Column: 1964 ... The Contest Begins for the Soul of America

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Mr.Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois. His dissertation addresses 20th-century rhetorical precedents of demagoguery that the New Right exploited for electoral success.

Historians of modern American conservatism have offered two interpretations of the New Right’s underlying ideological origins -- interpretations that put aside, for the moment, the timing of the New Right’s actual spark of creation. More on that later. Some underline its pedigree in the Old Right’s brand of conservatism originally founded in the postwar era, that of rabid anticommunism. Others see the New Right as the chief legacy of equally rabid reactionary politics pointed at the New Deal. Whichever fundamental lineage one happens to favor, there is at least general accord that the New Right was not immaculately conceived, as some of its high priests might have you believe. It was, in one way or another, the philosophical offspring of the Old Right, itself having been reborn with intellectual unity in its circa 1960 synthesis of anticommunism, libertarianism, and social traditionalism. “There’s not a great deal ‘new’ about the New Right,” admitted one pro-activist in 1981. “It is our emphasis that is different at times.”

In that sense the New Right was not born in the late 1970s; it merely blossomed then as a reconfiguration of constituencies that saw ineffective or apostate leadership (Nixon, for example, was insufficiently conservative); a lack of party-membership coordination; and conservatism’s failure to expand its base. Disgruntled activists of the Old Right’s radical wing united to reverse the slide: among others Richard Viguerie; Phyllis Schlafly; Pat Buchanan; Jerry Falwell; a growing collection of political action committees such as Jesse Helms’ National Congressional Club; and strategic think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation.

In tactics, as historical consensus relates, the New Right set out to capitalize on subdued methods of George Wallace’s novel populism and thereby recruit his former enthusiasts, lure socially conservative Democrats and independents on a range of emotionally charged issues (abortion, affirmative action, morally corrupting welfare, pornography, feminism), and activate publicly the privately held convictions of evangelical Christians.

These maneuvers, of course, made possible the unconcealed marriage of a newly charged religious Right and new political Right. Historians have been a trifle fuzzy on precisely which partner wooed the other more, as well as on the degree to which religious right wingers contributed to the New Right’s actual electoral success. Some claim the Religious Right as a voting bloc was enormously helpful to modern conservatism. Others maintain the Religious Right was indeed an electoral player, but a minor one.

A more pertinent question, though, exempts the issue of hard numbers and asks instead what wholesale influence primeval religious righters had on the New Right’s political strategy. The answer, it seems, is twofold. Resurrected social values of that Old Time Religion undoubtedly appealed to conservative Democrats in a time of cultural upheaval, and the New Right smelled the blood of opportunism. Second, wherever right-wing Christians wandered to in the more secular wilderness of general election time, there is no doubt they exerted themselves disproportionately in primaries – at the urging of evangelical leaders – and thereby changed the practice of politics for decades to come.

Given the threat of primary coups d’etat, even traditional Republican politicians ran scared. They realized they had better get themselves saved -- and damned fast -- or risk stumbling on the first hurdle. In contested Republican primaries political hopefuls began thumping each other with the Good Book. They promised to single-handedly preserve antediluvian Christian values for social primates and conservative Democrats who, had they paused to reflect, were in truth more worried about meeting mortgage payments than the acts of two (or dare I fantasize, three) lesbians in Philadelphia. A politician simply never knew how many phobic, right-wing fundamentalists might turn out in the primary, so better to be safe. Besides, he could deep-six all the social-values flubdubbery during general election season by slamming the campaign engine into overdrive on the salvational highway to political heaven: the cherished Center.

Thus were the religiously devout bamboozled by political Billy Sundays. Their clout was real, but also temporary, traded upon, and manipulated. Not surprisingly, in view of religious fundamentalists’ inherently constrained insight, it took years for some of them to figure out they were being used.

Once in Washington, the victorious politico would of course hurl an infidel into the amphitheater now and then just to butter up the beguiled for the next dog and pony primary show. In this way socially conservative legislation was introduced piecemeal -- albeit with no place to go, as the pandering politician well knew. The Christians had been bamboozled again. And so what, the thoughtful manipulator would ask himself. Vote-getting is just a carnival act, and every carnival needs a barker.

That the New Right came of age with these tactics in the late 1970s is beyond question. A question that remains in play, however, is its actual date of birth. On this I differ with the rough historical consensus that associates it primarily with George Wallace’s 1960s evangelical exploitation of racism and blue-collar gullibility. Rather, it seems to me, it was the Goldwater presidential campaign that fathered the New Right. This is decidedly ironic, because Goldwater despised the admixture of politics and religion, and he later came to despise the New Right as a bunch of sanctimonious harpies. At heart Goldwater was a political traditionalist disinterested in assaulting voters with namby-pamby religious morality messages. For him, politics was a tough game based in tangible reality; his world view sprang from the delusional, uninformed myth of the libertarian American Way -- not spiritual finger-pointing On the other hand, making it to the White House in 1964 against a powerful incumbent would take some real doing and perhaps a touch of judicious rethinking on matters of political conviction.

“Movement” conservatives predated Wallace’s influence, first emerging from the Arizona senator’s anger at Nixon’s concessions to liberal Republicans at the 1960 nominating convention. By 1961 professional organizers were mapping plans for a right-wing coup at the national convention still three years away. By 1962 Goldwater surfaced as the spokesman for right wingers with his Wallacesque yet independently conceived Eastern bashing and decadent-welfare rhetoric. The Kennedy camp suspected (and prayed) as early as 1961 that Goldwater would be the next Republican presidential candidate, and stealthy campaign strategists of the Right were pursuing just that. Only Goldwater, they reasoned, could secure Southern electoral votes because of his states’ rights, anti-federal civil rights doctrines -- essentially racist appeals, even though the candidate himself disdained racism. Added to other states traditionally in the Republican column, Goldwater could win.

Together with the innovative Southern race-based strategy came constant pressures on Goldwater to solicit not only bigots, but fervent social conservatives -- and that meant a slew of evangelical Democrats. To Goldwater’s credit he instinctively resisted as best he could the sordidness of kowtowing to right-wing Christian sensibilities. Yet on occasion he bowed to political necessity. Goldwater dropped references to publicly disgraced Walter Jenkins; he dashed off a memo to a particularly ruthless aide, saying “Agree completely with you on morality issue. Believe it is the most effective we have come up with”; and delivered one televised speech exclusively on “the moral fiber of the American people [being] beset by rot and decay.” As one historian observed, “‘morality’ was political gold. It was the only Goldwater theme that the White House felt compelled to react to” [italics original]. The morality gambit had stuck its nose under the big tent. In a few years it would take up residence there.

Goldwater’s Deep South electoral success (he won five of its states) -- gained through subtle race-baiting and crass culture-bashing -- proved an alluring prototype for other right-wing politicians and strategists. There was gold in them hills that the Man from Arizona had prospected. Though he lost, Goldwater had led millions of Democrats away from their party, and not only in the South. The “new” conservatives determined they could do better with more skilled exploitation of cultural transitions, simplistic solutions, wistful nostalgia, group demonization, and heightened rhetoric on the debasement of American morality.

In short, the New Right’s contest for America’s soul -- more than mind – was born in 1964 out of political desperation. Any means to capture the nation’s soul soon became fair game to less honorable politicians.

Contents © 2001, P.M. Carpenter

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The Rt. Rev. Jack E. Holman - 8/24/2001

I think this article should be required reading in any classroom dealing with politics, civics, American History. What a firm grasp of history has this man Carpenter. Leaves me gasping in wonder.

The Rt. Rev. Jack E. Holman
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Tomball, Texas 77375