I recently read Geoffrey Kabaservice’s lament for the eclipse of old-line Republicanism, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012). It’s a flawed book in many respects, not the least because Kabaservice can’t adequately distinguish the social trends that roiled the 1960s from the political sentiment of moderation that he wishes to commend to readers.
But I found the historical detail very engaging and informative. Before reading Kabaservice I had not seen that a conservative anti-establishment revolution predated the New Left’s ascendancy. The first years of the 1960s were not dominated by leftist activists attacking the “system,” but instead by movement conservatives who wanted to overthrow the comfortable establishment mentality that then dominated the Republican Party. The John Birch Society exemplified the revolutionary character of right-wing ferment in those years, a ferment that thoroughly engaged young people. In 1962 a space alien plopped down in Southern California would have concluded that the 1960s and its youth culture would be dominated by movement conservatism.
As Kabaservice shows in well documented detail, movement conservatism gained control of Young Republican clubs, and then the GOP itself. The result was the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, an electoral disaster for the Republican Party, but a harbinger of an increasingly self-confident and strident conservatism. The same was true for George McGovern’s equally disastrous nomination in 1972, which was the result of the ascendancy of the movement liberalism that now dominates the Democratic Party.
Again, it’s telling that the conservative revolution occurred before the liberal one. Liberalism was the East Coast WASP Establishment mentality at the beginning of the ’60s, and movement conservatism set as much against the WASP Establishment as against liberalism. In fact, although Kabaservice doesn’t see it clearly, this anti-Establishment mentality runs like a red thread through his story. Richard Nixon was not a movement conservative. He triangulated. But he was animated by a deep antipathy for the East Coast Establishment (which Nelson Rockefeller epitomized), and Establishment that imagined itself the proper proprietor of the Republican Party. And Nixon did as much to destroy its political power—perhaps more—than SDS leftists.
I should have seen it, but like all of us I’ve been bewitched by the liberal myth of the 1960s, which portrays today’s gray-bearded and tenured radicals as yesterday’s revolutionaries. That’s not, in fact, true. From Joseph McCarthy to the Tea Party today, it’s been conservatism that has done the most damage to Establishmentarian politics in America. As David Brooks described so amusingly in Bobos in Paradise , the establishment absorbed the so-called counter-culture of the second half of the 1960s quite easily, transforming rule by WASP elites into rule by Ivy League meritocrats. What it has been unable to accommodate, or at least only gingerly and at the margins, has been the movement conservatism that has had a great deal of success in electoral politics.
Today, gay activists and all many of lifestyle liberationists fit in very comfortably at Yale, while its denizens look on in horror at the populist fervor so much on display in the Republican primary. It’s a fact that reinforces what Kabaservice’s book suggests: Conservatism has been the postwar ideology that has been the most consequential, for it unsettled the status quo in America in the deepest and longest-lasting ways.