I’ve explored the state of activism in the United States for several columns now. Today, I want to look at one of the most successful social movements of recent decades: the conservative movement.
The late twentieth century is chock full of important and flourishing movements. The African-American freedom struggle always comes to mind, but there’s also the gay rights movement, the environmental movement, the women’s movement, etc. However, arguably none of these movements have achieved as much as the New Right. I always tell my students that we have to think about conservatism as a social movement closely related to the movements of the 60s. The New Right came to prominence largely as a response to the 60s, while also borrowing heavily from their enemies’ tactics.
Why has conservatism had so much success? Why have the Tea Parties washed over the American political scene, possibly altering the nation’s history? I suggest two major ways conservatives have outflanked progressives. First, conservatives better understand how to move the levers of power in this nation. Second, conservatives have a defined ideology to guide them and progressives do not. Together, these two issues have done more than any of conservatism’s inherent advantages to make them successful and to push us to the political margins.
Conservatives do have some built in advantages over progressives. The New Right appeals to base values of greed and hate. Progressives certainly can’t emulate that and wouldn’t want to anyway. The conservative focus on maximizing individual wealth has attracted billionaire investors like Edward and David Koch, who have funded the Tea Party. While people like Warren Buffet or George Soros may support some progressive causes, the vast majority of the extremely wealthy act in their own financial self-interest, putting progressives at a severe fundraising disadvantage.
The conservative movement also benefits from an aggressive homogeneity. Not only are conservatives by and large white and quite frequently wealthy, but they actively pursue this as a goal, shunning diversity in their ranks. This is very important for understanding conservative success. Progressives come from diverse backgrounds and have varied interests. Many feel particular passion about one or two issues but support a broad swath of causes. This diversity makes progressive movements so dynamic and it has helped break down racism, sexism and homophobia in this country.
Unfortunately, diversity of background and interests also increases the level of organizing difficulty. While we are holding diversity trainings, conservatives are plotting to destroy Social Security. While we are searching our souls to drive out vestiges of sexism in our organizations, conservatives are gutting science and history standards in schools. This is not to denigrate diversity (quite the opposite!) but simply to state that it makes organizing harder for us than for the homogeneous New Right.
While progressives should recognize these disadvantages, we shouldn’t use them as excuses. More important than money, hate, or homogeneity, progressives have failed because we don’t understand how to leverage power and because we no longer have a consistent critique of capitalism.
Conservatives know how to use power. People keep asking where the Tea Parties came from. People point to their funding, their astroturf roots, their old and white demographics. All true. But people don’t seem to recognize that this movement is six decades in the making. After World War II, conservatives, disgusted by the New Deal, liberalism, and government expansion, began organizing. At first, they operated in fringe groups like the John Birch Society, railing about fluoridized water and communist spies. Most people saw them as lunatics.
Soon however, conservatives began gaining respectability. Shunning the more radical elements, they worked to take power rather than just complain. Moreover, they recognized quite clearly how to reclaim the Republican Party from the soft conservatism of Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller. In the 1950s, conservatives in Orange County, California; Texas, Atlanta, and other parts of the nation began joining local school boards to influence their children’s education. They also started volunteering for their local Republican Party committees and taking on the least desirable tasks within the party and local government. Each one of these people helped build a base within local Republican parties for a resurgent muscular conservatism that openly rejected the New Deal and social liberalism, refusing to compromise for electoral relevance.
Finding themselves newly empowered by their political activism, conservatives quickly rose up the ranks of many state parties and increasingly in the national party. In 1964, they managed to secure the Republican presidential nomination for their hero, Barry Goldwater. Lyndon Johnson crushed Goldwater and pundits declared the nascent conservative movement dead on arrival. But a mere two years later, conservatives got Ronald Reagan elected governor of California and then pushed Richard Nixon into the presidency in 1968. Building on those victories and Reagan’s enduring popularity, conservatives increased their power within the Republican Party for the next four decades. Today, the entire Republican Party is beholden to the conservative movement.
Conservatives knew how to take power and they started a successful multi-decade effort to do it. Ever since the Carter Administration of the late 1970s, progressives have found themselves as alienated from their party leaders as conservatives of the 1950s. But instead of organizing within the party, by 2000, many progressives decided to support Ralph Nader’s quixotic run for the presidency.
The Nader campaign showed progressives completely misunderstanding to how create change. Change doesn’t begin at the top; it comes from the bottom. A Nader presidency without a massive grassroots campaign to build a Green Party would have been disastrous and short-lived. Similarly, progressive hopes that Barack Obama would herald a new future completely miss that Obama lacks to power to convince Congress to pass a progressive program, even if he wanted to do so. Only the fear of an angry base can move Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln. Centrist Democrats have no reason to fear that base because we aren’t organized within the party structure.
The next time you wonder why Olympia Snowe caves to the right on major votes while Ben Nelson shows no respect to progressives, understand that the answer is sixty years in the making. We have to understand how change happens within the American political system and act upon that knowledge to transform the Democratic Party to our liking. Only then will we hold the power that conservatives do today.
Conservatism has also benefited from its commitment to an ideologically fundamentalist version of capitalism. The teachings of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman have become sacrosanct for conservatives: to stray from orthodoxy threatens excommunication. This ideology, embodied in plans to strip the American welfare state, support the outsourcing of jobs overseas, and export disaster capitalism around the world, guides the conservative movement. It gives conservatives a common language, set of beliefs, and cultural references. In short, it provides them an architecture of activism.
On the other hand, progressives have no clear ideology today. After the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991, progressives lost their answer to capitalism. Even if they disliked socialism, at least Marxism helped shape a critique of capitalism. With socialism discredited, progressives have flailed around for twenty years for organizing principles to unite them.
As I will argue in my final column in this series on activism, progressives’ inability to construct a new ideological structure to fight fundamentalist capitalism, and often their ignorance of the need to do so, is the left’s greatest failure of the past two decades.
Check out Erik’s previous pieces on Activism in America here.