A View from the Scaffold of a Movement

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(ht Alex Carpenter)
On its way to its impending orderly execution at the hands of the American electorate, it’s refreshing to read why conservatism has brought this fate on itself. George Packer identifies the key shift toward the dark side in the New Yorker. Not surprisingly it begins with Richard Nixon:

Nixon sent Agnew—despised as dull-witted by the media—on the road, where he denounced “this small and unelected élite” of editors, anchormen, and analysts. Buchanan recalls watching a broadcast of one such speech—which he had written for Agnew—on a television in his White House office. Joining him was his colleague Kevin Phillips, who had just published “The Emerging Republican Majority,” which marshalled electoral data to support a prophecy that Sun Belt conservatism—like Jacksonian Democracy, Republican industrialism, and New Deal liberalism—would dominate American politics for the next thirty-two or thirty-six years. (As it turns out, Phillips was slightly too modest.) When Agnew finished his diatribe, Phillips said two words: “Positive polarization.” …Nixon was coldly mixing and pouring volatile passions. Although he was careful to renounce the extreme fringe of Birchites and racists, his means to power eventually became the end. Buchanan gave me a copy of a seven-page confidential memorandum—“A little raw for today,” he warned—that he had written for Nixon in 1971, under the heading “Dividing the Democrats.” Drawn up with an acute understanding of the fragilities and fault lines in “the Old Roosevelt Coalition,” it recommended that the White House “exacerbate the ideological division” between the Old and New Left by praising Democrats who supported any of Nixon’s policies; highlight “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party”; nominate for the Supreme Court a Southern strict constructionist who would divide Democrats regionally; use abortion and parochial-school aid to deepen the split between Catholics and social liberals; elicit white working-class support with tax relief and denunciations of welfare. Finally, the memo recommended exploiting racial tensions among Democrats.

Quite simply, the movement that had built its appeal on romanticized ideals of small government, self-reliance, and the avoidance of “entangling alliances,” became a movement devoted to tearing at the social fabric of the country. Nixonism was like a bratty kid who plays one estranged parent against the other in order to get bigger and better goodies from each. It takes one heckuva strong country to withstand this level of tearing, which persisted, even as a grating background noise through the Carter and Clinton eras. Whereas the Nixonian style tore at the fabric of national unity, the administration of George W. Bush strove to tear the country itself apart:

Within hours of the Supreme Court decision that ended the disputed Florida recount, Dick Cheney met with a group of moderate Republican senators, including Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island. According to Chafee’s new book, “Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President” (Thomas Dunne), the Vice-President-elect gave the new order of battle: “We would seek confrontation on every front. . . . The new Administration would divide Americans into red and blue, and divide nations into those who stand with us or against us.” Cheney’s combative instincts and belief in an unfettered and secretive executive proved far more influential at the White House than Bush’s campaign promise to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Cheney behaved as if, notwithstanding the loss of the popular vote, conservative Republican domination could continue by sheer force of will. On domestic policy, the Administration made tax cuts and privatization its highest priority; and its conduct of the war on terror broke with sixty years of relatively bipartisan and multilateralist foreign policy.

Like a really bratty kid who believes he’d be better off as an orphan — and heir. Killing a national identity is a capital offense for any political movement. Especially so if the movement not only can’t make the trains run on time, it responds to natural disaster as an opportunity both to enrich its cronies and to cleanse the area of an ethnic group that voted against its candidate for United States Senate three years earlier. From the scaffold, it sure looks sunny. Must be a new morning in America, so to speak.

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One response to “A View from the Scaffold of a Movement

  1. Hey, thanks for the h/t.

    Great analysis:
    “Nixonism was like a bratty kid who plays one estranged parent against the other in order to get bigger and better goodies from each.”

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