E. J. Dionne Jr. Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016. 544 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4767-6379-8.
Reviewed by L. Benjamin Rolsky (Drew University)
Published on H-AmRel (January, 2017)
Commissioned by Bobby L. Smiley (Vanderbilt University)
Religion, Conservatism, and the Fundamentalization of the GOP
For journalist and Georgetown University professor E.J. Dionne, the troubles that currently plague the Republican Party are anything but surprising, or unexpected. Rather than taking subjects like the Tea Party or the New Right as conservative movements based strictly on a reactionary calculus, Dionne makes a more comprehensive argument based on almost half a decade’s worth of back room discussions and strategy sessions in addition to an impressive historiographic foundation of work on American conservatism. In essence, Dionne argues that the current iteration of the Republican Party is the logical outcome of years of broken promises made along countless campaign trails dating back to early 1960s. In particular, Dionne locates the beginnings of today’s challenges for the GOP in the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater is a significant figure for Dionne because he initiated both the radicalizing and purifying tendencies that led to the ideological homogenization of the Republican Party according to a finite list of antigovernment principles. In this sense, the analysis tracks what could be understood as the gradual fundamentalization of post-World War II American conservatism. For Dionne’s purposes, the drama of presidential politics and electoral strategy serves as the appropriate laboratory for the demonstration of his provocative claims.
Dionne’s Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism—From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond joins a chorus of other texts currently investigating the origins of our overly polarized times. Historian Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture (2011) first highlighted the discursive terrain of American public life since the mid-century by highlighting the rise of “the market” as the predominate metaphor of our times. Scholar of religion Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When they Lose Elections): The Battles that Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage (2016) investigates the cyclical nature of American culture wars dating back to the election of 1800. He contends that the waging of culture war is a uniquely conservative tactic that is otherwise out of touch with modern times. In this sense, conservatives battle inevitable societal change in the name of the family and moral decency. Lastly, historian Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (2015) explores similar historical terrain by contending that much of the conflict that suffuses contemporary political discourse can be traced back to the events of the 1960s and the rise of what he calls “epistemologies of liberation,” including the civil rights movement, gay rights movement, and feminist movement respectively. Like Hartman, Dionne locates the catalyst of his story in the decade of the 1960s, but he foregrounds the relatively unexplored figure of Barry Goldwater in order to explain conservatism’s current troubles of leadership and direction. In familiar parlance, Dionne explores the gradual yet consistent processes that have led to the successful presidential nomination of a CEO and reality television star—in short, the Trumpification of Republican politics.
Unlike other commentators who explain conservatism’s troubles purely in terms of race or economics, Dionne acknowledges the foundational roles these languages have played in the ascendency of conservatism in late twentieth-century America. This rise in visibility corresponded directly to the growing coverage of conservative movements by a skeptical press and a liberal religious establishment concerned about the uncivil character of “born-again politics.” For Dionne as well as these sources, conservatism experienced a purification process in postwar America that grew stronger as more promises went unheeded by conservative politicians in the public square. Not only did this include a streamlining of platform and policy along the lines of the market and private industry, but it also resulted in “the steady radicalization of American conservatism” itself due largely to the Goldwater precedent. “It is the mark of the success of the Goldwater movement that in the ensuing decades, it did more than simply drive liberal and then moderates out of the Republican Party,” Dionne argues, “It also beat back alternative definitions of conservatism that were more temperate, more inclined to shape rather than resist cultural change, and more open to a significant role in the government in solving problems” (p. 5). This observation marks a profound contribution to the study of postwar American conservatism and the culture wars themselves. Much has been written about the differences and disagreements between contemporary liberals and conservatives as both the cause and result of political polarization. Dionne’s work not only acknowledges this dynamic, but more importantly emphasizes the discord within one movement and one political party as playing a causal role in rising partisan behavior: conservatism and the contemporary Republican Party. As a result, the decline of conservative politics in American public has unfolded largely due to disagreement internal to the party itself.
For Dionne, the ramifications of this process have been virtually catastrophic. “The radicalization of conservatism is thus not solely an issue for the Republican Party or for the movement itself. It is a problem for our efforts to reach compromise and common ground. It is a problem for how we govern ourselves. It is a problem for all of us” (p. 7). In this manner, Dionne echoes the arguments of scholar of religion Molly Worthen’s recent text, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (2013), in which she contends that like conservatism itself, American evangelicalism has experienced growing pains less from its interactions with its doctrinal others, and more from internal disagreements over the source of appropriate, biblically based knowledge. Reading these texts together reinforces Dionne’s original observation that conservatism has experienced not only radicalization since the 1960s, but also purification of its tenets and creeds. If the culture wars describe anything, it is a conflict between groups and individuals who possess different definitions of fundamental concepts essential to a functioning democracy. In light of Dionne and Worthen, we must also include the image of civil war within parties as much as conflict between them when describing the cultural warfare that has characterized American public life since the 1960s. The “moral world created by the New Deal and the Great Society” largely determined the content of consensus as predominately liberal in origin and execution (p. 17). Dionne’s analyses help us understand how this consensus came undone, in the hands of Republicans and Democrat alike, in the name of a new Sunbelt consensus informed by Southern Strategies and Silent Majorities.
Dionne’s work traces the impact of Goldwater politics across the second half of the twentieth century from the early 1960s to the present. His chapters are as diverse as they are numerous. At over five hundred pages in length, including the aforementioned historiographic appendix, Dionne’s story covers a broad survey of time ranging from the contemporary appropriation of Ronald Reagan and his presidential legacy to the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush and the “Third Way” of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Goldwater’s tactics were especially persuasive as deployed by New Right theorists and operatives during the 1970s. Conservative strategists such as Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips adopted the Goldwater campaign’s use of direct mailing in their own campaigns on behalf of Ronald Reagan. As Dionne rightly points out, this type of communication gave birth to the reality that Americans occupied increasingly ideological enclaves due largely in part to the chosen medium’s communicative capabilities. In essence, direct mail initiated the media transformation that would result in Republican presidential victories throughout the 1980s and the creation of Fox News in the mid-1990s. In fact, it was the birth of Fox as America’s first truly partisan network that solidified the silo mentality that currently characterizes the American populace and its subjection to “epistemic closure” in the name of ideological purity (p. 246). This period also gave birth to MSNBC, thereby filling the vacuum in progressive news reporting that became glaringly evident following the formation of Fox. Dionne is at his analytical best when he argues that such media eventually became overly determinative of Republican strategy, and encouraged a more conservative policy composition. As a result, Fox News contributed to the longer pattern of conservative radicalization and purification Dionne identifies at the hands of a boisterous few. Such decisions, however, would have dire costs for conservatives confronted by the popularity of Donald Trump.
“Over and over, the conservative rank and file was promised that this victory would be the decisive one,” Dionne contends. “At each juncture, conservatives felt they had finally created a long-lasting governing majority in the tradition of the New Deal coalition, only to see those hopes disappointed” (p. 69). Dionne tracks these moments of conservative appeals to their respective bases in order to demonstrate how Republican politicians themselves set the terms of their own demise. Dionne argues that “Today’s rage on the right is the culmination of decades of broken dreams,” ones created largely for social conservatives, yet composed by advisors writing to economic conservatives and their support of lower taxes. Advisors such as Pat Buchanan contributed to this growing resentment as part of the Nixon campaign by deploying a most effective campaign strategy for the hearts and minds of Americans: appeal to the “gut vote of middle-class constituencies, angry about crime, a liberal supreme court, and student dissidents on college campuses” (p. 71). This change in strategy underwrote much of what would become the stuff of culture war from the 1970s to the present. In fact, it was Buchanan’s 1992 Republican National Convention address that gave birth to the public notion of civil war as American culture war. This period also signified the moment in which conservative writers and media figures began to realize that their party was coming apart from the inside as progressives and moderates fled for higher political ground in the face of a persistent and well-funded radicalization movement. In this sense, Dionne’s work helps us understand how the emergence of the Tea Party and neoliberal economic policy was anything but an aberration in the longer history of the conservative movement in twentieth-century America.
The last third of the book traverses the most contemporary and thus journalistic material. Dionne’s experience as a writer and storyteller shines as he outlines everything from the shortcomings of the Clinton administration and its contributions to a new form of conservative consensus to the battles President Obama would have with some of the most radicalized constituencies of conservatives the movement had ever encountered. “Some of Clinton’s rhetorical concessions to the right, notably his declaration that ‘the era of big government is over,’ also weakened already porous liberal defenses while strengthening the conservatives’ public argument,” Dionne argues. Echoing Rodgers’s claims in Age of Fracture, Dionne locates an otherwise rhetorical and discursive shift in the movement of political bodies. As surprising as it may have been to say, “Democrats had taken over the role once played by moderate and liberal Republicans,” at the expense of the moderate and once vocal Eisenhower Republican (p. 158). Dionne’s analysis of President George W. Bush’s use of “compassionate conservatism” is particularly enlightening in light of the larger debates over the use of the private sphere and “civil society” over the federal and resources of the public. The resulting disagreements over how best to utilize such sources, as Dionne points out, define both our recent past and our immediate present thanks largely to orators like Reagan and conservative strategists like Richard Viguerie and Ralph Reed who capitalized on social conservative support for economic conservative gain. Reed arguably demonstrates this mentality best when in a 2015 interview with the New York Times he admitted that evangelical social conservatives drove many Republican economic successes. “You’re not going to get your tax cut if this vote doesn’t turn out,” Reed admitted. “If evangelicals don’t pour out of the pews and into the voting precincts, there isn’t going to be any successful business agenda” (p. 364). Despite the cynicism of this comment, it arguably holds the key to a better understanding of the convoluted relationship between American Christianity, evangelicalism, and the New Right conservative movement.
Despite Dionne’s admirable attention to historical detail and archival density, his analysis of conservative Protestantism and its role in the radicalization of conservatism echoes his fellow commentators by accepting “the Christian Right” and its rise at face value. As mentioned earlier, Stephen Prothero’s work identifies culture war as a uniquely conservative weapon forged in the name of a retrograde view of the world, a type of nostalgia that yearns for the “good ol’ days” when America was truly great. Dionne echoes Prothero’s analytical assumptions when he deploys the popular image of “the backlash” to help explain the manifestation of a conservative presence in American public life. While Dionne stays away from making some of the same incendiary claims against conservatives that Prothero does, he nevertheless relies on the moment of “the 1960s” to establish a moral baseline for measuring societal progress. As a result, conservative moral worlds that have difficulty adapting to each and every change experienced by the American populace are interpreted as backward-looking and politically immature.
This type of analysis, one that combines a keen attention to primary documents with a rigorous analysis of discourse, goes a long way towards explaining why the earliest commentators on conservative religious life described its successful mobilization as “the rise of” or “explosion of” a group of individuals conveniently identified as “the Religious Right,” “the Christian Right,” or “the New Christian Right.” Dionne rightly acknowledges that “the Religious Right” was not a “spontaneous eruption,” yet he does not ask how “the Christian Right” came to be beyond the narrative of a spontaneous birth. We often read about how conservative Protestants reacted to the Roe vs. Wade decision (1973) and the IRS’s decision to go after Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status, but this says very little about the actual creation, emergence, or formation of “the Christian Right” itself since it literally possesses no referent in the world beyond its own implicit connotations. Once seen in this light, we come to understand the rise of “the Christian Right” less as a description of a demographic reality, and more of a discourse shaped by both conservative and liberal authors in the name of political expediency. For conservative strategist Paul Weyrich, the calculus for electoral success was a simple one. “The New Right is looking for issues that people care about. Social issues, at least for the present, fit the bill” (p. 255). Without subjecting concepts like “the Christian Right” to critical analysis, we end up reiterating a largely liberal origin story that possesses no birth moment beyond its own telling, one forged in the crucible of status anxiety and intellectual consternation—the Immaculate Conception of American religious history.
Dionne’s balanced and thorough analysis is a welcome addition to an otherwise polarized historiography of the recent American past. His purpose is less concerned with assigning blame then it is with identifying the most significant decisions that have contributed to the radicalization and purification of the Republican Party since America’s mid-century. His work covers the usual suspects while introducing his readers to a wealth of previously unknown conservative figures and writers. Dionne’s arguments also help us understand how Americans can both loathe and depend on the same federal institutions for their collective welfare. One result of postwar Republican electoral strategy, which included the use of gridlock and discontent to mobilize its various constituencies, has been the steady decline of the public’s confidence in Washington and the American government. As scholar of religion Finbarr Curtis recently argued in The Production of American Religious Freedom (2016), this type of rhetoric supports the migration of the “public welfare” from the public to the realm of the private in the name of freedom. For Dionne, this type of discourse results in “the abandonment of the quest for public solutions to public problems” in favor or largely private ones (p. 459). In short, Dionne’s text is essential reading for both academics and journalists interested in the last century of conservative thought and organizing. In its refusal to lay blame, the analysis offered in Why the Right Went Wrong is admirable, especially in its conceptual contributions about radicalization and purification in the ongoing debates surrounding Trump’s ascendancy to Republican Presidential nominee. Lastly, this text opens countless doors for future specialized and non-specialized projects on subjects conservative or otherwise found within the author’s commentary.
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L. Benjamin Rolsky. Review of Dionne Jr., E. J., Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond.
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