Having just finished Richard Hofstadter’s essays about Goldwater and pseudo-conservatism in The Paranoid Style in American Politics I feel as though I understand our own political moment much better. The essays are a bit depressing in that they assume a far-right-winger like Barry Goldwater could never be elected, let alone be allowed to actually govern; Hofstatder seemed to have believed that the fact Goldwater was nominated at all was the high water mark for the American forces of reaction. He felt they ran to lose on purpose and become martyrs to their extreme causes and keep them in the public forum. But George W. Bush’s presidency has proven otherwise. The essays provide a litany of descriptions of pseudoconservatism that remind us how little of the Bush agenda is new: “Only in the pseudoconservative movement that man have begun to hint that disobedience to the Court is not merely legitimate but is the essence of conservatism.” “The two=party system ... hangs on the common recognition of loyal opposition: each side accepts the good intentions of the other… But an essential point in the pseudoconservative world view is that our recent Presidents, being men of wholly evil intent, have conspired against the public good.” (This is why the shrill, spasmodic accusation of Bush hatred conservatives often cast at liberals seems pure projection.) Hofstadter quotes Goldwater, who wrote this in Why Not Victory? (which could serve as a motto for Iraq surge supporters): “A craven fear of death is entering the American consciousness, so much so that many recently felt that honoring the chief despot himself was the price to pay to avoid nuclear destruction.” That horrifying logic is the main thing that kept Goldwater far from the White House. But a similar line is often evoked by right-wing reactionaries when talking about the spread of “islamofascism”—we must have the conviction to stop at nothing to eliminate the terrorist threat. The end of the Cold War removed the deterrent threat of nuclear war, allowing Bush to enact psudoconservative/neoconservative fantasies in the Middle East, starting wars of choice without threat of drastic reprisal international enemies.
Just about everything Hofstadter writes about Goldwater’s core constituency holds true for Bush: it’s a fusion of those with ultraconservative economic views (the sort who believe a social safety net breeds weakness) and an aggrieved lower-middle class who see politics as an arena to reclaim lost status (via moral crusading and culture wars) rather than protect their material interests. (The opposition of status and interest politics seems to foreshadow Thomas Frank’s debunking of the red state/blue state myth in What’s the Matter with Kansas?) But whereas Goldwater was regarded skeptically in his time and effectively framed as far outside the mainstream, a complacent media in 2000, intent on lambasting Gore, allowed Bush to pass for a moderate, “compassionate” conservative. Once he won and gained political capital from the events of September 11, he enacted the Goldwater agenda of 1964: heedless economic individualism and impulsively belligerent foreign policy derived from simplistic absolute principles and pursued with religious conviction. (In Goldwater’s famous words: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and .., moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”)
This analysis helps make obvious the tenuousness of the pseudo-conservative coalition: radical free-marketeers and moral prescriptivists have in common a belief that privation is a useful social tool, whether it be culling the herd of its weak members or punishing sinful wastrels. Beyond this is a belief in individual’s ultimate ability to overcome circumstances, which are always in some way deserved—your responsibility. But moral crusaders, in taking a hard-line ascetic view that is uncompromising with respect to the opinions a majority of Americans actually profess, believe their politics rise above greedy selfishness, and that their views are legitimized to the degree that they are impractical and thus apolitical. Their disregard for public opinion seeks to destroy democracy in a fundamentally different way than those with radical economic views, who would prefer that the government atrophy and cease to function (the shrink-government-until-drownable-in-bathtub philosophy). Moral crusaders, instead, want to empower government to the degree where it can legislate and enforce the stringent value system they have placed above politics as non-debatable truths. (Neither want to do the hard work of coalition building in order to arbitrate between the inevitable competing interests in a pluralistic society.) This contradiction, exacerbated by the erosion of civil liberties brought on by fears of terrorism, has led to discussions of a rapprochement between libertarians and liberals. Hofstatder points out that Goldwater did little to forward conservative causes; rather he broke the back of practical conservatism in the Eisenhower mold and enabled Johnson to push through the Great Society reforms. That’s hope the revulsion Bush has inspired in American voters has done the same, and we can look forward to a coming decade of progress on universal health care, the strengthening of unions, and the amelioration of income inequality.