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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Brief Note about the So-called “Conservative Movement” and the Democratic Party

As the eulogies for Bill Buckley give way to more cerebral discussions of modern day conservatism, it is worth stopping for a moment to insist upon a basic fact – one that Democrats should never allow the mainstream media (or themselves) to forget.
Despite the frequent use of the term “movement” by the press, the “conservative movement” that has provided the Republican Party with its basic ideology since the Reagan- Gingrich era is profoundly different from the two major social movements whose viewpoints are deeply embedded in the basic outlook and philosophy of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party’s economic perspective comes not simply from the legislation of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt, but from the epic struggle of the American trade union movement in the 1930’s. Equally, at the heart of the modern Democratic Party’s social philosophy lies the historical experience of the civil rights movement and the legacy of Martin Luther King.
These two social movements had three things in common. They were struggles of profoundly disadvantaged and oppressed groups for basic social and economic justice, they were grass-roots, bottom-up movements in which leaders emerged from the rank and file, and they were led by dedicated militants who made huge personal and human sacrifices.
Both trade union and civil right organizers lived with the constant fear of death, vicious beatings, or imprisonment and both movements had many famous martyrs killed in the struggle (the Haymarket victims and Joe Hill for the trade unionists; Emmet Till, Medgar Evers, the Mississippi Three, (Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner) and the children of the Birmingham bombing for the civil rights movement). Many of the leaders of both movements spent significant time in jail — it was, in fact, a proud badge of honor and a symbol of their commitment to the cause.
Sadly, for many people under the age of 40 these realities — which everybody knew perfectly well at the time — now sound like melodramatic exaggerations. But they are not; they are simple statements of fact.
The modern “official” conservative movement on the other hand – although in some respects indeed a social movement – was and is to a significant degree a movement of the “haves” rather than the “have-nots” and as a result has never had any of the three characteristics above.
The modern conservative movement was heavily subsidized by foundations and wealthy individuals from its beginnings. By the 1980’s there was a substantial network of think-tanks, book publishers, house-organ magazines, scholarships and internships that recruited and financially supported young conservatives. Communication with ordinary people was overwhelmingly conducted by very sanitary, “no getting the hands dirty” methods – largely direct mail and television (particularly televangelist programming) – rather than by any actual door-to-door, grass-roots organizing.
Now to be sure. there have indeed been a number of genuine right-wing, grass roots activist movements since the 1970’s. There have been skinhead/racist/survivalist groups (like “The Order” and “White Power” in 1980’s, the militia movement in 1990s, the Minutemen today), and also broader grass-roots movements to fight local gun control initiatives, to infiltrate local school boards to mandate creationism and to conduct civil (and also very uncivil) disobedience against abortion clinics.
All of these movements shared two characteristics – they were authentically bottom up, grass-roots movements and they were all treated like embarrassing, party-crashing, beer-drinking, trailer park trash phenomena by the official beltway conservative “movement”.
On the other hand when the current generation of “official” conservative spokesmen – the Gingrichs, D’Souzas, Laffers, Murrays, Limbaughs, O’Reillys and Coulters– were in college in the 70’s and 80’s, the worst injustice most of them suffered was having to listen to pompous tenured radicals talk endlessly about Foucault and Germaine Greer rather than Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.
It is important for Democrats to point this out whenever the media casually equate the modern conservative “movement” with the genuine social movements that underlie the Democratic coalition because it creates a false equivalence between the moral authority of the two. It artificially imbues official “inside-the-beltway” conservatism with connotations of a genuine grass-roots social movement – traditions of altruism and self sacrifice, identification with the struggle for justice and solidarity with the underdog.
Let’s face the facts. The conservative movement indeed recognized and capitalized upon a number of genuine and sincere grievances of working-class and other ordinary Americans. But the middle-class and upper-class, white American men who compose the official conservative movement have never in their “custom-tailored-suit- and- tie”, “better-side-of town” lifetimes been the oppressed victims of systematic social injustice.
This is illustrated by an ironic fact. Genuine grass-roots social movements of the oppressed always have songs and anthems that express their deepest social ideals. At the end of every union organizing meeting trade unionists would always sing “Solidarity Forever”. Every civil rights rally concluded with the singing of “Oh Freedom” and “We Shall Overcome”.
There is nothing remotely comparable in the well-funded, “inside the beltway” conservative so-called “movement”. In fact, it is hard to even visualize exactly what kind of spiritual anthem could properly express the social philosophy of the audiences who attend meetings of groups like the Conservative Political Action Council, the Heritage Foundation, the College Republicans or the US Chamber of Commerce.
Oh, wait a minute. Come to think of it, there is one. All these groups could kick off their conferences with a few lusty choruses of “Yo-Ho, Yo-Ho, A Pirates’ Life for Me”. It would fit them like a glove.

2 comments on “A Brief Note about the So-called “Conservative Movement” and the Democratic Party

  1. JPK on

    A nice essay on movements. Supporting your argument is this sociological definition of “movement” (note reference to “powerful others”):
    A social movement is “a sustained interaction in which mobilized people, acting in the name of a defined interest, make repeated broad demands on powerful others via means which go beyond the current prescriptions of the authorities.”
    –Charles Tilly, “Social Movements and National Politics,” in Charles Bright and Susan Harding, eds., Statemaking and Social Movements: Essays n History and Theory (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1984), 313.

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  2. ducdebrabant on

    Wise and cogent, much of it. I give it an 85, and I WOULD dance to it, except for one thing. I’m one of a lot of Democrats who have had it easy compared to Martin Luther King and Walter Reuther. I actually do belong to a systematically oppressed minority — I’m gay — but much of the time my party treats me pretty much the way the beltway conservatives treat skinheads. Apart from that, I went to good public schools, a good college, a good graduate school, all at the expense of my (professional) parents. There are a lot of Democrats now like me, and I don’t speak with a lot of authority when I take on the “haves” for having. If I take them on as a gay man, they call me a special interest, and most Democrats, alas, agree with them. The best I can do is speak up as a member of the middle class they’re at war with — but even with real income shrinking, I’m not sure the American middle class identifies its plight with that of auto workers in the 20’s or disenfranchised blacks in the 50’s.

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