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Tilting at Windmills

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November 30, 2008

REPUBLICANS' 'MCCARTHY GENE'.... The story of Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign serving as the catalyst of the modern conservative movement, which reshaped the Republican Party, is well known. But Neal Gabler presents an interesting idea today, arguing that the real father of modern conservatism is Sen. Joe McCarthy. Indeed, as far as Gabler is concerned, "the McCarthy gene" runs deep in the GOP's DNA, "and because it is genetic, it isn't likely to be expunged any time soon."

McCarthy, Wisconsin's junior senator, was the man who first energized conservatism and made it a force to reckon with. When he burst on the national scene in 1950 waving his list of alleged communists who had supposedly infiltrated Harry Truman's State Department, conservatism was as bland, temperate and feckless as its primary congressional proponent, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, known fondly as "Mister Conservative." [...]

McCarthy was another thing entirely. What he lacked in ideology -- and he was no ideologue at all -- he made up for in aggression. Establishment Republicans, even conservatives, were disdainful of his tactics, but when those same conservatives saw the support he elicited from the grass-roots and the press attention he got, many of them were impressed. Taft, no slouch himself when it came to Red-baiting, decided to encourage McCarthy, secretly, sealing a Faustian bargain that would change conservatism and the Republican Party. Henceforth, conservatism would be as much about electoral slash-and-burn as it would be about a policy agenda.

For the polite conservatives, McCarthy was useful. That's because he wasn't only attacking alleged communists and the Democrats whom he accused of shielding them. He was also attacking the entire centrist American establishment, the Eastern intellectuals and the power class, many of whom were Republicans themselves, albeit moderate ones.... McCarthyism is usually considered a virulent form of Red-baiting and character assassination. But it is much more than that. As historian Richard Hofstadter described it in his famous essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," McCarthyism is a way to build support by playing on the anxieties of Americans, actively convincing them of danger and conspiracy even where these don't exist.

It does sound pretty familiar, doesn't it?

Gabler's point seems to be a stylistic one, not an ideological one. Goldwater championed a libertarian, anti-government conservatism. McCarthy championed a political blood-lust, premised on scapegoats, cultural resentment, and fear.

In this sense, while the traditional model shows a line from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush, Gabler points to a different line -- McCarthy to Nixon to Bush to Palin. Indeed, if Karl Rove has a godfather, in this model, it's Joe McCarthy.

Gabler concludes, "There may be assorted intellectuals and ideologues in the party, maybe even a few centrists, but there is no longer an intellectual or even ideological wing. The party belongs to McCarthy and his heirs -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Palin. It's in the genes."

It's a good piece and a compelling case. Take a look.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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This is why I always thought Giulani would get the nomination -- he was the best hater in the field, and the Party respects that.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on November 30, 2008 at 11:51 AM | PERMALINK

You left out Ann Coulter, who has not only based her entire career on being a hater but has actively argued that McCarthy was a great American.

Posted by: gummitch on November 30, 2008 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

So then Palin is actually not "Bush in a skirt" but McCarthy in a skirt. Yep, I see that.

Posted by: Donna on November 30, 2008 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

Not just a Republican, but a human one. We are a pack animal and respect the hierarchy and fear the outsider. Republicans have taken up back to the "animal" side while liberals and progressives want to elevate the rational/intellectual side of human nature. We need to strive beyond simply our animal sides.

Posted by: Darsan54 on November 30, 2008 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

"McCarthy championed a political blood-lust, premised on scapegoats, cultural resentment, and fear."

When you toss in, along with that, the evolution of the military-industrial complex from the 50's to now, you wind up ever closer to the textbook definition of fascism. Then McCain-Palin rallies can be seen as more than expressions of racism.

"...because it is genetic, it isn't likely to be expunged any time soon."

Flag lapel pins, anyone?

Posted by: stv on November 30, 2008 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

@Darsan54 "We need to strive beyond simply our animal sides."

Do you think that without the serious economic troubles we have right now that people that Obama would have had a chance? Or Clinton against Bush?

Individuals can be rational, groups of people can not, throw in a little faith in Jeebus and you have a powerful mix of thoughtless, mindless leading of the masses by people who only pretend to believe in anything they say. It's about winning at any cost.

Don't forget, W said "I have political capital to spend" but Obama doesn't somehow?? What W was really saying "since we're going to be in power for a little longer, thanks to you idiots, we can REALLY get something done (for the well-connected), and there's nothing you can do to stop us"

Posted by: r_m on November 30, 2008 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

As a child growing up in WI during the Joe McCarthy era I vividly remember the fear people had of him. Fear has been a mainstay of the Republican Party for many years. Over the past ten years or so, the John Birch Society was mainstream republicanism.

Around here, the common impression of McCarthy is that he was a mean drunk who was useful to the Republican Party.

Posted by: nonheroicvet on November 30, 2008 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

The Repukeliscum only succeed when they scare the shit out of people. Americans do not like pure conservatism, because it is the ideology of "I'm on top, so fuck you very much". We are much happier with a mutualism ideology - that is, socialism.

Posted by: POed Lib on November 30, 2008 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

My wife is from SE WI, Wawautosa, Beaver Dam, Fond du Lac, the whole area down there. Her mother is a reflexive conservative who still occasionally speaks in a friendly way about McCarthy. Many ignorant farmers like a good hater.

Posted by: POed Lib on November 30, 2008 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

despots have been ruling and maintaining power since the dawn of humanity by keeping the masses frightened and ignorant. It is an ancient formula for gaining and maintaining power. It is the MO of all authoritarianism like organized religion, and it is the heritage of modern conservatism in America.

Posted by: pluege on November 30, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

It's older than that. Conservatives in many countries over the past 100+ years have tried to harness pseudo-populist, religious, xenophobic, resentment-based politics. It's hard after all to build a majority around a platform of helping rich people. Sometimes they control this beast, sometimes it ends up controlling them.

Posted by: larry birnbaum on November 30, 2008 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

The idea that McCarthy is the godfather of modern conservativism and not Goldwater is right on the money. Goldwater may have been an "extremist" in his libertarianism, but he was never an authoritarian like McCarthy, Nixon and Bush. And the overriding character trait in the modern Right that is dominated by religious fundamentalism is an overpowering authoritarianism that requires strict conformity by individuals to some larger creed -- something the individualist Goldwater would never go for, and why Goldwater's heirs like John Dean and Victor Gold have been such vocal critics of today's conservative movement and GOP.

Posted by: Ted Frier on November 30, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Just call them the chicken little party over and over and over.

Posted by: Jet on November 30, 2008 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

McCarthy is an eternal shitstain on the beautiful state of Wisconsin, but, just so no one gets any wrong ideas, McCarthy's hometown and region are no longer bastions of conservatism. I live about 2 miles from old Joe's grave in Appleton and the only Republican representative I have is a State Senator. All the rest (State Representative, Congressional Representative, Governor, US Senators) are Democrats.

Posted by: from Appleton on November 30, 2008 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

The most concise and effective op-ed I've ever read. It distills 6 decades of Republican hateful deception into a short, crystal-clear, and absolutely damning indictment.

The last paragraph is epic.

Help make it go VIRAL!

Posted by: obsessed on November 30, 2008 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Now it's even more clear why Ann Coulter praised McCarthy so much. He's effectively her grampa.

Posted by: Neil B on November 30, 2008 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

This makes so much sense. It isn't that conservativism is a principle, rather it is anti-civilization. The Dark Heart that hates and fears everything else. The force that wants to destroy for no other reason than the joy of destruction.

Conservatism is the force we must overcome every day if we want civilization to go on.

Posted by: beb on November 30, 2008 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

That's a good case for McCarthy as the Godfather of the Modern Republican Party, but Nixon is the Father. It took LBJ's embrace of Civil Rights to let Nixon's Southern Strategy set the course for the modern GOP. And what a shitty legacy that is.

Posted by: ed on November 30, 2008 at 4:01 PM | PERMALINK

I'm an Arizonan who's lived in Arizona since 1955. I've watched careers of various Arizona pols over the years. I knew Goldwater slightly; my dad knew him fairly well.

I think Neal Gabler is right on. Yes, Joe McCarthy is much more the progenitor of modern conservatism that Goldwater is. Although Goldwater did serve as a figurehead for the xenophobic, nasty branch of the Republican party. My father wasn't a Bircher per se, but he knew a lot of them and agreed with much of their philosophy, and Goldwater's nomination was at least partly due to their efforts. They felt like they had taken back the party.

But as time wore on, Goldwater began to become disaffected with the Republicans. He continued to be one and I don't think he ever seriously considered bolting the party. But he began to sound almost liberal in some of the things he said.

In 1987, if memory serves, we Arizonans had the spectacle of the impeachment of our sitting governor, Evan Meacham, very hard right, very Mormon. He was impeached over what was probably a minor violation in use of campaign funds; he had money left over from his 86 campaign for governor, which he used to pay off some debts at his Pontiac car dealership. My personal opinion was that he was an embarrassment to the Phoenix 400, a group of Republican businessmen that have been the real behind-the-scenes power for the Republicans in Arizona. Evan had made a lot of stupid and un-PC statements, which made even international news, as well as being an ineffective governor, so the Phoenix 400 decided to get rid of him. You don't piss those guys off. They found a convenient excuse in Meacham's misuse of campaign funds.

Anyhoo, after one of his more inappropriate pronouncements, Goldwater famously said something to the effect that Meacham was a goddam idiot, which made the headlines in the Arizona Republic. Goldwater had little use for Meacham and other Republicans of his ilk.

Sigh. We Arizonans seem to have a long learning curve. Meacham was succeeded by Rose Mofford, a Democrat, and the Secretary of State. Arizona doesn't have a lieutenant governor, so the Secretary of State succeeds. She was quite popular and worked well with the legislature and got a few things done. Then we elected Fife Symington, a Republican, who managed to commit all sorts of chicanery with real estate and retirement funds, and was tried as a criminal while a sitting governor.

We currently have Janet Napolitano, and Mazel Tov to her as she becomes head of Homeland Security (she'll need all the mazel she can get), but we Dems are mourning her departure. She will be succeeded by the current Secretary of State, Jan Brewer. What to say about her? Oy!!!!

Onward and upward???

Posted by: Wolfdaughter on November 30, 2008 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

This is what many of us "liberals" have been seeing all along in this last election. This group of conservatives had been cultivated by the likes of Rush, Hannity, Coulter, O'Reilly, etc..

Taken to it's most progressive point, Hitler would actually be it's ideologue. Someone to blame, someone to "take it out on", punishing dissenters, and authoritarian rulers to point out the evil doers. They just "don't see America the way you and I see America" could have been taken right out of a German speech of the '30s.

The republican party has been taken over by the worst of ethical America...racists, bigots, hypocrites, hate filled, fear mongering totalitarians who revel in imperialistic ignorance.

You really don't know what you are calling yourself when you call yourself a republican today after what we've seen in this past election. The only consistent attribute of being a republican this past election was that you hated and condemned Obama and liberals...no policies, no ideas...just hate, blame and fear.

There will always be up to 1/3rd of a population that reflect the willfully ignorant and emotionally ill. Watch as the republican party shrinks to such a size if not there already. They will only come to power by lying, cheating and stealing unless dems don't stop them from turning our nation into a corporatocracy.

What we will see is an increase in DINOs and conservative democrats which will actually be the republican wing of the democratic party.

Posted by: bjobotts on November 30, 2008 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

Don't sell short the contribution to the current Republican Party of one who was at times a Democrat and at times an Independent: Governor George Corley Wallace. After Mr. Wallace lost an election while running as a more mainstream politician, he vowed "never [to] be out-segged again."

Much of the Nixon/Republican "Southern Strategy" was an endeavor to co-opt the racial resentment vote in the South and in (white) urban enclaves in the North. The motto of current Republicans may as well be "Xenophobia now; xenophobia tommorrow; xenophobia forever!" The target now is light brown skinned folks rather than dark brown skinned folks, but the tactics are the same.

To his credit, Governor Wallace did repent of his racial demagogy later in his career. We are still waiting for most republicans to do the same.

Posted by: John in Nashville on November 30, 2008 at 5:42 PM | PERMALINK

Larry Birnbaum -- good point. More often than not the beast controls them. Hitler was elevated to the chancellorship in 1933 by conservatives who thought they could control him while he enacted his "law and order" agenda of controlling violence in the streets. But within a few short months fascism prevailed over conservatism.

Something like it has happened to the modern GOP that was seduced by the passionate foot soldiers of the far right but who have now found in 2008 that they cannot be controlled any better than Hitler could. Today's far right that now dominates the GOP more than it ever has before (with the migration and purging of moderates and centrist from the party) and these folks are true believers who would rather lose elections than compromise their beliefs. Poor Nixon. He did not learn his history that the White Protestant South destroys everything it touches whenever it attempts to extend its reach nationally. It destroyed the Whig and Democrat parties as national governing parties before the Civil War, nearly destroyed the country in the Civil War, weakened the Democratic Party again with the Dixicrat and Wallace independent movements, and has now destroyed the GOP as a governing party outside of the reactionary South.

Posted by: Ted Frier on November 30, 2008 at 7:37 PM | PERMALINK

Reagan and Goldwater are the public faces of modern Republicanism.

Joe McCarthy is it's soul and Newt Gingrich built a temple of Congressional power to hold McCarthy.

Posted by: Rick B on November 30, 2008 at 8:46 PM | PERMALINK

Are you kidding...the "brownshirts' are already in place just waiting for some fanatic to lead them. Had Palin or McCain organized such groups sending them leaders to guide them to violent actions toward dems and liberals...they would have responded with action. Fascism IS conservatism with unchecked police power...and it is so close to a reality in this republican brand it's frightening. Our only saving grace is that they are still a minority.

Posted by: joey on November 30, 2008 at 8:50 PM | PERMALINK

American conservatism can be traced all the way back to Patrick Henry. When the historians put that insane Christianist motherfucker on the same pedestal as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc., they guaranteed that crackpot wingnut conservatism would always have a place in the American political arena.

Posted by: dr sardonicus on November 30, 2008 at 9:01 PM | PERMALINK

Of course, is is. Why is this a surprise, or even noteworthy?

Spend an hour watching/listening to C-Span's "Washington Journal" (better on radio, actually) or anyone in the talk radio cosmos. It's still 1952 for these folks.

The updated ones talk about "Islamofascism" or "Muslim etremists." But lots of them still bring up the specter of "communists."

I thought EVERYONE knew that.

Posted by: whiteline on November 30, 2008 at 9:07 PM | PERMALINK

Gabler's article was one of the least thoughtful, most vapid attempts at analysis I've seen this year. His common thread linking McCarthy to Reagan seems to be merely "a movement supported by the majority of the public but rejected by intellectuals." That's accurate as far as it goes -- McCarthy's denunciation of the nation's elites for their laxness in the face of possible communist infiltration was both popular and rejected by elites, as was Reagan's general assessment that government was the problem rather than the solution and that the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire -- but surely political movements need to have more in common than that to be considered connected?

And where do Sarah Palin and George W. Bush fit into even this meager set of criteria? Palin was popular only among the Republican base, and mostly because she favored positions most of them favored. George W. Bush was only supported generally in his opposition to the international threat of radical Islam, and never had the level of support of either Reagan or McCarthy.

Also missing is any consideration of whether their claims were true or not. Gabler simply asserts without proof, a sort of "everybody knows" assertion, that McCarthy was wrong. He wasn't; the Venona project has settled that issue, and not only were there literally hundreds of communist agents in the US in those days, but McCarthy was correct about our government personnel policies being irresponsible. History has proved Reagan correct about the Soviets, and the rapid recovery from the Carter malaise suggests Reagan's policies were anything but voodoo. Nobody remotely familiar with Islam in the modern world doubts that there's a serious threat to be addressed. So I guess Gabler's criteria isn't really "rejected by elites," but rather "accepted as unquestionable by Neal Gabler.

If Gabler wants a genuine recent instance of an anti-elite populist, he should visit Newt Gingrich's American Solutions project (www.AmericanSolutions.com). The only problem is that Gabler would then have to admit that America really is a center-right nation; Gingrich produces copious polling data suggesting that politicians could easily draw 70% or more popular support on nearly any political subject by adopting a center-right policy line. His "Drill Here, Drill Now" theme (yes, that came from Gingrich, not from Michael Steele) arose from the poll suggesting that more than 70% of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, think it makes good sense for the US to develop its own internal oil sources.

But facts would really mess up Gabler's thesis, so I'm sure he'll never go there.

Posted by: Plumb Bob on November 30, 2008 at 9:32 PM | PERMALINK

The only people left in the modern Republican party are Right-wing authoritarians. This particular profile of aggression against outgroups, loyalty to in-group, submission to a strong leader-hero, and generally poor thinking skills has always been around since time immemorial, being generally nasty and brutish.

What's more, it really IS in the genes. Behavioral geneticists have looked at this personality variable and find that (iirc) 64% of the difference among people can be attributed to genetic variation. Conservatism is among the most heritable of personality characteristics. It clearly has some evolutionary value.

Posted by: PTate in MN on November 30, 2008 at 9:37 PM | PERMALINK

People are letting Goldwater off far too lightly here. Goldwater was not a "principled" conservative, unless that means -- as it so often does -- a conservative virulently opposed to civil rights. Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 -- as did that other conservative icon, Ronald Reagan. There's a reason Goldwater carried only Southern states in the 1964 election.

Further, Goldwater's campaign let all the wignuts out from under the rocks and rotting logs where they had formerly hid. Goldwater encouraged the far right to come out, and to engage in their usual behavior of calling anyone a communist who disagreed with them.

Goldwater was only a more polite version of the same vicious politics espoused by McCarthy. Let's put an end to taking it easy on him.

Posted by: rosste on November 30, 2008 at 11:20 PM | PERMALINK

Bit of a stretch. Could be insult disguised as clever analysis but for the total unbelievability.

How about "Is Hitler the real catalyst of the Obama movement?"

See what I mean.

Posted by: Luther on December 1, 2008 at 2:35 AM | PERMALINK

Gabler simply asserts without proof, a sort of "everybody knows" assertion, that McCarthy was wrong.

Well, if one drives a bomb into a building, and in the collateral damage the coroners identify two rapists, that's okay? Three rapists, a child molester, and two PETA fur-painters?

Really, what is magic mathematical formula that justifies a witchhunt?

Posted by: ThresherK on December 1, 2008 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK



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