by Keith Preston
Review of Critchlow, Donald T. The Conservative Ascendency: How the GOP Right Made Political History. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Donald Critchlow traces the history of modern American conservatism from its inception in the 1950s as an intellectual synthesis of the American classical liberal tradition, emphasizing individualism and free enterprise, and older European traditions expressing skepticism of liberal modernity. This intellectual framework found its expression in a fiercely anti-Communist outlook that resulted in the abandonment of the traditional foreign policy isolationism of the American Right in favor of Cold War militarism. Regarding domestic policy, these new conservatives sought to roll back the welfare state apparatus that emerged from the New Deal. Conservative leaders and activists sold their ideology and program to the public at large with an emphasis on patriotism, hawkish foreign policy views, social conservatism and traditional values.
According to Critchlow, the conservatives were nearly relegated to
irrelevance on the American political scene on several occasions only to make a surprising comeback at a later point. The key events Critchlow points to are the defeat of Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, the
perceived betrayal of conservatives by President Nixon and the subsequent
scandals surrounding his administration, and the revitalization of the Democratic Party symbolized by the election of President Clinton in 1992. In each of these situations, Critchlow argues, conservatives seemed to be “down for the count” only to reemerge at a future point in defiance of the predictions of analysts and pundits. Following the Goldwater defeat, conservatives were able to rebound by exploiting the emerging cultural divide concerning matters of patriotism, race, gender, sex, culture, and religion that continues to figure prominently in American politics at present. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” (a term not mentioned by Critchlow) was successful in breaking the Democrats’ hold on the South and allowing the Republicans to take the White House in 1968.
Once in office, Nixon was a disappointment to conservatives, not only failing to roll back but actually expanding and further institutionalizing the
welfare state initiatives of the Great Society. His realist foreign policy, loss of the Vietnam War and thawing of relations with China also contrasted with the
ferocious anti-Communism of the American Right. The Watergate related
scandals left the GOP in shambles and allowed the Democrats to make a
comeback with the election of President Carter in 1976. One of the more
interesting aspects of Critchlow’s thesis is his argument that Ronald Reagan’s
failure to obtain the Republican nomination in ’76 actually saved his political
career, his presidential ambitions and the conservative movement along with
them. If yet another conservative hero like Reagan had suffered defeat in the same manner as Goldwater twelve years earlier, conservatism might well have come to be regarded as lacking viability as a movement capable of achieving electoral success.
Though Reagan remained personally popular with conservatives, the
performance of his administration was a disappointment and his successor George H. W. Bush was an even greater disappointment. After the Democrats were able to obtain control of both the Presidency and both houses of Congress in 1992, the conservative Republicans made a striking comeback in with sweeping congressional victories in 1994, the subsequent election of George W. Bush for two terms at the onset of the twenty-first century and the capturing of the White House and Congress by the Republicans in 2000. Critchlow points out that conservatism in power has been strikingly different from the vision of the movement’s founders in the 1950s noting, for example, the utter failure of conservatives to significantly curtail the welfare state or “big government”.
This latter issue partially illustrates a gaping hole in Critchlow’s analysis. So far as his contingency theory goes, he makes his case fairly well. The right-wing Republicans have no doubt been given a number of political and electoral gifts over the years due to changes in American society of the kinds manifested as the so-called “culture wars” and, perhaps no less significantly, the persistent bumbling of their opponents, such as the inept administrations of Presidents Johnson or Carter and the often directionless, seemingly stumbling inertia of the stale and moribund Democratic Party and the wider American Left. However, Critchlow’s work is just as significant for what it leaves out as what it actually discusses.
The key to understanding modern American conservatism can be found in a statement on the final page of Critchlow’s book: “The GOP Right took advantage of a population shift to the Sunbelt states and the desertion of whites from the Democratic Party.” (p. 286) The question is why did this population shift occur in the first place and how is it relevant to the “conservative ascendancy”? The growth of the Sunbelt population emerged in direct correlation to the growth of the military-industrial complex during World War Two and the early Cold War period. The growth of industry and manufacturing in these regions was directly related to military production and this massive expansion of armaments and other war related industries created a high wage blue collar sector and an expanded white collar sector that became the foundation of suburban population growth and the accompanying conservative social and political values of the emerging Sunbelt.
The military industries headquartered in the Sunbelt subsequently initiated a challenge to the traditional hegemony of the “northeastern establishment”, long the center of America’s traditional ruling class. Towards this end, the arms manufacturers made common cause with other “old money” elites, such as Texas oil and the Mellon banking dynasty. Critchlow drops hints that these forces were indeed the real power behind postwar American conservatism. For instance, the role of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review in providing the intellectual leadership of the conservative movement is discussed. Critchlow fails to mention that Buckley’s magazine operated at a loss for years after its inception and was underwritten by his family’s oil wealth and other donors. Critchlow also discusses the role of “philanthropies such as the Scaife Fund, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Bradley Foundation” and “wealthy conservative benefactors such as Joseph Coors” (p. 105), along with “think tanks” such as the American Enterprise Institute whose president, A.D. Marshall, was also CEO of General Electric.(p.119) There was never any company that had closer ties to the military-industrial complex than General Electric. Critchlow mentions the Heritage Foundation, which was financed by the “Mellon heir Richard Scaife”. (p. 122)
Critchlow’s work is rather narrowly focused. He concentrates merely on the operation of the political machinery by the conservative movement’s activists and politicians and the writings and publications of the movement’s intellectuals and theoreticians (some might say propagandists). Had Critchlow examined further the broader economic, class, military and foreign policy forces behind postwar conservatism he might have been in a better position to assess the movement’s failures and successes. Conservatism has succeeded in achieving only one of its stated goals and that is the permanent escalation of the military budget and the permanent expansion of America’s foreign military presence. On every other issue claimed by this brand of conservatism (a misnomer?), the level of failure is overwhelming. Rolling back the welfare state? “Big government” is now bigger and more expansive than ever. Fiscal restraint? The US public debt is larger than ever to the point where America is the world’s leading debtor. Social conservatism and traditional values? America is arguably a more culturally liberal society today than ever before. Indeed, given the phenomenal success of the “conservatives” in expanding military spending and military interventionism and their phenomenal failure on everything else, one might be tempted to look at the movement’s benefactors and true beneficiaries and argue that the former was the only issue that really mattered all along, and that the grassroots economic, fiscal, social, cultural, religious and patriotic conservatives who comprised the activist base and key voting blocks were, to use an ironic Leninist term, nothing more than “useful idiots”.