Lately a large portion of the Left, although notably not the rank and file liberal class, has argued that the Democratic Party should model its political engagement on the Tea Party’s strategic approach. This makes sense, since reality itself seemed to bend to whatever the Freedom Caucus leadership said it was only a few years ago.
It’s hard to argue that the gains the conservatives have made in the United States are somehow identifiable only in base human instincts (racism, sexism, tribalism, etc.), as many liberal commentators have argued in recent post-mortem election commentary. To address this, the question should be about what precisely the Right did to acquire such power, which, at current tallies is thirty-two to fourteen for total control of state legislatures, thirty-three to sixteen for governors offices, 239 to 194 in the House of Representatives, and forty-six to fifty-two in the U.S. Senate for Democrats and Republicans, respectively. This isn’t a story that begins and ends with a tawdry analysis of 2015 and 2016. In fact, the history is far longer than most people realize.
For most people the first iteration of the modern American conservative political movement, defined here as free market dogmatism hybridized with fundamentalist evangelical-inspired social authoritarianism, started with the John Birch Society, but even that social organizing society had a backdrop from which it inherited a legacy.
Probably the best example of this earliest iteration of conservative grassroots mobilizing and social advocacy organizations along economic and religious lines came from evangelical businessmen in the Great Depression era who understood their wealth to be a capitalist divine mandate (as Sarah Hammond so deftly articulated). The fulfillment of this mandate, represented by large profits, consequently proved to be a sign of their moral fiber. R. G. LeTourneau is one of the best documented cases on this particular matter, but his fusion of free market liberal capitalism – as the doctrine was fully in vogue prior to FDR’s ascension to the presidency and thus cannot have the prefix “neo” appended – and evangelical Christian mobilization was part of a small movement that blossomed following the end of WWII.
Even then, though, there was a widespread Christian aversion to being so heavily linked to what we now think of as the neoconservative interventionist foreign policy. After the founder of the LeTourneau farm machinery decided to transition from manufacturing earthmoving equipment (a big deal in an era where the vast majority of land remained unendowed with infrastructure) to military contracts, LeTourneau received hundreds of letters that would not be out of place on a YouTube comment board,
More than a dozen evangelicals wrote letters of protest – not “apolitical” complaints that LeTourneau was collaborating with Caesar, but passionate condemnations of the machinery of death. One correspondent cried, “How can you preach so zealously the LOVE OF JESUS CHRIST, and at the same time make SHELLS, that DESTROY those SOULS that Jesus died for??????”
While LeTourneau had begun crafting a legacy of moral fiber as demonstrable through the size of one’s wallet, he couldn’t overcome the foreign policy issues of the time. However, his model of using his workplace as a vehicle to dispense legislative politics with a suffusion of piety has become one of the foundational approaches to conservative business practices, although the most public cases are centralized in the food industry: Domino’s on abortion, Chick-fil-a on gay marriage, and Papa Johns on promoting poverty. (My working theory is that this type of corporate behavior is much more endemic, but fast food is more ubiquitous than, say, secondary factor manufacturing and therefore more meaningful to the public).
The John Birch Society inherited the legacy of LeTourneau in many ways, but added a more aggressive flavor of red baiting and violence promotion, along with greater ambitions beyond its leader’s personal ambitions. The group organized chapters all over the United States and pushed for a local model best summarized by its founder, Robert W. Welch Jr. (could there be a better aristocratic name), in his advice to John Birch Society members to “join your local PTA at the beginning of the school year, get your conservative friends to do likewise, and go to work to take it over.” In perfect snowflake fashion, he also told his people to put stamps with the word “communist” on hams imported from Poland and, more seriously, was one of the biggest promoters in linking fear of communism to the Civil Rights Act, which the organization claimed was created by communists during one of the tumultuous periods of the Cold War following the Cuban Missile Crisis and John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The organization was perceived of as kooky and non-legitimate, given its membership of only 60,000 to 100,000 members and over 150 staff, but it shifted the conversation and catapulted Barry Goldwater to the fore by 1964.
Strom Thurmond had become a major fault line in the Democratic Party shortly after Truman’s decision to desegregate the military in 1948. While the so-called Dixiecrats (pro segregation Southern Democrats) failed in their electoral ambitions, Thurmond managed to create a Southern vacuum into which Barry Goldwater was able to insinuate himself and completely restructure the parties’ constituencies by the 1960s. Indeed, despite prior party differences, Thurmond became an avid supporter of Goldwater in his 1964 presidential campaign, which was the turning point for Democrats in losing the South to this day.
Like many truly groundbreaking politicians, Goldwater understood that he could tap into particular varieties of resentment and angst to rewrite the political map of the Deep South amid anxiety about Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act with a segregation-lite states rights’ integration plan. While Goldwater opposed conservative evangelical influences in the Republican Party throughout the 1980s on abortion, gay rights, and religion in public life, his main political focus was around rolling back union rights and pushing the U.S. to fight an all-out war with the Soviet Union backed by former Democrats like Paul H. Nitze.
What is so fascinating is that the Reagan Revolution and the rise of the Evangelical right constituency in the Republican Party is the punctuation mark on the dialectic of right wing evolution. The social conservative liberal capitalist beginning marked by LeTourneau slowly departed the workplace and modeled itself into volunteer grassroots organizers with the John Birch Society in 1958. These movements allowed the conservative movement to relatively seamlessly absorb disaffected Democrats on foreign policy and race-issues. The movement is now at its zenith and is almost fully integrated into churches and faith-based gatherings as mobilization zones.
This might seem (and is) meandering, but the milieu hints at a few key themes that pose challenges for the Left.
It’s important to note that the Right’s success is largely attributable to their utilization of natural organizing venues. Conservative politicians and movements are capable of leveraging the full beneficiaries of accumulated capital to their beck and call, as represented by LeTourneau’s ability to force his particular variety of religion on his employees via pamphlet (and undoubtedly led and continue to lead to promotions commensurate with ideological alignment with management). This legacy persists in places all over the country with reports, albeit unconfirmed although frequent and specific enough to convince me, of employers asking their employees to vote their way. Absent organization, labor effectively becomes coopted into the machinery of the managerial upper class, which favors Republican Party outcomes.
At the same time, the workplace is not the only facilitator for Republican ascendancy. There are few standing non-employment related community events in American life more powerful than church gatherings. It’s a natural part of life that integrates an emotional and frequent economic social safety net with political mobilization. More importantly, it’s a source of constant community reaffirmation along political and cultural lines designed to benefit the Republican party. How would one even countenance disagreeing politically when your community and moral framework simply defaults to one side with no social incentive, even if there is an economic enticement, to go against that community’s interests.
Compounding the impact of the religious meetings, most developed countries’ media and political apparatuses have collectively decided that “piety,” “devout,” and “religiosity” are all synonymous with “conservative,” “authoritarian,” and “judgmental,” despite innumerable leftists identifying with every religion across the globe. The fence-busting mechanism of equivocating “religious” with “right-wing” all but guarantees encouragement for religious individuals to affiliate themselves with conservative politics across the globe.
Finally, one advantage the conservative movement seems to have over its socialist and leftist counterparts is that it plays the long game. Grover Norquist lives to get rid of government and he truly doesn’t care if it happens after he dies as long as he pushes that ball. The same churches in rural North Dakota have protested women’s clinics since Roe v. Wade passed. The arc of the conservative political universe bends towards victory precisely because the arc is long.
I would be remiss, though, not to argue something that should be obvious: the Left and the Right have fundamentally different goals. The Left, on one hand, has to create, negotiate, vote-on, implement, and then sustain a vast array of policies and systems. On the other, in order to implement the Right’s agenda, all they need to do is nothing.
The ideal state for the current Republican party is a corporatized plutocratic system wherein the size of your wallet dictates your moral standing and determines your access to the legal system. In this way, the Republican Party is in many ways the default party. Alan Greenspan began the bankrupting of Social Security when he raided it in the Reagan administration, which was passed down and deepened by Bill Clinton and, from there, George W. Bush. Clinton’s welfare reform initiative has basically guaranteed sexual harassment, violence, and a total suspension of basic human dignity for those with the misfortune of enrolling in the California welfare system. Meanwhile, the tax system continually gets more regressive after Obama, in some desperate need to be seen as a dealmaker, decided that ensconcing the Bush trickle down tax cuts made sense. The continual need to acquiesces to Republicans validates their entirely engineered deficit anxiety to cut every single program or merely allow the funds to end on the grounds of fiscal prudence.
Simply put, the Republicans just need to coast to win, while the Democrats need to recreate the Great Society (while also pushing back on the bankrupting forces of global policing to avoid the inflationary and distractionary problems suffered by Lyndon Johnson).
These two objectives have clear messaging outcomes. Democrats need to the party of hope and Republicans need to be the party of constant doomsaying. However, Democrats have largely filled or avoided combating the Republican role since the 1990s.
It’s obnoxious, because everyone is saying it, but it bears repeating that the Democrats need to boldly campaign on something. Anything, really, that matters to the vast swathe of people. What would tangibly make people’s lives better across a large swathe? I would argue that it’s critical to negotiate from a point of optimization.
Shoot for $20 minimum wage and agree to an effective living wage pegged to the local consumer price index. Shoot for a $50,000 universal basic income and settle for $45,000. Shoot for the nationalization of the pharmaceutical industry and settle for a one-party drug monopsony with single-payer health care. Shoot for the world’s greatest high-speed rail system connecting the country and settle for routes between all major cities with a Chicago-DC-LA backbone.
What will not work is milquetoast incrementalism, because that angle is monopolized by the conservatives. It’s easy to claw things back bit-by-bit to ensure the maximum amount of misery for welfare recipients to demoralize them into not voting, but it’s much harder to stand up a single payer health care apparatus. These things need to be done in a big bang with a large grassroots movement behind them. Politics cannot begin and end with elections (although that is the most essential component); it must also be totally inescapable to implement the policies that were in the platform. Half measures became the ACA precisely because single payer was never a core portion of Obama’s platform (nor something he ever believed in) and so the public must hold policymakers accountable.
To develop the movement that sustains itself beyond elections, there must be an alternative social and political apparatus. The conservatives have the managerial class, well the Left needs to find a new way to organize labor across decentralized avenues. The Republicans have many faith-based organizations underneath them, but they don't have a monopoly and it's high time that the language of true justice reassert itself in U.S. faith institutions.
Perhaps most importantly, the movement cannot sustain itself on frenetic anxiety and energy in one's off hours. Part of what makes Republican organizing so successful is that they always have a good time at their events. Free time is an increasingly limited luxury and there is only so much drudgery with which people can engage after a prolonged period. The movement must also be entertaining and fun to survive the long-arc we so desperately need. My suggestion is a rotating party hosting duty every Saturday. I am happy to take first shift.