Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Evolution of Modern Conservatism

Jonathan Zasloff points out the irony of current conservative lamentations over Newt Gingrich's presidential bid.  How could they disavow them, he asks, when he is the current Republican party?
    Gingrichism is the philosophy that all means short of illegality are fair game in the struggle for political power.  He came to the fore in the House minority by personal attacks on other members’ patriotism; he stirred up the Republican base with the argument that the Democrats were not merely wrong, but evil and a threat to the Republic....
    And if we examine the most malignant trends of the Republican Party over the last 15 years, many (although not all) of them represent this pattern of destroying institutions — and, importantly, any sense of impartiality, good faith, or nonpartisanship — for the purpose of achieving political power....
    And that is why, in my view, we cannot ignore Gingrich even if his campaign is doomed to fail.  His campaign, with all of its narcissism, mendacity, intellectual incoherence, and duplicity is the Republican Party in its purest, least adulterated form.  By looking at Gingrich we are not avoiding how the Republicans will choose their issues, or even their candidate: we are looking at their methods, ideology, goals, and tactics in their ultimate nature.
This seems right to me.  But like all politicians, he is merely a reflection of political dynamics and ideology at any given time in society.  How Gingrich came to prominence is a story that begins much earlier, and to the extent that he resembles so much of the modern Republican spirit, so too does he resemble the modern conservative movement at all levels.  Because of my age, I'm not comfortable speaking to any era prior to 1992, yet there were clearly many themes developing for decades that culminated in Gingrich's special standing.

My first experience with the modern Republican party was when I began listening to conservative AM radio as a delivery driver in early 1990s San Francisco.  Horrified and fascinated, I listened to Limbaugh and local host Michael Savage spewing their particular brand of logical fallacy, faux outrage, chauvinist entitlement, and paranoia.

A middle class white kid out of high school, raised with leftist parents and anti-authoritarian to the bone, I had never encountered such a triumphantly wrong-headed cacophony of right-wing political rhetoric.  Taking social science classes at night, delivering meals to people with AIDS during the day (some of whom lived in mansions, the majority of whom lived in appallingly wretched slums and housing projects), I listened as the poor were deemed lazy, minorities thankless whiners, the government greedy and corrupt, and white Christian businessmen persecuted and oppressed.  There could not have been a more striking contrast between the reality of what I was studying in school and witnessing daily in my travels around the city, and the bizarro narrative coming out of my van's speakers.

This was the age of Republican ascendancy, Whitewater, Lewinsky, welfare reform, Ruby Ridge and Waco, Elian Gonzalez, the Oklahoma City Bombing, militias, and political correctness.  Yet what I heard on the radio was much more radical than most of what could be heard coming out of mainstream Republican politicians and pundits.  Violent rhetoric, or at least language that framed reality in such imperiled terms as that anything but violence seemed inadequate, was the norm.  The government, with its "jack-booted thugs" was literally one step from imposing martial law, liberals and feminists were mentally ill and plotting to take over the world with their one-world-government, otherwise known as the United Nations.  Apocalyptic language painted a picture of imminent end times. You don't negotiate with Satan.

Thinking back on those years, I would have been shocked at the thought that such radical and extreme ideology would come to pervade national politics, and give rise to such a mainstream movement as the Tea Party, which promoted even more outlandish conspiracies and fabrications, making the allegations against Bill Clinton seem tame in comparison.  Yet if the climate today was built upon the climate of the nineties, which in turn was built upon decades prior, a pattern emerges that - if continued - bodes poorly for decades to come.  Assuming Obama is re-elected, achieving a popularity rooted in (hopefully) economic recovery that eclipses Clinton, what might the next Republican presidency look like?  What mistakes might they make that usher in a Republican radicalism even greater than we see today?  With the relatively reasonable and somewhat grounded conservative fore-bearers having by then passed away, what will the next generation - those raised on FOX news - look like?  A frightening thought, indeed.

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