Conservative Capers

How American politics became polarised

Geoffrey Owen

Barry Goldwater (1909-1998): Seen as an aberration in 1964, but his strain of conservatism has only spread since then (photo: LOC)

For anyone who followed US politics in the 1950s and 1960s, when the ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans was narrow, the subsequent drift towards polarisation has been astonishing — all the more so when compared with the UK, where (at least until the rise of Jeremy Corbyn) the two main parties seemed to be moving closer together.

When Barry Goldwater became the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, only to be crushed by Lyndon Johnson in the election, this episode was widely seen as an aberration — “the Goldwater caper”, as one study of the campaign described it. Yet the Arizona senator was tapping into a strain of American conservatism that was to spread far beyond the ideologues of the John Birch Society, his most fanatical supporters at the time.

The conservative Right — mostly white, often deeply religious, anti-immigrant, hostile to “liberalism” in all its forms — has steadily increased its influence within the Republican party, forcing Eisenhower-style moderates into headlong retreat.
As E.J. Dionne explains in a fascinating new book, Why the Right Went Wrong (Simon & Schuster, £20), the anger and frustration of the conservatives stem in part from the failure of successive Republican presidents, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, to reverse the slide towards big government. Even Ronald Reagan proved when in office to be far more pragmatic — for example, on Medicare — than he had been when championing Goldwater in 1964.

That anger has intensified in recent years for a mixture of reasons, including several unsuccessful wars, rising immigration, the loss of jobs in manufacturing, and the financial crisis of 2008; when Bush announced the bail-out of the banks, one Republican Congressman said the rescue would put the nation on “the slippery road to socialism”.  

At one level the divisions in the Republican party are the product of social and political changes that are specific to the US. But they also highlight a dilemma faced by centre-right parties in other countries: how to reconcile a pro-market, low-tax, small-government agenda with adequate protection for the poor.

Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 election, divided the world between the “makers” who create new jobs and the “takers” who live on government hand-outs — a formulation which, Dionne writes, came to haunt the Romney campaign and still haunts the American Right. Donald Trump is not making that mistake: he attacks tax breaks for the rich, and promises to protect Social Security.         

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