Conservatism's Extreme Makeover

It will come as news to no one that conservatism has long had a PR problem. The political question of 2010 is this: do America's voters finally "get" conservatism?

For a half-century or more, conservatism's public image has covered a vast spectrum ranging from the Neanderthals on one end to Genghis Khan on the other. Conservatism has been depicted as the political doctrine of Klansmen, inbred backwoodsmen, paranoids, and religious fanatics. (Timothy McVeigh, an atheist and anarchist, is almost always characterized as a "right-wing Christian.. I know of no case where this assertion has been corrected.)

Joe McCarthy (a former New Deal liberal) added an unsavory element of power abuse, Richard Nixon (who governed as a leftist exceeded only by Barack Obama) a dank aura of personality disorder. Derived from all this was the implication, long hard-pedaled by the left, that no decent or moral person would have anything to do with such types, much less vote for them or offer moral or political support. This slur has proven effective for decades. It has acquired the status of an axiom, demanding no proof or evidence, reinforced by casual references and asides from all corners of American culture -- music, films, novels, news and commentary, and political rhetoric. It remains in force today, as the treatment of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin clearly reveal.

This caricature came about as a result of the near-total destruction of traditional conservatism during the Roosevelt era. Conservatism collapsed in the wake of the Depression and the New Deal for reasons that remain obscure. A historical study would no doubt turn up a lot that would be valuable to know. What is certain is that American conservatives offered no resistance to or even serious criticism of the Roosevelt program. They lacked the courage of their convictions and had no serious solutions to offer. The "old" conservatism, based on an unexamined acceptance of historical practice and social custom, went to the wall during this period. For the next twenty years, the conservative impulse remained moribund.

The revival began with William F. Buckley and the National Review circle: Whittaker Chambers, Willmoore Kendall, Richard M. Weaver, and James Burnham, among others, who for all practical purposes were involved in rebuilding conservatism from the ground up. In this they were extraordinarily successful -- rarely in history has such a program been carried out with such impact. Without Buckley and his pirate crew, there would today be nothing resembling organized conservatism in the United States. But the new conservatism did possess a number of flaws, due in large part to the fact that for many years it remained a coterie phenomenon, relegated to Manhattan, a few university departments, and to a lesser extent, Washington, D.C. Limited in large part to the East Coast, conservatism picked up something of the character of the Eastern WASP elite, at the time far more isolated from the nation as a whole than it is today. This group looked toward Europe for cultural and intellectual influences, viewing the trans-Hudson bulk of the U.S. with indifference, if not open disdain.

Much of conservative dress, deportment, and culture was derived from European models. All of it was utterly different from what was accepted by the rest of the country. This lent conservatism an aura of cultic weirdness that few wished to emulate. (To my knowledge, only two groups retain the "baggy khakis belted just below the armpits" look -- conservatives and the Jehovah's Witnesses.)

Conservatives wasted effort and energy on silly crusades against popular culture, style, and behavior that isolated them still further from average Americans. Nothing about American music, film, sport, or social life seemed to please the new center-right. This deepened their isolation along with earning them a reputation as humorless, over-intellectualized stuffed shirts.   

It was also a strategic error. While conservatives wasted time castigating people for wearing jeans and falling over with the vapors every time they heard a rockabilly song, the left moved in. American leftists, at the time emerging from their thirty-year Stalinist cocoon, were far stranger than anyone on the right. But they were able to swallow whatever objections they had to American society (on the long-accepted Bolshevik model) and at least play along at being one with the Common Man.

Leftist influence on media and education also put them in a position to debase the conservative image. "Extremist" became the term of choice. Conservative fascination with Europe enabled the left to tar conservatives with the fascist brush. A concerted effort was made in the 1961-64 period to associate the new conservatism with wild-eyed fringe types. News reports from monopoly wire services and Big Three networks featured bizarre and often fake stories about "right-wing" paramilitary groups such as the Minutemen (no relation to the current organization) and the Rangers drilling in the backwoods, spiced with conspiracy theories concerning U.S. military coup plans. All quite familiar from our vantage point, but a novelty at the time. 

John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 was immediately attributed to shadowy "right-wing" groups until it became evident that Lee Harvey Oswald was in truth a self-styled communist, whereupon a thousand conspiracy theories were launched to "explain" a murder that required no explanation.

A year later, the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, was ceaselessly beaten with the extremist stick, including accusations of secret meetings with German Nazis and Latin reactionaries. He was ultimately targeted with the infamous "Daisy" commercial, which directly accused him of a desire to kick off a nuclear war.

The American public perhaps only half-bought into all this, but they were deluged with it constantly by an unchallenged national media operating from ultraliberal New York City. On the smoke/fire principle, many thought better than to associate with such "extremists" even though the "extreme" positions were no different from those of the average American. The conservative "extremist" label was one of liberalism's most brilliant ploys, one that was to pay them enormous dividends over the ensuing half-century.

What did conservatives do in response? Nothing. Living comfortably in their alternate Euro-American worlds, they passed the time discussing the influence of Montaigne on Burke while fretting about people listening to the Beatles rather than Schubert.

Conservatism might well have remained a limited heretical sect for liberals to sneer at until, at long last, the lot were gathered up and run into the reeducation camps. But it was rescued by Barry Goldwater. Although he went down to miserable defeat in 1964 (it's unlikely that any Republican could have won following JFK's assassination), he demonstrated that the conservatism's heartland lay not only west of the Hudson, but west of the Mississippi. Apart from principles, western conservatism could not have differed more from the East Coast variety -- it was a tough, outspoken, and no-nonsense doctrine dedicated to the practical rather than theoretical. Goldwater established an American form of conservatism, comprising American virtues and capable of attracting a mass public following.

It is this style of conservatism that forms the basis of what we have today. It did not overcome the Eastern variety as much as subsume it. Eastern conservatism provided the theoretical framework, the western variant the drive. The result was formidable, leading to the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the market- and tradition-oriented reforms of the '80s and '90s.

But all throughout, the reputation problem continued. Conservatives could not shake the "extremist" label or overcome the "fascist" accusation. "Racist" soon joined the lexicon with the belated recognition of the civil rights movement by the Democrats. With such a public image, any crime was plausible -- and the left didn't hesitate to throw every possible innuendo. Many of them stuck.

As a result, the American public, though voting conservative and supporting conservative policies, could not be persuaded to openly march under the conservative banner. Such hesitation is easily understood -- who would happily accept the labels of "fascist" or "racist"? That, in large part, is how it remained until the turn of the century.

For decades, conservatives failed to confront this state of affairs, handing the all-important weapon of public opinion to the left. But repeal of the misbegotten and misnamed "Fairness Doctrine" unveiled new horizons. Talk radio, shepherded by radio veteran Rush Limbaugh, opened the door. There had been earlier conservative talkers, but almost without exception, they chose to fulfill rather than defy the "right-wing" caricature. But Limbaugh was sui generis -- cheerful, magnanimous, optimistic, and likable, he revived talk radio as a genre and set the pattern for a new generation of talkers promoting serious conservatism to an eager listenership.     

Talk radio was followed by cable television (above all the Fox News Channel) and the internet. For the first time, cracks began to appear in the left's monopoly over public opinion. A fabricated smear can prevail only in a totally controlled information environment; it cannot survive in a free market of ideas. Though the volume and vitriol of leftist attacks increased as the millennium turned, their impact began to fade almost in direct proportion with their intensity. New media was subduing the left's propaganda system. The infotech revolution enabled Americans to get a good look at the dreaded, hateful right-wingers and see none other than themselves (much to the surprise of the squishy-left techs who initiated it).

The watershed has arrived with the Tea Parties. Triggered by a single cable news broadcast, nurtured by the net and talk radio, the Tea Parties brought out tens of thousands of  Americans previously uninvolved in politics, many of whom would have denied any conscious connection to conservatism. They were by no means movement conservatives, of either the Northeast or cowboy variety, but instead average Americans who saw their cherished traditions placed under threat by a runaway central government -- which plainly renders them purer conservatives than any given faction. (It's a disturbing but undeniable fact that many of the conservative East-Coast elite, such as David Brooks and Kathleen Parker, have been dismissive of the Tea Parties, to put it mildly.)

The left, working through the media, opened the customary cans of invective and innuendo on the Tea Parties, attempting to paint them with the long-established labels of "racist" and "extremist." This time, it didn't stick. Was it the waning power of the legacy media, a new maturity within the public mind, or simply the fact that most of these new activists were ordinary, everyday people? Whatever the case, the tried-and-true "extremist" shtick failed. The Tea Parties were able to operate effectively free of the "extremist" myth. For the first time in living memory, a conservative movement was allowed to establish itself through its own actions and rhetoric.

The year 2010 is likely to be a banner year for the conservative impulse in American life. The Tea Parties have already pushed aside several go-along-to-get-along Republican hacks (which in itself repudiates accusations of partisanship). The sweep of corrupt and ideologized Democrats promises to be an order of magnitude larger. But the 2010 election may well turn into no more than another good election season if we don't take advantage of the disarray in the left's messaging system. We need to look farther and deeper than a single election. We need to bury the calumnies against conservatism that have given the left the advantage for a half-century and longer. To remove the weapon of slander from leftist hands. Elite conservatives failed to attempt this for decade upon decade. The time has arrived to see that it gets done. We must move to change the culture, to establish once and for all the truth that conservatism is a core element of American life, that it is no oddity, no perversion, no dead end. That the modernist political debate is over, with the failure of leftist progressivism manifest and undeniable, and that the game must now be played on American terms.

We will have no better opportunity than this. That most American of political phenomena, the Tea Parties, has established once and for all that conservatism is American and that America is a conservative nation. If we can build upon this, our road will be a lot smoother than it has been.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and will edit the forthcoming Military Thinker.