A (Pretty) Short History Of Wingnutism

In his WaPo column today, E.J. Dionne quotes one of his readers: “Conservatism, like Christianity, has not failed. Neither has ever been tried,

In his WaPo column today, E.J. Dionne quotes one of his readers: “Conservatism, like Christianity, has not failed. Neither has ever been tried, especially by this administration.”
This person may have a point about Christianity, although I think a handful of people have made a sincere effort; Albert Schweitzer comes to mind. But he’s wrong about American-style conservatism. It’s been tried, and it failed.

As Digby wrote recently,

I did not understand the zombie nature of Republicanism and had no way of knowing that unless you drive a metaphorical stake through the heart of GOP crooks and liars, they will be back, refreshed and and ready to screw up the country in almost exactly the same way, within just a few years.

In support of Digby’s statement I present here A (Pretty) Short History of Wingnutism.

After the Civil War, the American Right reacted to European socialism by adopting “laissez faire” economics with a vengeance. They embraced the idea that any government regulation of business was the equivalent of European socialism and a threat to civilization itself. The rise of big business was the natural activity of the laws of nature and God, they said. The late-19th century Supreme Court saw itself not as the protecting of individual liberty against the state, but the protector of individual wealth against the mob.

As historian Eric Siegel wrote,

According to what came to be known as “constitutional morality,” legislation supporting the right to unionize or limiting children’s working hours was an un-American form of group privilege. Laissez-faire conservatism reached its intellectual apogee in the 1920s. A critic complained that by 1924 you didn’t have to be a radical to be denounced as un-American: “according to the lights of Constitution worship you are no less a Red if you seek change through the very channels which the Constitution itself provides.”

In Europe conservatism was based on hereditary classes; in America it was based on hereditary religious, ethnic, and racial groups. The GOP, a largely Protestant party, looked upon itself as the manifestation of the divine creed of Americanism revealed through the Constitution. To be a conservative, then, was to share in a religiously ordained vision of a largely stateless society of self-regulating individuals. [The Reader’s Companion to American History, edited by Eric Foner and John Garraty (Houghton Mifflin, 1991), p.222]


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By now you probably see where we’re going. “American Way” conservatism was the dominant political philosophy in the 1920s, and the nation was governed by its principles through the Harding and Coolidge administrations, from 1921 to 1929. Some historians call this decade “the Republican Era.” The vigorous progressivism of 1900-1916 was vanquished, and the labor union movement lost ground. In fact, the longer one looks at America in the 1920s, the more familiar it gets — corporate profits rising faster than worker earnings; a crackdown on immigration; culture wars led by an aggressive Christian fundamentalist movement; and tax cuts galore. If they’d had iPods back then, you’d hardly know the difference.

Of course, it would come to pass that the Republican who won the 1928 presidential election by a landslide, Herbert Hoover, was probably sorry he won. The stock market crashed in October 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression. The Depression was caused by a number of interacting factors, and since it was a worldwide phenomenon you can’t blame the Republicans for all of it. But in the United States many of those factors were created, directly or indirectly, by “American Way” conservative policies. Among these factors were a wildly overheated stock market (security regulation was socialism, after all) and the maldistribution of wealth that resulted from laissez-faire business policies. Since President Herbert Hoover was a tried-and-true “American Way” conservative, he mostly was at a loss to solve the nation’s economic problems, even though he had almost all of his four-year term to do so. In 1932 the nation turned to a liberal Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, to make things right.

Righties are quick to point out that the New Deal had a limited impact on the Depression, and that the nation’s economy didn’t really pull out of the slump until the industrialization of World War II — over which FDR also presided. (This is just one of many examples of righties taunting lefties for not cleaning up rightie messes they couldn’t clean up themselves; Iraq is another.) But New Deal programs had a longer-term success in fostering economic stability. Federal deposit insurance, unemployment insurance, Social Security, increased government oversight of securities, and other New Deal innovations made Americans’ economic lives more secure and created a buffer against many of the factors that cause economic depressions.

And considering that rightie counter-arguments to the New Deal usually advocate returning to the same governing philosophy that allowed the Depression to happen, you’ll forgive me if I don’t take them seriously.

Anyway, after the FDR landslide in 1932 it was clear the right wing had fallen from grace. Righties spent the rest of the 1930s seething with resentment and planning a comeback. And just when they had a shot at re-taking the White House — bam, World War II happened. And this made the American Right look doubly stupid, because for the most part righties in the 1930s were isolationists who had not only pooh-poohed the threat of the Third Reich but had actually admired Mussolini.

After World War II righties rebounded with a fury. They did this in large part by taking the issue of national security away from the Democrats. It’s important to understand that the Right managed this not because of anything they actually accomplished, but through a “compilation of hysterical charges and bald-faced lies,” to quote Kevin Baker in this Harper’s article, “Stabbed in the Back,” which I vigorously urge you to read.

Much of the Red Scare and McCarthyist hysteria of the late 1940s and 1950s were as much about slapping down liberals and Democrats as it was about national security. See the Kevin Baker article for details. See also Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage/Random House, 1962), in particular pp. 41-42 (emphasis added):

The inquisitors were trying to give satisfaction against liberals, New Dealers, reformers, internationalists, intellectuals, and finally even against a Republican administration that failed to reserve reverse liberal policies. What was involved, above all, was a set of political hostilities in which the New Deal was linked to the welfare state, the welfare state to socialism, and socialism to Communism. In this crusade Communism was not the target but the weapon, and it is for this reason that so many of the most ardent hunters of impotent domestic Communists were altogether indifferent to efforts to meet the power of International Communism where it really mattered — in the area of world politics.

For a brief time the Dems countered with the “tough liberalism” of which Peter Beinart is so fond, but Beinart misses what the political turmoil of the 1950s was really about. The charges about “losing China” and being “soft on Communism” were not at their roots about national security at all, which is why no amount of national security toughness on the part of liberals will ever appease the Right. And I sincerely believe you can take what Hofstadter wrote about the American Right and Communism and update it to the American Right and Islamic terrorism, and it would still be right on the money.

Although the Right was more or less aligned with the Republican Party, after World War II Republican presidents were never “conservative” enough to suit them. Certainly Eisenhower wasn’t, nor Nixon, although they supported Nixon because he was tough on hippies. Neither did the late Gerald Ford please them. Their true allegiance was drawn to the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the party, which is why Their Day Dawned when Ronald Reagan became president.

By now we’ve moved into an area of history with which most younger readers are familiar — how Saint Ronald of Blessed Memory single-handedly slew International Communism and brought the nation to glorious prosperity by cutting taxes. Neither of which is, of course, what happened, but it’s what righties believe happened. But even the Reagan Administration wasn’t “pure” enough for them, because Democrats controlled Congress through the Reagan Administration. And because of those pesky Democrats, wingnut lore says, Reagan was constrained from returning the nation to a pre-New Deal state of holiness as he had wished to do.

George H.W. Bush fell short of wingnut expectations when he broke the “no new taxes” pledge. The Right never considered Bill Clinton to be a legitimate president even though he clearly won the elections of 1992 and 1996, and righties went, as they say, batshit crazy for eight years trying to bring him down. Even though neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton are all that liberal (to this liberal, anyway), something about them enflamed all the rage and the resentment American “conservatives” have been nursing since the 1930s.

Finally, however, the Right got back the free hand they’d lost in the election of 1932. They won control of the White House in 2000 and complete control of Congress in 2002, and by exploitation of the September 11 attacks managed for a time to wrap a cult of personality around George W. Bush and make him invincible. So righties have been mostly in control of the federal government for six years and fully in control for four, yet they still whine that they haven’t gotten a chance to do what they want to do. And if our nation and our foreign policy are hopelessly bleeped up, it’s not conservatism’s fault. Waa, waa, waa.

Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times column today (behind a subscription firewall, alas),

After first attempting to deny the scale of last month’s defeat, the apologists have settled on a story line that sounds just like Marxist explanations for the failure of the Soviet Union. What happened, you see, was that the noble ideals of the Republican revolution of 1994 were undermined by Washington’s corrupting ways. And the recent defeat was a good thing, because it will force a return to the true conservative path.

Krugman writes that in 1994 House Majority Leader Dick Armey promised to “reduce the federal government by half as a percentage of gross domestic product.” However, the reality is that most of what Armey wanted to cut are programs and services that lots of people really want, like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Krugman continues,

As long as people like Mr. Armey, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were out of power, they could run on promises to eliminate vast government waste that existed only in the public’s imagination — all those welfare queens driving Cadillacs. But once in power, they couldn’t deliver.

That’s why government by the radical right has been an utter failure even on its own terms: the government hasn’t shrunk. Federal outlays other than interest payments and defense spending are a higher percentage of G.D.P. today than they were when Mr. Armey wrote his book: 14.8 percent in fiscal 2006, compared with 13.8 percent in fiscal 1995.

Unable to make good on its promises, the G.O.P., like other failed revolutionary movements, tried to maintain its grip by exploiting its position of power. Friends were rewarded with patronage: Jack Abramoff began building his web of corruption almost as soon as Republicans took control. Adversaries were harassed with smear campaigns and witch hunts: Congress spent six years and many millions of dollars investigating a failed land deal, and Bill Clinton was impeached over a consensual affair.

But it wasn’t enough. Without 9/11, the Republican revolution would probably have petered out quietly, with the loss of Congress in 2002 and the White House in 2004. Instead, the atrocity created a window of opportunity: four extra years gained by drowning out unfavorable news with terror alerts, starting a gratuitous war, and accusing Democrats of being weak on national security.

Yet the Bush administration failed to convert this electoral success into progress on a right-wing domestic agenda. The collapse of the push to privatize Social Security recapitulated the failure of the Republican revolution as a whole. Once the administration was forced to get specific about the details, it became obvious that private accounts couldn’t produce something for nothing, and the public’s support vanished.

In the end, Republicans didn’t shrink the government. But they did degrade it. Baghdad and New Orleans are the arrival destinations of a movement based on deep contempt for governance.

Is that the end for the radical right? Probably not. As a long-suffering civil servant once told me, bad policy ideas are like cockroaches: you can flush them down the toilet, but they keep coming back. Many of the ideas that failed in the Bush years had previously failed in the Reagan years. So there’s no reason to assume they’re gone for good.

Indeed, it appears that loss of power and the ensuing lack of accountability is liberating right-wingers to lie yet again: since last month’s election, I’ve noticed a number of Social Security privatizers propounding the same free-lunch falsehoods that the Bush administration had to abandon in the face of demands that it present an actual plan.

And that, bottom line, is the sad truth behind American conservatism — it’s all talk, no walk. It can bellyache up a storm, but it can’t govern its way out of a wet paper bag.

I mentioned the historian Richard Hofstadter earlier in this post. Hofstadter’s essays on pseudo-conservatism, written in the 1950s and 1960s, are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand wingnuttiness. Some of these are collected in a book called The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays that I recommend highly. Some of Hofstadter’s essays are online, but they’re in badly and stupidly condensed form, so that much of the really good stuff is cut out. Anyway, the people we call “conservatives” or “righties” or “wingnuts” today are what Hofstadter called pseudo-conservatives, and he defined them this way:

The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.

The truth of it is that wingnuts know only how to destroy, not to build. And wingnutism is a philosophy of resentment, not of governing. Give the American Right a free hand to govern, and it will fail, every time. Count on it.

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