These are dog days for Democrats. The top-gun President continues to ride high in the polls, despite the chaos in Iraq. The Rolls-Royce reactionaries who control Washington lavish tax breaks and no-bid contracts on those who pay for their party. The Democratic presidential candidates spend energy debating who is “electable” rather than where they want to take the country. And, inevitably, the poisonous sectarians of the Democratic Leadership Council have launched their annual corporate fundraising drive by trashing “elitist, interest-group liberalism.” At least they provide unwitting comic relief by asserting that the only electable Democrats are Bush-lite politicians like their own unlikely Joe Lieberman, tireless tribune of the CEO stock option, censorious scold of the Lynne Cheney-William Bennett school of moral indignation and hairshirt preacher of fiscal austerity in the face of global deflation. “Real Democrats,” DLC’s leaders Al From and Bruce Reed helpfully inform us in their most recent memo, “are real people.” Thanks for that.
Progressives would profit more by studying the way the New Right responded to life in the political wilderness. In the mid-1970s, Richard Nixon was exiled in disgrace and Democrats controlled everything–the presidency, both houses of Congress and the judiciary. The liberal era that conservatives had hoped to end seemed to have new life. At that moment, New Right strategists made two major decisions: to build an independent capacity to drive their message, their values and their movement into the political debate and to take over the Republican Party from green-eyeshade moderates and make it their vehicle. The New Right scorned the Republican DLCs of the time and instead built an independent, cause-based political movement.
New Right donors–Coors, Mellon Scaife, Richardson and others–didn’t pour their money into places like the American Enterprise Institute, the established voice of corporate America. Instead they funded the openly right-wing Heritage Foundation, which redbaited liberal leaders; championed Star Wars, supply-side economics and school vouchers; and assailed welfare, abortion rights and affirmative action. Heritage minted not new policy ideas but timely political ammunition–message, propaganda lines, factoids–to arm New Right legislators and activists, and it aggressively promoted its advocates on op-ed pages and talk shows.
Rather than invest primarily in the Republican Party, the New Right backed the Moral Majority, galvanizing the emerging right-wing evangelical movement under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others to preach family values and opposition to abortion. It built its own network of independent PACs, led by the National Conservative Political Action Committee. Aided by Richard Viguerie’s innovative direct-mail operation, it forged an independent capacity to recruit and train candidates who shared its values. For the most part, New Right adherents rejected third-party politics as likely to prolong liberal dominance and made the GOP their vehicle, with Ronald Reagan as their champion.
The result not only transformed the Republican Party, it helped produce a sea change in American politics, driving the debate to the right and creating the basis for the conservative era that has defined the past twenty years of American politics. And trimmers like the DLC drifted further and further to the right in an elusive search for the “center” of American politics.
The rise of the New Right wasn’t solely due to its own organizing. Liberalism failed to meet the challenges facing the country in the 1970s–stagflation, growing pressures on families, America held hostage. And the successes–and excesses–of the triumphant movements of the 1960s generated a furious reaction that fueled New Right organizing. But it was only by organizing independently that the right was able to grab the opportunity created by these dynamics.