Dionne’s new book presents conservatives as idealists; forgets most are class-based self-serving crony capitalists

Reading E. J. Dionne Jr.’s Why the Right Went Wrong provides an illuminating contrast to Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. Both cover the same history: the Republican Party and conservatism since the 1950s. But whereas Mayer focuses on the mechanisms by which economic and social right-wingers took over the Republican Party and drove public discourse to the right, Dionne’s story is one of how their ideas developed and changed over time.

The overarching narrative Dionne relates is the gradual movement of mainstream Republicanism away from accommodation with the New Deal and towards the extreme social and economic policies of the John Birch Society. Dionne tells his tale with an unexpected naivety, rarely if ever questioning the purity of motives of right-wingers. He may disagree with them, but he presents them as principled individuals. Unlike Mayer, Dionne never details how inextricably intertwined the ideas of the funders of conservatism were with their own self-interest. He never explores the way economic right-wingers have exploited the fears and mythologies of social conservatives. His picture of Bush II is not as a crony capitalist who misled the public so his associates could benefit from government war contracts. No, in Dionne’s rendition (pun intended), George the Torturer is a “compassionate conservative” against whom less forgiving and more right-wing conservatives rebelled. We never learn from Dionne the extremes of lying and manipulation in which a few ultra-wealthy families and their educated and well-paid factotums have gone to subvert the Democratic process.

Another difference between the two books is that Mayer’s describes the complete battlefield of ideas in the American system, including the dense network of nonprofit organizations, think tanks and university centers that promulgate and promote the ideas that animate politics, what William Domhoff called the “public policy model” by which an oligarchy can control the democratic process. By contrast, Dionne limits himself to the final stage of the process, elections and a few pieces of major legislation. By doing so, I believe he underestimates the degree to which a handful of billionaires have high-jacked the political process, which is the major theme of Mayer’s tome.

Reading both these books in the same month also made me realize the profound impact that two actions the Reagan administration took have had on the course of U.S. history since the 1980s. First, there was the massive Reagan tax break to the wealthy he pushed through early in his first term, which gave billionaires enormous amounts of new money to fight against social welfare programs and for lower taxes, at the same time giving them more incentive to do so, i.e., more wealth to shelter. Mayer doesn’t explicitly connect the tax cut to increased rightwing spending on politics, but she makes it impossible for the thoughtful reader not to draw that conclusion.

Dionne drops the other shoe: In Reagan’s second term his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ended the Fairness Doctrine, which required the holders of television or radio broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner the FCC deemed honest, equitable, and balanced. By ending the Fairness Doctrine, Reagan enabled radio and television stations to broadcast partisan ideologues such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity without having to air opposing views. The billionaires bought up stations, created networks and created the many voices who made and still make the same false statements about unions being bad, taxes being too high, and the nation being overrun by immoral and unreligious outsiders (recently to include the President himself!). While the creation of hundreds of shell organizations to promote fallacious research and self-serving theories helped the billionaires move the conversation to the right inside the beltway, the right-wing radio and TV demagogues reduced these ideas to simple messages and insults for those in America’s heartland.

Throughout his book, Dionne postulates that there is a good conservatism and a bad conservatism. The bad conservatism “resisted movements on behalf of African-Americans, workers, women and other groups facing exclusion,” whereas the good conservatism offers “incremental adaptation” as an alternative to change that is too radical or comes too quickly. In describing good conservatism, he evokes Edmund Burke, the 18th century British politician who supported the American Revolution but not the French one. In Dionne’s reading, conservatives go wrong when they oppose all change and do the right thing when they merely try to direct change in an appropriate direction, e.g., in using a private model to provide universal healthcare.

But Dionne’s differentiation turns conservatism into nothing more than an attitude or a point of view. The good conservative accepts the basic premises of a mixed economy and a state-sponsored safety net for the poor, elderly and disadvantaged, but wants to make sure we are careful about change and make it according to basic American and constitutional principles.

Unfortunately, the core of the conservative movement since the New Deal has comprised a number of explicitly stated bad ideas that would turn back the clock on centuries of progress, such as no government regulation, no unions, no minimum wage, low taxes on the wealthy, no Social Security, market solutions to all social problems and enforcing the public morality of the 19th century on private individuals. Supporting these conservative views is an ugly and mostly implicit mix of nativism, racism and sexism.

In other words, conservatives are not the most reasonable among those who want to improve the world, as Dionne wants them to be and imagines they once were. Instead, they have a consistent political platform that over the past 35 years has set the United States on the path of becoming a nation of a few rich and mostly poor.

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