Just before the Christmas weekend I threw up a post decrying our political press’s unwillingness to acknowledge that the Crazy Wing of the Republican Party still is committed to destroying the great political and economic consensus under which both parties operated from the end of WWII until about the age of Reagan – the consensus that allowed us to build an affluent middle class society in the first place. This wing traces its lineage directly back to the John Birch Society and the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964.
So I was extremely gratified to read E.J. Dionne’s column raising the same essential point: “For the first time since Barry Goldwater made the effort in 1964, the Republican Party is taking a run at overturning the consensus that has governed U.S. political life since the Progressive era.” Dionne argues that the Republican presidential candidates’ uniform embrace of the view that government is an oppressive force, with no legitimate role to play in Americans’ lives, makes them the truly radical candidates and Barack Obama the real “conservative” in 2012 in the truest sense of that word.
While it’s heartening to see someone with a national platform trying to draw attention to a situation that should be self-evident, it also must be pointed out that “Conservativism” – as that word has come to be used in modern American politics – always have been deeply radicalized. Indeed, this is one of the themes underlying Corey Robin’s recent book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, in which Robin argues:
Far from being “traditionalists,” or advocates for continuity and only small, incremental changes to existing social structures, Conservatives are – in fact – fairly radical thinkers who can define themselves only in relation to some past or imminent attempt (real or imagined) by others to wrest power, wealth or privilege away from them. . . .
Thus, Robin argues, Conservatism – properly understood – is never about maintaining things the way they now are; it is always about reintroducing the “proper” balance to society, which previously had been upset by some illegitimate reformation.
This is why I find the rise of the radical right within the Republican Party so potentially terrifying. These people aren’t concerned with “preserving” American society but about fundamentally re-writing the way the federal government’s role in that society. Specifically, they want to eliminate the government’s ability to rein in abuse by rich and powerful private actors, and they want to eliminate even the minimal safety net the government provides for the least fortunate among us.
These aren’t small goals, and I truly believe that the people voting for this agenda don’t fully realize what it is they are empowering: a dystopia in which anyone already rich and powerful can essentially do whatever they please, and everybody else will just have to get use to being abused.
UPDATE: Turns out the Frank Rich is also thinking along these lines, as he explains in his latest article in NY Magazine, "The Molotov Party."