Conservatism As McCarthyism?


It's crudely reductive, as even Neal Gabler is forced to concede. The American conservative era owes just as much to Goldwater's libertarianism and Reagan's pragmatic freedom agenda. It's also bundled up with Buckley's erudition, Gingrich's populism, and the first Bush's realism and prudence. But Gabler is surely onto something in seeing the McCarthyite strain in American conservatism being more tenacious and transmittable, because human resentment is more common and politically potent than agreement about limited government. The resentment theme also tends to get stronger when there is too little raw political talent around: when you have the limited grasp of the world of W and Palin, a resort to McCarthyism is often helpful, even necessary. When you're as desperate as John McCain in August, ditto. Nixon, again, was the purest of the type:

McCarthy's real heir was Nixon, who mainstreamed McCarthyism in 1968 by substituting liberals, youth and minorities for communists and intellectuals, and fueling resentments as McCarthy had. In his 1972 reelection, playing relentlessly on those resentments, Nixon effectively disassembled the old Roosevelt coalition, peeling off Catholics, evangelicals and working-class Democrats, and changed American politics far more than Goldwater ever would.

Because we're all human, resentment is part of us. It will be a part of all political movements - as class resentment often emerges on the populist left. The key is that it be complemented and, with any luck, massively diluted by more positive arguments. This year revealed how almost all the positive arguments in American politics have come from the left. The exception was Ron Paul. On the right, the collapse of governing coherence led to a campaign and a party of almost pure ressentiment. It leaves a truly Coulter taste in the mouth. And it will take one hell of a pallette cleanser to forget it.