A trek through American conservatism’s relentless stoking of the politics of disappointment and betrayal.
Brookings Institution senior fellow Dionne (Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, 2012, etc.) comes at the conservative mindset “as an unapologetic liberal of social democratic inclinations and a temperate disposition” as well as a deep-rooted sense that a “healthy democratic order needs conservatism’s skepticism” to help balance “grand” progressive plans. The author plunges into the first great right-wing rebellion that served as the model for the current tea party: the Barry Goldwater insurgency of 1964, which drew on the largely white, Southern, male backlash against the civil rights movement and the “Great Society” policies of President Lyndon Johnson. Dionne meticulously traces the claim to legitimacy of the conservatives and the popularity of their policies under presidents Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes: cutting taxes, deregulation, and standing against communism, immigration, abortion, and so on. Yet, at the same time, each of these Republican leaders had a “complicated” relationship with his own party and could not deliver the full agenda because the country was moving in a more moderate direction on social and environmental issues, women were voting more Democratic, and the demographics were vastly changing the landscape of white homogeneity. Thus, Dionne argues, far right-wing resentment boiled up “apostasies” by Nixon (China, Watergate), Reagan (expansion of government, amnesty to undocumented immigrants, elimination of the nuclear arsenal), George H.W. (raising taxes), George W. (Iraq War, large deficit, Wall Street bailout), and the “socialist” policies of presidents Clinton and Obama—Dionne’s knowledge of the minutiae of the political landscape of the last 60 years is rather staggering, and the narrative is dense and occasionally wordy and repetitive, but the information is always solid and the author dogged.
An important pundit delivers a thorough exegesis of the stubborn recurrence of the fringe right wing in response to a sense of “lost social status in a rapidly changing country.”