Discover more from Nothing New Under the Sun
It's Still Morning in America and Sometimes it's Evening
Reflecting on Modern American Conservatism
Photo by Raketir courtesy of Shutterstock
America’s history is littered with movements that seek to establish a new paradigm or perspective regarding traditions, economic security, social relations, or the idea of America. It is best to take in the bright spots with intellectual earnestness while learning hard lessons from the darker motivations of some. It is the healthiest way to understand and digest our collective human history.
The art of statecraft is never pretty. It can often demoralize idealistic assumptions. This is not new to the industry. But over the last several years we have been forced to come to grips with not only politicians lying about things like insider trading, but also supporting efforts to thwart democratic institutions.
The virtue of self-government lies in the populace’s ability to see the functions and processes of their government as democratic and necessary. The democratic side has always struggled, but now people increasingly believe in a lack of necessity for our government’s role as a channel for legal protections and the importance of active civic participation. It’s an effect of a decades-long pressure campaign by partisan actors, media demagogues, and greedy interests to delegitimize the newfound ways the federal government responds to populations that were traditionally ignored. And of course, it didn’t happen in a vacuum.
The chaotic presidency of Donald Trump caused an ongoing public debate about the conservative movement. At times, I find myself on the negative end of this reflection and litigation.
It should be obvious at this point that American neoconservatism is a complex philosophical movement suffering from one of the coalitions becoming more active and potent than the party establishment previously believed was possible. America’s decades-long social transformations manifested into the election of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first president of color. Over time, the misogynistic intent in advocating control of women’s pregnancies and the relentless bigoted assaults on LGBTQ Americans takes its toll on those communities. So the Republican Party has always had these demographic problems in the modern era.
After Trump's presidency, the overt energy charging the Republican engine is the divisive social antipathy. Yes, some have argued it was always obvious since Ronald Reagan. That’s very fair and I would argue the dark motivations went from obvious to very obvious under the Trump administration. Usually, the more palatable calls for corporate deregulation and less burdensome tax structures always overshadowed the subliminal and often overt appeal of the party’s alienating (and arguably separatist) socio-cultural platforms. We tragically overlook a lot in politics because of the trade’s sharp nature.
Realistically, many Americans refuse to hear any more about the GOP’s dog-whistling, assaults on women’s healthcare and turn against democracy because Trump is gone. Americans are angrily apathetic, nihilistically tired, or bored. People are rightfully worried about the ongoing changes in response to the global pandemic and the bills in front of them.
And let’s also give people credit. There is a deeper story here and people can sense that.
The last few years reaffirmed organizational rot. We witnessed the complete eradication of individual Republican politicians’ tools for resistance in the face of a demagogic reality show president with no real policy preferences outside of vanity projects. The tools they could use would no longer make them a “Republican in good standing” and thus they give up being tied to all of the incentives and party spoils. Even more substantive, many elected Republicans were being told by voters that they would get violently attacked for denying Trump.
The American people keenly sense this deep-seated cultish catastrophe and the American people keenly know there is no simple answer to how this is happening.
So then, what did happen?
First, the fall of the neoconservatives and the “Moral Majority” is a symptom of a larger plague facing developed democracies. We have increased levels of social and cable media exposure, a staggering wealth inequality problem, and the changing faces of the globe are creating conditions that breed demagoguery like when neglected moist corners breed mold. Specifically, Americans' attention spans have become limited because of harder and less equitable work on top of an information highway perpetually backed up because of disinformation, hacking, and marketing spam. It’s a lethal combination that means we are open season for strategic lies built in a well-funded space meant to win elections and produce negative partisanship or raw fear.
This is the contemporary background for a political movement that is aging into roughly its sixth decade.
You can’t really appreciate mid-century America without honestly trying to capture the raw emotions of this dynamic time. The nation had not only won its second global war but was in near-complete command of economies still experiencing spoils from decades of colonizing nations and industrial entrepreneurship. America was the best economy. Our 1950s briefly saw America simultaneously become a global center for culture, finance, and politics. Most importantly, the mid-century saw a generation whose sheer numbers allowed them to dictate trends and attitudes in practically every sector of life (like Millennials today).
The earliest boomer was roughly born around 1945-1946 — it's not exact but thats the normal delineation. This means they were children when televisions invaded American homes, when Rosa Parks was told to move to the back of the bus for being a Black woman, and when Disneyland became a destination hotspot. They entered middle school when Sputnik was launched and Soviet nuclear fears continued flaring over espionage and hydrogen bomb tests. Finally, this particular boomer was in high school for the election and assassination of John F. Kennedy. As well as the start of the long Vietnam War.
Even subsequent classes of Baby Boomers would be at crucial ages when seismic events were transforming this nation dramatically. An open backlash to this heightened and punctuated moment in our democratic and social development was bound to materialize. The response to “new rights” now being outlined in the Constitution is also reflective of fears over the loss of state-run discrimination rackets within the apparatuses of state government and how some understood this was to their advantage. The good faith arguments would cite constitutional theory regarding the way governments attain certain powers, as we saw at the height of the Reign of Terror (where the moralistic language was used to guillotine detractors in the French Revolution).
There would be a backlash to the liberating of social mores and the establishment of new traditions and outlooks reflective of a more multicultural and multi tradition America. Populations from parts of the world previously banned from entering (under an Exclusion Act going back to the 1920s) contributed to the changing face of America. Most striking for the old guard was the empowerment and uplift of women through scientific advancements in birth control, better research in women’s biology and sociology as well as participation in organized sports that were previously discriminatory.
Many who disagreed with said changes had to find new ways to spread a message still rooted in separatism and a condescending fear of people deemed other.
Former Republican United States Senate candidate David Duke noted how the forces of white nationalism now had to abandon Klan robes and put on business suits. He would try to present as if he had moved on from his past as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan to run in 1990 and 1992 on a platform that called for “preserving heritage and reforming government programs.” After a decade of Reagan raising alarm around welfare queens and George H.W. Bush’s pandering with the Willie Horton ad, the former Grand Wizard felt he could run for national office as a Republican, not populist, despite all else.
But despite enabling rampant misogyny, homophobia, and religious animosity, the conservative movement’s early leaders were able to bestow a sense of optimism they genuinely felt for Americans who had needed it. They lived through a lot of political violence that was normalized at a certain level. That is not as appreciated today, arguably.
It also can’t be overlooked that the growth of America’s private sector is a consequence of a more hands-off approach. The movement and multiplication of money exponentially increased at the end of the last century. We have been able to facilitate dynamic zones of innovation for pioneers of new industries and technologies. And it's right here in America, not in China or in South Africa.
However, the way that growth has been distributed has been a constant problem in many American communities and reaffirms the need for guard rails as we approach unstable levels of inequality. Wealthy people need to pay higher taxes to support the country they disproportionally exploit for their own ends.
All in all, powerful speeches, relatively stable economic growth (but not to overlook rising inequality), and a general sense of control characterized the Reagan years so that enough people felt they lived through the “Reagan Revolution.” It gave confidence to the larger conservative movement and their perceived ability to reorder recent societal and cultural developments that were perceived to be moralistically inferior, reverse racist, part of a trend of “depopulation”, the intentional debilitation of traditional “manhood”, or unfairly attacking wealthy people’s protections and birthrights.
On January 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan delivered one of the best speeches ever by an American president after the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.
The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted, it belongs to the brave.
— President Ronald Reagan
But, of course, ancient hubris and cowardice tragically took hold.
Reagan National Airport Shuttle — photo by JL IMAGES courtesy of Shutterstock. One of many ways the name is appropriated today.
I’m not being outspoken or pro or con abortion.
— First Lady Barbara Bush
Some suspected that Barbara Bush had more moderate views on abortion laws in the United States than was publicly shown. It was apparent at a Reagan campaign event in 1980 when Bush wore a pro-choice button but she later removed it when her husband became Reagan’s choice for the vice-presidential candidate. It wouldn’t be until her memoir in 1994 when public discussion emerged of her nuanced views regarding attempts to legally ban abortion and the pro-life lobby.
Her nuance is shared by many of her countrymen.
More personally, I grew up looking up to my grandfather. So when I learned he was a registered independent, I received new insight into the failure of America’s modern parties. His father was a successful local Republican landlord in a small multi-religious bubble in Depression-era Anderson, Indiana.
The point is that he was not keen on surface political loyalties. I get that honestly believe it or not. We also both read a lot of history (and National Geographic) and understood politics as a utility, not always with overt idealism. Though, I sometimes shed some still.
Reflecting on this, it’s hard not to see the ongoing bastardization of the conservative movement as a reaction to the Republican Party being systemically unable to appeal to nuanced problems because they were tied to Madison Avenue-esque slogans, bumper stickers, and lazy dog-whistling that kicked a lethal can down the road (as we are seeing).
It was easy.
So damn easy.
And this is not all the Republicans’ doing of course. The televisionization of American society also contributes. People have changed and so have their priorities. America’s labor party, the Democrats, failed completely in their role as that labor party and fell susceptible to these forces as well.
But, Republican elites saw the warning signs early and were unforgivingly trivializing darker forces.
One doesn’t immaturely mess with the legacy of racial animosity and political violence in America and not cause catastrophe. Nixon’s southern strategy rightfully caused uncertainty in some Republicans who were actively supporting racial reforms. But even more disturbing and more widespread was the chaos unleashed by demagoguing America’s religious communities and laying the groundwork for violent ideologies to form in a nation with a preternatural potential for violent balkanization and is steeped in firearms. Many Republicans willfully played with this dark matter as their bank accounts and resumes filled. They rationalized it with the “survival of the fittest” mentality rather than the “this nation could have a civil war in my child’s lifetime” mentality.
We need civic leaders to think this way. We elect them to power for a reason. We trust that they won’t let things go too far. The silent Republicans in the Senate (Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski) are letting it go too far.
I remember how during Obama’s first term there was an increasingly aggressive Republican Party.
I would consult with the olds in my family and also simply express disdain for what I was perceiving as nascent supremacy and propagandistic historical ignorance being used to denigrate an important moment for young and old people of color.
These aren’t the same Republicans.
That was the answer I always received. Despite some of the same people often making a historical argument for the conservative movement’s original sin of intentionally weaponizing racial backlash and racial neglect. At the same time, there would be an open celebration of Colin Powell, his career, his life, and his constant growth. It’s almost like whiplash.
But it‘s not.
The Republican Party is a large organization with many arms and operations in one of the most complex governments and societies ever. They, like any other large entity, have a fringe and a mainstream. It has an intellectual center and an activist center. Each serves a different purpose for different audiences. The Democratic Party is not much different in this regard. These organizations are America’s two major political conglomerates after all and they virtually take up all of the space in terms of political conversation, thought, and expression.
Like in many legislatures and elections, parties win in America by forming large coalitions that are unified by a cohesive resolution to a widely shared public problem. The most striking example is America’s New Deal Era.
Before the 1910s and 1920s, the Democratic Party was a Jim Crow backwater energized by the hothouses of segregationist state governments (still bitter over the “War of Northern Aggression”). Thus, the political systems of the American South took that rage out on the freed population of Americans of color, those deemed religious dissidents, and women. The party didn’t win the presidency until 1885, almost a generation after the end of the Civil War.
However, America’s postbellum transformation into an industrial aristocracy gave our countrymen more reason to use the only viable labor party the nation has and attempt economic and social reforms for a brutalized population of workers. The rise of unionizing despite violent intimidation and the influx of urban immigrant voters that hailed from expanding cities, who were also looking for better living conditions allowed for the Democratic Party to steadily grow into a national entity. Under President Woodrow Wilson, America’s first post-Civil War nationalist Democrat president, Franklin D. Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy — the position his famous cousin held.
Through experiencing the growth of America’s war industries in the First World War to a polio diagnosis coupled with Eleanor Roosevelt’s necessary honesty, Franklin Roosevelt would moderate some of his aloof patrician behaviors, learn to overcome the polio that took away his legs, and finally use his name and background to lead the Democratic Party into a generation of mass government activity that altered the nation’s infrastructure, political temperature, racial relations, social norms, and economic expectations. He would be deemed a traitor to his class.
He was the only president I knew.
This was my grandfather on a car ride home one day. He was reflecting on how Franklin Roosevelt was elected president when he was nine years old and how it felt when he died (at that point grandfather was a 22-year-old in Europe). This is not that different for a lot of people in this age group. The Depression brought Americans together. Roosevelt’s fireside chats and strategic public relations allowed him to be the face of America’s transformation and community in the 1930s. He was the metaphorical grandfather for some of the youth of the Silent Generation — and they would go fight a brutal war under the auspices of his leadership.
But, Roosevelt is human. That means he eventually becomes a part of the Grim Reaper’s collection no matter his name, wealth, or political power. And so the Democratic Party would have to live in the shadow of Roosevelt (to this day).
So enter the Cold War Era, a period rife with large government initiatives reaching directly into American’s living rooms — some infamous like the War in Vietnam. While some lesser-known initiatives get slid to the footnotes, like minimum wage reforms for federal employees through the modification of the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 (Rooseveltian) and the Service Contract Act of 1965. As we see with Nixon, price and wage controls are a major part of the postwar liberal governing consensus.
A natural backlash would form against all of this federal activity. Especially as the covert activities of incognito federal agencies and the hidden agendas of politicians leaked to the public. Things like the FBI infiltrating domestic movements for peace and equality or the CIA directing coup d’états that cause regional and global chaos were shocking and uncomfortable in a nation supposedly serving as a refuge for freedom from overbearing power. The American people naturally associated the loss of the American Century with ill-advised bureaucracies and arrogant high modernist leaders.
This change in the people manifested when a former New Dealer turned conservative warrior took the mantle of executive power and changed the country’s political temperature with, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” He would appeal to Americans in a folksy manner and portray regal confidence that detracted from previous executives who had tripped walking down airplane stairs or told the American people that “there can be no whitewash at the White House,” when there blatantly was a whitewash.
Richard Nixon addressed the nation on April 30th, 1973 as Watergate stories and investigations continued to mire his agenda.
Speaking of President Richard Nixon, the fallout of his presidency certainly had an indelible impact on modern conservatism. Let’s be clear that the man himself alienated most of the political spectrum (whether it was for the Christmas Day bombings in Southeast Asia or the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency). But the way Watergate went down in the press may have fostered a general antagonism that had formed towards a media industry that would grow arrogant in ensuing years. It should be noted that the industry was also increasingly representative of previously marginalized populations. A stark contrast to the mass media of the first half of the 20th century. That undeniably impacted some people’s ability to take in news information without their own biases: racism, sexism, religious bigotry, or other preconceived notions.
Nixon's presidency had symbolic meaning for a fortifying “traditional America”, mostly White, with its utilization of racially divisive allusions and a “law and order” platform based on racial riots following the heinous assassination of the preeminent African American political leader. So the aftermath of Watergate proved some conservatives' fears of a cosmopolitan establishment targeting their lives and virtue through an oppositional mainstream media (in the form of the Washington Post) and a growing multicultural consensus threatening this group’s understanding of their contributions, history, and perceived racial supremacy within America.
Nixon may have not been the best totem, but others would follow.
Ronald Reagan would emerge as the spiritual leader of America’s exit out of the New Deal Era. After the Cold War, America emerged as the world’s sole superpower. There seemed to be a thriving business community on the cutting-edge of computer and chip technology. Despite the ugliness shown by many in the 1970s, most others celebrated an increasingly multicultural populace that was being reflected in media and demographic changes that were seen in specific parts of the country that allowed it and in parts of the economy that allowed it. We were not at war in a major way during the 1980s and 1990s.
Perhaps the government could take a break.
After all, the debates between active and passive government are natural to American democracy since the Federalist Papers.
But that’s the problem with incentive structures. They crystalize by making everything nothing more than a process, even if it involves politicians communicating honestly with their constituents.
Frankly, it’s almost like a gross checklist with this Republican Party — you just play to natural social anxieties, nihilistically remind people that money (not love) is the universal language of the world, and then cast negative partisanship on a young woman of color who is already susceptible to Reconstruction Era stereotypes about political leaders of color and death threats. It became so easy to do this not because Americans were inherently racist or mean-spirited. But because the general tone of the Reagan Era was one of depoliticizing the country after decades of upheaval and political violence.
And, these nasty campaign tactics did reflect parts of the populace. But it was not the overall trend of the American people and their collective heart.
Altogether, politicians of our time are not much different than their Gilded Age predecessors. They can be empty suits for moneyed interest and a placeholder for federal and state governments that could do more to thwart privatized attacks on people’s public rights and privileges. The Republican Party, because of its design as a business-friendly laissez-faire unit, was ripe to become the worst iteration of what has happened to our politics and society in general.
Don’t forget that all of these changes are happening while the televisionization of America is shortening attention spans, altering our national priorities, and opening us up to a certain superficiality that comes from people increasingly and instinctually seeing storytelling through film tricks and themselves through Instagram filters.
Take the consequences of our information and hypermedia age and couple it with a nation in denial of how social backlash was major for a political party’s strategic weaponization of fear-for-votes, and you end up with President Donald J. Trump.
The soul of the Republican Party is in a resort owned by Donald J. Trump — photo by Katherine Welles courtesy of Shutterstock
Mitt Romney should know from his father’s own experiences and campaign for Republican Party presidential candidate in 1968 that the party had a choice. They chose to be Whiter, more elitist, and more myopically materialistic in hopes that America’s military-industrial complex and general prosperity could run cover if anyone really tried to challenge them on their morality or gaps in policy. They could always play the “strict father” card and pretend like military funding was perfect, we are just naïve for trying to spread equality and health care with the same money.
They built a shell of condescension that actually is anathema to the energy brought by President Ronald Reagan’s “city on a hill” or the expertise and careful thinking given to us by President George Bush.
Instead, we now have what Newt Gingrich did to the Republican Party and this nation. This includes infighting and unhealthy competition that raises the specter of political violence, absurdly performative politicians, and arrogance that was seen in a growing wealth gap as Americans in the political class continuously alienated less-fortunate people domestically and abroad.
Despite this transformation, the conservative movement has some great actors too. I believe its best parts are reflected in the publication The Bulwark. It sheds thought from reasonable parts of our ideological spectrum but always with an attempt at self-awareness and attention to historical trends and forces. This is the future of American conservatism.
It needs to reckon with the realities of our multicultural democracy, our history, and respectfully why the federal government acts and pushes formerly segregationist state governments in regards to these past traumas - like on voting rights.
Renewed conservatism explains better the role of America’s private sector as a nation that built itself through conquest and rediscovery within unknown lands many traveled to for opportunity or a new start.
It would reckon with the rise of an atrociously powerful corporate elite that is tearing down national borders and making money at the expense of our environment and the degradation of our democratic values.
Renewed conservatism would make an honest attempt to be a part of this new America and not call other Americans aliens.
I’d like to think that this was happening in the early stages but like with most things today, it became a victim of the Age of Grift.
Original by me