Restructuring of the U.S. political right

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Restructuring of the U.S. political right is a broad effort that variously tries to regain the political success of the coalition under Ronald Reagan, or, alternatively, tries to redefine the right, which may or may not mean the Republican Party, in purer ideological terms. Under Reagan, the center-right identified Republican Party had a peak of success, which built an effective coalition of fiscal, social and national security conservatism that both appealed to traditional Republicans but also brought in significant numbers of Democrats, especially fiscal conservatives.

That coalition has fractured, and the various approaches to restructuring include Republican party reorganization to make it a more bottom-up movement that remains inclusive, or alternatives that make it more ideologically pure, such as the Christian Right's emphasis on social conservatism, or the libertarian-influenced government minimization. It is not a given that a resurgent right will bear the Republican name, although most serious political analysts recognize the historic difficulty of creating a third party in the United States. Nevertheless, a number of theoreticians of reform define the change in terms of enlightened conservatism, although there is no consensus on the nature of enlightenment; groups such as The NextRight are trying to define it. Other reformers, such as David Frum, believe that the Republican Party lost its focus on governance, overly emphasizing short-term electoral victories. Ross Douthat makes an argument similar to Frum's, "is that with rare exceptions (a Mitch Daniels, a Paul Ryan), there aren’t many Republican politicians who seem interested in taking up the best right-of-center policy ideas and fighting for them." He sees a dysfunctional "ecosystem" as split into:

As the more strategic thinkers focus on the long-term goals, current elections show some of the conflict. In the March 2010 Texas gubernatorial primary, for example, incumbent Governor Rick Perry won the election, emphasizing social conservatism; his criticism of opponent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is more reminscent of Republican criticism of Democrats than of other Republicans. Perry was, however, challenged by an even more conservative opponent. [2] Even more significant is positioning for the 2010 Congressional elections.

Evolution of the right

After the Second World War, anticommunism became an obvious central point for all sides. By 1947, there was starting to be a divergence between containment policy and the more aggressive rollback policy, the latter leading to the firing of Douglas MacArthur in the Korean War.

A "New Right" movement began to form in the late fifties and early sixties, as evidenced by the 1960 Sharon Statement and the formation of Young Americans for Freedom under the leadership of William F. Buckley Jr.. Various libertarian, traditionalist, and fusionist factions formed, but serious political efforts waited for 1964.

According to Mickey Edwards, the true father of uniquely American conservatism, in his opinion, is Barry Goldwater. It emphasized "free enterprise", but not necessarily corporate profit. While he personally disliked some of the new lifestyles of the 1960s and 1970s, he did not see his role as forcing his moral choices on others. His ideals

...grounded not prescriptions of social orders and classes or on a specific religious faith, but rather on religious diversity and holding officeholders responsible to the people.[3]

Edwards cited Sarah Bramwell, who said, in a 2004 retrospective, [4] the basic American conservative motivations had been

Modern American conservatism began in an effort to do two things: defeat Communism and roll back creeping socialism. A half century later, these goals are no longer relevant. The first was obviated by our success, the latter by our failure. So what is left of conservatism?

Evolution of the New Right

Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote of New Right political activists and authors from the late sixties and early seventies, such as Pat Buchanan, Kevin Phillips, William Rusher and Richard Whalen, who shared a view that went beyond classic conservative positions, and indeed labeled them "neo-populist pseudo-conservatives" in the eyes of the Old Right. She considered the core principles

preoccupation with the nation's waning self-confidence; concern over the decline of such traditional values as discipline, restraint, consensus; rejection of guilt-ridden liberalism, of judicial decision-making, of social engineering, and burgeoning bureaucracy; commitment to patriotism and a strong national defense.

The added principles of the New Right, however, included for example, Kevin Phillips' belief in the existence, in the electorate of a hidden conservative majority; [5]

...that the social division with the greatest potential political significance is not that between “haves” and “have-nots” but between the liberal elite and everybody else; that a realignment of the parties into two ideologically homogeneous groups is both desirable and likely; that the Republican party may not prove an effective institutional channel for the expression of truly conservative politics and should perhaps be abandoned; and that the principal obstacles to the conservative cause are the nation's media monopolies through whose “distorting lens” is filtered “almost every scrap of information Americans receive of their national government, its programs, policies and personalities (Buchanan)” [6]

Nixon and the aftermath

Richard Nixon was only loosely considered conservative, although he had strong anticommunist credentials — which leveraged into detente and an opening with China. Kevin Phillips did not believe he needed to move leftwards to capture the electorate.[7]

The time after Nixon's resignation due to Watergate, with the lack of charisma of Gerald Ford and the taking back of the White House by Jimmy Carter, caused some conservatives, such as Richard Viguerie and William Rusher, to push for a third party. Kirkpatrick argued "voters will repudiate candidates who offer a narrowly ideological rhetoric and a divisive appeal."[6] Conservatives could win only when they ran against candidates perceived as counterculture, such as George McGovern, as opposed to candidates such as Carter, who could convince both liberals and conservatives that he resonated with them. [8]


The next resurgence came with Ronald Reagan. While a wide range of conservatives, from different factions, point to Reagan as an icon, Reagan was less an ideological purist and more a gifted communicator. Douthat and Salam agree that Phillips was correct about Republican strength in the South, they found he did not agree with those in the New Right who believed that the electorate was fundamentally opposed to liberalism and the welfare state. They said "while small government conservatives rightly remember him as one of their own, he was at great pains to display his affinities for Goldwaterism during the latter part of the '80 campaign. He would attack government waste and oppressive bureaucracy, but never the pillars of the welfare state."

In his inaugural speech, they suggested he spoke more from a neoconservative than a paleoconservative abolish-government viewpoint:

Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back.

The appeal to the working class linked to Nixon's Silent Majority, and would resonate again with Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America in 1994.[9]

Once in office, the neoconservative vs. paleoconservative distinction continued, with the least dissonance in national security policy.

Working class issues

In 1983, Newt Gingrich organized the Conservative Opportunity Society, along with Vin Weber and Bob Walker.[10] Weber said that it did not assume that the welfare state was necessarily bad, and was an alternative both to authoritarian states and "with the Darwinian free enterprise, laissez-faire. Liberal Welfare State was a positive idea." Their evolutionary concept, he continued, presented a conservative alternative, "opportunity as opposed to welfare; welfare being, in our view, synonymous with a dependency society," but he said this was not presented fairly.

Ultimately there has to be a positive set of issues that attract people to the Republican Party, issues for which they feel confident voting for. That part of the message was lost early on because the press and our opposition, of course, only focused on confrontational tactics that we employed in the House, tactics that deserved a lot of attention. But it did obscure for many years people's vision when it came to understanding what Newt Gingrich was all about.

The Conservative Opportunity Society, in 1994, were able to co-opt the populist third-party movement of Ross Perot, who had moved into a vacuum where the working class saw economic stagnation. [11] Weber said that it focused on wedge issues, especially school prayer and the Balanced Budget Amendment.

Some conservative analysts suggest the anger and rigidity of this movement led to the election of Bill Clinton. Another aspect of the 1994 revolt was the intensification of party power.

Culture wars

Also in the early nineties, religious conservatism took much more of a role. Bramwell, in her 2004 speech cited by Edwards, continued,

Well, since the 1960s, the conservative movement took on a third goal, namely winning the culture wars. By culture wars, I mean everything from preserving traditional morality, to passing on the Western inheritance, to preserving a distinctly American common culture, to resisting the threat posed by biotechnology to human nature itself. To win these wars, conservatives must make the case against such things as gay marriage, stem-cell research, open borders, and our hideous suburban sprawl. All these battles are really part of the same war—a war, unfortunately, that we seem determined to lose. [4]

As an example of how religious conservatives has altered the more general movement, Edwards mentions that the 1973 founding statement of the Heritage Foundation cited four values: "free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom and a strong national defense." Neither the 1960 Sharon Statement nor the 1964 mission statement of the American Conservative Union mentions "traditional" or "social" issues. The Heritage Foundation, however, added "traditional American values" in 1993.[12] Weber said that school prayer was a wedge issue for the Conservative Opportunity Society in 1983.


David Frum believes the George W. Bush Administration lost focus, especially due to Karl Rove's emphasis on doing what was needed for "...Republicans win elections after Bill Clinton steered the Democrats to the center?" but not "What does the nation need — and how can conservatives achieve it?" Frum said Rove targeted specific constituencies with often-inconsistent promises, emphasizing party-building over governance. The problems of governance this created hurt, he says, the Republicans in the 2006 Congressional elections. [13]

Republican views

Within the Republican leadership, views on direction are mixed. There is a recognition that such events as the 12 September 2009 protest march may be connecting more effectively than the Republican National Committee and other organizations. House Republican Conference leader Mike Pence (Indiana) and other elected officials, including U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Virginia) and Sen. Jim DeMint (South Carolina) spoke at the march. Others, however, such as Mark McKinnon, an adviser in the John McCain campaign said that while there is an " 'opportunity for Republicans" to tap into legitimate fears about an overreaching federal government...[but] 'right-wing nutballs are aligning themselves with these movements' and are dominating media coverage. It's bad for Republicans because in the absence of any real leadership, the freaks fill the void and define the party'" [14]

Pence denied reports that the party was threatened by conservative activists and broadcasters.

You know, the American people cherish their freedom of speech and a free and independent press. That's why I found this morning's headlines so troubling. Goaded on by a White House increasingly intolerant of criticism, lately the national media has taken aim at conservative commentators in radio and television. Suggesting that they only speak for a small group of activists and even suggesting in one report today that Republicans in Washington are ‘worried about their electoral effect.’ [15]

New media

To an unprecedented extent, broadcasters, some with no direct political experience such as Rush Limbaugh,[16] and others primarily known as commentators such as Laura Ingraham, are variously claiming leadership of the right, or making policy proposals such as Ingraham's Ten for Ten. [17]

Frum has accused media of distorting the process.

There's the perfect culmination of the outlook Rush Limbaugh has taught his fans and followers: we want to transform the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan into a party of unanimous dittoheads—and we don't care how much the party has to shrink to do it. That's not the language of politics. It's the language of a cult.

I doubt Limbaugh and I even disagree very much. But the issues on which we do disagree are maybe the most important to the future of the conservative movement and the Republican Party: Should conservatives be trying to provoke or persuade? To narrow our coalition or enlarge it? To enflame or govern? And finally (and above all): to profit—or to serve?[18]

Tea Party Movement

For more information, see: Tea Party Movement.

A highly visible but recent factor is the Tea Party Movement, initially targeted for anti-tax protests on the U.S. tax day of 15 April 2009; it was named for the Boston Tea Party in the American Revolution. Many participants say it is a genuine bottom-up movement, whose members learned from the community organizing of groups on the left, especially citing Web-inspired groups such as It is characterized, however, by opposition and anger more than specific recommendations. Three conservative groups, FreedomWorks, dontGO and Americans for Prosperity, an issue advocacy/activist group based on free market principles." All three insist they are assisting a genuine grass-roots movement.[19] DontGO did create the original website, While there is no formal leadership, there is a Tea Party National Advisory Team, associated with a subsequent protest on 4 July 2009, the U.S. national independence day. [20]

While its original focus was on taxes, its scope has broadened, although it continues to be characterized more by protests and anger than an actual platform. Three national figures associated with it are Sarah Palin, Fox News host Glenn Beck, and Rep. Michele Bachmann. Unquestionably, it energizes activists in the Republican base. CNN contributor John Feehery said while it energizes the Republican base, it also presents problems.

The Tea Party combines the best elements of civic activism with some of the worst elements of fringe extremism...While most Tea Party activists are genuinely concerned about the future of the country, some others see conspiracies around every corner and use unacceptable rhetoric to communicate their displeasure with the president."[21]

Some have compared the Tea Party movement and their political allies to Richard Hofstadter's conception of "the paranoid style"[22], which Hofstadter argued surfaces with some regularity in U.S. politics. A number of the signs at the Tea Party rallies have compared President Obama with Hitler or with Communism[23].

Writing in the conservative National Review, Jim Geraghty questioned the possible irony of "The Tea Party movement in all its myriad forms — free-market groups, little old ladies, crusty in flag hats, fans of Glenn Beck's 9-12 Project — have done everything one could possibly ask to derail a government takeover of the health-care system. It will be a perverse irony if their high-visibility protests end up persuading Democrats to damn the torpedoes in the face of near-certain electoral doom." He suggested that while some Democrats might lose their seats if they vote for the bill, if they fail to do so, they might enrage the Democratic base, with the Republican base already activated, and lose control of the House in the 2010 elections.[24]

Litmus tests

Opposition to abortion, to many social conservatives, is the core issue facing the right. To a different constituency, gun control is the key issue. Discussing issues going into the 2008 United States presidential election, Soren Dayton quoted one formulation from David Freddoso,

There is a long philosophical debate to be had over what makes a conservative, but conservatives in Washington have a rule of thumb for awarding the label to actual politicians: It’s the trinity of conservative issues: "Guns, Babies, and Taxes." My own minimum definition of a conservative officeholder or candidate is someone who is "good" on at least two of the three, and one of them has to be "Babies." [25]

Dayton continued, however, that Freddoso's definition excluded such things as national defense, crime, spending and immigration, the latter excluding generally recognized conservatives as Rep. Jeff Flake and Chris Cannon "because they support a path to citizenship and a free market in labor, in addition to goods .... John McCain’s first real apostasy was campaign finance reform. Most of his other major sins occurred after that. Fred Thompson is a liberal because he extends federalism (a conservative principle) to gay marriage. And Ramesh points out that, on the original 3 principles, Reagan was 0-3 for quite a while."

This pattern, according to Dayton, led to "the transformation from the conservative movement from an organization around core of principles to a bunch of interest groups. This is the critical problem...Because conservatism lost its coherence, it has also lost its brand.[26]


  1. Russ Douthat (16 April 2010), "The Conservative Mind, Circa 2010", New York Times
  2. Peter Slevin (13 December 2009), "In Texas, a showdown at the GOP corral: Hutchison, Perry race could augur outcome of elections nationwide", Washington Post
  3. Mickey Edwards (2008), Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost — and How It Can Find Its Way Back, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195335583, pp. 25-28
  4. 4.0 4.1 Sarah Bramwell (1 May 2004), 40th Gala! National Meeting, The Philadelphia Society
  5. Kevin Phillips (1969), The Emerging Republican Majority, Arlington House, ISBN 978-0870000584
  6. 6.0 6.1 Jeane Kirkpatrick (February 1977), "Why the New Right Lost", Commentary (magazine)
  7. Nelson Polsby (Fall 1969), "An Emerging Republican Majority?", National Affairs
  8. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (2008), Grand New Party: How Republicans can win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, Doubleday, pp. 72-73
  9. Douthat and Salam, pp. 77-80
  10. The Long March of Newt Gingrich: Vin Weber interview, PBS Frontline
  11. Douthat and Salam, p. 92
  12. Edwards, Reclaiming Conservatism, p. 44
  13. David Frum (14 August 2007), "OpEd: Building a Coalition, Forgetting to Rule", Time
  14. Dan Eggen and Perry Bacon Jr. (12 September 2009), "GOP Sees Protest As an Opportunity: 'Taxpayer March' in D.C. Attracts Party Leaders, but Some Are Wary", Washington Post
  15. "Pence: Rush, Beck speak for many", Politico, 22 October 2009
  16. Rush Limbaugh, About the Rush Limbaugh Show, The Rush Limbaugh Show® Premiere Radio Networks
  17. Winning Washington by Empowering Americans,, September 15, 2009
  18. David Frum (16 March 2009), "Why Rush is Wrong: The party of Buckley and Reagan is now bereft and dominated by the politics of Limbaugh. A conservative's lament.", Newsweek
  19. Chris Good (13 April 2009), "The Tea Party Movement: Who's In Charge?", The Atlantic
  20. The National Leadership Team, National Tea Party Coalition
  21. Ed Hornick (7 December 2009), "Tea Party movement threatened by internal rifts", CNN
  22. Richard Hofstadter, (1964) The Paranoid Style in American Politics,
  23. Robert Shrum, The Republicans' Paranoid Style, The Week, April 21, 2009
  24. Jim Geraghty (6 November 2009), "Inverse Reaction: House Democrats may fear the consequences of not passing a bill more than any other.", National Review
  25. David Freddoso (10 October 2007), "re Giuliani and what makes a conservative pol?", National Review
  26. Soren Dayton (11 October 2007), Just babies, guns, and taxes? Or more?