I’ve been reading The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 by Sean Wilentz, and it covers historical ground that most historians don’t want to touch for a good 30 years. Having spent a good deal of time with U.S. historians, the old adage that “history is argument without end” is fairly accurate when it comes to the interpretation of what constitutes historical fact. But historians like to wait for a good chunk of time to pass before digging into the archives of events. That’s why it’s surprising that a noted historian like Wilentz ends his study of the recent past by talking about the present. He may be premature, but Wilentz is ready to bookend “The Age of Reagan” with the end of the George W. Bush’s presidency rather than wait and see who becomes the next president. Just as New Deal liberalism had pretty much crumbled by the beginning of the 1970s, Wilentz thinks that Reagan Republicanism is now in its twilight. This bodes well for a resurgence of liberalism in the future, but it’s instructive to see how a revamped GOP was able become a dominant force in American politics from mid ’70s to the present.
Having a few large-scale events befall the GOP’s political opponents was extremely helpful in the rise of Reagan (i.e., Vietnam, civil rights movements, the counterculture, student protests, and urban riots). But it took a long-term palace revolt within the GOP during the ’60s and ’70s to slough off some of the Midwest and east coast Republicanism that kept the party center-right for a long time — far too long for those who were in love with Barry Goldwater’s ideology. In a way, Goldwater Republicans were cut from the same cloth as their New Left counterparts. The same “no compromise” attitude pervaded both camps, and while the New Left (a loose amalgamation of groups who could never really unite under a shared ideology) imploded by the beginning of the ’70s, “Phase II” of the countercultural revolution pushed forward until the mid ’70s (i.e., “Women’s Lib,” gay rights, the ecology movement, and sexual liberalization). Standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”* was the other counterculture: the New Right. Like I said, these two movements were cut from the same cloth, but while the New Left and its scions pointed out the injustices in the United States and sought to address them through protest, policy, and legislation, the New Right proclaimed their undying love for the United States while actively trying to destroy the very governmental institutions that helped to create the post WW II affluence they grew up in. In short, there was a tremendous amount of resentment in both camps, but the New Right used that resentment in a much more effective way — politically speaking, that is.
Instead of overtly directing middle class hostilities toward voting against their interests, the New Right used Nixonian “There are enemies all around us” rhetoric to amplify the cultural changes and racial hostilities erupting in the country. If blacks were rioting, it was the fault of liberalism. If gays were flaunting their sexuality in public, liberalism was to blame. If women (with men who had lost any sense of real masculinity) were trying to get an Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution — thus erasing any kind of gender difference in the country — it was because of an underlying liberalism. Anti-Nuke movement? Liberalism’s fault. Welfare cheats? Liberalism. Oil embargoes? Liberalism. Taxes? Liberalism. The word became like Jan Brady’s anti-Marcia mantra. “Liberalism! Liberalism! Liberalism!” But you know what? It worked. It worked in part because the New Right knows marketing. They know how branding works and have used it successfully to quiet political opponents with phrases and code words. However, the politics of resentment haven’t worked, only because of the political mastery of the New Right. Many Baby Boomers who embraced a new leftish point of view were no more enamored of liberalism. Old guard liberals shuffled their feet on civil rights. Liberals escalated the war in Vietnam. Liberals thwarted many reforms in colleges and universities. And liberals were so wedded to the politics of cities that they ignored the interests of those who lived in suburban areas.
Out of this cauldron comes Ronald Reagan. His political dominance of the GOP was due in large part to his charisma. But he also talked the talk of Barry Goldwater’s ideology of negative liberty — which has a politically libertarian streak. Libertarianism is key to Reagan’s popularity. While many middle class folks were tired and resentful of the social libertarian acts of the counterculture, they bought into Reagan’s rhetoric of political libertarianism — which held that government is the problem for any and all social ills. Even for many new leftish folks, they found themselves agreeing with a guy who had used armed government forces to crush student movements in Berkeley — movements that were pushing for more freedoms. Irony aside, Reagan and his supporters sought to build their “Big Tent” coalition from the disaffected and resentful voters. To keep the coalition together, they needed symbols and icons that would fuel the resentment that was key to their success. Where did they find it? In the leftish radicalism of the ’60s. They were the enemies, they were the problem, and if their “agenda” ever got implemented, well then, that would be the end of the United States. In short, voting Republican was the bulwark against the barbarians. In election cycle after election cycle, the excesses of the ’60s have been used to fire up support. Gay marriage was very effective in 2004, but already there’s a new front on connecting terrorism and the ’60s.
Case in point: You may have seen the news stories of John McCain’s chief fundraiser stepping down because of his ties to lobbyists. McCain’s policy prohibits any of his staffers being registered as a lobbyist or having ties to foreign “agents.” In the news story I read, there was this exchange of words between Obama and McCain’s “people:”
Barack Obama, McCain’s likely November opponent, was asked about the latest resignation while campaigning Sunday in Oregon.
“It does appear that over the last several weeks John McCain keeps on having problems with his top advisers being lobbyists in some cases for foreign governments or other big interests that are doing business in Washington,” he said. “That I don’t think represents the kind of change the American people are looking for.”
Responding to Obama’s comment, McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said: “Just a few years ago when Barack Obama was beginning his career in politics he was launching it at the home of William Ayers, an unrepentant domestic terrorist who his chief strategist said Sen. Obama was certainly friendly with. If Barack Obama is going to make associations the issue, we look forward to the debate about Sen. Obama’s associations and what they say about his judgment and readiness to be commander in chief.” Ayers is a former member of the radical Weather Underground group.
If Rev. Wright’s comments (Which were being spun as black militant a diatribe from the ’60s) didn’t have the shelf life the Right was hoping for, then linking Obama to Ayers, and by extension, to terrorism, could be the new twist in the old playbook the GOP has used as a strategy to win elections since the ’70s.
*William F. Buckley’s phrase when he launched National Review