UP FROM CONSERVATISM
Why the Right Is Wrong for America
By Michael Lind
Free Press -- 295pp -- $23
There is one book to read in this political season, and that is Michael Lind's Up From Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America. It's not that Lind's sociological analysis of America is correct (he has a kooky idea of a new Ivy League overclass), and it's not because the author's economic analysis of the era is terribly insightful (corporations are bad, working stiffs are heroes, and global markets are a worse threat to our well-being than world communism was).
The reason to read Lind is that he is an apostate, one of the millions of young, well-educated, and well-off people who joined the GOP in the 1980s to build a new mainstream conservatism, only to see the party taken over by extremists in the 1990s. Their inclusionist dreams were replaced by exclusionist hatreds. Their Burkean ideals were displaced by yahoo racism, contempt for the poor, and immigrant-bashing. Lind, a Texas-born protege of the founder of modern-day conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., takes us on that journey (including his bitter departure from the GOP), and while the road gets a little twisty, it's a trip worth taking.
The battle between moderates and extremists at the recent GOP convention makes Up From Conservatism all that more compelling. Bob Dole's choice of bleeding-heart conservative Jack Kemp, the deliberate slighting of the party's platform written by the Far Right, and the orchestrated TV image of benign moderation could not conceal the ongoing battle inside the party.
Lind, however, believes the Far Right, led by Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and the militias, has already won the fight. As a result, the GOP has lost its best chance to become a mainstream conservative movement representing the vast middle class well into the 21st century. Instead, such positions as forcing a woman to bear the child of a rapist, denying schooling to the children of illegal immigrants, teaching creationism, arming "the people" with assault weapons against an evil federal government, and indulging bizarre conspiracy theories around Freemasons, Europeans, and Jewish bankers, strike middle-of-the-road Americans as simply too crazy. As for the Republican Congress' Contract With America, Lind believes its anti-environment, antipoor, and procorporate stances (with corporate lobbyists actually writing antiregulation bills) were perceived as repugnant and extreme by most moderates. Indeed, polls showing a dramatic decline in the Republican Congress' popularity support Lind's thesis.
The author blames one specific group for this hijacking of the Republican Party--the neoconservatives, led by the likes of Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. Moving away from liberalism and the Democratic Party, they provided the intellectual ballast for a revived conservative movement. Then, according to Lind, they chickened out. Instead of keeping the GOP moving down the middle, they caved in to the Christian Coalition, the Buchananites, and the militias. The neocons proclaimed an election strategy of "no enemies to the right" and legitimized extremist policies within the GOP. Lind's sense of betrayal by his intellectual mentors, particularly Buckley, is keenly expressed, emotional, and persuasive.
Lind's sense of abandonment is magnified because of what he sees as the lost opportunity to capture an unmoored center in American politics. Once tied closely to the Democratic Party, working-class, white ethnics, many of them Catholic, were set adrift when the Democratic Party was taken over by New Left radicals in the 1970s. George McGovern's Presidential campaign led to an alliance between well-off white Democrats and the poor and minorities (women, gays, blacks, etc.) The blue-collar unions and their members were abandoned along with true New Deal policies that extended benefits to all classes of Americans, instead of to a series of specific minorities. Conservatives within the party tried to move it back to the center, but without much success. To Lind, the final nail in the coffin of liberalism came with these developments, not with the election of the 1994 Republican Congress.
The GOP has been trying to attract this ex-Democratic, working-class center ever since, with some success. But, according to Lind, the conversion can't last. The remaking of the GOP as a party of the South and West rather than of the North and Midwest means that Republican economic policies will be antiunion and low-wage. Indeed, Lind believes the current revival of supply-side economics, with its calls for sharply lower taxes, will offer far more to the rich than to the middle class, which will experience cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid entitlements.
Lind goes over the top at times. His definition of the new overclass never really works (they are for free trade because they are two-income career families who need Latin American nannies). And his despondency over the capture of the GOP by the radical right is probably overdone. The "radical center," which combines moderately conservative social views with support for moderately interventionist government policies that help working people, is strong and growing stronger. It is pulling both parties to the center. If the Republicans and Democrats can't figure this out, then a third party will show them the way. America has always had its wild-eyed extremists, but it has always found its way back to the sensible center. It will again.