In the New York Post (November 9) John Podhoretz offers thoughtful observations about the dwindling American conservative presence as reflected in this year’s elections. There is no reasonable way, notes Podhoretz, to read the election returns in the presidential race or in many of the congressional races except as a net plus for the liberal left. Unlike Bush and even Clinton, Gore ran a deeply ideological campaign from the social left, highlighting affirmative action, reproductive rights for women, increased political power for gay militants, and benefits to public-sector employees.
Gore might have won easily by presenting himself as a New Democrat and by taking credit for the relatively decent economy his predecessor was leaving behind. Instead he exerted himself to sharpen the ideological differences between himself and the Republicans that Bush had worked to blur. In debates Gore forced his unsettled Republican opponent to veer left, by getting Bush to take positions on hate crimes and racial profiling that were to the left of those he had actually pursued in Texas. And Gore pushed his running mate Joe Lieberman in the same ideological direction, forcing a senator who had more or less opposed affirmative action to flip-flop on this issues and on school vouchers.
Despite this militant tone in a campaign in a country that is supposed to value “niceness,” at least on the right, Gore polled (honestly or not) two hundred thousand more votes than the waffling, centrist Bush. Meanwhile people flaunting his views picked up senate seats in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Podhoretz observes that such an outcome is not an isolated event but tied to the erosion of the American political right. The left has been able to have its way by appearing moderate (until recently) on fiscal issues, while talking against “pop culture sleaze.” At the same time, “it has given itself room to inch leftward in support of its activist constituencies,” blacks, gays, feminists, and public-sector unions. Most importantly, American voters have accepted this game. According to Podhoretz, these voters treat representatives of kooky leftist positions as moderates and centrists, while deploring critics of the social left as insensitive extremists.
My only addition to these remarks is that the process described has been going on a lot longer than suggested. It was not interrupted, contrary to the now received wisdom, by a conservative ascendancy in the eighties and nineties celebrated in the presidential regimes of George Bush and Ronald Reagan. The slide to the left in our government has been underway since the Progressive era. Since the sixties this metastasizing managerial rule has been accelerated by immigration, civil-rights legislation, and judicial fiat. What happened in the eighties was consistent with that trend and involved the takeover of the American right and, to a large extent, the Reagan administration by Cold War liberals.
The marginalization of the Old Right, of what are now called paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians, together with the rise to national honor of John Podhoretz’s family and of other neocons, exemplifies this tendency. Without the immigration and voting rights acts of 1965, moreover, the American electorate would not have moved as far to the left as it has. Both of those acts now enjoy effusive “conservative” as well as liberal approval.
Within weeks of the 2000 election, for those who bothered to notice, people whom Podhoretz would consider honored members of the “conservative minority,” most prominently, Ben Wattenberg, were busily praising the Gore-Lieberman team. This should not surprise us. Until the 1980s, when they were allowed to take over the conservative movement, most of these neocons were Johnson-Humphrey Democrats. And they have always attacked Old Right intellectuals much more savagely than they have gone after the Left.
After the 1994 Republican congressional victories, the major concern of Bill Kristol and his ilk was that the new congressmen would not appear as moderate centrists but would deviate to the Right. While one may sympathize with those who have been marginalized by the advance of mass democratic statist tyranny, it is impossible to side with those who are being devoured by the tyranny they helped create. This seems to be the case in this instance, when the narrator provides what the New Left used to call a “meaningful past,” meaningful of course meaning doctored.
Paul Gottfried is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author, most recently, of the highly recommended After Liberalism.