When people, usually liberals, compare today’s conservatives unfavorably to conservatives of previous generations, I often get annoyed. Viewing today’s conservatives through the misty water-covered memories of the past, observers today tend to focus on out-of-character liberal policies that some conservatives, because of political expediency, were forced to pursue (Nixon’s environmental record, for example, or Reagan’s negotiations with the Soviets). In short, they cherry-pick relatively rare examples of conservatives supporting liberal policies, and they forget that these took place in a political context where liberalism was much more powerful, while conservatism was far less so.
But I would argue that there is at least one important way in which today’s conservatives differ from conservatives of the past. It’s this: today’s conservative movement is much more genuinely populist, in the sense that it is much less dominated by elites. A good example of what I mean is illustrated by this essay by Michael Lind, which appeared this week in Salon.com. Lind recounts an important episode in the history of American conservatism: the story of how, in the 1950s, the wildly popular libertarian novelist Ayn Rand was basically read out of the conservative movement. The most famous smackdown occurred in 1957 in the pages of William F. Buckley’s National Review, when conservative icon Whittaker Chambers wrote a scathing review of Rand’s magnum opus. Lind describes the episode, but leaves out the most famous sentence in Chambers’ review, which is this: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber — go!’”
Following that review, Rand, although she presided over a fervent cult (literally — read this fascinating book for more), was marginalized within the conservative movement. And Rand wasn’t the only extremist Buckley and the National Review crowd kicked out. They also denounced the John Birch Society, anti-Semites, and eventually (by the 1970s, anyway), extremist racists*. This is not to say, of course, that Buckley and the National Review didn’t continue to support many noxious, far-right ideas and policies. In one infamous example, Buckley took to the pages of the New York Times to advocate tattooing AIDS victims “on the buttocks.” But for the most part he did kick out the radical fringe.
The main difference between the conservative movement then and now is that elites like Buckley have lost the ability to define the movement. Today, conservatism is less hierarchical, and more diffuse. It’s not that conservative elites don’t wield considerable power in the movement, of course. But within conservatism, there is no longer anyone of Buckley’s stature who has the power to define the boundaries of the respectable right, and to purge certain individuals or tendencies. The closest thing to a leader today’s conservative movement has is Rush Limbaugh, who delights in voicing extremist opinions and trafficking in the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that many voters find repellent.
As a result, extremists within conservatism are much more empowered. This has had mixed results for conservatives. On the one hand, the conservative base, because it is far less interested in currying favor with the political establishment, has had some success in pursuing a much more aggressively partisan agenda. Conservatives in the House and Senate are far more obstructionist than previously, and have not shied away from opposing strongly popular measures (like background checks for gun owners), or to taking widely unpopular actions (like impeaching Bill Clinton).
In other ways, though, the extremist populist base has hurt the party. Today, the Senate would probably be in Republican hands if the conservative base had not insisted in nominating extremist candidates like Todd Akin and Christine O’Donnell.
Eventually, as America continues to experience demographic changes that tend to favor Democrats, conservatives may come to regret the extent to which extremists have taken over their movement. Whatever short-term gains this strategy has won for conservatism, it will likely turn out to be harmful to the movement’s long-term interests. Tomorrow’s conservatives may wish they’d had a Buckley-type figure who had drawn a line in the sand between “respectable” conservatives and the fringe. But the way many of today’s aging conservatives see it is probably akin to that charming Wall Street acronym, IBGYBG: “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”
*Note: in the 1950s and through much of the 1960s, the National Review was openly racist and pro-segregationist. Once civil rights won the day, the Review toned down the racism. It’s not that they were ever particularly supportive civil rights or racial equality, but they tended to use code words and dog whistles rather than explicit appeals to white supremacy.