At the close of the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, after President Gerald Ford barely squeaked out the nomination against Ronald Reagan, the Reagan aide David Keene gave a revealing interview to The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Drew.
Keene is a conservative movement lifer. In college he was national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom. He ran for public office only once, for Wisconsin state senate, in 1969, and lost, then worked for Spiro Agnew in the White House back when the loud-mouthed vice president was the conservatives’ Great White Horse for president (“Spiro of ’76”). He became an assistant to the conservative senator James Buckley (William F.’s brother). He was chairman of the American Conservative Union from 1984 until 2011. At the time Drew spoke with him, Keene had been the head of Reagan’s presidential campaign in the South. In my Nation cover story last week about the Tea Party’s continuities with conservatism past, when I wrote about the right’s “ideological entrepreneurs” who work to leverage grassroots outrage into conservative power, Keene is exactly the sort of figure I had in mind.
In Kansas City, Keene spoke to Drew of the anger against Reagan among conservatives for his last-minute gambit to save his failing presidential bid by choosing a liberal running mate, Senator Richard Shweiker of Pennsylvania, who had received a 100 percent rating from the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education. Reagan had defended his decision by stressing Schweiker’s agreement with him on abortion and gun control. Carped Keene, “These are all window-dressing issues. What about the economy?” Keene insisted that it was “economic issues” that conservatives really cared about. He explained, “The picture of hardhats taking to the streets over abortion and gun control is misleading. Those issues aren’t what people care about. What it really comes down to is the economic system and the theory that the government is too big. The big things that thinking conservatives think about involve questions of economics and questions of freedom. They draw on the frustration in the country from the increasing feeling that people can’t do anything about anything.”
He was wrong—as the organizers of the nascent New Right would soon be concluding en masse. Yes, people were feeling plenty of frustration about not being able to do anything about anything when it came to their economic lives. But conservative leaders proved entirely ineffectual at “drawing on that” to get people to believe conservative solutions were the answer to their economic frustrations.
It is, in fact, a truism, confirmed by nearly half a century of political polling, a fact brilliantly explained in a must-read article at Salon.com from Paul Rosenberg. It was true even after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential victory, and his 1984 landslide reelection. Consider the statistics compiled in the perennially useful 1986 study Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics, by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers. One poll they cite from Opinion Research Corporation asked voters in 1980 whether “too much” was being spent on the environment, health, education, welfare and urban aide programs. Only 21 percent thought so, the same percentage as in 1976, 1977 and 1978. The amount saying the amount spent was either “too little” or “about right” was never lower in those years than 72 percent. The number favoring keeping “taxes and services about where they are” was the same in 1975 and 1980—45 percent. The pattern continued well into Reagan’s presidency. In 1983 the Los Angeles Times found that only 5 percent of Americans found regulations “too strict,” while 42 percent called them “not strong enough.” Between 1978 and 1982, according to surveys from the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, the number of voters who wished to “expand” rather than “cut back” not just social spending in general but the dreaded “welfare” programs, increased by 26 percentage points. And finally, in 1984, when Reagan’s approval rating was 68 percent, only 35 percent favored cuts in social programs to reduce the deficit, which of course was their president’s strenuously stated preference on the matter. Sixty-five percent believed such cuts were imminent—and, of course, that November, well over 60 percent of them voted for Reagan instead of the Democrat Walter Mondale.
So how did the New Right ever manage to achieve its political thunder? How did they help elect Ronald Reagan when so few Americans, despite Keane’s confidence in 1976 they could be swayed, proved to be economic Reaganites? It was by selling what Keane called those “window dressing” issues—over which people suffering “the increasing feeling [they] can’t do anything about anything” were willing to follow conservatism’s lead.
Richard Viguerie once reflected on his and his New Right comrades’ frustration at their inability to get Christians to care about the Washington Marxists’ stealing their freedom—until Jimmy Carter’s IRS commissioner took away the tax deduction for Christian schools that served the cause of school segregation. “It kicked the sleeping dog…. it was the real spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in politics.” (Then, incidentally, leaders like Viguerie lied so as not to make their constituency sound racist by retroactively claiming that it was Roe v. Wade that had done the trick.) An activated religious right helped put Reaganism over the top—after which Reaganites retroactively claimed a mandate to push economic conservatism.
It’s not that these conservative leaders didn’t care about about what were then called the “social issues”—in addition to abortion and gun control and keeping the IRS out of Christian schools, the ones that counted back then included the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights and “secular humanism” in the public schools. It’s just that, in their heart of hearts, just like David Keene said, they cared about helping business more. I always found it revealing that, both times I sat in Richard Viguerie’s private office to interview him about the history of conservatism, the books that sat on his coffee tables were not about abortionists or secular humanists or other ungodly creatures, but about the evils of unions. Business, in turn, eagerly lapped up the help on offer.
This is the context we need to understand as we evaluate the question of whether the romance between the business lobby and the conservative movement, in its current Tea Party incarnation, can ever really cool. I don’t think it will. And it’s true that there are many different kinds of corporations, with all sorts of social agendas and interests. The sort of political division among capitalists I described in the first part of this series still obtains in various forms; Tom Frank writes, for example, about the “cool billionaires”—hedge fund folks, tech wizards—and “square billionaires”—resource extractors like the Kochs—the first preferred by corporate Democrats, the second by corporate Republicans. But you only need to consider the outrage of corporate executives over that one little time Obama used the phrase “fat cats” to know toward which side the ledger truly tips. And when it comes to business and conservatism, though some disciplining from the big-money boys might occur around the edges, they’re just too organically intertwined, in the ways I wrote about in my second part, to effect a divorce.
One of the most important things liberal don’t understand about conservatism, obscured by too much lazy talk about conservatism’s various “wings,” is that its tenets form a relatively organic base for its adherents, where “traditional morality” serves the interests of laissez-faire economics and vice-versa. This holds true whether the individual conservative in question is a sincere “traditionalist” or not. Howard Phillips, who died this year, was certainly a sincere traditionalist: he eventually became an outright Christian Reconstructionist, a fan of returning to the punishment of stoning for those who flout Leviticus’ codes. Both the thought of right-wing intellectual guru Leo Strauss and the neoconservative tradition itself as exemplified by a figure like William Kristol (“thinking conservatives,” in Keene’s revealing phrase) have a quiet tradition of allowing that religious orthodoxy is crucial to keeping society orderly and the masses in line, but something they’re far too smart to subscribe to themselves. (This tribute that the right paid to virtue was brilliantly flushed out eight years ago when The New Republic’s Ben Adler asked ten leading conservative intellectuals what they really thought about Genesis’ account of creation.) A similar perspective holds true for corporate masters of the universe as well: “tradition” keeps the worker bees tractable, after all. If you’re a capitalist, or just capitalism’s biggest fan, conservatism works.
The best writing about this ironic organic unity between “traditional morality” and tradition-wrecking capitalist creative destruction comes from the University of Georgia’s Bethany Moreton, in To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, and, approaching the issue from the other side of the business-conservatism/Christian-conservatism divide, the University of West Georgia’s Daniel K. Williams. Williams argues that laissez-faire was a perfect fit for a figure like Jerry Falwell, too: after all, it was only natural for a Sun Belt entrepreneur like himself, the proprietor of a media network, to preach “that capitalism was a divinely ordained system and that hard work was the key to success, and he exemplified those virtues by logging ninety-hour workdays to turn his church into an ecclesiastical business empire.”
This marriage works so well (for them; not so much for us) because conservatism provides such a great way to manage the very anxieties capitalist creative destruction engenders: convince folks the true threat to families is “liberalism,” not licentious corporate greed, and you’ve worked a pretty neat trick—if you’re a capitalist. What’s more, it’s a great way to get scared victims of capitalism to the polls. The incomparable journalistic chronicler of the religious right and its corporate entanglements, Adele Stan, now of RH Reality Check, unearthed a luminescent recent example:
There is little doubt that the rash of anti-choice measures that flooded the legislative dockets in state capitols in 2013 was a coordinated effort by anti-choice groups and major right-wing donors lurking anonymously behind the facades of the non-profit “social welfare” organizations unleashed to tear up the political landscape, thanks to the high court’s decision in Citizens United….
Helping to drive the right-wing offensive in the states and in Congress is a network of deep-pocketed business titans convened by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, principals in Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held corporation in the United States. Like the Kochs themselves, many of the donors in the brothers’ networks signal disinterest in fighting against women’s rights or LGBTQ rights, yet anti-choice groups have seen their coffers swell with millions of the network’s dollars.
“If you want to promote a pro-corporate agenda, you’re only going to get so far,” Sue Sturgis, the Durham, North Carolina-based editorial director of the progressive website Facing South, told RH Reality Check. “But when you start weaving in these social issues like abortion and other reproductive rights issues, then you’re gonna appeal to a broader range of people, and a very motivated voting bloc. They will turn out. So it serves your larger cause.”
That explains why David Keene has finally come around. A past master at exploiting conservatism in the service of corporate cupidity—review if you dare the extraordinary story of how the American Conservative Union under his reign sold itself to the highest bidder in a trade dispute between FedEx and UPS—he’s now one “thinking conservative” who knows that social conservatism is no longer “window dressing.” Nope: he’s now president of the National Rifle Association—the poster-child organization (read our own Lee Fang) for the proposition that scaring people over culture is a splendid way to keep the capital flowing.
Social conservatism, business conservatism: the one side constitutes the other, like some infernal Mobius strip. Let’s not mistake the growls from the US Chamber of Commerce about taking on some Tea Partiers as signs of an imminent divorce. I suspect it’s more more like a lovers’ quarrel.
In the second part of this series, Rick Perlstein explains how conservatives came to embrace Wall Street in the 1970s.