The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power
Sidney Blumenthal/Times Books/$19.95
(Reviewed by Penn Kemble in our September 1986 issue)
Sidney Blumenthal is the jaundiced eye through which the Washington Post views the politics and culture of the New Right, the neoconservatives, and those it believes are the “objective” allies of these distasteful usurpers. My colleagues and I at Prodemca—many of us Democrats who had the presumption to favor aid to the Nicaraguan resistance—have been a regular object of his attentions. I accepted the offer to review his new book with the expectation that it might explain whatever broader perspective underlies his animadversions. I am still confused.
The Rise of the Counter Establishment includes some useful research and has some stretches of lively writing. It presents a series of intellectual portraits of conservative and neoconservative thinkers, especially those who have shaped economic debate during the Reagan era—Jude Wanniski, David Stockman, Milton Friedman, Irving Kristol. It also treats figures such as Norman Podhoretz and William Buckley, whose efforts have centered on foreign policy and politics. It is, however, badly compromised by Blumenthal’s inability to resist catty, ad hominem thrusts which overwhelm his intellectual and journalistic judgment. Over and over he transforms offhand remarks or trivial incidents (which, despite his sporadic footnotes, are obviously based at best on hearsay) into events of momentous significance.
This book takes great relish in the intellectual contradictions that can be found in the pro-Reagan camp—contradictions that conservatives themselves have addressed in quite open ways. It notes how the zest for tax cuts and go-go entrepreneurialism of Jude Wanniski, Jack Kemp, and Irving Kristol conflicts with the born-again fiscal conservatism of David Stockman; how Milton Friedman’s hostility to big government is challenged by the massive defense buildup advocated by the hardliners of the Committee on the Present Danger; how the Protestant right’s call for a return to straight and narrow morality jars the unbuttoned-down, me-first yuppies of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. It argues that Ronald Reagan has overcome these contradictions with a shameless optimism and appeals to America’s sense of national destiny, and that a network of foundations, think-tanks, and propagandists is now in place—the counter-establishment—that will strive to sustain this mystical synthesis when the President leaves office.
It is not clear, however, whether Blumenthal really fears this prospect, or merely finds it contemptible. His scornful style works against his efforts to make the reader take his subject matter very seriously. His polemical stance is not unlike that of our recent British “entryists”—Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens—who appeal to the readers of the Nation and the Village Voice with a mixture of high Tory snobbery and Leninist scorn for the ungainly workings of democracy.
Blumenthal is dismissive of the neoconservatives: “a motley collection of exiles, ex-communists and nostalgists…” It is also evident that, although they make only a cameo appearance in this book, he has a similar contempt for what could be called the mainstream elements of the Democratic party: the Democrats who nominated and campaigned for Walter Mondale in 1984. (He describes them a “catatonic” centrists whose policies reeked of “fiscal gloom and intellectual exhaustion.”) But what Blumenthal seems most to despise is the American tendency toward a politics that embodies elements of faith. He worries that the new conservative counter-establishment will exploit this popular weakness to seize American politics in an enduring grip of irrationality and myth: an ideological dementia where anti-Communism, religious fanaticism, and crackpot economic theories all hazily commingle.
This effort at conservative myth-making is explicitly compared to the liberals’ prolonged exploitation of the epic of the Great Depression and the triumph of FDR over Herbert Hoover. Ronald Reagan, like Roosevelt, is a purveyor of dreams. Roosevelt raised himself up on his crutches to declare that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Reagan has raised conservatism out of its sectarian feuds and isolation by insisting that “all we need to have is faith, and that dream will come true.”
Yet the personalities and the intellectual propositions of the new conservative counter-establishment, as Blumenthal portrays them, are so far-out and far-fetched that they seem bound to self-destruct. That is, of course, unless one believes that you can delude most of the people most of the time—an undemocratic premise that Blumenthal might be reluctant to acknowledge. But Blumenthal’s explanation of the victory of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the conservative counter-establishment cannot stand without just such a cynical premise. Even if one should grant that the new conservatives are a gang of cranks and mercenaries, in two successive elections Ronald Reagan won substantial electoral majorities. If Blumenthal is right in his contention that the voters simply succumbed to snake oil salesmanship—and in his fear that they will do so in the future—then one has to conclude that the voters themselves are contemptibly gullible.
There is, however, another explanation for the rightward trend in presidential voting and in popular political opinion—and for the rise of the new conservative ideologists—that Blumenthal curiously neglects. It is at once less demoniacal and less scornful toward our democracy. It affords a much firmer explanation for the intellectual realignment that has taken place than the lure of the long- neglected writings of Whittaker Chambers and Milton Friedman. It played as great a part in the resurgence of ideological politics in the United States as National Review and the Goldwater campaign. This is, of course, the rise of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s—a movement that attained greater force in the universities, the media, and cultural affairs than anything yet attained by the conservative counter-establishment.1
The theories of supply-side economics which Blumenthal so attentively explores were far too recondite and problematic to have achieved much vogue had not the Democratic competition fallen into abject defeatism: the zero-sum, no-growth economics of Carter’s last days. Supply-side philosophers, to be sure, hoped that their ascendency marked a departure from liberal concerns about redistribution and equality. More likely, it simply reflected a longing for a return to some form of the economics of hope. “Get America moving again,” as John F. Kennedy once said—and we can sort the benefits out later.
One can pretty well match the “themes” once promoted by the New Left to the issues where the New Right and neoconservatives achieved their greatest moral and intellectual victories: quotas, accommodation to Communism, the exculpation of criminals, the celebration of self-gratification, the renunciation of personal responsibility, the disdain for economic effort. Blumenthal scores some easy points in his treatment of the shortcomings of the new conservatism’s answers to these afflictions. But his account of recent political history steps over the late sixties and seventies—an intellectual elision which moves directly from the movement of Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater in the late 1950s to the rise of Commentary magazine and the neoconservatives in the mid-1970s. What is missing is what was decisive: the transformation of liberalism and the Democratic party during the heyday of Stokely Carmichael, Tom Hayden, and eventually George McGovern and Jesse Jackson.
Because Blumenthal cannot bring himself to turn a critical eye on the movements that transformed the Democratic party during the McGovern era, he is left with an explanation for the rise of Ronald Reagan and the new conservatism that endows them with mysterious powers. His assessment is not unlike the homey metaphor used by Congresswoman Pat Schroeder: Reagan’s is the “teflon” presidency. Those who resort to this explanation wonder why Reagan isn’t assailed for having failed to reduce the trade deficit, for the loss of Marines in Beirut, or for other lapses that would shake a “normal” presidency. A less esoteric but also less comforting explanation might be that Reagan reflects the dominant values of American civilization, while many of his most ardent opponents do not. So long as many Democrats allow themselves to be cast as challengers to those values—instead of offering more effective ways to serve them—the public will stay with Ronald Reagan and his successors.
Blumenthal’s political history owes a great deal to the left, which treats any sober appraisal of the effects of our New Left and New Politics movements as just another form of McCarthyism. One expects, therefore, a conclusion to this book which summons the reader to rally again to the familiar forces of progress. But this, surprisingly, is not the case. In the end, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment finds itself in the predicament of that species of albatross called the gooney bird. It has soared, it has swooped, it has skittered playfully along the waves. The trouble is, it can’t land. It is all wings and no body. It lacks the strength at the center to coordinate its reach. When it has to come down somewhere, it glides in and, suddenly—flop!
To the extent that Blumenthal holds out any response to the new conservatives, he seems to favor—hold your breath—the traditional Republicans. He wistfully explains that “traditional Republicans, who compose their fair share of the groups excoriated by conservatives, do not think as populists. They believe in institutions, including big ones, which they often run. They have faith in established procedures, disdain plebiscites, and are suspicious of passionate social movements. They do not believe that the market can or should be populated only by Adam Smith’s pin factories. They see modern corporations as part of a world of large institutions protected by laws.”
In his early pages Blumenthal was scandalized by CEOs who have lavished money on such institutions of the counter-establishment as the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Educational Affairs. At the end he turns plaintively toward “GOP traditionalists whose bastion is the Senate caucus and whose leader is Robert Dole. These Republicans still frequently find a natural sympathy in the old familiar places—the great law and accounting firms; the investment banking houses; the corner offices of corporate executives who still pride themselves on their ‘responsibility.’”
Could it be that the Washington Post’s hit man is now actually a candidate for one of Bob Tyrrell’s soirées with Richard Nixon? That a writer who owes his start to In These Times (“the Independent Socialist Newspaper” published by the Institute for Public Affairs) is now the vanguard of his own tendency of neo-neoconservatism? That last season’s admirer of Gary Hart is now inching toward Bob Dole’s dressing-room door? Those with dark imaginations may find in Blumenthal’s importunances toward the old financial and Republican establishment some evidence of the protean capabilities of the left. (Has Arbatov decided that détente Republicanism is now the only alternative to the Reagan Doctrine?) More likely, Blumenthal was possessed by a rancor for the new conservatism, and by a welter of research, but was reluctant to ground his book on the failed left-liberalism of the Democratic party. As a result, he comes down clumsily, and in a most unlikely place. The least one can say is that a writer who is so confused about his own basic political outlook should be less judgmental toward others who are testing new ideas and new alliances.
It is hard to imagine that the Republican party will renounce the conservative counter-establishment, or the ideals and faith that it has so successfully exploited. Mainstream Democrats—not traditional Republicans— offer a far greater potential for relieving our political life of the polarization and ideological extremism that have strained it in recent decades. Only mainstream Democrats, working within their own party, can overcome the leftist provocations that so divided the country, and that stirred the New Right toward its surprising victories.
But whether Democrats or Republicans lead, it is inconceivable that our popular democracy will ever renounce the American faith—the faith that has so profited Ronald Reagan, and that Blumenthal finds so dangerous and so contemptible. The future of American politics still lies with the most persuasive champions of that faith.
1The impact of the left on the Democratic party has an extensive literature, yet it still fails to have standing in the eyes of some participants in our political conversation. Its chronicles include Alonzo Hamby’s Liberalism and Its Challengers, Norman Podhoretz’s Breaking Ranks, and R. Emmett Tyrrell’s The Liberal Crack-Up.