Why The Right Went Wrong: Conservatism – From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond
By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Simon & Schuster
501 pages, $30
By Michael D. Langan
In his Introduction to “Why The Right Went Wrong,” E.J. Dionne says, “The history of American conservativism is a story of disappointment and betrayal. For a half century, he tells us, “conservative politicians made promises to their supporters that they could not keep.”
Dionne lists the assurances on which conservative politicians went AWOL: a return to small government, the cultural norms of the 1950s, and the ethnic makeup of the country in the 1940s.
You have to wonder: if the Republicans have shortchanged their voters for the last 50 years with their rhetoric, what possesses Republican voters to keep these incompetents in power? Dionne doesn’t give an answer to this question directly; instead, he shows how the base moved relentlessly right as a result.
It seems to me that one response to that question is that Republican voters continued to hope that their next president would be better than the last. Until recently – the Obama election and re-election – people haven’t liked shifting parties unless presented with a clear advantage – like the mirage of a progressive governing coalition that never developed with Obama in office.
About this Dionne continues, “The breakdown in American government and the dysfunction in our politics are the result of the steady radicalization of American conservatism – along with Obama’s failure to anticipate it and his tardiness in dealing with it.”
Dionne claims that this huge betrayal led to the cycle of radicalization in the Republican Party. This doesn’t seem much of an insight in the run up to the 2016 presidential election. This is what happens when you’re writing about candidates who modify their views almost daily. It’s hard to be right 100 percent of the time writing about American politics. It’s a moving train to write about. You’re good if you’re 75 percent accurate.
Still, one can’t fault Dionne for that; it’s in the nature of the work. He remains one of the best political writers in America, with time out to teach at Georgetown University, work as a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and comment for NPR. Voter dissatisfaction, our author writes, led to “The Trumpification of Republican politics during the summer of 2015 … provid(ing) gaudy confirmation that something was amiss … His rise could certainly be seen as part of a distemper that bred a mood of Establishment protest across the world’s democracies … It was compactly summarized by Erick Erickson, editor of the popular right wing blog, RedState. “The Republican Party created Donald Trump,” he said, “because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them.”
Dionne doesn’t convince the reader that the Republican Party created Donald Trump.
However, even if one argued that the Republicans did create Trump, the party would like to bury him now. As early as last November the Republican establishment “surfaced” to dump Trump. A Wall Street Journal front pager titled “Republican Mainstream Revs Effort To Hit Trump,” appeared the week before Thanksgiving.
So it’s a problem that goes a long way back. One definition of “right wing politics” – and there are many – comes from Wikipedia: “Right-wing politics (in the United States) typically justifies a hierarchical society on the basis of natural law. It was a traditionalism advocated by a group of U.S. university professors (labeled the “New Conservatives” by the popular press) who rejected the concepts of individualism, liberalism, social progress, and sought instead to promote what they identify as cultural and educational renewal, and a revived interest in what T.S. Eliot referred to as “the permanent things” (concepts perceived by traditionalists as truths that endure from age to age alongside basic institutions of Western society such as the church, the family, the state, and business.)”
Dionne summarizes the phenomenon’s movement in presidential politics. “Consider the steady march rightward. The collapse of the Nixon presidency led to the rise of Ronald Reagan. The defeat of George H.W. Bush led to Newt Gingrich’s revolution. The re-election of Bill Clinton pushed Republicans to impeach him. The partial exception to this pattern is George W. Bush. Yet by the time his second term was over, the cycle reasserted itself as his failures led to the rise of the Tea Party.”
Dionne’s book is a “historical view of the American Right since the 1960s. Its core contention is that American conservativism and the Republican Party ” is the product …of a wrong turn, when American conservatives and then the Republican Party itself adopted Barry Goldwater’s worldview during and after the 1964 campaign.”
Our author tells us that Goldwater was personally appealing, principled and candid. As he grew older, he became more moderate himself, something that the Tea Party has missed in preaching the Goldwater creed unalloyed.
The moderation of Dwight Eisenhower comes in for praise. About this, historian Clinton Rossiter wrote that when the right was at its turning point in the 1950s and 1960s, conservatives had the obligation “to steer a prudent course between too much progress, which throws us into turmoil, and too little, which is an impossible state for Americans to endure.”
The key, Rossiter wrote, was conservativism’s “highest mission,” as fostering “the spirit of unity among … all classes and callings” in the name of “preserving a successful way of life.” Eisenhower understood this, Dionne tells us.
As a matter of fact, Dwight Eisenhower recognized the probabilities when he described what Dionne latterly calls the “challenge to conservatives of every generation.” Eisenhower wrote, “Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”
What to do? The book makes the case that contemporary conservativism must reverse course on a calamitous step that conservativism took 50 years ago. There are 16 persuasive chapters, brimming with good analysis in “Why The Right Went Wrong,” that argue to this point. This is a book with great insight, attention to detail and beautifully researched.
But plenty of roadblocks lie in conservativism’s path to reform. Political structure is one of them. If America didn’t constrain itself to a two-party system, other possibilities would exist for governing. But as Dionne points out, there are no broad coalitions in the Republican Party any longer.
Instead, the party operates “almost exclusively on behalf of older, culturally conservative whites and a new class of wealthy Americans … reinforced by an increasingly closed right-wing media system that disciplines any who depart from orthodoxy and screens out dissent …”
According to Dionne, the Republican Party has become what political scientist Norman Ornstein calls “the insurgent outlier in American politics.” Compromise becomes impossible if it means selling out principle. Government shutdowns and threats to the nation’s debt ceiling are the norm, Dionne writes.
This stasis is a problem not for Republicans alone. “It’s a problem for our efforts to reach compromise and common ground. It is a problem for how we govern ourselves. It’s a problem for all of us. Reforming American conservativism is one of the most important tasks of our time,” writes Dionne.
Is there a chance that those running for president will pay attention to this book? Not if you don’t.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News. He spent 20 years in Washington working for Democrats and Republicans. He was chief of staff to John J. LaFalce, and senior adviser to the undersecretaries for enforcement at the U.S. Treasury Department. Langan also served as a senior expert at the United Nations dealing with the Taliban and al Qaida.