Reverting to Type

I picked up a copy of Meg Jacobs’ Panic At The Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s at the library (a book! A real book! In my hands! Words and ideas in my head!) and am finding it to be an interesting history.

Jacobs begins her telling of America’s energy story in the Permian Basis of West Texas immediately following the end of WWII by looking at the wildcatting career of George H. W. Bush. Along the way, she talks briefly about oil production in the US and elsewhere (all ground covered by Daniel Yergin in The Prize), as well as the regulatory environment in the United States for oil and natural gas.

Among the interesting things she notes, in passing, was the mess the Republican Party found itself in following the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and the role George H. W. Bush played in attempting to reorganize at least a portion of the GOP in the 1960s:

Bush instantly became part of a group of Republicans whose principal concern was shifting economic policy to the right. He developed a close friendship with Wisconsin representative William Steiger, another freshman, who, along with his intern Richard Cheney, called for budget austerity and fiscal conservatism amid the growing deficits resulting from Vietnam. They joined Donald Rumsfeld, a young congressman from Illinois first elected in 1962, who had helped stage a coup, after the 1964 electoral disaster, to depose the House minority leader, Charles Halleck, and replace him with Michigan’s congressman Gerald Ford in 1965. For them, race relations, social policy, and red-baiting were not the main concerns. Economic deregulation was at the heart of their conservatism. Limiting the imprint of the federal government on economic relations was the key, Bush and his allies thought, to a robust American economy. While Bush fought hard to defend subsidies for the oil patch, he opposed Washington’s efforts to dictate managerial decisions about production. The Texan wanted to deregulate the economy in order to free oil and other types of markets. (21–22)

What’s interesting is that Jacobs suggests this path Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Ford tried to forge was a midway between the popular conservatism of “the John Birch Society or the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade the propelled Ronald Reagan to the California governorship” and the Republicanism of Nelson Rockefeller who “had accommodated himself to the work of big govenrment.” This deregulatory conservatism was the work of insiders, people who were comfortable in the corridors of power and knew how to make government work.

Nixon was the perfect embodiment of that “middle way” because he

… understood that for a Republican to survive in the 1960s, he had to work within the world of the New Deal and the Great Society, not around it. In 1968, even as he burnished his reputation as an anti-New Deal Republican, which he was, he knew better than most that he would be under pressure to continue with and even expand the regulatory apparatus of Washington. (24)

Granted, Jacobs is making Bush central to her story, noting that in 1968, “there was even some speculation that Nixon would pick Bush as a vice presidential running mate.” But I believe there is some truth to what she is doing — that this “less government better run” conservatism became the main force behind elite conservatism beginning in the late 1960s. It would live uneasily with much more populist conservatism, needing such energy as opposition to civil rights and militant, conspiratorial anti-communism (and later Christian conservatives, who arose at a nexus between the two) to mobilize constituencies for elections, but it would attempt as much as possible to keep such people as far away from government as they could.

Where I think the GOP is, and has been, floundering is that this elite economic conservatism was a spent force after 1992, when the alliance of the Bushes and the Bakers lost the presidency and control of the GOP started to slip out of their hands. In the mid–1990s, the populists began to slowly retake the party. Whatever George W. Bush may have owed James Baker for his election, he did not repay the long-time family ally by listening to him. The GOP governing consensus built around the Bush-Baker relationship and fostered in the Nixon-Ford administrations, was gone by the time W inherited the White House.

It may be that the GOP, in surrendering to the kind of populist energy focused on social policy, race relations, and what passes for red-baiting (Clinton-, foreigner-, and Muslim-hating) in the post-Soviet world (on the very far right, there are people convinced communism never went away, and is merely biding its time in Washington and Brussels as it waits to take over the world) as it has floundered about the last 20 years, the Republican Party is reverting to some kind of type. Paranoia and conspiracy theory was always close at hand, lurking in the shadows of the conservatism I remember growing up in the suburbs of Southern California. Absent a Great War hero with unbeatable administrative experience, or even a Nixon brilliant (and venal) enough to ride them all to victory, there is nothing to knit together the various inchoate strands that all call themselves conservatism.

And it may also be the GOP is struggling to figure out who it is in a world where it has won a great deal but has still not won enough to think it is victorious. This is what happens, I think, when political programs become theological or even eschatological in nature — and much of the paranoid right has lived in a world in which victory was absolutely necessary or else absolute evil would win. And with the victory of evil, our freedoms, lives, and even mortal souls were at risk. It’s easy to dismiss the paranoid right as the rantings of a tiny handful — whether with mimeograph machines or blog sites — but much of the story the populist right tells itself about who it is and what’s at stake is grounded in the kind of conspiratorial paranoia anti-communists (and later birthers) have spun and woven since the 1950s.

It may be that the GOP of Donald J. Trump is reverting to type — a party that rages at a world it doesn’t fully understand but desperately wants to subdue and control. That energy got some brilliant politicians elected, but it’s hard to see how Trump could be one of them. He isn’t a Reagan. Or a Nixon. Or even a Bush.

One thought on “Reverting to Type

  1. If the Republican Party is reverting to type, as you suggest, it is not a type which existed prior to the 1950’s. The Republicans began as a reform party — a coalition of factions which were generally anti-slavery (including the old sort of activist evangelicals which my ancestors were, who later became Prohibitionists and some even Suffragettes – the latter two movements were not unrelated), Hamiltonian pro-development big-money people, New England idealists intent on promoting education, and California gold rush entrepreneurs and the like who tended to be loose cannons. After the Civil War, they settled into triumphalist but also more cautious and sedate support for “progress”, defined in different ways by different people. They tended to prefer low-profile presidents. Then Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House upon McKinley’s assassination, much to the dread of party regulars who considered him not entirely sane. But Roosevelt was hugely popular and dragged the party along after him. In the 1920’s, it reverted to previous type in the pragmatism of Coolidge and the very well-meaning but unfortunate Herbert Hoover. During the New Deal, the voice of “conservative” Republicans (which generally meant non-interventionist and fiscally sober) was Senator Taft of Ohio.

    I well remember how when Goldwater’s loss followed on Nixon’s, TV news analysts looked at the size of Lyndon Johnson’s victory, and declared that the Republican Party was dead. They professed some fear that the country was now a one-party state, just as they will if/when Trump loses. But only two years later, the Republicans made big gains in Congress and Reagan was governor of California. And then soon the country had Richard Nixon to “kick around” again.

    Replacing Taft with Eisenhower in 1952 had left the old conservative wing of the party weakened and fading. Rockefeller seemed to be the party’s future. I was somewhat stunned by your quotes from the book that:

    ‘Jacobs suggests this path Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Ford tried to forge was a midway between the popular conservatism of “the John Birch Society or the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade the propelled Ronald Reagan to the California governorship” and the Republicanism of Nelson Rockefeller who “had accommodated himself to the work of big government.”’

    That struck me as something like saying that most Protestant denominations have tried to forge a path midway between the Amish and the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Episcopal Church. There’s a lot of daylight there between the end points. The John Birchers were considered cranks even by most conservatives and were about as popular as the door-to-door Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out copies of the ‘Watchtower’. I don’t know anything about the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade. It sounds like a generic name which could have applied to many groups. But I suspect it was Reagan’s heavy media presence as host of a popular Western anthology TV series and as a spokesman for General Electric (where he developed his skill at political speaking, as opposed to acting) which made him a successful candidate.

    I don’t think Nixon was ever a small-government conservative. His administration seemed eager to regulate everything they could put their hands on: many initiatives from the Johnson years were first effectively executed under Nixon, the EPA was created, and then especially the radical Wage-and-Price Controls, which had an immediate effect on everyday life. Nixon was an opportunist who could play the fervent anti-Communist in 1950 and then sup with Chairman Mao in the 70’s.

    The chaos of the 60’s and early 70’s, in particular the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Watergate hearings a few years later (both made possible by the polarization created by the Vietnam War), left both parties in ruins, and open to conquest from within by what had previously been radical elements. The Republicans were maybe better at keeping a lid on the populists, but only by raising their expectations. Sort of like a plane which the captain swears to the passengers will be taking off any second, but has now reached the end of the runway – no more agenda, no more hope and no more respect for the captains. The Democrats lowered expectations under the first Clinton, but have more recently encouraged audacious hope, and so had to deal with a socialist insurrection.

    It was FDR who called upon the country to subdue and control the world, and created the means to do so. But it’s a world neither party understands. Nor is anyone inclined to make the effort. It is perhaps assumed that the understanding will be easy as soon as they become just like us.

Leave a Reply