laughably, disingenuous. Seeing such a caricature of the bargain that made Movement Conservatism succeed could create the magical moment in which the party finally rejects the devil’s bargain it struck in the 1950s.