Introduction: What Happened to Conservatism? Why Reforming the Country Requires Transforming the Right
The history of contemporary American conservatism is a story of disappointment and betrayal. For a half century, conservative politicians have made promises to their supporters that they could not keep. They offered stirring oratory that was not commensurate to what was possible. They described a small government utopia that was impractical and politically unsustainable because it required wrenching changes to government that most Americans didn’t want. They denounced decades of change, pledging what amounted to a return to the government and the economy of the 1890s, the cultural norms of the 1950s, and, in more recent times, the ethnic makeup of the country in the 1940s. This proved to be far beyond the capacity of politics. Most Americans—including a great many who were neither very liberal nor radical, and especially the young—did not want to go back.
This process has been self-reinforcing. The rise of cultural and religious conservatism, along with the emergence of the white South as the central pillar of the Republican Party, called forth a counter-realignment. As middle of- the-road and progressive Republicans outside the South fled the party, it lost voters and leaders who would have supported moderate or moderately conservative candidates in primaries. The numbers tell the story: between January 1995 and January 2015, the proportion of Republicans who called themselves “very conservative” nearly doubled, from 19 percent to 33 percent. When even Eric Cantor, the very conservative former House majority leader, could be felled in a primary for being insufficiently faithful to the ideas of the right, no Republican could feel truly safe from challenge.
This is why the most important political development during Barack Obama’s years in office was not the rise of a new progressive governing coalition that so many on the center-left anticipated when he swept the country in 2008. That coalition may yet become dominant. Demography is on its side, and it has proven its power in two consecutive presidential elections. But Obama’s tenure also coincided with the climax of a half century of political agitation that transformed the Republican Party and American conservatism. The breakdown in American government and the dysfunction in our politics are the result of the steady radicalization of American conservatism—along with Obama’s failure to anticipate it and his tardiness in dealing with it. Obama’s dreams of overcoming the divisions of red and blue America and of putting “unity of purpose over conflict and discord” were stillborn.
Obama eventually came to terms with the nature of the opposition he faced and acted accordingly. The substantial achievements of his final years in office were usually brought about unilaterally, without the support of Republicans—and, most often, in the face of their strenuous resistance. This was true of his steps toward immigration reform, his measures against climate change, the normalization of relations with Cuba, the nuclear deal he negotiated with Iran, and a host of other measures.
There are many accounts of Obama’s presidency that lay the blame for his difficulties on personal failures—on his well-known reluctance to court and curry favor with Congress, his standoffishness, his reliance on a tight circle of personal aides, his tactical mistakes. Obama certainly had his shortcomings. But to assume that Obama was ever in a position to build broad support among Republicans for his program ignores their determination, from the very first day of his presidency, to prevent progressive policies from taking hold. More effective schmoozing and more invitations to the White House might have been nice, but they would not have solved Obama’s problem. The fierceness of the opposition he faced had deep structural and historical roots in the long-term changes in conservatism and in the Republican Party.
This book offers a historical view of the American right since the 1960s. Its core contention is that American conservatism and the Republican Party did not suddenly become fiercer and more unyielding simply because of the election of Obama. The condition of today’s conservatism is the product of a long march that began with a wrong turn, when first American conservatives and then the Republican Party itself adopted Barry Goldwater’s worldview during and after the 1964 campaign.