Radical conservatives: the going was good. The '80s echo the '50s

HAS the Reagan revolution run its course? This simple-sounding question is actually a nest of questions, interrelated but not identical. Some questions involve specific issues: Has deregulation finally reached its limit as corporations gobble corporations and airplanes collide in the underregulated skies? Will enemies of the welfare state be able to cut more domestic programs, or have they reached a point beyond which they will not be permitted to go? Has the social agenda of ``Moral Majority'' run out of steam? Will critics of affirmative action and quotas ever succeed in toppling programs by now so well entrenched?

There are also pragmatic political questions: Who will win the next presidential election - and the election after that? Can Democrats shed their old image without lapsing into ``me-tooism''? Should Democrats even wish to shed their old image? Can the Reagan coalition of old and neo-conservatives, libertarians, and religious revivalists hope to endure? Who will control the Republican Party - traditional moderates or New Right ideologues?

And underlying these questions are broader questions - about wide-ranging shifts in cultural attitudes, political realignments, and the intellectual momentum of political ideas.

At times like these, there is much talk about the pendulum swings that seem to govern (or at least to describe) the course of American public opinion. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s 1986 book, ``The Cycles of American History,'' developed the idea of a progressive spiral (rather than a simple return of the pendulum), where cyclical progress is generated by the dynamics of opposing outlooks, such as egoism and altruism, innovation and conservation.

Back in 1949 his father, Arthur Schlesinger Sr., writing at a time when liberalism was waning, estimated - with uncanny accuracy - 1962 as the date of its next revival, and 1978 as the time of a conservative revival. (In support of his father's predictions, Schlesinger Jr. points out a number of conservative trends, from deregulation to the injection of religion into politics, already under way during the Carter administration!)

For Robert McElvaine, a professor of history at Millsaps College in Mississippi and author of two books on the depression, the pendulum swing is cause for liberal hopes. The End of the Conservative Era (Arbor House, New York, 338 pp., $18.95) finds signs of the changing times in everything from congressional and state elections to opinion polls, anti-apartheid campus protests, charity mega-events like Live Aid, and even (perhaps especially) the increasingly political content of pop song lyrics.

McElvaine's outlook is deeply informed by the work of historians like the Schlesingers, but his book is lighter in style and pragmatic rather than theoretical in its approach. His arguments and insights, incisively, often wittily, expressed, are based on omnivorous readings of contemporary journalism and on interviews with scores of prominent Democrats, many of whom sound better filtered through McElvaine than they sound in person.

Although he devotes a great deal of energy to drawing parallels between the 1980s and the 1950s, McElvaine does not merely act the part of a cheerleader welcoming home the ``good old'' 1960s. He writes with an awareness that the extremism of the '60s helped engender a conservative reaction, just as the excesses of the Reagan revolution are now turning people off conservatism.

McElvaine does a good job summing up the case against supply-side economics and other ``woolly headed'' right-wing panaceas. He is almost as good at proposing a sensible course for a wiser, post-Reagan liberalism, especially on the domestic front. To his credit, he seems prepared to give Reagan credit for his success in Grenada, while reserving judgment on other areas of foreign policy.

Michael Harrington, whose seminal plea on behalf of ``The Other America'' (1962) has been praised - and blamed - for inspiring the War on Poverty, offers perplexity rather than prophecy in The Next Left: The History of a Future (Henry Holt, New York, 197 pp., $17.95). Far below the cyclical tides of public opinion, Harrington believes that a sea change in the world's economy is taking place. Abandoning polemicism, he tries to provide a clearer understanding of these complex changes. If he does not completely succeed in the formidable task he has undertaken, his book has the great virtue of illuminating some of the flaws and fallacies of monetarism, supply-side economics, and other catch phrases of the conservative era.

Anyone, though, who still wonders exactly how or why the intellectual momentum shifted rightward in the past couple of decades would do well to browse through Orthodoxy, The American Spectator's 20th Anniversary Anthology (Harper & Row, New York, 511 pp., $25.95). Founded in 1967 by R. Emmett Tyrrell, then in his 20s, the journal was christened The Alternative, then changed its name to The American Spectator in 1977, presumably to avoid being mistaken for a bastion of the underground left.

Tyrrell credits his journal with embracing ``much of what was once right with historic American liberalism as well as what was increasingly right and relevant with the emerging conservatism....'' There are plenty of articles in this anthology to substantiate his claim. There are also quite a few that are rather more indicative of what was (is) wrong with the ``emerging conservatism'' - from a lackluster piece in which the usually astute George Will seems to miss completely the significance of the women's movement to ``Taki's'' diatribe against ``Ugly Women,'' which shows an ugliness of spirit far more repulsive than anything it berates.

In general, however, the articles are as scintillating as they are diverse, from a close critique of William Shawcross's ``Sideshow'' by Peter Rodman, and Walter Berns's ``UN Diary,'' to Rachel Flick's mocking, yet sympathetic account of Cosmopolitan's Helen Gurley Brown and P.J. O'Rourke's hilarious review of ``Iacocca: An Autobiography.''

Economist Thomas Sowell (one of the contributors anthologized in ``Orthodoxy'') is his usual sharp self in Compassion Versus Guilt and Other Essays (Morrow, New York, 246 pp., $15.95), a collection of brief, op-ed-style articles. Many liberals (black and white) are routinely shocked by a black scholar/journalist who's opposed to affirmative action and disvestment in South Africa. What I find more disturbing - reading Sowell and almost all his fellow conservatives - is how more and more of them seem to swallow the entire conservative package, from opposing sex education to defending nuclear power plants. Sowell can still surprise, however (he sets forth a libertarian approach to the drug problem, for instance), and even when he doesn't, his arguments carry conviction.

It may be fair to say of conservatives what once was said of liberals: They are better at being out of power, exposing hypocrisy, than they are at devising a viable future for American society.

Even those who have relatively high opinions of the accomplishments of the Reagan administration may well be as dismayed as I was in reading The Third Generation: Young Conservative Leaders Look to the Future (Regnery Books, Washington, D.C., 270 pp., illustrated, $17.95), described by its editor, Benjamin Hart, as a ``sampling'' of discussions at Wednesday evening meetings of the so-called ``Third Generation'' held at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Readers may take some comfort in knowing that ``Coors beer, soft drinks, and cheese and crackers are served.''

Apart from its service as a social club, this weekly confab seems largely to serve the function of confirming its participants in their own self-validating beliefs. The Heritage Foundation's president is quoted expressing his delight over the sheer number of young acolytes: ``...there seem literally to be thousands, many of whom can't remember Vietnam, much less the Goldwater campaign.''

And that, precisely, is the trouble: Many of these ``young leaders'' seem to remember only about as far back as the Carter administration. Their grip on the present is none too sound, either. Gregory Fossedal blithely asserts that today ``almost everyone'' can afford to own his own home. Michael Johns approves of Israel's tough military stance but disapproves of that country's economy-destroying ``socialism,'' seemingly unaware that Israel's hyperinflation is a result of the monetarist nostrums of its recent conservative governments, not of years of Labor Zionist social largess. He does not mention that the tough stance he so admires is by far the greatest burden on Israel's economy.

Quite a few young enthusiasts talk of fighting communism by using methods that ape the communists. (As Paul Johnson brilliantly demonstrated of Lenin and Hitler in his book ``Modern Times,'' extremists like to learn from one another.) Others are preparing the argument that because private schools are ``better'' than public schools (they certainly weren't 20 years ago!), the destruction of the nation's public school system must be a key item on the ``conservative'' agenda.

Amid the babble are some voices worth listening to: Terry Teachout eloquently warns his fellow travelers against ``feel good'' conservatism; Adam Meyerson exhibits a thoughtfulness and sense of caution far more in keeping with the traditional meaning of the word conservative.

Ironically, the phrase chosen by one young conservative to describe his brand of politics, ``progressive conservatism,'' is very close to the phrase McElvaine thinks Democrats should use in place of that much-abused term liberalism: ``New Progressivism.'' It will, at the very least, be interesting to see whither these conflicting progressivisms may lead us.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

The '60s in pictures

Our cover photo and the picture to the right are taken from ``Flashing on the Sixties,'' photographs by Lisa Law. Published by Chronicle Books of San Francisco (paperbound, $14.95), the book has 144 pages of duotone photographs and 12 pages in full color. It's pure nostalgia, and speaks to at least one interpretation of Carl Gottlieb's quip: ``Anyone who remembers the Sixties wasn't there.''

As a photo album of the '60s, this book is both wide-ranging and eloquent. Ranging from the Beatles, Coretta Scott King, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, and The Committee to the anonymous commune member and flower child, these pages look back to a time treated with great solemnity in books reviewed elsewhere in this book section. The running commentary by Law is broken up by reminiscences from Paul Krassner, Wavy Gravy, and others.

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