Sunday, November 30, 2008

The McCarthy Gene

Neal Gabler in the L. A. Times:
The creation myth of modern conservatism usually begins with Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who was the party's presidential standard-bearer in 1964 and who, even though he lost in one of the biggest landslides in American electoral history, nevertheless wrested the party from its Eastern establishment wing. Then, Richard Nixon co-opted conservatism, talking like a conservative while governing like a moderate, and drawing the opprobrium of true believers. But Ronald Reagan embraced it wholeheartedly, becoming the patron saint of conservatism and making it the dominant ideology in the country. George W. Bush picked up Reagan's fallen standard and "conservatized" government even more thoroughly than Reagan had, cheering conservatives until his presidency came crashing down around him. That's how the story goes.

But there is another rendition of the story of modern conservatism, one that doesn't begin with Goldwater and doesn't celebrate his libertarian orientation. It is a less heroic story, and one that may go a much longer way toward really explaining the Republican Party's past electoral fortunes and its future. In this tale, the real father of modern Republicanism is Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the line doesn't run from Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush; it runs from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin. It centralizes what one might call the McCarthy gene, something deep in the DNA of the Republican Party that determines how Republicans run for office, and because it is genetic, it isn't likely to be expunged any time soon.
I think Gabler is onto something here. I've long said that Palin is merely the modern-day embodiment of McCarthy, wrapped in snark and a tight skirt; the idea that she is the spiritual descendant--through Nixon--of McCarthyism, makes perfect sense to me. It also means that 1) the Republican Party is likely to split along intellectual-rational vs. evangelical-extremist lines, and 2) we won't soon be rid of Palin.

1 comment:

Rising Sun- L said...

I have never succumbed to the Reagan attraction. I remember thinking in '84- wow- this is really 1984.

I similarly don't understand the mystique of Sarah Palin. I must admit I am drawn to her- like she's a train wreck and I cannot look away.

But I still think she attracts those whites who are afraid of the coming marginalization of their identity as the dominant culture. They fear the loss of their dominance and are clinging to those who promise that they will remain in power.