The global conservative movement is not a conspiracy, argues Mark Davis. Instead it is loose-knit and decentralised. "Ultimately what unites radical conservatives", he writes, "is the power of belief and the pursuit of common objectives, not the conspiratorial activities of shadowy organisations."
Davis is right about the loose-knit structure of the movement. But he overestimates the power of shared beliefs and objectives. In the latest issue of Policy magazine I argue that America’s conservative movement is becoming increasingly unstable. Libertarians and social conservatives are drifting in opposite directions.
Sinclair Davidson’s suggestion that the most formidable opponents of small government are conservatives rather than social democrats is interesting. I wonder whether this could lead to a realignment of Australian politics.
But enough about that, let’s get back to Davis’ argument. In his 2008 book The Land of Plenty, he argues that America’s modern conservative movement grew out of the turmoil of the 1960s:
Determined to counter ‘godless’ communism, unsettled by the successes of the civil rights movement, flush with oil money and new wealth pouring into the southern Sun Belt state manufacturing (electronics, aerospace, munitions) because of the Vietnam War, and determined to shift the US centre of political gravity, wealthy southern conservatives reached into their pockets. Activists recognised that success relied on being able to forge alliances between disparate conservative constituencies — southern anti-segregationalists [sic?], evangelical Christian ‘heartlanders’, conservative business leaders, New York neoconservative intellectuals, ‘Chicago school’ free-market economists (p 21).
The rejection of the liberal ascendancy brought together not just Sunbelt Protestants, but northern and midwestern Catholics as well. Not just middle-class suburbanites and office workers, but also small-town and rural residents in addition to blue-collar workers and ethnic urban villagers. And what did the combination of all these disparate groups produce? Not just a genuine conservatism that sought to preserve a usable heritage in the face of inevitable change, but a marriage of convenience between that conservatism and the forces of blind reaction (p 239-240).
Lindsey goes on to explain that the political realignment of the late 60s harnessed the resentment of working-class whites — particularly those in the south. And much of this resentment was directed at America’s educated elite. As Lindsey writes, "What, after all, was the chief source of all the cultural tumult? The universities, which also conferred the degrees that were fast becoming the most important status marker in American society — a marker, of course, that members of the working class conspicuously lacked."
Nixon was the first Republican candidate to take advantage of this realignment. But he quickly alienated economically minded libertarians by embracing Keynesian solutions to unemployment and inflation. Today’s conservative movement grew in the shadow of the Nixon presidency. It’s origins lie in the ‘fusionism‘ of William F Buckley‘s National Review and the remnants of Barry Goldwater‘s failed bid for the presidency. It was a movement which combined economic liberalism with social conservatism. The stagflation of the 70s created an opening for the ideas of economists like Milton Friedman.
According to Lindsey, with the rise of libertarian ideas "contemporary conservatism came full into its own: a paradoxical combination of promoting economic innovation while checking the cultural changes brought on by that innovation" (p 246). By the 1980s, the conservative movement included Chicago School and Austrian economists, the Moral Majority, and neoconservative intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Jean Kirkpatrick.
Davis sees the tensions inherent in this coalition. He argues that:
The glue that held often incompatible and sometimes sparring factions together was ‘umbrella issues’ in which all had a stake: opposition to communism and collectivism in all their forms, ‘big government’, New Deal’ economics, welfare, multiculturalism, abortion, affirmative action, ‘secular humanism’, feminism, 1960s permissiveness and their ‘new class’ representatives, coupled with support for libertarian economics, traditional (Christian) morality, ‘small government’, ‘states’ rights’ and individual freedom (p 22).
But this list sounds more like a recipe for plastic explosive than for glue. The one issue everyone agreed on, opposition to communism, is now gone. And what’s left lacks any ideological coherence. For example, how does it make sense to argue for small government and individual freedom on one hand while spending billions on a war in Iraq and trampling civil liberties with wars on drugs and terror? Many of today’s younger libertarians happily combine libertarian economics with support for cultural diversity, feminism and permissiveness. Lindsey argues that libertarians should abandon the culture war and consider a new alliance with promarket liberals.
One response to this is the argument that neoliberalism is not a political philosophy but an arrangement designed to benefit a handful of large corporations. If fighting an intractable war in the Middle East means lucrative government contracts for corporations, then there’s no coherence problem at all. All the talk about liberty, free markets and small government is just convenient rhetoric. From this perspective it’s obvious why the corporations want a war on drugs. It means more privately operated prisons.
But what if right wing philanthropy is not the bite of a vampire. What if the people who work for free market think tanks and who write for right wing magazines have minds of their own and are not walking corpses for neoliberalism. If so, it might be worth starting a conversation. After all, today’s political alignments will not endure forever.