June 16, 2008


LEGACIES OF THE 60s: How Revolt Ricocheted to the Right (ALAN WOLFE, 6/16/08, The Chronicle Review)

Humphrey went on to lose to Nixon in the general election. Even though he came closer than many Democrats unhappy with his nomination thought he would, the party, in the wake of his defeat, decided to revise its rules for nominating candidates for the presidency. First Sen. George McGovern and then Rep. Donald Fraser chaired a commission that made back-room choices more difficult, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the party turned to McGovern as its candidate in 1972. From that campaign until the present one, in which Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton subjected themselves to the will of the voters in 50-plus primaries and caucuses, the voice of the people has counted for more in the party than has the choice of the bosses — even if, because the 2008 race was so tight, the final choice lay with unelected superdelegates. The events of 1968 opened up institutions of all sorts that had once been more exclusive, including colleges and country clubs. It cannot be surprising that the Democratic Party was among them.

Less noticed at the time, the Republican Party, too, opened itself up to its grass roots. The Republicans had fewer noted political bosses in the style of Daley, but they did have an East Coast establishment. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, those patrician WASPs dominated their party's presidential choices. But matters became more complicated as the century wore on. As early as 1952, Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft ("Mr. Republican," as he was frequently called), although favored by some of the party leaders, tried to tap emerging conservative sentiment to help defeat the far-more-establishment candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower, as nonpartisan and politically centrist a Republican as one could find. Eisenhower's victory over the conservative insurgents suggested that the Republican establishment still controlled the party.

But the conservative mavericks were not to be denied, and the next few years gave them the chance they needed. In 1964 conservatives engineered the nomination of Sen. Barry Goldwater, but that was an election they had little chance of winning against an incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had become president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Far more important was the fact that in 1968, Nixon was able to put down a challenge from the über-establishment candidate Nelson A. Rockefeller, governor of New York. Nixon's nomination could not have happened without support from the South and West, areas that shared little of the pragmatic managerialism characteristic of the East Coast Republican establishment. Because of the turmoil of 1968, then, insurgency came to the conservative party as well as the liberal one.

Nixon used the energy of conservatives within his party to win the nomination. Many years later, Karl Rove used that same energy to help George W. Bush win two presidential elections. Bush, the son of a patrician Republican, had rebelled against his father's mainline religion, just as so many leftists in his age cohort had rebelled against the political conservatism of their parents. Rove, too, had a rebellious streak: He understood that mobilizing the fervid purists of the Republican base would produce more votes for his client in a general election than would appealing to independents and centrists. The key is that 1968 was an ideological year, and Rove, a true child of that time, was inspired by the passions so visibly on display in that year. The fact that his ideology was right-wing rather than left-wing mattered less than his willingness to break with conventional wisdom. No wonder Bush turned out to be more of a radical president than a conservative one. The process of selecting him — from the mobilization of the ideological base at the beginning of his campaign, to the threats of violent protest during the Florida recount — was radical as well.

When the Left asks what's the matter with Kansas or asserts that the Right stole populism or even stole the English language, this is what they mean: making the nomination process more democratic made politics more conservative.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 16, 2008 9:27 AM
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