Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Higgledy Piggledy, Radical Liberals

Today the Washington Post published a piece by its media columnist Margaret Sullivan, setting forth a case that no matter what you may think, Donald Trump and his "enablers" are not conservatives.  They are, she declares fiercely, "members of the radical right."  She lists the bad guys by name with the bad things they're doing (and they are bad), and sums up: 

The radicalism of the right has been normalized. It’s been going on, and building, for decades. Don’t worry, this mind-set reassures, it’s all fine. There are different ways of looking at the world, liberal and conservative, and they are about equal. ... Too much of the reality-based media has gone along for the ride, worried about accusations of leftist bias, wanting desperately to be seen as neutral, unwilling to be clear about how lopsided these sides are.

Sullivan goes all vague here, naming no names, so let me help: Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley ... pretty much every well-known "conservative" since the middle of the last century.  I wonder if Sullivan would want to recognize that, since such figures have a lot of prestige even among liberals.  The Post, like the Times, largely went along with their normalization.

In the mid-1950s the historian Richard Hofstadter called such people "pseudo-conservatives": he recognized that real conservatism, in the sense of hanging on to good things from the past, was represented by New Deal Democrats.

The change did not escape [Adlai] Stevenson himself. “The strange alchemy of time,” he said in a speech at Columbus, “has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country—the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on these foundations.” What most liberals now hope for is not to carry on with some ambitious new program, but simply to defend as much as possible of the old achievements and to try to keep traditional liberties of expression that are threatened. *

It's important to remember that "conservative," like "skeptic," "agnostic," and similar words, has no real content.  It refers to a person's relation to the passage of time, and it doesn't even require that what they want to hang on to is good.  In the US, conservatism has meant preserving class distinctions and privilege, white supremacy, male supremacy, and the like. And in that regard, liberals have hidden behind the far Right at least since Ronald Reagan: you know, he has a point (about crime, about women, about race, about the homosexuals, about big-spending government, about regulating business).  As the Republican Party moved farther and farther right, liberals followed discreetly, always insisting that they were much better than those awful right-wingers.

This tendency reached its summit with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom admired Reagan and continued his assault on the New Deal.  By then the New Deal was so old hat, and Democratic loyalists, still posing as liberals.  I recall one columnist, either Ellen Goodman or another liberal woman writer (there were only a couple with a national platform back then), exulting that the New Deal had finally been laid to rest by the latest (1996? 2000?) Democratic National Convention, while the minions of the far left raged impotently in the streets.  Neither Clinton nor Obama was able to get rid of Social Security, but they tried

At least Sullivan seems not to buy into the popular myth that the GOP was still reasonable before Trump came along and made it crazy.  But the admission comes late in her column, and barely nods at what happened.  Could be worse, could definitely be better.  I'm not sure she realizes just how bad the GOP was before Trump.

Long before Trump.  One minor point: Sullivan gently mocks "Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the Georgia Republican, [who] rarely utters her challenger’s name without branding him as 'radical liberal Raphael Warnock.'”  I was suddenly struck by a memory of Martha Mitchell, the wife of First Criminal Richard Nixon's criminal Attorney General John Mitchell, who as the Watergate scandal came to a boil in 1972, made late-night phone calls to various reporters to vent her discontents.  Among the people she couldn't stand were "those radical liberals."  That's the first time I recall seeing that weird combination of epithets.  This 1998 New York Daily News article quotes a line I recall -- "Some of the liberals in this country, [her husband would] like to take them and exchange them for the Russian Communists" -- that I remember as "radical liberals."  Maybe I'm wrong, I'm going by memory after half a century, but that's how it stuck in my mind.  I'm pretty sure that oral tradition preserved the phrase over generations and implanted it in the empty head of Kelly Loeffler.


*  "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt - 1954", reprinted in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Knopf, 1965), p. 42-3.