American conservatism: A very brief history
Between now and November, the various components of each major political party will be accusing each other of being too far left or too far right or being too passive in the middle. Fortunately, the hallmark of American politics is the ability to disagree without resorting to physical violence -- most of the time.
More accustomed to being in power, Democrats are better at aggregating their fringe components (feminists, gays, blacks, global warmers, radical students, left-wing professors, and anti-free-trade union members) into a more or less manageable coalition. Long ago, Democrats learned it is better to win half-a-loaf than risk losing the entire loaf. Republicans, who tend to be more doctrinaire, sometimes end up with no loaf at all.
For the first 80 years of the 20th Century, the Republican Party was a fragmented and weak coalition of Eastern Establishment/country-clubbers (AKA as Big-Government Conservatives), Libertarians (who would just as soon have no government), Anti-Communists (who now see radical Islam as the larger threat), and a largely-silent core of Movement Conservatives (who just want limited government and lower taxes). During the 16 years of FDR and for 40 years following WWII, the Republicans were essentially on the outside looking in.
Then came: Ronald Reagan, the Reagan Democrats (people who felt the Democrats had gone too far Left), the Religious Right (seeking safety for the un-born, for religion in the work place, in public schools and a respect for the sanctity of marriage and the preservation of traditional family values), and the Neoconservatives (often Jewish intellectuals who fear the Democrats will throw Israel to the Palestinian wolves).
Actually, Reagan came in the wake of Senator Barry Goldwater who could not get the public to understand that he was not in league with McCarthyism or the crazies in the John Birch Society. Goldwater lost in a landslide to LBJ in 1964.
Ronald Reagan, a life-long FDR Democrat, didn’t join the Republican Party until 1962. Thus, he was free of the baggage that plagued Goldwater. He sailed into national politics as both a born-again Christian and a supply-side economist. Reagan appealed to southerners, blue-collar workers, Catholics, certain union members, farmers and other socially-conservative Democrats – the “Reagan Democrats.”
Prior to Reagan, Christian Conservatives stayed at home clinging to their guns, their religion, their xenophobia and their large vehicles. That is until the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion-on-demand and a ban on school prayer. That got their attention.
Despite some doctrinal divisions, Christian Conservatives can be the most loyal and dependable component of a conservative coalition. Because they coalesce behind ideas rather than personal political ambitions, they, unlike the Eastern Establishment (country-club) Republicans, usually won’t cave into the Democrats.
But, as those who worked with them in the early 1980s learned, the Christian Right is difficult to mobilize. Prior to Roe v. Wade they didn’t think about abortion. Maybe because they didn’t know of anyone who had one. Also, they expected virtually every public function to open with prayer.
But when the government began to tell them what they could do or could not do in public, within their churches and within their families, they rose up in arms and became the most potent political movement of the 1980s. By overwhelming majorities, they elected and reelected Ronald Reagan.
Even though President Reagan reduced Jimmy Carter’s misery index (unemployment rate plus inflation rate) from 21.98-percent to 9.72-percent, as President, George H.W. Bush, still didn’t get it. He broke his promise not to raise taxes. In 1992, when he ran for his own reelection, he lost to Bill Clinton.
Then, joined by the Neoconservatives and the Libertarians, the Movement Conservatives gained control of Congress in 1994. That began 12-years of GOP congressional control that ended in 2006 when too many Republican office-holders decided Congress was a Jacuzzi™ rather than the cesspool they promised to drain.
That brings us to 2008. Political coalitions are like herding cats. By November, we’ll see which party is better at it.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is a former assistant professor of history and political science at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
©2008. William Hamilton.