For 20 years, historian-journalist Rick Perlstein has been chronicling the rise to power of modern American "conservatism." He has been telling this story through several volumes: Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014), and now Reganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980 (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2020).
Sometimes subtitles are just nice, but in this instance essential. Otherwise one might perhaps expect an account of the Reagan Administration. On the contrary, ti is actually a history of the Carter Administration - or, at least, the Carter years. Perlstein traces the takeover of the late 20th-century American conservative movement and of the Republican party by those (among them religious Christian conservatives) who finally came to coalesce around the candidacy of Ronald Reagan and propelled him into the white House in 1980.
As one who lived through those years as an academic political scientist, I found it fascinating to be taken back to that time - so unlike our own in so many superficial ways, yet so similar in others. Reading this book right now - in the 2020 presidential election year - makes it seem uncannily prescient and as much about the present as about the past.
Perlstein begins his narrative in 1976, the year of the Ford-Reagan contest for the Republican nomination followed by the Ford-Carter contest. His description of how the conservative movement and the Republican party were perceived is a good reminder of how problematic long-term predictions are in politics:
"The Times also said that 'political professionals of both major parties' believed the GOP was “closer to extinction than ever before in its 122-year history': they controlled only twelve governorships, and according to Ford’s pollster Robert Teeter, the loyalty of only 18 percent of Americans voters. Clearly, the Newspaper of Record concluded, 'if the Republican Party is to rebuild it must entrust its future to younger men.' And less conservative ones. John Rhodes, the House minority leader, was a disciple of conservative hero Barry Goldwater. His tiny caucus of 143 would face a wall of 292 Democrats when the 95th Congress convened in January. After the election, he rued that 'we give the impression of not caring, the worst possible image a political party can have'.” That, remember, was 1976!
One theme of the book is the unique candidacy and ultimately failed presidency of Jimmy Carter. “Only in 1976 can a claim that a candidate is honest, unselfish, hard-working and concerned about the country warrant the conclusion that he will be a great president.” (How does that sound in 2020?). Perlstein provides a good account of how Carter's presidency, having begun with such apparent promise, quickly failed. Personal qualities aside, there is much in that familiar story that could have helped predict how the Trump presidency has faltered so dramatically.
Carter was a transitional figure, who abandoned a lot of what the New Deal Democratic coalition had been about and effectively paved the way for the neo-liberal turn in American politics that we associate with the transformation of the Reagan years. It was not for nothing that George Meaney called Carter “the most conservative president since Calvin Coolidge.” It was, of course, Carter's abandonment of New Deal and Great Society liberalism that spurred Ted Kennedy's insurgent candidacy, which split the party and probably sealed his doom.
But the big story, as Perlstein tells it, was the rise of the right, in spite of its apparently poor prospects at the outset, a rise that reflected a cultural change that undermined faith in the older liberal consensus, but also was a consequence of effective conservative strategy and tactics. A familiar part of that story was "conservatism as an ideology for working people." But, along with that novel notion, a very big part of that story was the successful alliance between the conservative political movement and a newly politically engaged - and angry - conservative Christian movement. Reagan himself, as Perlstein presents him, understood that the Republicans had to expand their identification beyond big business and that a key to that would be the so-called "social issues."
Those of us who were around at that time will remember, for example, the battle, which Perlstein recounts in considerable detail, about the ERA, whose opponents hysterically raised incredible possibilities for its opponents to fear - "just maybe, ERA would even let men marry men and women marry women."
Conventional wisdom when I was being schooled in politics was that Democrats were better at domestic policy while Republicans excelled in foreign affairs. It was Jimmy Carter's misfortune to be perceived as having made a mess of both. (perhaps another uncanny analogue to the present). One of the surprising revelations in Perlstein's book, however, is the impact of the Iranian hostage crisis, which, like most people around at the time, I assumed helped destroy Carter';s candidacy. Contrary to this bit of conventional wisdom, Perlstein argues that 17 percent of voters cited the crisis in Iran as the most important issue, and they "preferred Carter—by a heaping a margin of two to one." Perhaps, Perlstein suggests, "more than posterity appreciated, people respected Carter’s grinding, sedulous efforts to negotiate a favorable outcome with people who appeared to be lunatics, keeping the hostages alive and unharmed. Maybe they admired his rescue gamble in April. Or perhaps voters were terrified that Reagan might do anything to punish Iran."
There is also another distinctive dimension of relevance implicitly suggested by Perlstein's account of America's Right Turn, one which is inevitably more speculative, since we cannot yet know either the immediate outcome of this election or its long-term consequences. That said, let me speculate.
As is widely recognized now, what we now can call the Carter interregnum marked the definitive demise of the old "New Deal" Democratic coalition. That curious but incredibly successful coalition had included Southern segregationists, Northern liberals, the urban and "ethnic" white working class, and African-Americans (where they voted). If the Trump term proves also to be an interregnum, it too will in turn have highlighted the decline of another equally curious amalgam that was the late 20th-century conservative coalition. Like the older "New Deal" Democratic coalition that it replaced, the conservative coalition that successfully acquired power in the Republican party with Reagan consisted of a comparably disparate collection of distinct and potentially incompatible groups. It included white southerners (still smarting from the seeming success of the Civil Rights movement), philosophical libertarians and advocates of the "free market" and limited government, "big business" (on the whole more comfortable with crony capitalism than the "free market"), somewhat elite cultural conservatives of a traditional "Tory" disposition (the likes of Russell Kirk), and cold warriors (who might have also identified with one of the other groups but were motivated by anti-communism above all).
The Carter interregnum institutionalized the collapse of the New Deal Democratic coalition, with white southerners and evangelical Christians fully embracing the Republican party and urban and "ethnic" white working class voters following them. While "neo-conservative" cold war anti-communism survived the end of the cold war and the collapse of communism, its influence in the conservative movement was increasingly marginalized in the Trump era, after the failure of the Iraq War and the subsequent rise of right-wing populism in the party. That rising right wing populism has likewise weakened the power of the other components of the conservative coalition, leaving some of them politically homeless, some of them submissive hostages to the party's populist base and its Trump personality cult.
The Carter-era collapse of the Democratic coalition and the concurrent rise of Reaganism led the Democrats in a neo-liberal direction, which is now in turn under challenge. If Trump endures Carter's fate, what direction will whatever Republican remnant survives take?