Liberal historians of American politics have long held, at least implicitly, a teleological view of our history. The assumption is that America is slowly moving toward a more “progressive” (read: statist) society, and the only thing the right can do is slow the movement. Conservatives cannot stop or reverse it--it is inexorable.
This helps explain the consistent biases of historians' presidential rankings, for instance, why Woodrow Wilson is regularly ranked in the top ten but Calvin Coolidge is mired in the high 20s. Wilson advanced the “liberal” project, and therefore he is promoted. Similarly, presidents with serious, oftentimes damning downsides – notably Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson – are ranked higher simply by virtue of having pushed the progressive ball forward.
Subliminally, conservatives often buy into this notion; hence the fear that the 2012 election was somehow the movement’s “last chance.”
To all this, I say: nonsense. I have an alternative view of history, one that – while not necessarily cheerful – should encourage conservatives to shake off the dust and get ready for the next battle.
My “meta theory” of American political history is that, nine times out of ten, the two sides battle to a draw, which ultimately favors the status quo, whatever that may be. For all the partisan vitriol and enmity that flows from one side to the other, the American public usually decides to split the difference. That is what happened in 2012, for instance.
In rare cases, external shocks disrupt the status quo and hand one side or the other a temporary advantage to re-shape the social, economic, or political landscape. Think back to the era prior to the Civil War – almost all members of the political class were happy not to talk about slavery. Their problem was that a series of external shocks forced their hand – the invention of the cotton gin, discovery of gold in California, the growing abolitionist movement, the need for an intercontinental railroad, and so on. Without these events, there would have been no President Abraham Lincoln, no Republican party, no Civil War.
We see something similar with civil rights in the 20th Century. Men like JFK and LBJ have been lionized by the left for their participation in the 1960s movement, but the fact remains that both were entirely content in the 1950s to retain the status quo (indeed, both opposed President Dwight Eisenhower's attempts to enforce voting rights for African Americans). The Civil Rights Movement was an external shock that forced their hands.
In the last eighty years, there have been three external shocks that have favored the left wing of this country, creating a (temporary) disruption in the normal balance of power and enabling liberals to tilt the needle in its direction.
The first was the Great Depression, which produced the New Deal.
The second was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which produced the Great Society.
The third was the economic meltdown of 2008, which produced Obamacare.
Liberals tend to think such shocks inevitably favor their own side. However, they fail to remember external shocks that enabled conservatives to push the policy needle in their direction.
The first was the economic and social unrest following World War II. Backlash to organized labor created a temporary conservative super-majority in the Congress, which passed the important Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto.
The second was the malaise of the 1970s. Again, it produced a temporary conservative majority in Congress, enabling Reagan to pass the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 (aka ETRA, or Kemp-Roth).
After each of these shocks, there was a relatively quick return to a status quo, but one that had been permanently altered. There is no “undoing” the Great Society, for sure, but similarly Taft-Hartley is here to stay, so also are the Reagan tax rates.
One takeaway from this is that while conservatives are naturally disappointed that 2012 did not produce the fourth “conservative moment” in 80 years, it did not produce a liberal one, either. And much more importantly, reading American history without the teleological worldview of the left indicates that, yes indeed, the right can swoop in later to fix things.
Taft-Hartley is the quintessential example. In fact, it is the keystone of the modern conservative movement, even though most Republicans today know very little about it. Taft-Hartley is why, when asked who the greatest conservative leader of the 20th century is, I always list Robert Taft in front of Ronald Reagan – Reagan’s TEFRA would never have happened without Taft-Hartley.
The important context here is the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which could very easily have been subtitled “The Permanent Democratic Majority Act.” It gave organized labor sweeping powers to reform work relations in the North, which in turn seemed to make it impossible for conservatives ever to win another election. Labor unions forged a permanent alliance with the liberals in the Democratic party, and Northern Republicans in historically conservative bastions were forced to shift left or be booted from office. But the right found its opening in 1946, and made full use of it. Taft-Hartley dramatically curtailed the power of organized labor, and there would not be a modern conservative movement were it not for that foundational piece of legislation.
Thinking about the present day, if conservatives are right and what Walter Russell Mead has called the “blue state model” is indeed collapsing, then the GOP might not be that far away from another moment. At the least, the fact that it did not come in 2012 does not mean it is not coming.
And conservatives should be ready for it. For starters, they should ignore the triumphalists on the left espousing a permanent shift leftward. Nonsense! Yes, conservatives must do a better job of reaching out to Hispanics, but some perspective is necessary. The incumbent president is set to take in millions of fewer votes than he won in 2008. He limped across the finish line by dint of vicious demagoguery, which lowered turnout among white voters who have voted Republican in the past. Put simply, the GOP is still very much in this ballgame.
Instead, conservative should make a serious study of the leaders who made full uses of the moments when they were handed to them. On the right, these men were Bob Taft, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. On the left, they were Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama. Conservatives should ask themselves: what qualities did these leaders have in common? That will help them find the best standard bearer to guide the GOP and the conservative movement when the next moment comes.
I don’t know when that will be, but I do know that the left is wrong: The trajectory of American history is not an inevitable leftward drift. So buck up, conservatives!
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.