What 1972 Can Teach Us about 2022
Good philosophers will tell you that many things can be true at once. This principle will be crucial as conservatives try to make sense of the 2022 midterms.
The past can help us decipher what just happened. For instance, in 1972, two seemingly contrary situations existed at once.
Reality #1: Richard Nixon was hated by many people and roundly blamed for economic woes and the carnage in Southeast Asia. His supporters bugged the Democratic headquarters to rig the presidential election, because they worried about the Democrats coming back to power.
Reality #2: Regardless of the Watergate break-in, Nixon won one of the hugest landslides in American history (521 electoral votes to 17). He was sworn into office in January 1973 with an approval rate of 68%.
Irony: We still don't know how much Nixon knew about the plot to bug the Democratic headquarters. But his supporters never needed to go to those lengths anyway. Despite all the upheavals and nude protesters causing havoc at Nixon's July 4 events, he was guaranteed to win.
Paradox: As unlikable as Nixon was, voters were not disposed to elect McGovern. The nation felt rattled by the Vietnam War and the upheavals of the late 1960s. But the people's dislike of Nixon didn't translate into disapproving of him. Their dislike of Nixon and of Republicans didn't make them want to vote for the Democrats.
Explanation: While the Democrats had the perfect opening, they still had no message that people trusted. Yes, the Vietnam War had exhausted people, and they felt that Johnson had thrown the country into a wasteful quagmire. Yes, the country felt ashamed knowing that Jim Crow segregation had only recently ended; only four years earlier, a white gunman had assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, the country saw the fast-approaching reality that Lucy Ricardo was out of date and America would need to adjust to the reality of women working outside the home. Yes, starvation in Appalachia should not have persisted as the country neared the second centennial of its existence.
Americans could see value in the Democrat vision. But the muscular presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, with the escalation in Southeast Asia and an explosion of idealistic (and expensive) social reforms, had left Americans with the sense that liberals were right in their critiques but erratic and frightening in what they tended to propose. They gravitated to the unattractive grouch from the McCarthy era.
Fast-Forward Fifty Years
Let's apply the lessons of 1972 as the year 2022 crawls to an end.
Reality #1: The Democrats have made such an enormous mess that economically ruined voters appear willing to repudiate their leaders and policies. In a two-party system, this would normally bode well for the Republicans. That the Democrats had to resort to dirty tricks and ballot hijinks would confirm their pitiable state, confirmed also by the fact that this time, alternative websites have spoken out about election fraud (including yours truly). When your only selling point is that you can steal elections, you don't have a bright future.
Reality #2: Without election fraud, the results would have looked slightly different: perhaps a 52-48 Republican majority in the Senate and a 225-210 Republican majority in the House. But wait. Even minus the fraud, that's not a massive victory. Why have the Republicans reached the end of the year with a pathetically slim lead in the House of Representatives? How on Earth have they lost the Senate? Why did nightmarish Democratic governors prevail in Michigan, California, and Arizona, on the heels of COVID policies that everyone now recognizes as foolish and, even after inflation, supply chain shortages, spiking interest rates, and a severe recession?
Irony: If they had done zero dirty tricks, Democrats might face a 52-vote Republican majority in the Senate, which they could overcome by seducing the usual centrists (Collins, Romney, Murkowski) and holier-than-thou David French types prone to proving their anti-Trumpism (Blunt, Cornyn, Lankford, Graham). Republican control of the House will help the Democrats by placing GOP fingerprints on whatever catastrophes the country will endure between now and 2024, thereby allowing the Democrat allies in the media to paint Biden's missteps as the fault of Trumpian conservatives.
A McCarthy-led House will act as an ideal straw man. McCarthy's caucus will do little more than these four things:
(1) occasionally hold the budget hostage in exchange for pro-corporate fiscal moves as part of a narcissistic spectacle
(2) call for Benghazi-style hearings for two years that will certainly annoy voters in time for the next election cycle
(3) pass photogenic legislation that will get smacked down in the Senate or vetoed in the hallowed tradition of "repeal Obamacare"
(4) adulate the military by signing off on the Democrats' fanatical gravy train to Ukraine.
Paradox: Like the Democrats in 1972, the Republicans in 2022 had a major chance. But the very thing hampering Democrats — the economy — cannot persuade voters to vote for Republicans.
Explanation: People don't like runaway inflation, spiking interest rates, layoffs, foreclosures, insurmountable debts, stagnating wages, shortages, or unaffordable healthcare. People hate the fact that Democrats have contributed to all these problems. But despite how much they hate our present economy, the sad fact remains: everything Republicans have said over the last forty years leads Americans to believe that they will not improve any of these things because Republicans don't care about the average American family. The more Republicans focus on the economy, the more they turn off voters.
It is true that we saw ballot fraud. It is also true that Republican leaders have spent decades defending free-market economies and literally scoffing at people who can't survive in a dog-eat-dog global economy. As my current book project (What ever happened to family values?) explains, the phrase "family values" got replaced by "religious liberty" two decades ago. "Family values," once upon a time the calling card of social conservatives, hasn't been associated with the right wing since the 1990s.
I held an interview with feminist author Judith Stacey, someone whom I would instinctively define as the opposite camp. But in researching What ever happened to family values?, I came across Stacey's work from the 1990s and realized she was right about a key point. The Republicans, she predicted, would abandon "family values" as soon as Democrats could convince average American families that to be "valued" meant for other people to make real "investments" in your family. That would mean health care, daycare, job security, help with college tuition, homeownership programs, and reform of institutions that tend to get between men and the mothers of their children. These are all the things Republicans dismiss — and not in a very nice way.
The term "family values" went from a conservative buzzword to a liberal trump card by the 2000s. John P. Heinz captured this trend astutely in a 2003 article for Law & Society Review. As excerpted from my book:
Heinz found that conservatives working in prolife, religious, and profamily causes had access to significantly fewer funds relative to their overwhelming importance to the national constituency. ... Law and order, business, mediation, and libertarian causes brought in a total of about $42.5 million in legal revenues in 2003, compared to a combined total of only $2.8 million for religious and prolife causes.
"Religious liberty" held an obvious advantage over "family values" for ambitious Republicans: it trumpeted the free market, consumer choice, and individual liberties without burdening Bush Republicans with costly programs that Democrats would force them to fund if they claimed to speak for family values.
Prior to the 2000s, Republicans had rejected "religious liberty" because it was associated with people seeking First Amendment protections for marijuana rights, sacred tribal land, or unemployment benefits for Seventh-Day Adventists who refused jobs that required work on Saturdays. Suddenly, "religious liberty" became a strategy to keep the support of working American conservatives without having to fight actual immorality, and without having to invest in concrete obstacles facing Americans.
How We Sour on Conservatives
As discussed with Stacey, my journey ultimately made me realize why people don't vote Republican even when the Democrats go insane. In a bout of cancel culture, I lost my job at the Southern Baptist Convention and became just another unemployed father in a (heterosexual) marriage trying to support children and a stay-at-home mom. I feel such gratitude for people who sought to help me regain my footing. But the general response from conservatives was avoidance. I had stood beside them while they blasted health care reforms and mocked people who couldn't pay off their student loans. The swaggering mottos "Facts Don't Care about Your Feelings" and "Socialism Sucks" made me see, suddenly, that the vast majority of people who talk about "religious liberty" really mean tax breaks for churches and Christian business-owners. Not only would voting for them not really get rid of Drag Queen Story Hour or restore Jeff Younger's son to him, but with the GOP in power, I could still be ruined by the COVID and post-COVID upheavals, which Republicans largely abetted or did nothing about.
There's much more that could be said — and will be said in my book — but the lesson for the midterms is simple. I don't think conservatives can abandon their economic freedom. But they will likely never win on it, and not because Americans are too lazy or stupid to understand Milton Friedman. GOP leaders must brainstorm how to overcome this barrier. Yes, Democrats have ruined the economy. But yes, Republicans don't care about people's families. Forced to choose, many will vote for conservative hypocrites. But many others will vote for crazy Democrats hoping someone will throw their kids a lifeline.
Robert Oscar Lopez's book, Whatever Happened to Family Values?, will come out with GKPublishing in early 2022. His other book, Cancel-Proof Christianity: Stop Complaining and Build Your Own Civilization!, is coming out in the next month. See Gatekeepers Online.
Heinz, John P., et al. "Lawyers for Conservative Causes: Clients, Ideology, and Social Distance." Law & Society Review, vol. 37, no. 1, 2003, pp. 5–50. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1555069. Accessed 25 Jul. 2022.