Plain Facts

If you’re an honest student of American history, there is nothing in Neal Gabler’s “The GOP McCarthy Gene” that you didn’t already know. Gabler explains why Joe McCarthy — not Barry Goldwater, and certainly not Saint Ronald — was the real father of modern movement conservatism.

In this tale, the real father of modern Republicanism is Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the line doesn’t run from Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush; it runs from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin. It centralizes what one might call the McCarthy gene, something deep in the DNA of the Republican Party that determines how Republicans run for office, and because it is genetic, it isn’t likely to be expunged any time soon. …

… What he lacked in ideology — and he was no ideologue at all — he made up for in aggression. Establishment Republicans, even conservatives, were disdainful of his tactics, but when those same conservatives saw the support he elicited from the grass-roots and the press attention he got, many of them were impressed. Taft, no slouch himself when it came to Red-baiting, decided to encourage McCarthy, secretly, sealing a Faustian bargain that would change conservatism and the Republican Party. Henceforth, conservatism would be as much about electoral slash-and-burn as it would be about a policy agenda.

So much of the uglier side of the GOP ever since — Nixon, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove — is just warmed-over and updated McCarthyism. As Gabler says, the line runs “from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin.” One of the reasons historian Richard Hofstadter was able to see where the U.S. was heading in the 1950s and early 1960s is that McCarthy had already set the course.

It isn’t just the ranting about Communism. The myth of liberal elitism began with McCarthy. Certainly anti-intellectualism had existed in America before McCarthy, just as there had been Red Scares before McCarthy. But he’s the one who figured out how to turn anti-intellectualism into a political force in modern politics.

Steve M adds:

Gabler is right: the Republican Party is held together not by any real ideological coherence (it is a collection of incompatible constituencies with radically different interests) but by a shared devotion to aggression. Or, as innumerable bloggers have put it, to Pissing Off the Liberals.

In (rightly) putting McCarthy ahead of Goldwater, though, Gabler neglects the malignant role Goldwaterite ideology did play in this story: its inherent unsuitability to governing led directly to the nihilism of modern conservatism.

Wingnuts are in denial, of course. One says,

Gabler forgets how William F. Buckley kicked out the McCarthy’s heirs, The John Birch Society, from the conservative movement. Doing so doesn’t fit the theme of a paranoid political party.

This may be why Buckley co-authored a book titled McCarthy and His Enemies called by one reviewer “a bald, dedicated apologia for ‘McCarthyism‘” … oh, wait …

11 thoughts on “Plain Facts

  1. So far, so good…

    With Obama announcing his National Security Team today another major chunk of his administration will be in place and ready for Congressional approval. It is impressive how much his organization is getting done prior to January 20 when the new administration actually takes over.

    Even with the most left-leaning of liberals complaining that he is too close to the center rightists, and the right-leaning neocon residue complaining that he is too much of a liberal, Obama appears to be creating the government he promised all along: one of change, with his presidency as the primary change position.

    Now it will be crucial how much time opponents on both sides give him to set up shop and get us on the road to real recovery.

    Under The LobsterScope

  2. How odd that McCarthy’s tactics so reviled, even by Republicans (as I remember) should become the very tactics adopted by those who originally reviled them.

    Whatever it takes to win sums up, in my mind, all that Republicans are about these days. That and what I call the Reagan effect – the young man on the eve of Reagan’s second term who quite proudly said, “I’ve got mine and I don’t care about anybody else,” – have so defiled American politics and the whole American landscape to lead me to despair of ever living again in a quieter and gentler (at least on the surface) America.

    (By the way, Barbara, my submit is back ‘on’, obviously, so thank you.)

  3. Gabler’s analysis is, I think, wonderfully bright and astute. One would dearly wish to see pieces of this caliber far more often in our dailies.

    But I must highlight a claim you’ve made which I don’t think matches up with the historical record…

    “The myth of liberal elitism began with McCarthy.”

    Gabler mentions Hofstadter’s deservedly famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. But as regards the sentence I’ve just quoted, the more relevant reference is Hofstadter’s book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”. Here Hofstadter documents and details the very long history of American populist traditions which have set the ‘common man’ against the educated and liberal (in different periods, other synonyms have been used but carrying essentially the same meanings) elites of the big cities and particularly of the North East.

    This Pulitizer-winning historical work, as Hofstadter says in his introduction “…was conceived in response to the political and intellectual conditions of the 1950’s…Primarily it was McCarthyism which arosed the fear that the critical mind was at ruinous discount in this country. Of course, intellectuals were not the only targets of McCarthy’s constant detonations – he was after bigger game – but intellectuals were in the line of fire.” The following sentences go on to describe a populist rhetoric (and the targets of such) which have a one to one correspondence with Limbaugh or David Horowitz or so many others.

    But Hofstadter draws out (in brilliant prose, by the way) how all of this had earlier antecedents running back to the earliest periods in American history.

  4. Someone needs to explain how it all ties together – how the dark underbelly of conservativism coexists with, and even glorifies, the (in their eyes) shining examples of Ronnie Reagan and Barry Goldwater. My simple minded view of conservativism says that the dark side represents the things conservatives are against (and feel perfectly entitled to attack), whereas the Goldwater/Reagan axis is their vision of a glorious utopia, something to be for. Adding much complexity is how this simple dichotomy plays out in the many diverse and incompatible flavors of conservativism. We need a “Taxonomy and Etiology of Modern Conservativism, a Field Guide”.

  5. [H]e was no ideologue at all….

    This is the key. There’s nothing behind the aggression except a desire for self-supremacy. Over the last 50-plus years, the GOP morphed into a mask with empty eyes. Kind of like the killers in the Halloween and Scream flicks.

  6. Nice to see other sites – like today’s Crooks and Liars – recognizing you and linking here, Maha.

    I think you are correct in connecting these dots from McCarthy to the Atwater/Rovian brand of politics. It’s not a stretch to tie the proliferation of right-wing talk radio to these guys, either. Rush Limbaugh’s ample posterior was placed in that broadcast chair 20 years ago by people with ties to the CIA of the 1950’s and ’60’s, who had garnered controlling interest in Capital Cities as it bought out the struggling ABC network.

    Weren’t there millions who gave feedback to this current FCC on the issue of national media reform? I think the blogs will lead the way in keeping this issue in the forefront for Obama and the next Congress.

  7. The problem is that the modern “conservative” doesn’t mind being called a McCarthyite. They wouldn’t mind a modern day version of him and think he didn’t go far enough. See Michelle Bachmann for the illustrative example.

  8. I wanted to post these thoughts under the “Reacting vs Responding” piece, but the Submit button is crippled over there (and my middle aged eyes much prefer IE7’s crisp, text rendering magic over FireFox at this point, although I’m not fond of feeding Bill Gates’ empire..) here they are, misfiled under this piece:

    A responsive stance assumes that people in a position to respond actually are listening, have the resources to do something about a problem, and feel at the core of their bones, that their mission is to respond. The Bushies and far right people in general have clearly demonstrated over and over where their priorities lie: with themselves. They see themselves much like European aristocrats saw themselves a few centuries ago, and have more or less the same narrow concerns. Their lack of empathy and caring about others – which they view as natural – has led this country to the brink of ruin, at least if you’re not among their elite circles who actually own this country. From the view at the top, the Bush years have been pretty successful:

    1) huge tax cuts, massive deficit spending and other breaks to structure the legal, political, financial and corporate environments to their favor, things that will take many years to reverse, if significant reversal is possible at all

    2) a somewhat successful energy war, which, while it didn’t go far enough in right wing eyes, at least should install pliable regimes in the Middle East to provide access to the oil, which is intended to continue petro-dollar dominance of the vested interests for awhile longer. That this caused epic, untold suffering, and has tied down and depleted our military and world standing, is not that important to them

    Of course this intrinsic, self-serving stance makes it seem like these people only react. And while our country is demonstrably poorer overall because of their rule, it simply doesn’t affect them – their wealth is fungible and can be moved anywhere. They could care less if the country goes off the rails. The more the middle class disappears or is rendered impotent, the better for their program. The more damage they can do, the harder their program will be to undo.

    The key is understanding where they perceive their interests lie, which they most definitely promote and are responsive to. If you can put yourself in the mind of European aristocracy, you’ve got a good handle on where these people are coming from.

  9. #8 moonbat – cripple submit on my end too – react/respond made me think of Churchill’s take on Americans: “You can count on Americans to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else.”

    It has been suggested that Americans are a puerile population and our tendency to react rather than respond would certainly support that suggestion.

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