By THOMAS FRANK
“President Bush operates in Washington like the head of a small occupying army of insurgents,” the pundit Fred Barnes writes in his recent book, “Rebel-in-Chief.” “He’s an alien in the realm of the governing class, given a green card by voters.”
Let’s see: These insurgents today control all three branches of government; they are underwritten by the biggest of businesses; they are backed by a robust social movement with chapters across the radio dial. The insurgency spreads before its talented young recruits all the appurtenances of power — a view from the upper stories of the Heritage Foundation, a few years at a conquered government agency where expertise is not an issue, then a quick transition to K Street, to a chateau in Rehoboth and a suite at the Ritz. For the truly rebellious, princely tribute waits to be extracted from a long queue of defense contractors, sweatshop owners and Indian casinos eager to remain in the good graces of the party of values.
What a splendid little enterprise American conservatism has turned out to be.
How does this work? How does the right keep its adherents in a lather against government bureaucrats and Washington know-it-alls when conservatives are the only bureaucrats and know-it-alls who matter anymore?
Part of the answer is that, after their crushing defeat in the 1930’s, conservatives rebuilt their movement by adopting a purely negative stance against liberalism. They were so completely excluded from power, they believed, that in 1955 William F. Buckley Jr. famously depicted them “Standing athwart history, yelling Stop.” Writing in the middle of the Reagan years, the journalist Sidney Blumenthal gaped at the persistence of this “adversarial” mind-set long after the liberals had been routed. “Even when conservatives are in power they refuse to adopt the psychology of an establishment,” he marveled.
Here we are, 20 years later, and to hear conservatives tell it, every election is still a referendum on the monster liberalism, which continues to loom like a colossus over the land. Even Tom DeLay — the erstwhile “hammer” — becomes a martyr when addressing the faithful. “The national media has taken my own re-election as their own personal jihad,” he moaned in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. “So we’re fighting the fight of ages.”
That conservatives continue, as Rick Perlstein writes, to “soak in [their] marginalization” four decades after the election of the last liberal president puts this victimology beyond implausible. It is more on the order of a foundational myth, like the divine right of kings, a fiction that everyone involved must accept as fact.
A century ago, it was conservative stalwarts, not liberal reformers, who were the natural party of government. And they were forthright about what they stood for as well as what they were against: They were for rule by a better class of people, for a Hamiltonian state in which business was unified with government. And conservatism is still for those things, tacitly at least. Just look at the résumés of the folks the president has appointed to the Departments of Labor, Agriculture and the Interior. Or scan one of the graphs that economists use to chart the distribution of wealth over the last hundred years. The more egalitarian society we grew up in is gone, snuffed out by the party of tradition in favor of an even rosier past that lies on the far side of the 1930’s.
These ought to be easy things to deplore. They ought to arouse precisely the kind of simmering fury that millions of Americans feel toward lewd halftime shows and checkout clerks who don’t say “Merry Christmas.” But we have difficulty holding conservatives accountable for them, so potent is their brand image as angry outsiders. What conservatives do, as everyone knows, is protest government, protest modernity; to hold them responsible for government or for modernity is to bring on cognitive dissonance.
Or, rather, it might bring on cognitive dissonance. We don’t know because puncturing conservatism’s marginalization fantasy hasn’t really been tried. If liberals are ever to recover, this will have to change. Against the tired myth of the “liberal elite” they must offer a competing and convincing theory of how Washington works, and for whom.