Conservative Revanchism

"We want our country back!" is a cry often heard these days coming from the tea-party set and fringe conservatism. This past week, Bill Moyers interviewed Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of the recently published The Death of Conservatism. In the interview , Mr. Tanenhaus says that far from signifying a resurgence of conservative ideals, the Tea Party protesters and shock jocks like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spell the doom of the conservative movement.

This exchange at the start of the interview is rather telling.

BILL MOYERS: So, if you're right about the decline and death of conservatism, who are all those people we see on television?

SAM TANENHAUS: I'm afraid they're radicals. Conservatism has been divided for a long time -- this is what my book describes narratively -- between two strains. What I call realism and revanchism. We're seeing the revanchist side.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean revanchism?

SAM TANENHAUS: I mean a politics that's based on the idea that America has been taken away from its true owners, and they have to restore and reclaim it. They have to conquer the territory that's been taken from them. Revanchism really comes from the French word for 'revenge.' It's a politics of vengeance.

And this is a strong strain in modern conservatism. Like the 19th Century nationalists who wanted to recover parts of their country that foreign nations had invaded and occupied, these radical people on the right, and they include intellectuals and the kinds of personalities we're seeing on television and radio, and also to some extent people marching in the streets, think America has gotten away from them. Theirs is a politics of reclamation and restoration. Give it back to us. What we sometimes forget is that the last five presidential elections Democrats won pluralities in four of them. The only time the Republicans have won, in recent memory, was when George Bush was re-elected by the narrowest margin in modern history, for a sitting president. So, what this means is that, yes, conservatism, what I think of, as a radical form of conservatism, is highly organized. We're seeing it now-- they are ideologically in lockstep. They agree about almost everything, and they have an orthodoxy that governs their worldview and their view of politics. So, they are able to make incursions. And at times when liberals, Democrats, and moderate Republicans are uncertain where to go, yes, this group will be out in front, very organized, and dominate our conversation.

Demographics are political destiny, especially in the near-term. There's no doubt that the country is undergoing a major demographic transition. To begin with, the country is simply less white by the day. According to the US Census Bureau, the dominance of non-Hispanic whites, who today account for two-thirds of Americans, will be whittled away, falling steadily to less than half in 2042 and just 46% by 2050. In the opposite trajectory, those who describe themselves as Hispanic, African-American, Asian and Native American will increase in proportion from about a third now to 54% by 2050.

Projections by the Census Bureau suggest that the Hispanic population will increase from 15% of the population today to almost a third by 2050, almost tripling in size from 47 million to 133 million. By contrast, the non-Hispanic white population is expected to remain relatively steady numerically, barely rising from 200 million to 203 million. And given current trends by 2030, the white population in the US will actually start to decline in numbers for the first time in US history.

While some of this conservative angst is based on racist and xenophobic attitudes, much of it is also based on declining economic fortunes. And here is there is a serious disconnect, perhaps attributable to manipulation by GOP elites or perhaps due to sheer ignorance. Conservative politics and ideology, tied mostly to Republican administrations, have tended to espouse unregulated, unfettered, free markets and a tax structure that favor that top 10% of Americans and especially the top 1%  income segment at the expense of the bottom 90%. This conservative crowd expresses skepticism, if not an irrational fear, of government even though history shows that policies espoused by progressive administrations, tied mostly to Democratic administrations (though I'd include both the Roosevelt and Eisenhower administrations in this lot) that expanded the role of government were the ones that expanded the middle class and introduced social safety programs that benefit most Americans.

One of the most overlooked realities of the American political economy is that while GOP preaches unregulated, unfettered, free markets, in truth, the GOP has used government as an ATM for the rich and powerful. Here's more from Mr. Tannenhaus on conservative populism doesn't stand up against their own Sabine rape:

Well, one reason is that America very early on in its history reached a kind of pact, in the Jacksonian era, between the government on the one hand and private capital on the other. That the government would actually subsidize capitalism in America. That's what the Right doesn't often acknowledge. A lot of what we think of as the unleashed, unfettered market is, in fact, a government supported market. Some will remember the famous debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman, and Dick Cheney said that his company, Halliburton, had made millions of dollars without any help from the government. It all came from the government! They were defense contracts! So, what's happened is the American ethos, which is a different thing from our political order-- that's the rugged individualism, the cowboy, the frontiersman, the robber baron, the great explorer, the conqueror of the continent. For that aspect of our myth, the market has been the engine of it. So, what brought them together, is what we've seen in the right is what I call a politics of organized cultural enmity.

Another hypocrite is Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont IV, the former Governor of Delaware. The DuPont family fortune can be traced to a munitions contract during the Civil War. That launched the DuPont family enterprise and they would continue in the munitions business but where they really profited was from the US government seizure of German chemical patents during World War I. DuPont's plants were underwritten by the government. Thanks to interest-free loans from the Wilson Administration, the DuPont profits soared from $6 million at the start of the war to over $82 at the end. I'll wager there's no complaint from Pierre on that score.

While the triumph of reason and progressive politics is far from assured, I'll settle for the ignominious defeat of irrational and revanchist conservatism. Theirs is an ideology of division and greed that has failed not once but twice already in American history. In this last go-around they nearly destroyed the country and given the debt that they accrued in our name, digging out is going to take a herculean national resolve but if we fail to redress our rather unequal social structure then we will have truly failed as a nation.

Tags: conservative, Right-wing Politics, US History (all tags)

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