I've been reading a lot of books recently about the rise of conservatism in the 1970s due to a possible new research project focusing on that decade, and doing so has given me a lot of perspective on our current political scene. This is especially the case when it comes to trying to explain the current crop of GOP presidential candidates, most of whom hold opinions that would make them mocked or completely unelectable in most of America's peer nations. Even some conservatives are beginning to sound the alarm. John Huntsman, the lone true moderate in the race, recently expressed consternation that his rivals expect to become the leader of the world's most powerful nation while villifying science. To get the party nomination, one must endorse the hoary creed of American exceptionalism, deny global warming, reject biological evolution, give at least lip service to Biblical literalism, and adhere strictly to supply-side orthodoxy.
Michele Bachmann has vaulted to the top tier of entrants despite claiming that the Founding Fathers had opposed slavery, that America faces a Soviet threat, and that the government should be actively rooting out "un-American" types in DC. One of her main competitors, Rick Perry, recently implied threats of physical violence against the head of the Federal Reserve if he dared stimulate the economy. Earlier, as governor of Texas he defended sodomy laws, slashed school funding in a state with an abyssmal education record, recently claimed that his cruel program of laissez-faire capitalism fulfilled Martin Luther King's dream of social justice, and most likely put an innocent man to death and then blocked an investigation into his actions. Further down on the presidential racing form, Herman Cain has said he will refuse to hire any Muslims on his staff, and Ron Paul has garnered a loyal following despite calling for an end to the Federal Reserve, as if we were living in 1811 rather than 2011.
What we are seeing isn't just the legitimation of extremism, but also, to a large degree, historical chickens coming home to roost. Even though the current crop of candidates praise Saint Ronnie Reagan with hosannas at every possible opportunity, he would not have a chance today of earning the Republican nomination. Reagan was no fool, and his ideological commitment never, ever, overwhelmed his political savvy. When he was governor of California, he raised taxes and passed the most liberal abortion law in the country. When in the White House, he raised taxes on multiple ocassions, increased deficit spending like no other president before, and gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants. In terms of foreign policy, he cut and ran in Beirut, negotiated with terrorists via Iran, and offered Mikhail Gorbachev the possibility of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Despite his lip service in the culture wars, he did not attend church and was a product of Hollywood, supposedly America's Gomorrah. While I detest most of Reagan's legacy, he was at least a statesman, willing to make compromises with his ideology when necessary.
He had a great deal of support from the right-wing populist brigades, but did a masterful job of telling them what they wanted to hear without being tied to their restrictions. Without a smooth operator like Reagan at the helm of the conservative movement, there is no way that it would have achieved the success that it did. Most Americans do not have a taste for right-wing zealots who will sacrifice basic public services and the nation's credit rating to the capitalist Moloch in order to retain their ideological purity. Just look, for example, at the public disgust with Florida governor Rick Scott, perhaps the most ideologically conservative governor in the country. Better yet, national polls show a great deal of dislike for the Tea Party, a movement purportedly made up of "we the people."
Since Reagan, radical Republicans have actually done best while not occupying the White House and using Congress to obstruct and defame Democratic presidents, taking away the messy task of actually having to run things. (The Debt Ceiling Hostage Crisis is the best example yet of this zealous irresponsibility.) The nineties brought the rise of Newt Gingrich's GOP, which committed itself not to governing, but destroying Bill Clinton, most notably in the ridiculous impeachment case. Although they were not ultimately successful in that crusade, there might as well have been a Republican in the White House. As is the case today, the president triangulated, giving us legislation like the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (effectively destroying local commercial radio) and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, a major catalyst for the financial crisis ten years later.
People forget this, but George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 while touting his pragmatism, not his conservative bona fides. (In any case, he didn't really win it at the ballot box in the first place.) He also won reelection mostly by being a incumbent in wartime, effectively mobilizing his base, and facing a weak opponent, not out of great popular support for conservative ideas. His tax cuts for the wealthy were not popular, and his proposed privatization of Social Security died as soon as it was offered. At the end of his term, his administration's neo-conservative foreign policy was almost universally discredited.
Today's crop of conservative presidential aspirants have pretty much dropped the foreign policy issue entirely; they're crazy, but not entirely stupid. They have been emboldened by the current economic crisis, the type of thing that turns a lot of capable men into one term presidents. (See: Martin Van Buren, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, George HW Bush.) In this hothouse climate, an extremist like Perry, whose state is worst in the nation in health insurance coverage and near the bottom in education, can beat his chest about "creating jobs," as if fashioning a low-wage Third World labor market within our borders is some kind of accomplishment. (And also skips over the fact that high tax states like Massachusetts have lower unemployment along with superior public services.) Perry, however, is no Reagan. His smile is not welcoming, but an aggressive douchebag smirk. His barbed speaking style not inspiring but brimming with assholery. Instead of giving lip service to the Army of God, he openly leads a revival meeting brimming with Christian Dominionism, America's very own version of Taliban religious bigotry. And by comparison Bachmann makes Perry look by Bertrand Russell on religion.
This is why I expect Romney to be the nominee: the GOP establishment knows that the public does not want a conservative ideologue, and none of their ideologues have the Reagan charisma or political skill to overcome the smell of their extremism. If they are smart, they will do the usual gambit of putting forward the establishment candidate, who will move to the center and throw enough red meat to the zealots to keep them happy. However, I do fear that this model might not hold, and that one of real wackos (especially Perry) could make it to the White House. (I wouldn't be happy with Romney either, but he doesn't put fear in my soul like the others.) Our current situation is perhaps the kind of perfect storm needed to get one of the radical Right's true believers in. The economic crisis, combined with the racialized resentment of the president and thrown into a post Citizens United environment where the big money is free to spend at will and a cable news network acts as the conservative movement's propaganda arm makes it easier for the extreme to become mainstream. I only hope that what appears to be the current revulsion against extremism and the historical pattern of radical conservatism's inability to inspire the public holds true.