In 2012, we decided to ask one of our panelists or an additional scholar to write texts for each of our Action Speaks’ topics. This one accompanies the 1972 Powell Memo show on NOV 21, 2012. We hope that you enjoy it.
by Jefferson Decker
American conservatism has come a long way since 1964, when its standard-bearer in the U.S. Senate—Arizona’s Barry Goldwater—lost the U.S. presidential election to Lyndon Johnson by a margin of 61 to 38 percent in the popular vote. In the half-century since Goldwater’s defeat, conservative activists have become much more prominent at the grassroots, conservative voices easier to hear in the media. The Republican Party has simultaneously shifted to the right on policy and become much more competitive, especially in congressional or state-wide races, which turn on party identification and voter motivation instead of on candidates. Opinion polling has identified a long-term increase in the number of Americans identifying themselves as “conservative”—and a sharp decrease in people who identify themselves as “liberal.”
At the same time, the past 50 years includes a string of notable failures for the American right. Despite the emergence of a national movement of politically engaged evangelicals, conservatives have not managed to overturn Roe v. Wade or reduce public tolerance of homosexuality. Conservatives have not restructured universal social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare. Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush routinely frustrated activists of the right by compromising their conservative principles to political expediency by failing to cut government spending. Perhaps there has not been a shift to the right after all? Or perhaps the conservative ascendency was sound and fury, with little ultimate follow-through?
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in-between. And to understand it better, it helps to break down the “rise of the right” into three components.
Partisan realignment: Fifty years ago, the Democrats commanded large majorities with a political coalition forged during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. This big tent included industrial workers, farmers, “ethnic” (especially Catholic) whites, racial minorities, and middle-class progressives. During the 1960s, however, this coalition came apart at the seams. The civil rights struggle pitted two major Democratic constituencies—African-Americans and rural white Southerners—against one other. When the national party sided with its black constituents, Southerners began to bolt. Demographic change across the South and Southwest hastened the ensuing partisan transformation. Yankee transplants to the suburbs of Atlanta or Dallas did not have the historic affinity to the Democratic Party that long-time Southerners considered their regional inheritance. It took several decades to play out, but the “Solid Democratic South” eventually became as solidly Republican.
We should put this transformation in perspective. The Democratic coalition of mid-twentieth century included significant numbers of very conservative voters, including ardent supporters of racial segregation, opponents of organized labor, and militant Cold Warriors. The fact that many of these Democrats eventually became Republicans does not mean that American politics shifted to the right—just that conservatives changed parties. Indeed, the new, Republican South is no doubt less reactionary on matters of race, though more conservative on economics, than the old, Democratic South. (No public figures today defend racial segregation or white supremacy as a matter of principle.) Republican congressional majorities may have resulted, paradoxically, from a shift to the left, in one part of the country, on one key issue.
Culture wars. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminism and gay liberation took on traditional notions of family and sex roles and cultural products ranging from high art to pure smut challenged prevailing standards of decency. That, in turn, spawned a grassroots “new right” that focused specifically on so-called cultural issues, including abortion, homosexuality, school prayer, and pornography. Many social conservatives were Roman Catholics or mainline Protestants, but rapid growth of evangelical Christianity in the 1970s helped to boost the ranks of social conservatives and shape the message.
Whether culture wars have ultimately helped the conservative cause is an open question. Conservatives have struggled to write their standards of morality or decency into the law. The journalist Thomas Frank has even argued that these failures are ultimately what keep the troops fired up: “Abortion is never halted,” Frank writes. “Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act,” and thus the culture war must go on. Other observers are not so sure. They suggest that shifts in public opinion on matters such as gay marriage are evidence that the American public is moving away from “traditional family values” as conservatives see it and will continue to do so in the future.
Free-Market Economics. In the 1970s, a number of conservative businessmen and intellectuals began to more vocally defend what they called “the free enterprise system.” Crucial to this mobilization was a 1971 memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Virginia lawyer, and future Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell. Powell argued that businessmen could no longer afford to stand by while Naderite consumer advocates, environmentalists, and big government liberals undermined public respect for business and criticized the fairness of capitalism. Businessmen responded by funding think tanks, educational initiatives, university faculty positions, and publications that made a case for freer markets, less government planning of the economy, and a limited welfare state.
This component of the “rise of the right” actually constituted a shift in public opinion that resulted in changes in public policy. From the Free to Choose videos starring Milton Friedman to Olin Foundation-funded scholarship in Law & Economics, a range of conservative and libertarian thinkers offered a sustained challenge to a key principle of mid-twentieth century liberalism: namely, that a complex and diverse society needs some level of top-down planning and direction to protect public interests and forestall crises. Over time, free marketer persuaded a significant chunk of the American people, including many people who consider themselves liberals, about the wisdom of the market and the incompetence of the state. They also persuaded a number of foreign governments to reduce state intervention in economic life and cut back on social welfare programs.
The success of the free-market idea has begotten a certain amount of envelope-pushing. Many present-day conservatives entertain policy ideas—privatizing Social Security, turning Medicare into a voucher, eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency—that Lewis Powell has not considered when he instructed businessmen to defend their contributions to American prosperity. Those ideas may not fly for the Republican Party in the upcoming election; indeed, the Romney campaign has backed away from some of the more controversial proposals of its own vice-presidential nominee. But the fact that Americans are even having these conversations suggests that the right has managed, over many years, to change how Americans understand how their world works.
BIO: Jefferson Decker is assistant professor of American Studies and Political Science at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. He is working on a book titled The Other Rights Revolution: Conservative Lawyers and the Remaking of American Government.