Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley
A conservative intellectual revival in the 1950s provided the springboard for the reinvigoration of the Republican Party in Twentieth Century. It was spurred by the works of Russell Kirk-- especially The Conservative Mind (1953)-- and William F. Buckley , Jr., Kirk’s incisive criticisms of liberalism, socialism, and the welfare state provided powerful arguments that later conservatives would employ. Yet Kirk and many of his followers professed a worldview that differed significantly from that of the new conservatives who would follow them in the late Twentieth century. Kirk’s thought was anchored in a flinty traditionalism that valued pre-modern virtues and questioned modernity’s materialism, excessive individualism, and equalitarian tendencies. There was a certain resistance to new developments and ideas until they had been tested, shaken down, and become old and generally accepted. Kirk distrusted ideology and saw classical, laissez-faire liberalism as a modern ideology. Kirk shared with the new conservatives of the late 20th Century a strong discontent with the world as it was presently arranged, but their veneration of laissez faire economics, acceptance of materialism, and ideological bent were foreign to Kirk. Unlike the Neo Conservatives who would come to dominate his political party, Kirk knew that free markets were a means to certain ends and not the ends themselves. He had contempt for the term “individualist.” For him, an ultimate goal was genuinely a humane society, and he distrusted those who looked at society mainly from a first person perspective.
Young William F. Buckley, Jr., who founded the National Review in 1955, was much more inclined to embrace materialism and build his thought on the operation of the free market The magazine blended traditional values, intense anti-communism, and anti-statism with his free market policies. These ingredients were to form the basis for a revival and reorientation of the conservative movement. While claiming to offer fresh ideas, contributors sometimes passed off sarcasm, ridicule, snide comments and even vitriol as sound articles Over time, these approaches would increasingly mark conservative arguments, especially unpleasantness and anger, which would be come more pronounced by the end of the century. Buckley’s unwavering and loud defense of the demagogue Joseph McCarthy should have seen as signaling the existence of an unpleasant side of the reconfigured conservatism.. His goal was to build a unified conservative movement around free market thought, and by 1964, NR had 90,000 subscribers. In 1960, he founded Young Americans for Freedom, which would be the source of many conservative leaders. Buckley’s efforts and, since 1950, the work of Frederick von Hayek at the University of Chicago since 1950 contributed significantly to the revival of neoliberal thought “Neoliberal” may seem a strange term in this context, but it refers to the revival of late 19th century economics. The use of the word “liberal” in this sense is a reference to the classical liberalism of the Nineteenth Century, which was to form the basis for late Twentieth Century conservative economic and political thought. Their fundamental premise was that the economy thrives when government interference is minimized. Epistemological purists object that neo-liberalism and conservatives are mutually exclusive terms for many reasons, but the fact is that in everyday discussions, the revival of political conservatism is traced to the emergence of what is called neo-liberal thought. The intellectual forbearers of the neoliberals founded the liberty league in the 1930s, a chief goal of which was to fight progressive taxation, which placed the heaviest burden upon those with the greatest ability to pay.
Buckley’s outspoken libertarianism reflected more the thinking of 18th century materialists than the pre-Enlightenment heritage. However, the neoliberals’ thought relied on reconstructed classical liberalism, and in time Buckley’s pronouncements moved in that direction. Neoliberal economic philosophy was to be thoroughly materialistic and based on rational self-interest, which Kirk deplored. While Kirk distrusted anything that smacked of egalitarianism, the new conservatives built a mass following with a form of right-wing populism that denounced so-called elites and generated intense anger and even hatred of liberals. Theirs was a very ideological approach to politics, while Kirk’s was rational and somewhat eclectic.
The revival of conservatism as a political force in the United States began in 1964 with Barry Goodwater’s unsuccessful quest for the presidency. Goldwater lost badly but he clearly demonstrated that the new Republicans were very different from Democrats. The Goldwater movement laid the foundation for the revival of conservatism and the growth of neoliberalism. Both gathered momentum in the 1970s, due in part to deteriorating economic conditions. In the last third of the Twentieth Century, competition had begun to damage the position of the working class in Europe and the United States. Moreover, it made it more difficult for governments to fund social safety net programs and for industries to provide benefits, which they had promised unions through collective bargaining. These pressures fueled the revival of so-called market economics, essentially the revival of economic theories popular in the United States from the late Nineteenth Century through the 1920s. This is also called, in its political and economic manifestations, “neoliberalism,” because it represents in many ways a return to the classical liberalism of the Nineteenth Century, which valued extreme individualism, dog-eat-dog economic practices, and little concern for those who fell by the wayside in life’s race. The neo-liberals claimed to believe in laissez-faire economics and were very critical of the accommodations, which conservatives had made to New Deal policies in earlier decades. These economic ideas were the forerunner of Reaganonomics. The neoliberals glorified competition as the supreme arbiter of economic success and much more, and in time this belief in a rather unrefined social Darwinism came to guide their foreign policy with the proclamation of the Bush Doctrine in 2001, a blunt assertion that the United States, due to its enormous power, had the right to do whatever it wanted in world affairs. It was frankly asserted that the US was committed to pursuing American supremacy.
They were also called “ laissez-faire conservatives,” but the emphasis should be upon their rejection of the core of the New Deal. For some, belief in laissez faire often carried over to moral matters and the relationship between the individual and the state. In time, however, their alliance with cultural and religious conservatives would require them to downplay these notions. Conservatives denounced the redistributionist policies that began with Franklin Roosevelt as immoral and planned to make them work in reverse. Their intellectual forbearers had founded the Liberty League in the 1930s. Their problem was that they were accurately perceived as a group of rich men bent on undoing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. They wrapped themselves in patriotic rhetoric, defenders of the values of ordinary Americans, and they continually developed the theme that criticism of policies that benefited the rich represented class warfare, which was a serious threat to American political institutions. Their views resonated with many Americans in the seventies and subsequent years, perhaps because the nation was abandoning the collective consciousness that placed great store in responsibility for others and responsible membership in the community of nations. In 1971, to gain a temporary economic advantage, Richard M. Nixon let the value of the dollar float on international markets and scuttled American promises to other nations at Breton Woods to be an honest broker and provide as predictable international currency. That move symbolized what was happening to a nation experiencing greater difficulties in international markets. The old collective consciousness that had upheld New Deal programs evaporated and a Hobbesian state of “one of all against all.” In time most decisions privileged the individual over the community, creating a society based on of egoism and self-interest emerged. Individualism was slowly transformed into a pathology that threatened civilizational failure.” As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Once responded to a query: “What makes you think we have a civilization...We have only pockets of civilization. What is national is garbage.” Such a society eventually found no difficulties in embracing preemptive warfare and ignoring international law and the Geneva Accords. Next to reducing taxes, the most important ingredients of the revived conservative gospel were opposition to economic regulations and a demand that taxes be lowered. It was argued that the regulations in the massive Federal Register drive up consumer prices and make producers, “unable to compete meaningfully against one another in the marketplace, compete instead for federal favor.” Liberals and conservatives disagreed over how much regulation was necessary. Though not credited with this belief, the fact was that liberals too believed in the free market, they simply thought it worked best when regulated. The reenergized conservatives wanted far less regulation, and some wanted none. When Congress deregulated the savings and loan industry, Ronald Reagan spoke for many when he said ,”All in all, I think we’ve hit the jackpot.” The sweeping deregulation led to massive misconduct in the industry and to a huge federal bailout. Nevertheless, these events did not diminish enthusiasm for deregulation.
The economy should be self-regulating, it was claimed, even though this meant that it would be dominated by large corporate interests to the disadvantage of consumers, laborers, and consumers. It was argued that a self-regulating economy worked best when unions possessed little power. The American version of conservative economics assumed that economics was an exact science like physics and that the behavior of millions of people acting in the economy “could be reduced equations much like those that capture the laws of thermodynamics.” No conservative would have said that in essence man was made for economic laws, but this was an inherent assumption. Its advocates overlooked the fact that economic statistics “ are a slag heap of samples, interpolations, and just plain guesses.” Market fundamentalists professed that increasing the minimum wage would always dampen entrepreneurial spirit, price the unskilled out of the labor market, and depress the economy. Even when careful studies demonstrated that increasing the minimum wage had none of these effects. They adhered to their version of economic orthodoxy. Conservative economics did demonstrate that beyond a certain point, guaranteed jobs, benefits, and wages, did retard economies, and most liberals, when pressed, had come to accept this as an empirical fact. The problem was that for most conservatives, market fundamentalism had become a matter of political doctrine rather than a useful tool for addressing human problems.
It was Largely About Taxes
High taxes, it was argued, prevented very creative individuals from producing wealth, and these taxes often resulted in transferring income to the undeserving poor. The tax cuts the conservatives offered were uniformly designed to benefit the rich. They complained that the rich paid too much in taxes. In the late Twentieth Century, the share of income taxes paid by the riches generally increased while the percentage of income taxes paid by the lower half of taxpayers decreased. In 2001, the top 1% of taxpayers earned above $372,000 per year and paid 25% of all taxes. People-possessing assets worth $1 million or more was hardly confined to this 1%. Those earning $72,000 or more constituted 20% of taxpayers and were paying 68% of taxes. Conservatives showed little interest in the question of comparative ability to pay taxes as most of them came to reject the principle of progressive taxation. They were also alarmed that non-defense spending increased dramatically from 38% in 1955 to 83% in 2001, an increase largely due to the growth of entitlement programs. They argued that the high taxes paid by the rich penalized success and that the increase of entitlements eroded the character of the recipients and corrupted the political process because recipients were inclined to vote to keep the benefits coming.
In 2002 R. Glenn Hubbard, George W. Bush’s chief economic advisor, admitted that Republican tax cuts were designed to benefit the rich at the expense of the rest of society. Moreover, he claimed that the rest of society should pay more in taxes. Hubbard believed that a modest loss of tax revenue would encourage savings, which would then be invested in productive economic facilities and accelerate technological change. The political calculus associated with the tax cuts dictated that the taxes of ordinary families not be reduced appreciably because it was important that they continue to resent taxation, not think of government as a friend, and remain potential recruits for the new majority Republican theorists sought to build. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal argued that raising the taxes of these “lucky duckies,” whose tax rate is relatively low, would be political beneficial by getting their “blood boiling with tax rage.”
Republicans reasoned that tax cuts favoring the rich facilitate investment in productive facilities, but another reason for taking this position was a belief that the wealthy pay too large a proportion of federal income tax revenue. In the late Twentieth Century, the share of taxes paid by the rich generally increased while that paid by the lower half of taxpayers decreased. This development was matched by growing assets and income gaps between rich and poor. In 2001, the top 1% of taxpayers earned above $372,000 per year and paid 25% of all taxes. People possessing assets worth $1 million or more were hardly confined to this 1%. Those earning $72,000 or more constituted 20% of taxpayers and were paying 68% of taxes. Conservatives showed little interest in the question of comparative ability to pay taxes as most of them came to reject the principle of progressive taxation. They were also alarmed that non-defense spending increased dramatically since 38% in 1955 to 83% in 2001, largely due to the growth of entitlement programs. They argued that the high taxes paid by the rich penalized success and that the increase of entitlements eroded the character of the recipients and corrupted the political process because recipients were inclined to vote to keep the benefits coming.
By 2002, conservative rhetoric on the subject of taxes sometimes seemed almost hysterical. When the Senate in 2002 briefly considered a one-time capital gains tax on people who surrendered their citizenship for tax purposes, Senator Phil Gramm claimed the proposal came Aright out of Nazi Germany.” When the Senate considered means of preventing corporations from rechartering themselves abroad for tax purposes, Daniel Mitchell, head of the Heritage Foundation, called it the “Dred Scott tax bill,” a slave tax.
When the Bush administration prepared its 2003 tax cuts, it instructed the Treasury Department to prepare data demonstrating why low-income workers should carry more of the tax burden. Until then, Republicans were unwilling sto suggest that relief for the rich should occur by shifting the burden to ordinary people. These tax cuts are designed to end progressive taxation and what is considered the unjust redistribution of income that they facilitate. The Bush tax cuts were more designed to starve government than to reduce marginal rates. As Grover Norquist, a leading conservative theorist, said, “The goal is reducing the size and scope of government by draining its lifeblood.” “The context was different when Ronald Reagan cut taxes. Marginal rates were high then, and his primary purpose was to slash them.” A secondary goal was “starving the beast,” in the words of his budget director David Stockman. In the last analysis, the goal of conservatives like Norquist was to eliminate the graduated income tax and replace it with a single rate flat tax or a tax on consumption. They claim that either approach will unleash the forces of economic growth.
Sherman has written African American Baseball: A brief History, which can be acquired from LuLu Publishing on line.http://www.lulu.com/browse/search.php?search_forum
"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Orwell-- The US is probably moving toward becoming a heavily controlled Rightist state. This blog is an effort to document how that happened.
- Sherman De Brosse
- Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping. It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!