The Decline of the Right: Pt. 2


The Lew Rockwell essay that I linked to this morning has sparked an interesting discussion over at Liberty & Power, with William Marina penning an extended critique of the piece. I don't want to get bogged down in summarizing what everyone has said so far, but I have three points to add to the discussion.

First: With only a few exceptions, such as Bob Barr, the Republican leadership was not particularly skeptical of government power in the '90s. There was a tremendous skepticism at the grassroots, though, and the politicians fell in line with their rhetoric and, occasionally, their behavior.

Second: That grassroots skepticism hasn't died. There are more colors in the country than red and blue, and there still are many libertarian-leaning conservatives out there. But a decade ago they were driving the debate; today they've been marginalized. What you might call the talk-radio right—the folks who listen to Limbaugh, post to Free Republic, and serve as political troops for the GOP—have generally moved in the direction described by Rockwell.

Third: One reason this shift was possible, as Rockwell argues, is because the grassroots conservative movement personalized its politics, becoming less anti-government than anti-Clinton. Rather than opposing the imperial presidency, activists demanded a president who wouldn't "stain" the office. There's nothing wrong with Clinton-bashing per se, of course, but there is something wrong with losing your perspective.

What Rockwell didn't mention, and perhaps doesn't see, is that the same dynamic is now at work on the left. If the Bob Barr conservatives (and, further out, the militia conservatives) have been tamed or marginalized by Team Red, then the Ralph Nader leftists (and, further out, the Seattle leftists) are being tamed or marginalized by Team Blue. The chief instrument of this shift has been an excessive focus on George W. Bush, just as the other rebellion was hobbled by an excessive focus on Bill Clinton. Again, there's nothing wrong with Bush-bashing per se, but not if you lose your perspective.

If John Kerry had been elected in November, the grassroots ferment that fed MoveOn and the Dean campaign would have lost its anti-authoritarian edge as quickly as the talk-radio right did. Indeed, beneath their sometimes radical rhetoric and their dark theories of conspiracy, the rebels were already tamed. That's what "Anybody But Bush" meant in practice.