THE CRAZIES have come out of the conservative woodwork. Enraged and infuriated by the election of President Obama, bereft of any intellectual leadership or compelling figurehead, unable to stomach their declining powers in a multicultural America, conservatism has been reduced to a rump movement of alienated working class whites who can only mount bizarre “tea parties” to express their discontent.
Or so runs the conventional liberal wisdom on the conservative movement after the election of Obama. Even some leading conservatives appeared to agree. Sam Tanenhaus has recently announced the death of conservatism and called for a return to “classical conservatism,” and from his perch at the New York Times, David Brooks has cast a wistful eye at responsible “grown-up” British conservatism.
But the reality of the situation is more complex: The crash of 2008 has recalibrated the balance of power between market fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists in the Republican Party and what we are now seeing is the rebirth of a potent strain of pro-capitalist, anti-statist thought. This aspect of the right has always perplexed liberals, and few expected its return in the wake of a crisis that did much to discredit free-market economics. And yet libertarianism has surged (and religious and cultural conservatism has faltered) as the economy has pushed economics back to the forefront of the policy agenda.
The election of Obama has put conservatives back where they are most comfortable and, arguably, most powerful: on the outside looking in—or, as William F. Buckley, Jr. had it, “Standing athwart history, yelling stop!” Liberals may be comforted by this fact: After almost a decade of George Bush, it’s nice to see what the view is like from inside the White House. But they’d do well not to relax, for it is in periods of political exile that the right has developed its most effective ideas and political strategies.
WHEN THE markets tanked in 2008, conservatives were caught unprepared. For decades they’d been celebrating the powers of American capitalism and proposing the market as the solution to all social problems. Their vision of capitalism was narrow and teleological: it led always upwards, and it largely ignored the boom-and-bust cycle that has marked the American economy for centuries.
The confusion was, perhaps, best captured by a chastened Alan Greenspan, who appeared before Congress in October 2008 to confess the “flaw” in his ideology. It was a breathtaking moment: Not only was a powerful political figure admitting he had been wrong, but he was also invalidating the whole neoliberal worldview that his tenure as Federal Reserve chairman had come to symbolize.
But Obama’s election has reinvigorated the right’s faith in capitalism and its skepticism of government. The swift and loud conservative reaction to the stimulus has clouded the policy agenda and slowed the political momentum for change, and Obama’s presidency has become rich fodder for a right that has transitioned from religious fundamentalism to market fundamentalism.
Remember the “values voters” of 2004? It wasn’t long ago that the GOP perfected the art of the wedge issue, drawing on social issues that had animated religious conservatives since the late 1970s. George W. Bush picked up the mantle of Ronald Reagan, winning the allegiance of conservatives by speaking sincerely about his religious belief and famously declaring Jesus Christ to be his favorite philosopher. Nowadays, however, political candidates are more likely to be asked “who is your favorite economist?”
New populist pundits like Glenn Beck and old favorites like Rush Limbaugh have best weathered the transition from religious and cultural issues to free-market economics. Beck launched himself with the 9/12 project—which lists as its second principle that God is “the Center of my Life”—but he has also twinned it with a revised version of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense that he has subtitled “The Case Against an Out of Control Government.” Generalized invocations of God and Christianity remain a theme for both Beck and Limbaugh, but they are now in a decidedly minor key.
Nowhere is this clearer than in these pundits’ embrace of Ayn Rand, one of Greenspan’s mentors, who was for decades banished to the fringes of conservatism. Now she is a staple of Limbaugh’s monologues and her books are one of Beck’s favorite props. Liberals have always scoffed at Rand’s melodramatic novels and her overdrawn contrasts between good and evil. But Limbaugh now hails her as a prophet, and at the tea parties that swept the nation last spring, protesters waved signs that read: “Ayn Rand was right” and “Read Atlas Shrugged before it happens.”
WHEN IT first appeared, Atlas Shrugged was disliked by conservatives and liberals alike. Written in 1957, the novel is set in a decaying future America, where a socialist government has brought the country to ruin and the country’s top industrialists and executives—led by the heroic John Galt—have gone “on strike.” Panned by critics, Atlas Shrugged was criticized by conservatives for its atheism and its harsh view of humanity. None other than Whittaker Chambers, the patron saint of modern conservatives, called it “a remarkably silly book” and declared its underlying message to be: “To a gas chamber—go!”
But on today’s right, Rand’s many uses have obscured the controversial side of her philosophy. Rand redirects conservative rage away from the more obvious targets on Wall Street and focuses it instead on the federal government. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, outrage against bankers and their outsize compensation packages was widespread among those on both the right and the left. But now the bankers have been rebranded as “John Galts” who are being punished for their virtues.
Rand’s dark vision of government matches the way many conservatives see the Obama administration’s policies, and her binary worldview of good and evil dovetails with the conservative mindset. Modern political conservatism emerged among widespread fears of Communism, often understood as a global battle between the forces of Christianity and atheism. Today, Rand enables pundits like Beck and Limbaugh to continue this familiar pattern and channel their moral outrage into economic terms. Instead of saints and sinners, it’s the producers against the moochers and looters.
Though she’s not a fan of Rand, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin strikes a similarly divisive pose when she praises “real Americans.” The precise identity of these “real Americans” is left vague, but it is a remarkably malleable term that can be attached to a variety of targets—from Wall Street bankers to beltway insiders. Religion is central to Palin’s political identity but—like Beck and Limbaugh—much of her message pivots on the growth of government. Though her appeal appears limited to activist cadres, her “throw the bums out” message resonates with many independent voters, the fastest growing segment of the electorate.
FOOLISH THOUGH it seemed in late 2008, the right’s decision to stand by free-market capitalism was shrewd. Conservative attacks on the bailout and the stimulus have helped crowd out discussion about the root causes of the economic crisis; the rise of conservative populism has siphoned off the outrage toward Wall Street and redirected it toward the federal government. Americans remain both dependent on government and deeply skeptical of it. The same might be said of capitalism, but few voices have persuasively articulated the case for better regulated markets.
Instead, celebrity conservatives like Beck, Limbaugh, and Palin have reactivated a powerful strain in the American political DNA: conservative anti-statism. Though 2008’s presidential election signaled the momentary weakness of conservatism, it has also given the right a shot of adrenalin. At February’s CPAC convention, an annual gathering of conservative activists, the mood was jubilant and upbeat. Scott Brown’s surprise victory in January was blood in the water for conservatives, and they now foresee a string of similar victories in 2010. They may well be right, for the history of American conservatism has demonstrated repeatedly that conservatives thrive on defeat as much as success.
Jennifer Burns is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia and author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford, 2009). Photo: Glenn Beck speaking at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)