Were the 2012 campaign a Hitchcock movie, Mitt Romney would be the MacGuffin—a device that drives a lot of plot gyrations but proves inconsequential in itself. Then again, Barack Obama could be, too. Our down-to-the-wire presidential contest is arguably just a narrative speed bump in the scenario that has been gathering steam throughout the Obama presidency: the resurgence of the American right, the most determined and coherent political force in America. No matter who is elected president, what Romney calls severe conservatism will continue to consolidate its hold over one of our two major parties. And that party is hardly destined for oblivion. There’s a case to be made that a tea-party-infused GOP will have a serious shot at winning future national elections despite the widespread liberal belief (which I have shared) that any party as white, old, and male as the Republicans is doomed to near or complete extinction by the emerging demographics of 21st-century America.
But isn’t the tea party yesterday’s news, receding into the mists of history along with its left-wing doppelgänger, Occupy Wall Street? So it might seem. It draws consistently low poll numbers, earning just a 25 percent approval rating in a Wall Street Journal–NBC News survey in September. The tea-party harbinger from 2008, Sarah Palin, and the bomb throwers who dominated the primary process of 2012, led by the congressional tea-party caucus leader Michele Bachmann, were vanquished and lost whatever national political clout they had, along with much of their visibility (even on Fox News). So toxic is the brand that not one of the 51 prime-time speakers at the GOP convention in Tampa dared speak its name, including such tea-party heartthrobs as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Scott Brown, who became an early tea-party hero for unexpectedly taking Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in 2010, has barely alluded to the affiliation since.
All this evidence is misleading. As one conservative commentator, Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway, wrote during the GOP convention, it means nothing that Republican leaders don’t mention the tea party anymore. “In reality, of course the Republican party of 2012 is pretty much the tea party at this point,” he wrote. “One need only look at the party platform and listen to what the speakers are actually saying to recognize that fact.” He saw the tea party as “likely to see its influence increase after the November elections regardless of what happens to the Romney/Ryan ticket”—and rightly so. Though the label itself had to be scrapped—it has been permanently soiled by images of mad-dog protesters waving don’t tread on me flags—its ideology is the ideology of the right in 2012. Its adherents will not back down or fade away, even if Obama regroups and wins the lopsided Electoral College victory that seemed in his grasp before the first debate. If anything, the right will be emboldened to purge the GOP of the small and ideologically deviant Romney claque that blew what it saw as a “historic” opportunity to deny a “socialist” president a second term.
History tells us that American liberals have long underestimated the reach and resilience of the right, repeatedly dismissing it as a lunatic fringe and pronouncing it dead only to watch it bounce back stronger after each setback. That pattern was identified in an influential essay, “The Problem of American Conservatism,” published by the historian Alan Brinkley in 1994. Brinkley was writing two years after the religious right of Pat Robertson had stunned liberals by hijacking the GOP convention from the country-club patrician George H.W. Bush—the same fundamentalist right that had ostensibly retreated from politics after the humiliating Scopes trial in the twenties.
The culture-war convention in Houston was just the most recent example of liberals finding themselves ambushed by a conservative surge. As the afterglow of the New Deal gave way to the postwar boom, the preeminent literary critic Lionel Trilling declared, in 1950, that “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in America. And for a while a string of conservative defeats proved Trilling right: the failed bid of Senator Robert Taft (“Mr. Conservative”) for the 1952 GOP presidential nomination, the censure of Joe McCarthy in 1954, the epic trouncing of Barry Goldwater a decade later. During that Republican electoral debacle, Richard Hofstadter, the historian who would famously stigmatize the right as embodying “the paranoid style in American politics,” wrote in The New York Review of Books that Goldwater represented “a very special minority point of view which is not even preponderant in his own party.” He added: “When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever gone so far?” As it happened, Ronald Reagan, the most enthusiastic and eloquent of Goldwater exponents, would be elected governor of California just two years later.
Goldwater’s ideas—bizarre and otherwise—would eventually change the trajectory of the country, as Barack Obama would acknowledge, to some Democrats’ dismay, when appraising Reagan’s legacy in 2008. But no matter how many times the conservative bogeyman came back from the dead along the way, liberals were shocked at every resurrection. Whether it was the rise of Reagan, the coming of Scalia-Thomas “originalism” to the Supreme Court, or the Gingrich revolution of 1994, we were always gobsmacked.
Such is the power of denial that we simply refuse to concede that, by the metric of intractability, at least, conservatives are the cockroaches of the American body politic, poised to outlast us all. And so, after Obama’s victory in 2008, the Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg spoke for sentimental liberal triumphalists everywhere when he concluded that America is now “in a progressive period” and that “the conservative movement brought about by the Gingrich revolution has been crushed.” That progressive period lasted all of a year, giving way to the 2009 gubernatorial victories of the conservatives Bob McDonnell (in the purple state of Virginia) and Chris Christie (in blue New Jersey), as well as that summer’s raucous Obamacare protests. Few Democrats had imagined that the new African-American president would be besieged so quickly by a conservative populist movement whose adherents dressed in 1776 drag and worshipped the frothing-at-the-blackboard Glenn Beck. Or that such a movement would administer a “shellacking” in the midterms.
Should Romney lead another shellacking of the Democrats this year, some liberals may squeeze out a modicum of solace by viewing it as the lesser of two evils: The man from Bain is no radical but a product of the traditional Republican conservative Establishment bankrolled by Wall Street. We are already being sold that story line by “centrist” GOP grandees on the Sunday talk shows and mainstream op-ed pages who repeatedly tell us that Romney is only pretending to be a hard-line ideologue to temporarily placate his party’s unruly base and that the “real” Romney is the center-right pragmatist who suddenly materialized out of nowhere at the first debate.
Should Romney lose in November, a far happier liberal scenario can be entertained: For all their qualms about stimulus spending and Obamacare, perhaps voters still prefer the party of modest government activism to the party of no government. Polls provide support for this view. In the latest Pew survey, the GOP as a whole is almost as unpopular as the tea party: Only 27 percent of Americans describe themselves as Republican (as opposed to 31 percent Democratic and 36 percent Independent).
One can almost write the obituaries for the right that would appear after a Romney defeat right now. Even the millions spent by Karl Rove’s sugar daddies in the post–Citizens United era had failed to sell a far-right GOP to American voters. Once again the republic has been saved from the crazies by good old bipartisan centrist common sense.
Where did these people come from?” asked a liberal friend of mine in Los Angeles this summer as we reminisced about the freak-show characters, from Bachmann to Mr. “9-9-9,” who cycled through the Republican-primary season, sequentially drawing unimaginable throngs of supporters. As Brinkley wrote in 1994, it’s a default liberal assumption that the right’s frontline troops are invariably “poor, provincial folk” or an “isolated, rural fringe” or “rootless, anomic people searching for personal stability,” rather than the perfectly conventional middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites they often are. We don’t want to believe they’re hiding in plain sight in our own neighborhoods and offices.
This was true at the dawn of the conservative movement in the early sixties, when typical grassroots organizers for the John Birch Society and the Goldwater campaign were not necessarily yahoos from the boonies but “housewives, doctors, dentists, engineers and ministers” from Orange County, in the accounting of the historian Lisa McGirr, whose study Suburban Warriors challenged long-held stereotypes of the American right. Religious and cultural conservatives and vehement anti-communists were joined by fiercely independent Westerners who, like the Arizonan Goldwater, inherently disdained all eastern incursions, let alone Washington’s, into the nirvana of the former frontier. By breaking with moderate party leaders like Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney and opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Goldwater instantly annexed the old Confederacy to his western crusade as well; no region hated the government more than the swath of states militantly resisting federal enforcement of racial desegregation. (In November, his only electoral votes came from the Deep South and Arizona.)
Journalists back then sneered not just at the racists rallying around the GOP ticket but at the “little old ladies in tennis shoes” and other outré zealots who palled around with crackpots like Robert Welch, the Birch Society leader who questioned the patriotism of Dwight Eisenhower and Earl Warren. Goldwater groupies were often seen as flakes, not unlike the tea-party zanies besotted with Beck a half-century later. Once the Goldwaterites were routed on Election Day, virtually every Establishment commentator assumed they would just crawl under a rock for good. A rare exception turns up as a prescient afterthought in Somehow It Works, an NBC News coffee-table book recapping the 1964 campaign. In the final paragraph of its epilogue, the anchorman Chet Huntley posed an “unanswered question” about those who had voted for the GOP ticket. “But twenty-six million votes are still somehow unaccounted for,” he wrote. “We do not know how they were divided among classic Republicans, segregationists, ‘Johnson-phobes,’ desperate conservatives, and radical nuts. Altogether, however, they are the American protest movement—the coalition of discontent.”
That coalition, give or take a couple of components, would grow, not dwindle, in the decades to come. If the Goldwater campaign is often remembered today for the candidate’s trigger-happy (and self-immolating) nuclear bluster, his domestic ideology, unlike his Cold War bellicosity, hasn’t dated at all. His uninhibited anti-government zeal long ago ceased to be “extremism” and became Republican boilerplate. Indeed, much of what Goldwater said in 1964 was recycled as is by virtually every major Republican politician in 2012, Romney included. The now-forgotten conservative radio talkers of that era sound strikingly contemporary, too. One typical broadcasting stalwart, Dan Smoot, upbraided Goldwater for making any effort to mollify moderates and liberals—lest he “chill the ardor of his real supporters.” Smoot was convinced, as was Goldwater, that a hidden American majority would vote the right into power if only it were offered a “clear-cut choice” between “constitutional conservatism” and “totalitarian liberalism.”
The right has never stopped believing that its vindication will arrive if voters are given that clear-cut choice. In the early primary season of 2012, nearly 75 percent of the Republican electorate judged Romney too ideologically squishy to offer it. Thanks to the remarkable flameouts of his competitors, Romney won the nomination anyway, but, following Bob Dole and John McCain, he is the end of the line for the desiccated remnants of his father’s more moderate party. The financial base of the GOP, like its voting base, has also completed its shift to the right; David and Charles Koch, after all, are the sons of Fred Koch, who served on Robert Welch’s original Birch Society council. If Mitt goes down, the billionaires will mourn his defeat for all of 24 hours before rallying around pure “constitutional conservatives” of a new generation like the Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan.
And if Romney wins? Like that other usefully anodyne front man John Boehner, he will more often than not do what he’s told by the radical young guns. His main task, as Grover Norquist said in February, will be “to sign the legislation that has already been prepared,” starting with Ryan’s harsh budget. At that dire point, another liberal certitude will offer some comfort to the defeated: The American public will rise up in revulsion at a draconian government downsizing of its New Deal and Great Society entitlements and will return the Democrats to power. That is entirely possible, but it’s still worth asking whether this as-yet-untested assumption might be as self-deluding as all the previous premature death knells for the American right.
For starters, take another look at recent polls, including those that augured well for Obama and the Democrats prior to the first debate. The GOP may be a small-tent party, male and mainly white, but Romney was still attracting as much as 48 percent of the vote despite being the most personally unpopular presidential nominee of either party in the history of modern polling. And while polls found Obama ahead of or even with Romney in every policy category, conservative ideology in the abstract fared far better. In the late-September Quinnipiac University–New York Times–CBS News survey of the swing states Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, for instance, the view that government is “doing too many things” easily beat the alternative that government “should do more.” The Pew American Values Survey from June is even starker in charting an intrinsic national alienation from a government that has been gridlocked since the turn of the century: By margins that approach or exceed two to one, a majority of Americans believe that government regulation of business “does more harm than good”; that the federal government should only run things “that cannot be run at the local level”; and that the “federal government controls too much of our daily lives.” Intriguingly, this animus almost uncannily matches that at the time of Goldwater’s trouncing in 1964. LBJ’s whopping 61 percent popular-vote total was matched by the 60 percent of Americans who told pollsters they were deeply concerned about the growth of bureaucratic federal government. Then as now, more voters identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans, but the distrust of Washington transcends party lines and labels.
In the years between 1964 and 2012, presidents and wars both hot and cold have come and gone, as have countless culture wars, and yet the fundamental split on government’s role is much as it was when the right catapulted Goldwater to the top of a national ticket. The conservative credo has remained fixed even when it has been dishonored by its own camp (e.g., the free-spending administration of Bush 43). By contrast, the liberal faith that once seemed immutable to Lionel Trilling has been constantly downsized and muddied since the sixties. In the Obama era, it has become inchoate and defensive. Whatever the president’s other gifts, even he concedes his failure to convey “the story that tells us where he’s going” in his botched efforts to make the liberal case for the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. As his convention speech and first debate performance demonstrated, he is still having trouble mustering a powerful alternative vision to the right’s unyielding catechism. At the convention, that job had to be delegated to Bill Clinton, whose compelling address not only dramatized Obama’s shortfall in delivering a liberal message but that of the Democratic Party’s potential field for 2016 (Hillary Clinton included). That same convention week, the Times reported that neither Obama, Joe Biden, nor leading Democratic politicians in Ohio were willing to talk publicly about how administration policies, notably the auto-industry bailout, had contributed to that state’s economic turnaround. The White House feared that taking any credit for a liberal mission accomplished would inflame “public skepticism about large-scale government spending.”
The American right isn’t burdened by such Hamlet-like indecision about its own ideological rationale. It does, however, have plenty of its own problems—like the female, black, and Hispanic voters it has alienated and without whom the GOP cannot win national elections. But one shouldn’t underestimate the ability of the conservative movement to adapt to new marketplace circumstances even as it holds to its bedrock beliefs. That’s one reason why the right has survived past allegiances with the Ku Klux Klan, the McCarthy witch hunts, the John Birch Society, and all the rest. As McGirr suggests in Suburban Warriors, this adaptability has included such strategies as “abandoning older essentialist racial ideas (as well as anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism)” after World War II and even repackaging old-time religion in user-friendly megachurch trappings consistent with the therapeutic ethos and consumer culture of mainstream daytime television.
For all its adaptability, it’s highly unlikely that the GOP can recapture the African-American voters it cast aside when it went from being the Party of Lincoln to the last refuge of white-supremacist Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond in the Goldwater era. All these years after Jim Crow, the GOP is still scheming to disenfranchise black voters. But it’s entirely conceivable that a future Republican nominee, unlike the cowardly Romney, will pick a Sister Souljah fight when a lout like Rush Limbaugh maligns women as sluts. Even this year a few prominent Republicans—if only out of cynical election-year self-preservation—disowned Todd Akin and “legitimate rape” (or did so until the circus moved on and they could slither back into his fold). Eventually, the GOP might even figure out that it’s not in either its ideological or political interests to insist in perpetuity that government intrude on women’s reproductive rights and thwart equal civil rights (marital and otherwise) for gays. (Barry Goldwater, for one, knew this.) Such a shift might entice young libertarian voters, who care little about the Democrats’ entitlement trump cards of Social Security and Medicare, to give the Republicans a second look.
Latinos, America’s fastest-growing minority, are the most obvious obstacle to the right’s political future. Romney’s embrace of the most extreme immigration arsenal, from vowing to veto the Dream Act to endorsing a Mexican border fence, has assured that Obama will win the Latino vote by a landslide—and possibly the election along with it. And yet the GOP could overcome this burden over the long term. It was as recently as 2004 that George W. Bush drew nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote while trying (without success) to prod his party toward a kinder immigration policy. A new generation of Republican presidential contenders who want to win—and not just Marco Rubio—will put the highest priority on trying to save the GOP from its rapidly approaching demographic apocalypse.
Such a comeback won’t happen easily, or overnight, or without a major purge of the nativists within conservative ranks. But if history has taught us anything over the past half-century, it’s that the American right’s death wish is a figment of the liberal imagination. For Obama’s supporters, even a 2012 victory is likely to prove but a temporary high.