America’s Right

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Robert B. Horwitz. America’s Right: Anti-Establishment Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013.

The recent federal government shutdown and threat of default has focused the country’s attention on the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party. In an effort to force Congress and the President to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, Tea Party Republicans refused to support a continuing resolution needed to fund discretionary spending, or an increase in borrowing authority needed to meet the government’s existing fiscal obligations. The result was a partial government shutdown and an imminent danger of the first federal default in US history. In the end, the tactic not only failed, but is generally seen as having damaged the Republican Party and the Tea Party itself. What remains clear, however, is that the Tea Party wields substantial power. Over 60% of Republicans in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted against the deal to reopen the government, although they themselves seemed unsure of what a continued shutdown would accomplish. Even those who criticized the Tea Party privately feared for their jobs if they didn’t vote with them publicly.

If many Americans are left scratching their heads and asking, “Where did these people come from?” Robert Horwitz’s new book provides a timely answer. “This is anti-establishment conservatism, whose origin can be traced back to the right wing that battled both the reigning post-World War II liberal consensus and the moderate, establishment Republican Party.” Anti-establishment conservatism has been around for a long time, but only recently has it become “the foremost face of the Republican Party, manifest in the populist rage of the Tea Party and the stunning obduracy of Republicans in Congress.” Much of Horwitz’s book is the story of how this happened.

The anti-establishment conservatives were the people who never went along with the “liberal consensus” that developed after World War II. By the 1950s, most people–including establishment Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower–had come to accept much of the expansion of government that had occurred during the Great Depression and World War II. The prevailing Keynesian economics provided a rationale for government spending to create economic opportunity, boost consumer demand and maintain full employment. With support from federal law and the National Labor Relations Board, labor unions seemed here to stay. The recovery from the Depression and the ensuing prosperity enabled Democrats to forge a broad coalition (including most white Southerners before the race issue made them reconsider their support in the 1960s). In foreign policy, the consensus supported an interventionist but moderate and realistic policy of trying to contain communism, but not trying to overthrow entrenched communist regimes in the Soviet Union and China.

Anti-establishment conservatism is deeply rooted in classical American liberalism, which stresses individual liberty and property rights and fears the strong state.

For conservatives the experience of the twentieth century was that in the name of equality and with the professed aim of improving life for the masses, the state alarmingly accrued power and weakened property rights. In so doing, the state undermined the fundamental condition of liberty that emanates from property, undercutting freedom writ large. The old right thus called for the “rollback” of the New Deal. Its critique of the state in many respects extended to foreign policy. In the period between the two world wars, American conservatives tended toward isolationism. They counseled avoidance of entangling political commitments – especially in European affairs, which, after the experience of World War I, conservatives saw as intractable. And because spending on armies and armaments required higher taxes and thus inevitably produced inflation, the old right was convinced that a militarized foreign policy would lead inevitably to the dreaded concentration of governmental power.

As public opinion increasingly favored government intervention to improve the economy at home and defend democracy abroad, this “old right” fractured, with most Republicans becoming moderate supporters of strong government. But anti-establishment conservatism rejected both the postwar liberal consensus and the Republican establishment that made its peace with it. “Located principally in small business and its political affiliates, geographically rooted in the Midwest and West, but also scattered amongst a welter of anti-communist and political fringe groups (some of which identified as Christian religious organizations standing up for God and western civilization), anti-establishment conservatism continued the call for the rollback of the New Deal….”

Importantly, however, anti-establishment conservatism did not call for a return to isolationism. On the contrary, it became more aggressively anti-communist than the establishment, calling not just for the containment of communism but its defeat. As Horwitz sees it, this position results from the fusion of two strains in conservative thinking: libertarianism and moral traditionalism. Because American society was founded on individual liberty, strong believers in individual freedom from the state can defend it as a moral and even religious principle. The all-powerful state is a moral and religious abomination, since it undermines God-given liberty and individual moral responsibility. The struggle against both godless communism and New Deal liberalism takes on the character of a religious crusade.

Horwitz uses the term “anti-statist statism” to call attention to a great irony in conservative thinking. Although these conservatives feared the strong state, they supported the expansion of the military establishment and defense industries in order to strengthen the American state in its battle with foreign enemies. Many new conservatives in places like Orange County, California relied on defense spending for their incomes while criticizing high federal taxes as an infringement on personal property rights.

Barry Goldwater emerged as a the leader of anti-establishment conservatism in the 1960s. He succeeded in winning the Republican nomination for President, but lost badly to Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater’s “states rights” position on civil rights did fracture the Democratic coalition enough for him to win five Southern states. After 1964, his party returned to more moderate leaders such as Richard Nixon, but “the forces set in motion by his defeat laid the ideological and institutional groundwork for anti-establishment conservatism’s subsequent ascendance….It regrouped, built institutions and recruited leaders, attracted money from right-wing businessmen, mobilized conservative Christians politically, and sixteen years later, helped bring Ronald Reagan to the presidency.”

Helping this process along were a series of developments that called liberal policies into question. Keynesian economics didn’t seem to have a solution to the runaway inflation of the 1970s. The government spending that had successfully boosted employment and consumer demand could now be blamed for feeding inflation. Federal efforts at racial integration provoked resistance not only from Southern segregationists, but from other whites who feared that advances for minorities would come at their expense. Cultural revolutions affecting such areas of behavior as sexuality and gender roles generated a backlash from moral traditionalists. Foreign policy failures such as the loss of the Vietnam War and the Iranian hostage-taking aroused fears of national weakness.

Two conservative movements in particular–the new Christian right and neoconservatism–strengthened anti-establishment conservatism and prepared the way for its new dominance within the Republican party. They will be the subject of my next post.


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