“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” This was a good question when in my early twenties I joined others in chanting it. It remains a worthy historiographical issue though often lost in sentimental accounts of the “tragedy of Lyndon Johnson.” Since I joined the chanting as a social democrat rather than a self-proclaimed revolutionary, I have no need in retrospect to cover my ideological backside and thus do not recant what would now be widely derided as “uncivil” behavior. Nor do I expect recantations from the congressional Democrats who booed President Richard Nixon for declaring in his 1974 State of the Union Address that “one year of Watergate is enough.”
Given this position, I cannot muster much outrage (or surprise) over noisy conservative complaints about national health insurance at “town hall” meetings and the September 12 rally at the Capitol, or even over Representative Joe Wilson’s shout of “You lie” at President Barack Obama. Rather, the latest round of conservative shouting prompts reflections here on two subjects: the mini-boom since the mid-1990s in scholarship about the right and (building on this scholarly prelude but with less academic detachment) the current whiny liberal response to the raucous right.
The recent mini-boom in studies of the right has proceeded with minimal memory of the excellent work done by the small band of historians who paid attention to the topic between the late 1960s and the mid-1990s. 1 Partly for this reason, the recent scholarship, for all of its empirical merits, provides little guidance for understanding the current raucous right. As elsewhere in the academy, there has been an emphasis on race and gender issues at the expense of nationalism and economics. Nonetheless, protection of limited government against “European socialism,” the foremost conservative article of faith since the late nineteenth century, is once again on full display at the conservative rallies. The election of an African-American president certainly infuriated many on the right. Even so, the current protestors bear a striking resemblance to the raucous right that mobilized against President John F. Kennedy’s “statism” and occasional lapses from a Cold War hard line.2
The book-length syntheses produced during the academic mini-boom tend toward teleological accounts of “movement conservatism” from the early 1950s to the Reagan era and beyond. William F. Buckley, Jr., and grassroots readers of National Review usually play featured roles while legislation is mentioned only in passing and the messy process of enacting laws is almost entirely ignored. We need to remember, however, that non-movement conservatives, including business lobbyists who read Forbes and members of Congress who read little except constituent mail, exercised great influence even during ostensibly liberal eras (which, according academic and journalistic orthodoxy, occur whenever there is a Democratic president). For example, pressure from and concessions to conservatives (broadly defined) since the so-called Progressive Era help to explain why the Federal Reserve “System” looks like it does, why the Social Security “System” is structured as it is, and why LBJ against his better instincts killed kids in Indochina.
Furthermore, while an empathetic attempt to understand all beliefs should come naturally to every historian, understanding does not preclude critical judgments. In this respect, recent scholarship slights the dark and dangerous sides of Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism and even of Barry Goldwater’s version.
Predictably the response to the latest raucous right by liberal and “progressive” pundits and politicians has been minimally affected by serious scholarship from any generation and often minimally affected by common sense about all social and political mobilization. Complaints proliferate that these are artificial “Astroturf” protests orchestrated from above rather than genuine cries from the “grassroots.” Come off it. It is no more surprising that the National Taxpayers Union prods its adherents to rally at the Capitol than that John L. Lewis used the United Mine Workers treasury to channel working class anger into the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Probably less surprising.
Psychological reductionism, a tactic used to discredit all dissidents outside of the “vital center” during the ‘50s and ‘60s, has been resurrected by liberals along with this technique’s signature epithet, Richard Hofstadter’s glib postulate of a “paranoid style in American politics.” In another flashback to the ‘50s, the “left” (to use the anachronistic term favored by the mainstream news media) denounces shouting conservatives for violating the alleged rules of the political game. Democrats are contemplating a resolution to condemn Representative Wilson for his outburst unless Wilson apologizes on the floor of the House.
This emphasis on a procedural defense of liberalism has two main causes. First, since the birth of a recognizable modern American liberalism during the so-called Progressive Era, its most successful leaders have emphasized national unity across class, ethnic and (more recently) gender and racial lines. Even when Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman occasionally engaged in class rhetoric, the denigrated “plutocrats” (to recall Truman’s term) were presented as a small sliver of the population. Moreover, as sociologist Herbert Gans has shown, the mainstream media since the early 1900s have ritually denounced noisy and divisive politics in their editorials (while often inflaming it in news coverage). The media elite’s ritual denial of legitimate conflict in a country marked by significant conflicts may have reached an all time high and is best personified by David Gergen on CNN.
After losing the ideological debate begun in the ’60s about economics, foreign policy, and nationalism (while winning on race, gender, and life styles), self-consciously “centrist” Democrats have acquiesced in and rapidly retreated from the prevailing caricature of New Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society liberalism. Occasionally they explicitly invoked Theodore Roosevelt and other old progressive preachers of national unity as alternative models. President Bill Clinton was the most successful “new kind of Democrat” but Jimmy Carter was clearly his precursor. President Obama obviously fits into this pattern and, unlike Clinton and Carter, temperamentally Obama is a compromiser.
The second reason liberals prefer procedural to substantive defenses of liberalism is that the United States is in many ways a conservative country. Why appeal to “the people” on the merits of an issue if “the people” are likely to disagree with you? How conservative and exactly in what ways the United States is conservative compared to other countries is something I wish I could state with certainty and brevity after mulling over the matter since I was a teenager. Suffice it to say here that even during the Great Depression, with unemployment hovering around 20% for years, not only was there still an influential conservative bloc on Capitol Hill and a racist, anti-Semitic far right shouting in the streets, but also a majority of citizens according to polls who favored decreased government spending. A congressional conservative coalition consisting of most northern Republicans and many southern Democrats began to form in 1937 and blocked major expansions of the welfare state for almost three decades. Indeed, the conservative coalition’s Depression era Democrats are the ideological ancestors of the current “blue dogs.”
Notwithstanding these disadvantages, isn’t there a better liberal response to the raucous right than prattling on about unfair tactics in general and incivility in particular? Don’t whine, organize. And I don’t mean a mobilization of emails. Despite the prevailing view that recent technological innovations have transformed American politics (a recurrent cliché at least as old as the telegraph), office holders still fear 500 people shouting at them in a room more than 50,000 people grumbling in front of their computer screens.
If some efficient liberals and progressives can organize an impressive march to support national health insurance, I would be delighted to join the crowd on the Washington Mall. I already have a Metropass and I promise to be civil. At least I pledge not to chant, “Hey, Hey, AMA, how many kids did you let die today?”
Leo P. Ribuffo
Mr. Ribuffo teaches history at George Washington University and is author of The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War.
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