An ad recently came across my Twitter feed that was produced by a conservative wine company, We the People. Yes, a conservative wine company. (Right-wing pundits like Rod Dreher frequently defend their use of the term “totalitarian” to describe their political opponents by complaining that “the left politicizes everything” or “the left politicizes every aspect of daily life.” As if conservatives haven’t been politicizing every aspect of social life for decades: we’ve now reached the point where your choice of wine can reflect your political brand! Of course, the left has their ice cream chains and spice companies to choose from.) The ad features a collage of televisions, all arranged Ozymandias-in-Watchmen-style, all playing clips of right-wing bugaboos (Ilhan Omar, Dr. Fauci, BLM, etc.s) from the past couple years. All, that is, except the television in the center, which is playing Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address to the nation. And if you know anything about Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address, it’s that the Gipper stripped the façade of economic libertarianism and Burkean affability from his image and went full-Culture Warrior, invoking the patriotic tone and touching on the social issues that would define his party for the next three decades. Watch:
In his own tweet endorsing the advert, Andrew Sullivan wrote, “A version of this ad for the GOP would be very potent in 2022.” That’s the response I’d expect from a fifty-eight-year-old commentator whose political identity was forged in the Thatcher-Reagan era. But as a cruel meme recently reminded me, 1980 (the year of Reagan’s election) was forty-one years ago—the same distance that separated 1980 from 1939. In other words, an ad for the GOP in 2022 featuring Ronald Reagan as the centerpiece makes as much sense as an ad for the Democratic Party in 1980 featuring Franklin D. Roosevelt as its centerpiece.
But here’s the thing: in 1980, Democrats were running on FDR and on nostalgia for past leaders in general. Senator Edward Kennedy nearly defeated Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries while Carter was a sitting president, and ninety-nine percent of Kennedy’s appeal lay in the memory of JFK. National candidates waxed rhapsodic about the Democratic victories of previous generations. Every major Democrat who emerged from the 1970s, from Gary Hart to Walter Mondale to Joe Biden, was an orthodox Keynesian, a New Dealer. And some of those Democrats (re: Hart and a young Bill and Hillary Clinton) would drift toward conservative economics as their influential careers progressed. There just wasn’t a lot of intellectual energy on the center-left. In many ways, Republicans in 2021 resemble Democrats in 1980: beating memory’s dead horse even as they strategize a further rightward turn.
Conservatives, in the meantime, had tons of ideological pizazz but seemed traumatized by the New Deal. And so trauma became a working state of mind for certain conservative activists. This was understandable in 1953, when, under Eisenhower, New Deal policies went from a hard-won set of laws and programs to virtually the only game in town. A bipartisan consensus shut out conservative critique and left Friedrich Hayek stranded in Chicago without the dignity of a university salary (the libertarian William Volker Fund paid for his professorship). This traumatized mindset was even understandable in 1965, when the assassination of John F. Kennedy generated enough political goodwill for Lyndon Johnson to practically nationalize the social safety net. Those liberals certainly gave conservatives plenty to feel bad about! But by the late 1970s, the victim role was wearing thin. Conservatives imagined the pleasantly inept, agreeably centrist regime of Jimmy Carter as the height of liberal profligacy and the right-wing anti-tax policies of Ronald Reagan as the only cure America would ever need any crisis, ever.
(As one influential homeschooling advocate from Iowa once pointed out to me, I was not yet born during the Carter years and therefore could not remember how badly left-wing policies had damaged the nation. As if the recessions of the 1980s through the early 2000s, the many catastrophes of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, the 2007/08 financial crisis, and the person of Donald Trump were not enough to compensate for the blow that Carter had inflicted on the conservative psyche by having the gumption, the gall, to run for president and win after the worst Republican corruption scandal in generations.)
I’m not going to bother you with all the evidence that racial resentment, particularly emanating (though not exclusively by any means) from the Jim Crow South, fueled the conservative backlash that brought Reagan to power. I’m not going to recite all the ways in which Republicans today are no different from Republicans in the 1980s, or 1960s, or 1930s. You can turn to the work of Rick Perlstein or Sam Tanenhaus on the history of the conservative movement in America, or you can read a book like Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us, which lays out, among other things, the racist origins of National Review. That the Republican Party inherited its racial policies from the Dixiecrats is reason enough to refuse them your vote. But I’m much less interested in where the Republican Party has been (this was, after all, the party that ended slavery once upon a time) and much more interested in where the party is going.
Since 1980, an especially since 1994, the Republican Party has been a vehicle for the conservative movement. The conservative movement and its politically active base owns the Republican Party in a way that the left (be they the liberal-left or the socialist-left) has never owned the Democratic Party. And my question is, what ideas do the conservatives have in the pipeline? Where do they go after Donald Trump? They’ve rode anti-New Deal sentiment into the ground and forged a new neoliberal consensus. But the New Deal is long dead; big government is long buried; there’s hardly a person alive who was old enough to vote for FDR in 1944; there are increasingly fewer people alive who were old enough to vote for Reagan in 1980! So where’s the future for this neoliberal consensus when, in order to address the major questions of the day, the GOP is always referring back to forty-year-old policies and a dead president?
To answer these questions, I’m going to recommend a podcast: Know Your Enemy. Recently profiled in The New Yorker as “the post-dirtbag left” (a clear swipe at Chapo Trap House), Know Your Enemy‘s Sam Adler-Bell and Matthew Sitman host engaging and enlightening discussions of conservative history. Both socialists, Adler-Bell and Sitman possess a healthy respect for the conservative ground game throughout the middle and late twentieth century. This is not an especially snarky podcast, as The New Yorker review makes clear.
In particular, I believe that readers of my blog will find the July 12, 2019 episode entitled “The Rise of the Illiberal Right” extremely useful, and not just because it features frequent references to Rod Dreher. Adler-Bell and Sitman convincingly argue that ideas and house journals matter a lot more to Republican politics than they do to Democratic politics, and that one can glean insight into the future of the Republican Party by reading journals like First Things. And so they dive headfirst into the (then) recent Sohrab Ahmari-David French debate over Drag Queen Story Hour, connecting the stakes of that debate to conservative views on gerrymandering and the census. As the episode progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the future Adler-Bell and Sitman see for the Republican Party is illiberal democracy.
Dreher’s recent trip to Hungary was not, it seems, for nothing. (On Hungary, this is the best article I’ve read on that topic written for a popular audience.)
Back in 1980, when my then-nineteen-year-old father became a conservative Republican and cast his first vote for Ronald Reagan, you became a Republican largely by opposing the New Deal, whether in part or in whole. Don’t like the postwar Keynesian consensus? Fine: there’s an entire tradition of center-right libertarianism stretching back through FDR’s four terms and beyond, deep into the recesses of the American unconscious. Such a tradition can be properly understood as liberal, as wholly compatible with democracy. Heck, as Adler-Bell and Sitman point out, Republicans used to crow about being in the majority on cultural issues. The feeling was always that liberal elites were coopting the will of the majority of Americans by imposing large (if popular) government programs.
So what makes you a Republican today? It’s no longer just opposition to Democratic policies, but opposition to small-d democracy. Granted, the right has always rumbled about the United States being “a republic not a democracy,” which was always code for their opposition to raw majoritarianism. But now you have a party who is consistently against the expansion of the franchise; some are even in favor of inflating the franchise for their own voters. Sixty-six percent of Republicans believe the last presidential election was stolen, which, presumably, will offer them few scruples about stealing the next one should the occasion arise. And not only were recent Republican presidents and senate majorities elected without national majorities, but recent Republican majorities in the U.S. house of representatives (where the democratic “passions of the people” are supposed to hold sway) were elected by a minority of U.S. voters. The Republican Party’s interests are not democratic, and if the past is any indication, the Republican Party will always act in its interests.
I’ve made fun of these “why I’m not a [blank]” posts before, so I suppose I’m a hypocrite to post this one. But political parties are not, evidence to the contrary, religious denominations. Faith chooses us; we choose our politics. If, like most Americans, your politics falls anywhere near the center, I strongly encourage you to listen to “The Rise of the Illiberal Right” on Know Your Enemy. The episode touches on a lot of the political themes I’ve covered in this blog, and it makes strong (and increasingly prescient) predictions about our shared political future. The future doesn’t look bright, and for now, there only seems to be one major party in the United States worth supporting.
Why am I not a Republican? It used to be that I opposed policy x or program y, that I opposed war in Iraq or a Hayekian response to the financial crisis. Nowadays, however, I’m not a Republican because Republicans are against democracy.