Columns » Jay Barth

The past is never dead

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Invisible Bridge image

As a political scientist who likes his data equal parts words and numbers, I've been treated to the arrival of insightful examples of both in recent days: the newest book by political historian and journalist Rick Perlstein and the latest incarnation of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press' Political Typology. While the former's focus is a period four decades ago, that key moment in America's politics ties quite directly to the Pew data that provides so much information about the state of American political attitudes today.

For over a decade, Perlstein has dedicated himself to chronicling the story of the modern American conservative movement. His work began with a masterful overview of the rise of Goldwaterism and its demise in the 1964 election in "Before the Storm." Next, in "Nixonland," Perlstein detailed how in just eight years America shifted from a nation where Democrat Lyndon Johnson won one of the largest landslides in presidential history to one where Republican Richard Nixon triumphed even more resoundingly in 1972.

Now, in his third book in the series available in bookstores next week, "The Invisible Bridge," Perlstein tracks the near demolition of the Republican Party as a result of Watergate (the party went so far as to actively consider changing its name) and the planting of the seeds that would grow into the 1980s dominance by the party under President Ronald Reagan. Here we see Reagan continually refuse to acknowledge Watergate as a scandal as it consumes the Nixon White House. Instead, as he leaves the California governorship, he ignores the bizarre events of Watergate-obsessed Washington and focuses his energy on sewing a collection of right-wing populist uprisings (including opposition to court orders regarding school busing, to efforts to revise science curriculum, to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and to the Equal Rights Amendment) into a quilt that became a fervent conservative populist movement that almost wins him the GOP nomination in 1976 and goes on to reshape the party thereafter. While the "Silent Majority" coalesced by Nixon so expertly in advance of Watergate was effective in running up electoral votes in a particular election, it was replaced by a much more vibrant, lasting movement.

Right at 800 pages and covering a mere 42 months from the Nixon 1973 inauguration through the 1976 GOP convention, Perlstein again shows his gift as a chronicler is to use telling details to provide the energy in a familiar story. These details produce a deeper understanding of both key political elites as well as American society during a particularly odd time and remind us that American electoral politics is a dance between political leaders and the masses of voters. When that dancing is in harmony, the result is a transformative movement like Reaganism.

Perlstein's book ends in 1976, but nearly four decades later the seeds planted then continue to bear fruit as shown by the Pew Center's 2014 Political Typology. The survey is updated every handful of years and succeeds in moving beyond the traditional liberal/conservative divide in American life to provide a more nuanced examination of the key subgroups (this year, eight in total) in the U.S. polity. (Notably, the 10 percent that fall in one of the eight — the "Bystanders" — very rarely actually turn out to vote).

The conservative populists that began to coalesce during and after Watergate (Pew's Political Typology calls them "Steadfast Conservatives") remain the cornerstone of the Republican Party's electorate today and make up a full one-fifth of the most politically engaged citizens, according to the survey. "Business Conservatives" (who differ from the conservative populists in that they are more trusting of big business, ready to undertake immigration reform, and ready to move away from the cultural battle over LGBT's role in society) compose only a slightly smaller percentage of the most engaged citizens but are outnumbered in the GOP. Reagan lost the battle of the Bicentennial Year but his coalition won the ultimate war in the GOP, a victory that continues to show itself.

The Pew data clearly shows, however, the growing cost of that defining place for conservative populism for the Republican Party. The groups that are up for grabs electorally — "The Faith and Family Left," "The Next Generation Left," "Hard-Pressed Skeptics" and "Young Outsiders" — are all repelled by the rigidity of conservative populism and its unwillingness to adjust to a changing America. Thus, while Reagan's political children and grandchildren remain the defining force in American politics, the Pew data shows that the bulk of Americans have moved to a very different spot creating a fundamental challenge for the GOP moving toward the 2016 presidential election.

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