Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s
by Charles Lemos, Wed Dec 17, 2008 at 06:44:58 PM EST
It is perhaps premature to pronounce American conservatism dead though well it should be. The conservative movement is, however, rather moribund, bereft of any new ideas on anything of consequence from health care to energy to climate change to the economy. What does conservatism stand for in 2008 that they didn't stand for it in 1980? Maybe I am missing something for all I hear is a tired catechism of "lower taxes,""limited government,""free markets,""balanced budgets,""family values," and a "strong military" which really means "empire" in their parlance.
But this conservative agenda has run its course even if a large swath of the American public still recite its ethos for by any objective measure, American conservatism has failed. Lower taxes brought us an ever widening social gulf such that a country like Uzbekistan has more equal distribution of income than the United States. Limited government is such a laughable part of the conservative creed for at no time in American history is government as large, as pervasive or as intrusive. Free markets brought us the collapse of global financial markets drunk on derivatives with estimated liabilities of over $50 trillion dollars. In pursuit of the Conservative dream, we have run up $9 trillion in debt since 1981. The only balanced budgets during this period came under a Democrat. Republican family values is a bizarre combination of rights for the unborn, the brain dead and nuclear families. The rest of us need not apply. And the conservative version of empire is nothing more than American exceptionalism and unilateralism that we can neither afford financially nor morally.
And as I survey the wreckage that lies before us, the question of how we got here is increasingly on my mind. In this vein, I have just read a remarkable edition of 14 essays titled Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s. Edited by historians Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer, the book is divided into two segments. The first eight essays explore the catalysts of the brand of American conservatism that would take power in 1981 while the last six essays looks closely at the policy battles during the Ford and Carter Administrations that so energized conservatives but also led many moderates to abandon the liberalism of the Democratic party.
Here's a brief review:
Often considered a lost decade, a pause between the liberal Sixties and Reagan's Eighties, the 1970s were indeed a watershed era when the forces of a conservative counter-revolution cohered. These years marked a significant moral and cultural turning point in which the conservative movement became the motive force driving politics for the ensuing three decades. Interpreting the movement as more than a backlash against the rampant liberalization of American culture, racial conflict, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, these provocative and innovative essays look below the surface, discovering the tectonic shifts that paved the way for Reagan's America. They reveal strains at the heart of the liberal coalition, resulting from struggles over jobs, taxes, and neighborhood reconstruction, while also investigating how the deindustrialization of northern cities, the rise of the suburbs, and the migration of people and capital to the Sunbelt helped conservatism gain momentum in the twentieth century. They demonstrate how the forces of the right coalesced in the 1970s and became, through the efforts of grassroots activists and political elites, a movement to reshape American values and policies. A penetrating and provocative portrait of a critical decade in American history, "Rightward Bound" illuminates the seeds of both the successes and the failures of the conservative revolution. It helps us understand how, despite conservatism's rise, persistent tensions remain today between its political power and the achievements of twentieth-century liberalism.
The 1970s to those of us who lived through it seems a forgettable time. From Kent State to Munich to ordeal of Watergate to the fall of South East Asia to gas lines to the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1970s are a study in near perpetual crisis. While the seeds of the conservative revolution were perhaps planted in the social conflicts of the 1960s, they seem to have germinated in the 1970s before bearing its bitter fruit in the 1980s and beyond.Still I cannot help but wonder if this past decade as progressive liberalism toiled in a wilderness are we not now beginning to demonstrate the first shoots of growth? In this election and in the 2006 mid-term election, our grassroots organizations outperformed theirs. The ideas with any vitality are ours. And while President Obama may only prove a stepping stone, it seems clear that he will move the progressive agenda forward on various fronts from energy to health care to urban affairs. It's a start.