The Book Club

The Right Has Always Insisted It’s Driven by Ideas

Dear Reihan,

Actually, what you call a polemic means to be an interpretive history that makes the opposite case from the one described in your account. Revanchist conservatism did not originate as a form of populist protest. Rather, it was the brainchild of the very elites you say have no influence on our politics. It was conservative intellectuals who argued that the “managerial elite” (James Burnham), the “liberal establishment” (William Buckley), or the “new class” (Irving Kristol) had seized control of American politics and later our society. This argument, in its inverted Marxism, gave theoretical shape to the unarticulated anxieties and suspicions—anti-government, anti-institutional, antinomian—of the “small but intense and vocal minority,” many of them “white evangelical Christians,” who today populate the eroding island of movement conservatism. Even today the right insists it is driven by ideas, even if the leading thinkers are now Limbaugh and Beck, and the shock troops are tea-partiers and anti-tax demonstrators.

In other words, the movement has thrived not as a top-down operation, nor as a bottom-up one, but as a convergence of shared prejudices and cultural enmities. Thus, the right’s first great modern tribune was Joe McCarthy, whose theatrical “investigations” of “enemies within” were either endorsed or indulged by each of the intellectuals mentioned above.

The same antagonisms continued through the Bush years. Your reading of that dismal period seems rather wishful to me. Bush and Rove built their presidency on revanchism. This isn’t surprising since Rove’s number-crunching following the 2000 election—when Bush lost the popular vote by 500,000 or more—suggested that the GOP ticket had failed to exploit the evangelical base that might have yielded a majority. No wonder Bush devoted so much of his presidency to courting social conservatives—remember stem cells, intelligent design, the faith-based initiative? Nor was Rove taken aback by opposition to same-sex marriage. On the contrary, he made it a centerpiece in the 2004 election. It is the politics of the excluded middle, or center, and it defines the right today on every stratum.

I quite agree about the diminished power of the presidency—a good thing, in my view. One of the most egregious legacies of what might be termed the imperial right—which originated with Nixon, climaxed with Reagan, and approached self-parody with the second Bush—is the determination to consolidate all political power within the White House. This defies the Constitution, which places ultimate authority within Congress on most issues.

And yet it is on legislative matters that conservative thinkers and politicians have proved most revanchist. Witness their refusal to deal seriously with the two most pressing concerns of the day—our ravaged economy and our dysfunctional health care system. The right now seems content to heckle from the sidelines while the Democrats legislate us into the future. If conservatism is to find a new life, it must reject its orthodoxies and rediscover the politics of consensus. I wonder how you think this might happen?