The pitchforks are out in the swing states. Direct-mail pieces are showing up in West Virginia warning the faithful that dark things are in store if the hated “liberal agenda” prevails in November. “Vote Republican to protect our families,” the letter admonishes. A photo of the Bible appears, stamped with the word “BANNED.” Another photo pictures a homosexual on his knees placing a ring on the finger of his man-spouse. This scene bears the legend “ALLOWED.”
A bit surprisingly — but, then again, not — the letter’s return address is given as the Republican National Committee.
Certainly, the piece falls short of the best work Republicans are capable of. Jesse Helms’ creative team set the bar pretty high years ago when it warned North Carolina voters, “Your tax dollars are being used to pay for grade school education [that] teaches our children CANNIBALISM, WIFE-SWAPPING and the MURDER of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior.”
With a month to go before the election, the West Virginia letter is bound to be surpassed by even grosser appeals to fear and loathing. It happens every election cycle, a torrent of ads and direct-mail appeals explaining to the white voter of small-town and suburban America the ways he is victimized by liberal treachery. The way the liberal elite mocks his piety and his patriotism. The way liberal government taxes him and uses the proceeds to poison “the culture.” The way liberal doves shrink before America’s enemies, because they too are the enemies of Americans.
When such pandering makes its inevitable appearance in campaigns, liberals just as inevitably register their shock and incredulity. Do people really buy this crap? Can it be that, in 2004, the center-left is still paying a political price for supporting civil rights and protesting against the Vietnam War? How much longer can the Republicans possibly ride the wave of white lumpen resentment?
The answers, respectively, are yes, yes and forever. The conservative backlash that began 40 years ago with the candidacy of Barry Goldwater has never been healthier or more productive. Its prospects for growth and expansion into hitherto unexploited markets are excellent — even, perhaps especially, if John Kerry is elected president. I only wish I could buy stock in it.
Some observers see what they hopefully regard as a counter-backlash gaining steam on the left. “Bush hatred,” as the right-wing controversialists call it, has indeed garnered the Democratic Party a bit of the fire, youthful energy and populist appeal it has lacked for more than a generation. Moreover, it finally appears to have dawned on the limousine class of liberal that the Republicans now occupy the commanding heights of political power and are preparing to shell the hell out of what remains of the New Deal, the Great Society — and, indeed, what remains of the Democratic Party. In other words, the limousine liberals are stuck with us in Sarajevo.
So we’re all pulling together in 2004. Call it a popular front. A movement, however, it ain’t.
To understand how much work progressives have to do in the United States, one need only look back on the stupendous revolution pulled off by the conservative movement. Its signal achievement — and one that continues to baffle deep thinkers of the center and left — was to win the hearts and minds of vast numbers of Americans who ought to have been, by the standard calculations of the time, easy marks for economic populism.
The closer one looks at the backlash, the more brilliant this achievement seems. Consider the two red-letter years for conservative militancy, 1978 and 1994. The first saw the advance party of new-style conservative populists — Newt Gingrich, to name only one — ushered into Washington. The latter marked their conquest of the U.S. Congress. Each of these events took place against a backdrop of deep economic troubles for the country’s working and middle classes. Indeed, the late 1970s and the early 1990s were pretty much defined by the deep discouragement of working stiffs and their resentment of the economic elite. How, then, did these times give us Gingrich?
The New Right understood that for their party to succeed in adverse times, it had to — in the words of tax rebel Howard Phillips — “organize discontent.” John Dolan, an early conservative political action committee operative echoed this sentiment, boasting that he conceived his mission to “stir up hostilities. We are trying to be divisive. … The shriller you are the better it is to raise money.” Not just to raise money, of course, but to build a movement. Direct-mail mavens like Richard Viguerie, himself the son of the Midwestern working class, understood how to work their humble brethren into a lather about issues with largely symbolic significance to the majority of voters — affirmative action, abortion, gun control. Political power, the New Right understood, grows out of the mailbox of a pissed-off gun owner.
One of the bizarre contradictions of the nascent reactionary movement, as historian Christopher Lasch noted, was that the target audience for these backlash solicitations was anything but a natural constituency for conservatism. Polling data at the time of California’s great property-tax revanche indicated that the movement’s adherents tended actually to favor such unconservative ideas as the redistribution of wealth.
Moreover, the New Right grasped that many of the so-called social issues were in fact class issues — that the high-minded principles axiomatic among educated, well-off liberals could be distorted beyond recognition when viewed through the prism of class. Decriminalizing abortion, for example, to its proponents meant freeing women from the “destiny” of biology, or alleviating the burden of poor women and families. To a great many with working-class attitudes or dispositions — what today’s political jargon calls “values” — abortion was a moral horror. It took little to convince such people that the only ends abortion could possibly serve were the extreme self-centeredness of the rich or the coddling of the poor.
It took little to convince them, in other words, that abortion — and busing, and affirmative action, and criminal justice reform, and a host of other issues — were antithetical to their way of life. Liberal moral vanity had been foisted on them against their will.
And so flowered the trope of displaced class rage, where the liberal stood in as a proxy for the boss. The deindustrialization of the ’80s and early ’90s continued to produce a healthy surplus of discontent, and the bright young operators of the conservative movement continued to organize and channel it to the Republican Party’s ends.
Now, many have observed that the New Right could not have worked these wonders without the benefit of regular and staggering subsidies remitted to its campaign funds, PACs and think tanks by the heirs of several industrial and financial fortunes. Again, however, one can only stand in awe of the political acumen at work. While assiduously attacking the academy for its liberal slant and declining standards, conservative benefactors set up think tanks as rival sources of authority in public discourse (free, incidentally, from the burdensome professional standards of the academy, such as peer review). Loudly bewailing the hopelessly liberal bias of the media, conservative money men funded magazines, newspapers, television programs, cable TV networks, university chairs and symposia, and made sure that every college in the land had some version of the Dartmouth Review operating on campus.
Poor little rich guys
All these enterprises were investments in an ambitious rhetorical project. Here was a party remaking the American political system according to the dictates of the monied interests, all the while presenting itself as the standard-bearer for the humble and neglected. Consumed by power lust, the conservative movement continually played the martyr, spoke of its persecution at the hands of a liberal overlord class. Amazingly, people bought it. The investment paid off.
Not only did the conceit sell, it assumed the dimensions of folklore. What was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, for example, but a retelling of the backlash myth with biblical scenery? The publicity campaign was carefully planned and executed to make sure that all the usual suspects — the New York Times, the liberal church folk, the PC crowd, the Jews — could scourge poor Mel in plain view of the nation’s fundagelicals. They repaid him seven times sevenfold for his trouble.
No, the backlash narrative no longer needs to be explained. We take it in like the air we breathe. The millions of fans of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, the Christians who hold vigils for fetuses and agitate for school prayer, the proud displayers of flags and yellow ribbons, all share this common refrain: We are victims, and we deserve our revenge.
If the Bush administration is returned to power, will the great founding myth of the backlash lose its luster? Perhaps. After all, Newt Gingrich rode high as an outsider, but he met his Waterloo when he actually had to make policy. (On the other hand, as Grover Norquist, the Ratko Mladic of Republican strategists, suggests, it may just be an opportunity to annihilate the Democratic Party.)
John Kerry hopes to squeak out a close victory by holding to the center. The Republicans, meanwhile, are sticking to the strategy that built their movement: Divide and conquer.
Perhaps, this year, the center will hold, giving Kerry the win. But what the Democrats need to do is build a movement of their own. So far, there’s no sign of it.