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The rise of the counter-establishment; from conservative ideology to political power.

The Rise of the Counter-Establishment

Suddenly, Star Wars is an industrial policy."It could open whole new fields of technology and industry, providing jobs for thousands right here in Colorado,' President Reagan told a Republican campaign rally in that state before the election.

In Massachusetts, the anti-abortion peoplehave become Naderites. "I think government should regulate industries, not contribute to them,' says a plaintive housewife type in an ad for Question 1, a failed ballot initiative that would have enabled the state legislatuure to cut off funds for abortion, among other things.

To the press, the Reagan ascendancy has beena triumph of "conservatism.' But government jobs programs and interference in an industry for which there is a market demand, are hardly "conservative' as that term is normally defined. Nor is an adventurous foreign policy, or an effort to "stimulate' growth by manipulating the levers of tax and monetary policy in Washington. As Sidney Blumenthal points out in his new book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment,* Reagan conservatism is really a form of "shadow-liberalism.' It arose in a conscious reaction to liberals and "requires liberalism for its meaning.' It has less--almost nothing, in fact--to do with conserving the best of what is past, than with trying to eradicate every evidence of liberalism in our present.

* The Rise of the Counter-Establishments; From ConservativeIdeology to Political Power. Sidney Blumenthal. Times Books, $19.95.

The Counter Establishment is the loose networkof scholars, publicists, and think tanks that set out to stymie their liberal counterparts. Liberals had labor PACs? Then we'll have business and ideological ones. The libs had Common Cause? We'll start Citizens' Choice. The liberal public interest movement found its shadow in organizations such as Jim Watt's Mountain States Legal Foundation, which defined the common good as the right of individuals to maximize their personal gain. For Brookings there was the Heritage Foundation, for The Washington Post there was the Washington Times. Even conservatives' book titles had a shadow quality. Wealth and Poverty, George Gilder's paean to the free marketplace, was a play on Progress and Poverty, Henry George's late 19th century tract against land speculators and on behalf of a tax system to bring them down.

Sidney Blumenthal is a Washington Postreporter who has covered the rise of the Counter Establishment for that newspaper and for The New Republic. Partisans on the Right will say that a left-winger has done a journalistic number on them. In part they will be right, though it is an intelligent and well-informed number. But Blumenthal has at least taken the Counter Establishment seriously. This in itself is progress.

For years, journalists of moderate to liberalviews took comfort in portraying right-wingers as mentally imbalanced people obsessed with flouridation and the Connally Amendment, who saw communism in the school lunch program and the U.N. A whole generation of college students studied such books as Richard Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition, which looked with condescension upon the unwashed on the fringes. Hofstadter portrayed William Jennings Bryan, the populist presidential candidate, for example, as a coarse and sweaty provincial whose leading characteristic was his "torpor' of mind, that six years at a hick college had done "nothing to awaken.'

Such views made the animus of the populistright and its cohorts easy for liberals to dismiss. And history seemed to be on their side. A Right destined to prevail would have come up with something better than the Goldwater campaign; a Sunbelt reaction that was really going to happen wouldn't have run aground on Watergate. Through the Sixties and Seventies, respectable opinion held such "progressive' Republican politicians as Charles Percy, William Scranton, George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller to be the future of the party. Rockefeller was the national personification of "new ideas.' George Gilder, who was a Rockefeller speechwriter and a leader of the Ripon Society, co-authoried a postmortem of the Goldwater campaign entitled The Party That Lost Its Head. In this he called a recently elected governor named Ronald Reagan the "Party's hope to usurp reality with the fading world of the Class B movie.'

The effort to consign the Right to the JournalisticFringes continues to this day. "Governors May Pull GOP to Middle' was the headline-- part fact, part hope--of a story by David Broder that appeared on the front page of The Washington Post nine days before the November election.

One who did not dismiss the conservative reactionwas Kevin Phillips, whose predictions in The Emerging Republican Majority have proven remarkably prescient. (Phillips even foresaw the political economy of Star Wars: "Defense is one of Southern California's leading industries, and employees of the vast Southwestern Military-Industrial Complex logically tend to support patriotism, pentagon, and paycheck.') Another was Theodore White. In The Making of the President: 1964, White compared the Goldwater campaign--respectfully--to the Bryan campaign of 1896, both for injecting new issues into the mainstream debate, and more, for tapping genuine angers and frustrations among the people.

Counter Establishment is not about the directmail wizards and right-wing PAC-meisters who turned sundry discontents into a national political force. Being part of the electoral "horserace,' that story has been amply covered elsewhere. Instead, Blumenthal examines the intellectuals and polemicists who fashioned the ideological forms into which the right-wing revolt has poured.

There are the conservative "Remnant,' peoplelike Frederich Von Hayen, the free-market fundamentalist; Whittaker Chambers, the repentent excommunist, and William Buckley, who with his National Review led the Remnant out of obscurity. There are Milton Friedman, the supply siders, the neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, the Counter Establishment think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and not least Ronald Reagan, who "animated the intellectuals' theories with a resonant symbolism' and brought them to power with him.

There are no religious fundamentalists, whichmay reflect a proclivity on Blumenthal's part. There are virtually no women and blacks, which reflects a proclivity of the Counter Establishment.

Close followers of the intellectual scene mayfind little that is new in these pages. But those who, like myself, have never quite gotten around to Von Hayek, or who found Kristol and Podhoretz too argumentative and joyless for more than a passing acquaintance, will find Blumenthal's sketches genuinely illuminating. At his best, Blumenthal is something in very short supply today, a journalist of ideas. He combines a reporter's eye for a story--how Buckley established the National Review, how Wanniski et al connived to make supply side economics a central focus of the Reagan agenda--with the ability to put conservative ideas into historical and cultural context. He has actually done the kind of reading that I keep intending to do.

And Blumenthal can turn a nice phrase. MiltonFriedman's major opus, A Monetary History of the United States is "a history of the United States as told by a dollar bill.' Or this on the neocons: "Long after yippies became yuppies, many remained filled with a desire for vengeance, determined to wage the generational war. Totem and Taboo in reverse.'

What is especially refreshing about Blumenthalis that he writes from outside the conventional liberal mind-set which has dominated Reagan criticism to date. The reader is spared the wearisome incantations that Reagan is Hoover reborn, for example (as Blumenthal points out, it was actually Jimmy Carter who played that role), or that he's just a front man for big business. Blumenthal has Mondale down cold. "The conservatives had built the Counter-Establishment as an elaboration of their shadow liberalism,' he writes. "Their rationale might have been shaken if the Democrats had not nominated a candidate who neatly fit their preconceived notions. At this critical juncture, the Democrats seized upon an almost model figure to validate conservative ideology.'

In an especially evocative chapter, Blumenthalgives Reagan his due, locating him firmly on the landscape of archetypal American myth. "What makes Reaganism genuine as a social creed is not that Reagan writes much of his own material,' he writes, "but that many Americans could write it instinctively. He expresses widely shared feelings and beliefs.' Reagan's Hollywood background provided an easy if ineffective target in his first campaigns. But Blumenthal notes the far more important fact that radio was the first medium that he mastered. With the ability to achieve intimacy from his first sentence, to inflect himself right into the living room of our minds, it is conceivable that Reagan could have sold the Democratic platform in 1980 or 1984, had he been so disposed.

This is not to suggest that the portraits hereare favorable. Blumenthal's mission ultimately is to debunk, and no one emerges unscathed. He is not too small, however, to show grudging admiration where it is due. Milton Friedman emerges as a man of integrity and principle, even if his economics are a Newtonian fantasy with little connection to life. "Friedman has a rare combination of qualities,' Blumenthal acknowledges. "He is both a first-rate publicist and a scholar. . . . His celebrity, moreover, never debased his thought.'

The chapter on Friedman is an example ofwhat is strongest about this book and also where it tends to stumble. Friedman grew up in a Jewish household that was not strictly observant, and he bristled at the gap between teaching and practice. "If you believed in it, you ought to do it right,' he recalls. Eventually, as Blumenthal tells it, he transferred this absolutist tendency to the economic realm, "displacing' the faith of his fathers with the faith of Adam Smith. If the house wasn't going to be kosher, then at least the economy could be; the government and the economy must always be on separate plates.

Friedman's small town upbringing--he says henever experienced prejudice--set him apart from his intellectual peers from New York City, for whom Jewishness was an intensely social experience, and inclined them to a politics that was social as well. This, Blumenthal suggests, is Friedman's essential blind spot. "What he did not convey,' he writes of Monetary History, "was a sense of business as a political force and how this might have translated into economic policy.' And again, "Was the trouble with Friedman's economics precisely that it was merely economics and not political economy?'

On the plus side, Blumenthal admirably blendsoriginal reporting and informed analysis. On the minus, he has a tendency towards psychologizing that appears facile even if somewhat apt. He also has a habit of throwing elbows after the shot in the form of snotty little digs at the end of paragraphs. "To Friedman, Pinochet was like a graduate student. If he took instruction well, he was regarded well.'

There is little admiration, grudging or otherwise,for Podhoretz, Kristol, and the other neoconservatives. "The neo-Cons are sufferers from multiple forms of alienation: personal, professional, and political,' Blumenthal writes; again a bit quick to psychologize, but again essentially on the mark. "The neo-Cons success was failure. They had done everything right, and everything came out wrong.'

What they had done right was climb theacademic and intellectual ladders in New York. Then, just as they were reaching the top, the youth of the sixties were no longer showing respect for their rebels. The nomination of McGovern put the Democratic party into the hands of these same naive upstarts who had no memory of the Stalinist purges and who dared call Kristol et al, who had been tested in the ideological ferver of the thirties, irrelevant. "At the moment of their arrival at their properly tenured stations, when they believed they had earned deference to their accumulated wisdom, hoardes of longhairs screamed that they belonged in the dustbin of history.'

Not knowing Kristol and the others, I can't sayhow true this is, but it certainly squares with their polemical style, which seethes with resentment and hurt. "The denunciation, in fact, remains their favorite mode of expression,' Blumenthal notes. "Mean, personal, and vindictive.' I found especially instructive the account of Kristol's experience in the Trotskyite groups at City University of New York in the thirties, where he became expert at attacking liberals from the left and thereby learned all their soft spots. "It was great training in polemics and sustained political analysis,' Kristol told Blumenthal. I had always marveled at the ability of the neoconservatives to change the subject, so that a discussion of, say, the military dictatorship in Chile always seemed to become one of Castro, or the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Now I think I understand.

While Counter-Establishment is impressivecritique, in the end it does not go much beyond that. If you are a Democratic speechwriter looking for lines, or even the makings of lines that will play in the American Legion halls, you won't find them here. That's not the audience Blumenthal is addressing.

Blumenthal has a tendency to look down onReagan's Norman Rockwell vision, his "images of idyllic small-town life, enterprising entrepreneurs, whose success derives from moral character, and failure is induced only by federal bureaucrats.' Actually, as civic myths go, the small town one is hardly the worst that can be imagined. It is more benign certainly than Aryan supremacy, worker utopias, or many others that have-possessed people at various times. Most of what is worthy of proposing as an alternative to Reagan, moreover, can be cast in terms of the same small town myth. Neighbors don't dump harmful chemicals in one another's yards. Archetypal small communities take care of their elderly and needy. They support local businesses that provide jobs. They strive to be self-reliant rather than dependent upon distant producers and debtheavy nuclear power plants. And so on down the line. Those who challenge Reaganism have at least as much claim to its symbols as the Reaganites themselves. Rather than sniffing at Reagan's archetype, Democrats and others of like impulse might well study how to employ it. The same goes for questions of religion.

If Blumenthal is hard on the small town myth,he is even harder on Reagan's appeals to such qualities as simple faith to help bring the country out of its economic slump. This is a tempting view, in that Reaganism offers tax cuts for the wealthy and faith for everyone else. But the underlying appeal is not to be dismissed.

Blumenthal's point of reference is a sociologistby the name of Festinger, whom he uses to portray Reagan's "will to believe' as a kind of social neurosis. But for most people, the broad currents of hope and faith run deeper, and are more compelling than the views of people like Festinger. Nor is their instinct entirely naive, even when applied to economics. The basic molecule of economic activity is, after all, individual behavior; the way people feel about the future is therefore not irrelevent to what the future will bring. People of much education like to think of the economy as a complicated mechanism, operating according to its own laws, and requiring the ministrations of experts. (Martin Feldstein, the former head of Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors and a numbers-cruncher at Harvard, is Blumenthal's voice of reason regarding the economy in Reagan's first term.) Such people tend to snicker at the idea that there is a connection between individual virtue and economic betterment. But to most people, the connection is intuitively valid, and this is precisely the sort of folk wisdom that Reagan appeals to so well. One of Reagan's more luminous moments was when he said he didn't put much stock in economic forecasts, reservations he unfortunately forgot when selling his supply side tax cuts.

Once again, it is from Reagan's own standpointthat the most devastating attack on his programs might be made. There appeared on Washington television a year or so ago a Fort Worth evangelist who told his flock--prime Sunbelt realignment types, it appeared--that tax shelters were evil because they put mere accumulation above the Christian service inherent in productive enterprise. This is a kind of economics that feeds the heart, one's sense of what is right; and it is the kind of discourse that Democrats, embracing macroeconomics and technocratic remedies, have conceded to the other side.

Blumenthal notes often the contradiction betweenthe free market myth on the one hand, and the archetype of small town America on the other--the contradiction between raw acquisitiveness and community values. It is curious that right-wingers, who hold high the banner of religion, have to answer so seldom for the fact that the historic function of free market economics was to displace religious thinking and traditional morality as the standard of economic behavior. With all the commotion over secular humanism, the silence concerning its most persuasive form--secular humanist economics--is strange indeed. That people like Irving Kristol and George Gilder have labored so mightily to fill in the breach, as Blumenthal shows, suggests just how soft this spot in the armor is.

How long will it be before the new CounterEstablishment sinks into the sludge of conventionality into which the Brookings Institution disappeared long ago? There are signs that the aging process is proceeding apace. One symptom of a new conventional wisdom is that its rhetorical adversaries become ritualistic or antique. Endangered Senate Republicans in the Midwest campaigned against Jane Fonda (Can you name her last significant political act?) An analyst for the Heritage Foundation, attacking the administration for being soft on the U.N. writes in The Wall Street Journal that the White House is "taking its cue from the foreign policy establishment' on the matter. The foreign policy establishment? By Blumenthal's reckoning, the Heritage Foundation alone had a staff of 105 and a budget of $10.5 million, while its Counter Establishment cohorts at the Hoover Institution, the Center for Strategic and Internal studies, and American Enterprise Institute, had budgets of $11 million, $8 million, and $12.6 million respectively. These are not storefront operations. The Right's kvetching about the "establishment' is beginning to sound like that of the labor boss who beefs about fat cats while stepping into his chauffeur-driven Lincoln.

Speaking of the failure of Sen. Jesse Helms onhis pet causes, abortion and school prayer, Michael Barone observed in the Almanac of American Politics, "For Helms the bearing of witness against evil seems more important, or at least more feasible, than the extir pation thereof. And if the things he doesn't like suddenly disappeared, what would he attack?' The Counter Establishment is in much the same position. Walter Mondale, Blumenthal notes, "was more important to them than the liberals.' A question for 1988 is whether they have to reinvent Mondale themselves, or whether the Democrats will do that job for them.
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Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1986
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