THE RIGHT NATION: The Conservative Ascendancy

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

A half-century ago, the ideology of the American political establishment was liberal—the New Deal was still new and big government was getting bigger. Today, after a political revolution that began with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, it may be argued that conservativism has become the dominant ideological force in American politics. But what does conservativism mean today? And if it is ascendant, how long can it remain so? Peter Robinson speaks with Clark S. Judge and John Micklethwait.

Recorded on Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: is the Right on the right track?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: how the conservative movement has transformed the American political landscape. In 1964, the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater ran against the Democrat Lyndon Johnson and lost in a landslide. In 1980, the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan ran against the Democrat Jimmy Carter and won in a landslide and just four years later, when Ronald Reagan ran against the Democrat Walter Mondale, he won in an even bigger landslide, carrying 49 out of 50 states. How did that happen? And for the conservative movement in America, what comes next?

Joining us two guests: Clark Judge was a speechwriter for President Reagan. He's now the managing director of the White House Writers Group. John Micklethwait is U.S. editor of The Economist magazine and coauthor of The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America.

Title: Do the Right Thing

Peter Robinson: President George W. Bush this past spring at the 40th anniversary of the American Conservative Union, "The conservative movement has become the dominant intellectual force in American politics." That is a true or false question? John?

John Micklethwait: I think it is true definitely.

Peter Robinson: Unqualified?

John Micklethwait: I would qualify it in some ways. I would say that from some perspectives, the signs of rebirth a little bit on the liberal side but if you look over the past generation, I think there's no doubt where most of the ideas have been coming from and they've been coming from the right.

Peter Robinson: You would simply grant your assent?

Clark Judge: I agree with that. The intellectual drive of the United States for the last two decades--two and a half decades really, has been from the right. The left has had resurgences but even the left--at least those parts of the left that have moved into government at the White House level, Bill Clinton's Administration--have been strongly influenced by the right and have been pushed to the right.

Peter Robinson: All right. 1964, Conservative Republican Barry Goldwater runs for President against Democrat Lyndon Johnson, and loses in a landslide. John Kenneth Galbraith speaking in that year, "These without doubt are the years of the liberal. Almost everyone now so describes himself." Sixteen years later, 1980, conservative Republican Ronald Reagan runs for President against Democrat Jimmy Carter and wins in a landslide and indeed, four years later when Reagan runs for reelection against Walter Mondale, he carries 49 out of 50 states and receives more votes than any other presidential candidate in American history. How did that happen?

John Micklethwait: Well, I think Galbraith to some extent, was right. It sounds rather smug saying everyone I know now is a liberal but back in the 1960s at that particular time, the elites who were driving things were definitely from the left. They had hopes I think of Europeanizing--to use a terrible word--Europeanizing America. There was a time when support for the death penalty dropped massively. There was a time when people thought they could bring in the affirmative action, the Great Society. The Great Society actually comes from a British socialist phrase, the Great Society. And it was a time where people thought that way but it stirred up a reaction in conservative America and that has pushed the way towards Reagan. But it wasn't just a matter of a reaction. It was also a matter of building things. There were a lot of institutions. There were a lot of think tanks. There was a lot of thought which came up from the right.

Peter Robinson: Ronald Reagan used to say that he hadn't left the Democratic Party but the Democratic Party left him. To what extent is it a case of the nation doesn't actually become more conservative. The great center of the nation doesn't change particularly from '64 to '80. What happens is that the Democratic Party moves left and the GOP moves in to capture the center.

John Micklethwait: There's a little bit of truth in that. It's certainly true the Democrats moved to the left. I think one could--if you look at the GOP, I think you have to say they moved to the right. If you go back and the easiest way to look at it is the Bush family. Look at Prescott Bush. Prescott Bush has…

Peter Robinson: Prescott Bush is…

John Micklethwait: The grandfather of George…

John Micklethwait: Grandfather of George W. Bush. His ideology you could reduce to just being roughly along the lines of government's a pretty good thing. Strong supporter of birth control.

Peter Robinson: Be careful. He actually knew Prescott Bush.

Clark Judge: I did actually know Prescott Bush.

Peter Robinson: I know you did. But go ahead, make your point.

John Micklethwait: I'm stereotyping it slightly but the gap between his sort of conservatism and the conservatism of George W. Bush I think is a gigantic one. And even the gap between Prescott and his son…

Clark Judge: Well, I think John doesn't appreciate how much before '64 the dominant view in America was liberalism. You have in 1950 the famous quote from Lionel Trilling, "The only ideology left in the United States is liberalism." The problem for liberals though was that was coming apart. Liberalism was driven by the Roosevelt coalition. And the Roosevelt coalition started to come apart during the Eisenhower years. One element of it was Irish Catholics were moving to the suburbs following the Second World War and they became more Republican as they moved. Another element was that the South was starting to have rumblings. And, of course, parts of the South went with Eisenhower, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years before.

Peter Robinson: Next, the importance of the civil rights movement in the transformation of the American political landscape.

Title: Southern Discomfort

Peter Robinson: The Right Nation, your book, John. You write, "The civil rights revolution turned the bulk of Southern whites into loyal Republicans when it came to presidential elections." The civil rights revolution is what did it. Explain that.

John Micklethwait: I think with the Southern whites, there are two sort of groups of whites who changed but there's certainly a lot of Northern, particularly Catholics, who changed just purely because they don't like what they see in the '60s. But I think particularly Southern whites, the question of civil rights though was key. Lyndon Johnson with that famous statement about he was signing away the South when he signed the Civil Rights Act. I think people tend to exaggerate the full impact of it as you can see Democrat congressmen, Democrat senators going on for a long time at a national level. In the presidential level, you see the Republicans beginning to make gigantic gains in the South, first with…

Peter Robinson: Beginning with Eisenhower really, isn't it?

John Micklethwait: Well, Eisenhower first but I think it picks up so much steam after the Civil Rights Act.

Peter Robinson: Clark?

Clark Judge: Well, I think that's partially true. It did start under Eisenhower. It started under Eisenhower and then slowed down a bit with the Kennedy-Johnson White House but then picked up under Nixon. Now Nixon is famous for the Southern Strategy but Nixon also desegregates schools. What he essentially does is he puts race behind the Republican Party. He gets the school issue largely out of the way. And he does it without humiliating Southern whites. Something that had become a problem under Kennedy and Johnson and then that opens the door for all the forces that have been building in the South, the industrialization of the South, the integration of the South into the national economy, the growth of cities like Atlanta, which the migration from the North…

Peter Robinson: John, let me…

Clark Judge: …all of which works for the Republicans.

Peter Robinson: Political scientist Gerard Alexander of the University of Virginia, "We can distinguish between two subregions, the peripheral South which contained many growing urbanizing areas and much smaller black populations and the more rural and poorer deep South, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, where black communities were much larger and racial conflict more acute. The myth that links the GOP with racism leads us to expect that the GOP should have entrenched itself first among deep South whites and only later in the periphery. That prediction is wrong. The GOP's breakthrough takes place because it becomes the national party of the middle class, not because of white solidarity."

John Micklethwait: I think people--obviously that's true--statistically it's true. I think there's a danger though in going right into the sort of tiny particularities of the argument. The basic thing is if you look at the map of where the Republican Party was winning prior to the Civil Rights Act--and if you look at the 1960 election, there's very few red states. You jump forward 10, 15 years; you're getting a lot of them. And I think that civil rights was a part of it. It's a canard brought up repeatedly by the left that it was purely to do with race. It obviously wasn't because the same kind of white Southerners who did have problems to do with the Democrats on race also had equally big problems to do with them in a lot of kind of moralistic things eventually culminating in abortion but other things to do with Supreme Court judgments or things which were at the time blamed on what they saw as a liberal elite. So I think just purely putting it down to race is too simplistic but there is, I think, a fundamentally quite--race was a strong part of it.

Peter Robinson: You get a moment to answer and then we'll…

Clark Judge: There are long strains in Southern thought apart from race about independence from the national center. The Republicans spoke to that broadly. They spoke to it across the board throughout the country, without regard to race. And that strain as the Democratic coalition in the South started to come apart basically as it ceased to be an emblem of opposition to the union, to be a Democrat. The post-Civil War influence which continued well into the 1960s, as that receded, the Republicans started moving up.

Peter Robinson: On now to the impact of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Title: Finding Mr. Right

Peter Robinson: Here we have one personality who for obvious reasons is worth dwelling on for a moment. What's his legacy? What did he do specifically to the conservative movement that's the concern of John's book, The Right Nation? What is Reagan's legacy to the conservative movement?

Clark Judge: Well, Reagan took the conservative movement over a threshold. It was a kind of movement aborning before Reagan. It was a movement that contended on equal terms--not always equal terms within the Republican Party for dominance. And nationally the Republican moderates and the Democrats overwhelmed it, even when it was strong before Reagan, in parts of the Nixon term. Reagan changed that. When Reagan was done, the conservative movement was the center of gravity in American politics. Everything revolved around it even American liberalism which became a reaction.

Peter Robinson: It's reacting to Reagan and…

Clark Judge: It is on one hand, reacting to Reagan but at the same time, people like Clinton are trying to reconcile liberalism with the language and some of the precepts of conservatism. The whole Clinton triangulation and third way are attempts to reconcile American liberalism and conservatism in a liberal direction.

Peter Robinson: John?

John Micklethwait: I agree with a lot of that. There's an argument about the importance of Reagan. You meet some conservatives who go back and say Goldwater was much more important. He started the whole thing but I think without Reagan, it's very, very difficult to imagine the conservative movement being as powerful as it became. He gave it a much more amiable and a far more optimistic face than other people…

Clark Judge: I'd go beyond that, John. I'd say give it more coherence.

John Micklethwait: Undoubtedly, he was the first person who really pulled all the different strands together. They could all unite around Reagan because he…

Clark Judge: The Reagan Revolution starts with an intellectual revolution. And to a remarkable degree, that intellectual revolution builds around Ronald Reagan himself and may even have been driven by him. Conservatism had a number of strains but how they were put together and the relative weight each had and how each one got expressed in terms of were you going to go for legislation in this area or were you going--for example, social issues or were you going to go for judges? Reagan went for judges, it's somewhat less confrontational. How were you going to deal with the Soviets? How aggressively were you going to weigh taxes versus deficits? All of these choices in economics, in foreign policy, in social issues were made basically by Reagan, articulated by Reagan in that mix and driven by Reagan.

Peter Robinson: He is surely overstating the case. I'm trying to give you a door to walk through because, of course, as you know, I don't dissent from a word of what he just said. But even you--all right.

John Micklethwait: The easiest way to look at the conservative movement is not as something where everyone has the same tunic. People don't carry around Mao's book of conservatism. It's very similar to this idea of a kind of medieval army where people show up wearing the livery, the tunics of different organizations, Right to Life, guns, anti tax. And yet what Reagan did--just let me finish--what Reagan did--he was the first person to really get all these people on the battlefield on his side. He gave the impression that they were all his people. Over time, he worked his way into all of them. And we mentioned the South. He started to talk about states' rights and he moved further down to the South and that began to pull in new elements to the Republican Party.

Clark Judge: What he did is he put together a new governing coalition. And like governing coalitions in the United States traditionally, this one was pretty factious because so many of the elements were--didn't quite fit. His ability to make them fit and make them fit after he was gone was one of his defining contributions.

Peter Robinson: If conservatism has become, as our guests agree, the dominant intellectual force in American politics, then why hasn't it been more successful in practice?

Title: Cry, the Beloved Movement

Peter Robinson: We've agreed very merrily that conservatism now represents and has for a generation or two the dominant intellectual force in American politics, that Ronald Reagan put together a governing coalition, the dominant coalition in American politics. However, I quote to you from your own book The Right Nation, "It is worth admitting that the conservative movement's two main crusades against big government and moral decay have so far been more successful as rallying cries than as policies." That is to say, if conservatism is so successful, why do we still have the federal government collecting over a fifth of the gross domestic product as taxes, we have a million and a half abortions performed in the country every year and so on and so forth. How come?

John Micklethwait: You have to look at it in two ways. First you have to look at the counterfactual. Imagine there hadn't been a conservative movement. Surely it would have been dramatically bigger. And secondly I think you have to look at it and once again Reagan comes in rather kind of crucially in this way, in terms of shifting the kind of intellectual argument. If you look at Reagan and Thatcher it's interesting, neither of them actually reduce the size of government as a share of GDP by that much. But in terms of changing the way in which people thought about government is a gigantic…

Peter Robinson: But they do both stop the growth?

John Micklethwait: Yeah, they do both stop the growth.

Peter Robinson: The line stops. Okay, buster so where's the big success in the conservative movement?

Clark Judge: Well, first of all in tax rates and the entire presumption…

Peter Robinson: Which were what when Ronald Reagan took office?

Clark Judge: Seventy percent.

Peter Robinson: Top rate. And when he left?

John Micklethwait: Twenty-eight.

Peter Robinson: Twenty-eight.

Clark Judge: So tax rates and the entire presumption about the economy, the amount of regulation in it, the amount of intrusion, in the attitudes and the policies towards the Soviet Union, all of these areas which were the focus of Reagan's presidency had tremendous changes. Now on the deficit, the thing to keep in mind is that while the Republicans have sort of a governing coalition, the Democrats still have a powerful coalition. And in Washington, even now, we have with a Republican Senate and a Republican House and a Republican President, even now we have what we've had basically since 1980 with the two year exception of Clinton--divided government.

Peter Robinson: You of course have to explain why with Republicans in control of all three of those institutions it's divided.

Clark Judge: Sure. The Republicans have the votes to control the agenda in Congress. They do not have the control to dominate what is passing.

Peter Robinson: So you let George W. Bush off the hook for permitting federal spending to rise…

Clark Judge: Here's what I'd say…

Peter Robinson: …faster than under Clinton.

Clark Judge: Yeah, here's what I'd say has happened throughout this period.

Peter Robinson: Line of attack for you there.

John Micklethwait: Just about to come in on that one.

Clark Judge: Yeah. Well let me finish here. There's been a compromise among the Republicans and the Democrats on economic policy. The Republicans have wanted lower spending and lower taxes. The Democrats have wanted higher spending and higher taxes. The compromise for 20 years has been higher spending and lower taxes.

Peter Robinson: John's book identifies obstacles that may stand in the way of a new era of conservative dominance. Let's examine several.

Title: Elephants Sometimes Forget

Peter Robinson: Economic mismanagement. Reagan adds up 1.5 trillion to the national debt and George W. Bush goes from a surplus to a deficit. Over to you.

John Micklethwait: Yes, exactly. I think that you're letting Bush off a little bit too lightly. I think the difference between Bush and Reagan--Reagan vetoed things. And I don't think you can look at the Bush presidency and say he's got away with it because it's not all just spend--as we all mentioned earlier--it's not just spending on homeland security and defense, on non-discretionary, on the kind of spending which does not involve those things has been increasing even faster than Clinton.

Clark Judge: That is true. The thing to keep in mind…

Peter Robinson: But that represents a necessary compromise…

Clark Judge: That's right.

Peter Robinson: …by W. or of some sort of change in conservative thinking.

Clark Judge: Don't underestimate how important it is with W. that he didn't win a majority of the popular vote. His strength with that has been that we don't think about it but the fact is it's changed the administration.

John Micklethwait: I think it goes a little bit more serious than that. I think there's a definite worry with the current Republican leadership with the White House that there's a mistake going on between being pro market and being pro business, particularly pro big business. And you see the growth of kind of K Street conservatism. And a lot of…

Peter Robinson: K Street is what?

John Micklethwait: The center of the lobbying community.

Peter Robinson: K Street conservatism is feeding goods to our boys.

John Micklethwait: If you look at things like the agricultural act, you look at the energy bill, you look at a wide variety of things…

Peter Robinson: And a steal for rich people.

John Micklethwait: Exactly. These are going through particularly to lobbying ends.

Peter Robinson: George W. Bush having lost the popular vote and won by a squeaker in the electoral college--is he A) giving away all this pork because he deems it a political necessity or B) is there some new strand in conservative thinking that's emerging that is much more tolerant of big government?

John Micklethwait: I think it's two things. There's certainly a strong dose of "A" that the political pressure on him to do these things but I think also "B" there is just a possibility with George W. Bush that he is more pro big government than he might first appear. Firstly when he appeared, he went on a great deal about government didn't necessarily always have to be a problem. It could help with it.

Peter Robinson: Contra Ronald Reagan who said government is the problem.

John Micklethwait: Precisely. And then secondly also, I think there's an element of Bush and you see this particularly in this focus on virtue, on attempts to set up sort of marriage guidance things within departments and stuff like that. Whereby he thinks government can do some stuff to help, particularly in social policy, trying to encourage marriage, trying to encourage things like that…

Peter Robinson: He actually is more comfortable with big government?

John Micklethwait: I think there's a possibility that the jury is out…

Peter Robinson: You get about ten seconds to respond because I want to move on to a new topic.

Clark Judge: The jury is out because every area at least on fiscal policy where he's expanded government, farm bill…

Peter Robinson: Farm bill, education…

Clark Judge: Education, all of these…

Peter Robinson: Homeland security…

Clark Judge: Homeland security, all of these are responses to the moment.

John Micklethwait: Energy.

Clark Judge: Energy too actually.

Peter Robinson: Onto one more obstacle that may stand in the way of conservative dominance.

Title: Try a Little Tolerance

Peter Robinson: What you term in your book, The Right Nation, "Southern captivity, perhaps the greatest danger on the road ahead for Republicans, the prospect of seeming intolerant." What do you mean by that? I say intolerantly. Little joke for you.

John Micklethwait: I think there is and if you, you know, Reagan again, is a very good example. If you look at Reagan, easygoing divorcee, who took I think a much more casual attitude on social issues than George W. Bush. I think that's fundamentally the problem with the Republican Party is you have a Western side and a Southern side. You have a Western anti-government strand. You have a Southern much more moralistic bit. And when those two bits of the Sunbelt are buckled up, it's highly effective.

Peter Robinson: But what I'm trying to do is tease out from you whether it's tone or substance. So, for example, Reagan--Clark and I wrote speeches for him--when you'd write something, a pro-life statement, it was essential in the Reagan White House to couple it with it is not for anyone to stand in judgment on anyone else but move together as a nation, that there's a sense of warmth and a kind of implicit forgiveness in--but that's tone. He was still pro-life.

Clark Judge: He introduced, in fact, pro-life into the American debate. It wasn't in the debate until Reagan brought it in.

John Micklethwait: I still think there's a difference in tone. I mean…

Peter Robinson: But it's tone…I'm not arguing. I just want to know whether it's substance or tone?

John Micklethwait: I would detect some degree of substance there on issues to do--for example, I think in the gay issues I think Reagan again, took a slightly more--or just tried to keep away from it.

Peter Robinson: He didn't talk about it. It wasn't an issue really.

John Micklethwait: The tone--I think the tone is very important. I think the level to which the Republicans now are often perceived as being say the party of Trent Lott rather than the party of Schwarzenegger. That actually comes…

Peter Robinson: Let me push you one last time and then we'll flip this one to Clark. 1994, the Republican Party recaptures the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years by capturing 54 new seats. Question, of those 54 new members of Congress, how many were pro-life? Answer, 54.

John Micklethwait: I think you could play it both ways as Clark will probably point out. There's definitely some--conservatives are remarkably clever at changing the abortion argument. It's now, you know, they pushed it towards subjects like partial birth abortion, areas where there were majorities so to speak, on the conservative side. But I think fundamentally…

Peter Robinson: Ultimately the Republican Party has to go the way of Schwarzenegger which is kind of a qualified pro-choice?

John Micklethwait: I think ultimately they've got to give the at least impression that they have room for people like Schwarzenegger. And until they had Schwarzenegger, as you well know in California, there was not the living chance--a snowball's chance in hell, post-Pete Wilson--if you went to the Anaheim Convention and the Republicans, you would never--there was no chance of those people ever taking on Schwarzenegger as their candidate. It was only the peculiar circumstances of the recall which allowed Schwarzenegger in. And I think if you look at that, that does raise questions.

Peter Robinson: The Republican Party's doing just fine however, its principal danger is that it will be perceived as intolerant.

Clark Judge: There's some truth to that. But if you look at where you have Republican governors around the country, you look at the coasts, places like New York, Massachusetts, you have Republican governors who are in the heart of what is it, blue America and some of whom, most of whom are pro-choice. You go to the center; you have Republican governors who are pro-life. It hasn't broken apart the party.

Peter Robinson: Time gentlemen. Final question. You talked about William McKinley ushering in three decades of Republican dominance in 1896. Three decades from now, will historians look back at the present moment and say ah, that's when the Republican dominance began? Will we break out of the 50/50 nation that we saw in the last presidential election to achieve substantial and abiding Republican conservative dominance? John?

John Micklethwait: The only truthful answer is I don't know. I think…

Peter Robinson: But that's not allowed on television.

John Micklethwait: No, but it's very hard to say not least because this election's going to be so close but I think the underlying trends are pushing towards the Republicans.

Peter Robinson: Clark?

Clark Judge: My feeling is elections have moved away from all politics is local to oriented according to not local but national factors. And once that's done, I think that's baked in place for a long time to come. And so I--while you can break as Wilson showed and others--you can break a party's dominance--Woodrow Wilson and others--you can break a party's dominance with a split, I think we're looking at a long period of Republican dominance, more or less starting with this coming election.

Peter Robinson: Clark Judge and John Micklethwait, author of The Right Nation, thank you very much.

John Micklethwait: Thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.