UCSD Professor of Communications Robert Horwitz will be reading from his new book America’s Right: Anti-Establishment Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party on Wednesday, May 29th at 7:00 PM at the Grove bookstore at 3010 Juniper Street . Recently, Professor Horwitz was kind enough to do the following interview with me on his current project.
Why do a book on American Conservatism?
Conservatism has arguably been the most important political doctrine in the United States over the last three decades. It has dominated the intellectual debate and largely set the policy agenda, even during years of Democratic electoral control. But this is a particular kind of conservatism, one focused not just on customary topics of conservative concern as government spending and low taxes, but one anxious and angry about the purported homosexual agenda, the hoax of climate change, the rule by experts and elites. It practices a politics that is disciplined, uncompromising, and in the current Tea Party movement moment, enraged, proclaiming the objective to “take back our country.”
This is “anti-establishment conservatism,” whose origin can be found in the faction of the right wing that battled both the reigning post-World War II liberal consensus and the moderate, establishment Republican Party. This book examines the nature of anti-establishment conservatism, traces its development from the 1950s to the present, and endeavors to understand its political ascendance.
What distinguishes American conservatism in its current incarnation?
Conservatism embodies a venerable, coherent, if sometimes conflicted set of values rooted in an appreciation for the importance of tradition and the social world we inherit, a theory of individual freedom and property, and a deep suspicion of state power. European conservatism has typically been oriented toward the concern with tradition and inheritance. American conservatism, born of classical liberalism’s focus on the individual, has usually gravitated toward theories of freedom and property.
As it emerged in the early postwar period, anti-establishment conservatism, a fusion of traditional and libertarian ideas, embodied a politics of double rollback: of the New Deal and of international communism. Gathered within the hearth of William F. Buckley’s National Review and mobilized through the candidacy of Barry Goldwater, anti-establishment conservatives found in the New Deal and communism a common betrayal of individual freedom and a deification of state power.
The evil of the despotic, bloated American state was absolved, however, when it came to national security. The anti-establishment conservative cause was premised on halting socialist tendencies and restoring the market and traditional values, while expanding the military-industrial-complex and taking the fight to the Soviet foe. It thus advocated what I call a peculiarly anti-statist statism.
What are the historical roots of this?
With Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 election, anti-establishment conservatives, now removed from GOP centers of power, went into a quiet rebuilding mode, constructing the early intellectual, media, and political institutions – the foundations, the think tanks, and the right-wing media structures – that proved crucial to channeling and shaping discontent first with the postwar liberal consensus and then with the faltering New Deal order. My book examines these institutions and networks. The Tea Party is the latest manifestation of anti-establishment conservatism.
Was there any particular historic moment that was key to the retooling of the American right?
Much of the book is devoted to analyzing the resurgence of anti-establishment conservatism in the 1970s, its ranks enlarged by the new Christian right, neoconservatives, and the bloc of big business that defected from the liberal consensus. The liberal consensus broke down in the 1970s when domestically, Keynesian tools of fiscal and monetary policy were seen as unable to deal with the economic problems of the time: high unemployment, high inflation, and stagnant growth. Anti-establishment conservatives were able to address this turmoil with traditional claims that the state had become too powerful and manipulative.
Through an effective network of think tanks, foundations, and media, they helped galvanize constituencies that had not been much involved in politics – especially evangelical Christians – and brought them into the ambit of a reenergized, very conservative Republican Party.
What has the rise of the anti-establishment conservative movement done to the Republican Party?
Since the Reagan victory the anti-establishment conservative movement has come to challenge the establishment Republican Party, if not mostly displace it. As this process unfolded, the GOP, which historically had been a relatively catholic party ideologically, by the mid 1990s began to look like a bona fide, disciplined, conservative political party and, arguably, a religious party.
As such, it increasingly displayed utopian and dogmatic features. Those features were evident in the attack on expertise and the flight from science characteristic of the current GOP and, crucially, in the 2003 decision to go to war with Iraq. The version of American exceptionalism projected by the Bush administration in foreign policy embodied the millenarian utopianism articulated by both the Christian right and neoconservatism, and the book probes those millenarian tendencies.
Christian right support for the U.S. wars in the Middle East proceeded in some significant measure from the belief in the “end-time,” in which the world’s destruction enables Christ’s return and a new, perfect world to emerge. Neoconservative utopianism lay in an analogous apocalyptic, Jacobin, belief in the United States’ ability to hasten universal democracy and a global free market through the creative fire of violence. The Iraq War was a utopian exercise par excellence.
How does the history your book outlines speak to our current political context? Are there any lessons to be learned?
Obama’s 2012 reelection does not do much to reverse these tendencies on the right. My sense is that the Republican Party is now in the situation it found itself after Barry Goldwater was thrashed in the 1964 election. In the wake of that defeat, the anti-establishment conservatives were drummed out of the party’s leadership.
A similar battle is going on inside the Republican Party now. But I highly doubt that the anti-establishment conservative wing – concentrated in the Tea Party faction – can or will be purged. The money that supports candidates is mostly outside party control, which allows rich, ideological, plutocrats like the Koch brothers much more sway.