Culture of Lies: Conservative Revolt

Scott Swenson

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this mind-bendingly historic election cycle is that so many conservative Republicans are standing up to say they have had enough. They “aren’t leaving their party,” to paraphrase Ronald Reagan when he supported Barry Goldwater’s conservative movement, “their party is leaving them.”

Editors Note: This is the fourth of the four part Culture of Lies series; read the entire series here.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this mind-bendingly historic election cycle is that so many conservative Republicans are standing up to say they have had enough. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan when he supported Barry Goldwater’s conservative movement, they “aren’t leaving their party, their party is leaving them.” 

Like Reagan, many of these conservatives are making that decision based on cultural extremism, but as political cycles go in America, this time the extremism is on the far right, not the far left. It is the left now standing for shared American values of freedom, faith, privacy, justice, equality and liberty, against an extremism that would have government intrusively dictating personal life decisions and legislating morality.

Like the hippies of the late 1960s who, to many Americans, turned from a peace and love curiosity into a radical and violent menace, giving birth to the conservative backlash, the far right has turned from people interested in babies and motherhood into a rigid, intolerant, controlling, manipulative and angry mob. It appears a new backlash, against far-right extremism, may be born.

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But it’s not only the left saying that. "The [Republican] party has moved even further to the right and Gov. Palin has indicated an even further rightward shift. I would be concerned about two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, but that is what we would be looking at in a McCain-Palin administration,” said General Colin Powell. Former Republican Governors Arne Carlson and Bill Weld, and Senator Larry Pressler join many others attempting to chart a new course.

Former New Republic publisher Wick Allison suggested that conservatism is less a political philosophy and more “a stance, a recognition of the fallibility of man, and man’s institutions.” Allison continued, “‘Every great cause,’ Eric Hoffer wrote, ‘begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.’ As a cause, conservatism may be dead. But as a stance, as a way of making judgments in a complex and difficult world, I believe it is very much alive in the instincts and predispositions of a liberal named Barack Obama.”

It is fair to say that far-right religious fundamentalism has in fact become a racket, something that should concern every person of faith. It clearly concerned David Kuo, who worked in the Bush White House on faith-based initiatives. Kuo suggested the mixture of faith and politics wasn’t turning out as he’d hoped, that people of faith were being used when he left the White House.

Perhaps the best example of the “racket” social conservatism has become is the more than $1.5 billion dollar boondoggle that is the abstinence-only-until-marriage program. Far-right profiteers like multi-millionaire Raymond Ruddy now spend tax dollars promoting programs that don’t work, to buy advertising trying to influence the elections with some of the most egregious, and widely debunked, lies about abortion politics. I’m sure Ruddy’s self-interest in preserving the government grant gravy train for abstinence-only is the furthest thing from his mind. He’s just promoting his values, even though many objective fact checkers suggest he is doing so with distortions of fact, if not outright lies.

Christopher Buckley, in endorsing Obama and subsequently losing his job at the National Review, wrote about his father William F. Buckley trying to “separate conservatism from the kooks.”

David Brooks is fond of quoting the elder Buckley and recently took on the charges of “elitism” now favored by the McCain-Palin ticket saying, “Buckley famously said he’d rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. But he didn’t think those were the only two options. He thought it was important to have people on the conservative side who celebrated ideas, who celebrated learning. And his whole life was based on that, and that was also true for a lot of the other conservatives in the Reagan era. Reagan had an immense faith in the power of ideas. But there has been a counter, more populist tradition, which is not only to scorn liberal ideas but to scorn ideas entirely. And I’m afraid that Sarah Palin has those prejudices. I think President Bush has those prejudices.”

Buckley and Brooks are joined by other conservative columnists Kathleen Parker, Christopher Hitchens, Peggy Noonan, each citing different reasons for their concern about conservatism, but each agreeing the GOP is adrift.

Liberals remember being adrift after Reagan swept into office. For a generation progressives have been on the defensive on sexual and reproductive health issues, but as more and more Americans see that the tactics and strategies of the far-right create more division than healing, many people are saying it is time to change the debate. Progressives have long promoted their values in policies like Prevention First, Real Education About Life, and the Unintended Pregnancy Reduction Act — each promoting the very conservative notion of personal responsibility coupled with individual rights and liberty.

We can disagree on issues like abortion, contraception and homosexuality, but we can work together to build a society where everyone is making healthier, more responsible and more respectful decisions for themselves and their partners, based on medical facts.

Many conservatives seem to agree it is time for the Culture War debate to change.

Former Bush speech writer David Frum expresses concern that conservatives must change their stance on the abortion debate before they seem cruel denying access to women who need abortions. Former Reagan advisor Douglas Kmiec is joined by other pro-life Catholic legal scholars Nicholas Carfardi and Cathleen Kaveny calling for a different approach to the abortion debate, bravely challenging other pro-life conservatives within the Catholic Church. The pro-choice community should reach out a hand to find common ground, for they are making their
stand in the middle of fierce protest. 

Groups like Catholics United and Pro-Life Catholics for Choice join long-time progressive advocates like Catholics for Choice in raising questions based on morality, not running from it.

The list of conservatives saying, in one way or another, that they are uncomfortable with the extremism within their own party grows longer as the days in the campaign grow short. Far more importantly, millions and millions of independent, moderate and conservative voters are rejecting the far-right’s extremism.

These conservative “elites” cited above are not setting the agenda, but doing what all good writers, thinkers, scholars and leaders do: listening carefully to what they hear in their conservative networks and reflecting it in the marketplace of ideas. They realize that America is not bound by ethnicity or one religion, but is the only nation founded on an idea, and like so many of us, now see cause for concern within their own party to the core principles that make up the American ideal.

That leaves fewer, but no less vocal, purveyors of the Culture of Lies, the anti-elite “elites” like Rush Limbaugh and his legions on talk radio, Sean Hannity and the boys at Faux News, Anne Coulter, Wendy Wright, Hugh Hewitt, the hyper-politicized Catholic Conference of Bishops and other evangelical priests of the far-right like Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Richard Land, Rick Warren and, of course, their new heroine Sarah Palin.

John McCain, true to himself, is a man in the middle trying to hold it all together. The John McCain of 2000 would be among the conservative crowd rejecting the John McCain of 2008.  While America is a centrist country, we like people who have strong convictions and eventually grow weary of people who lie or manipulate us to gain power.

Perhaps it is best to leave the last word to Mr. Conservative himself.  It was Ronald Reagan’s mentor, and the Senator who John McCain succeeded, Barry Goldwater, who sounded the alarm as he saw the rise of the far right. Ray Dubuque at Liberals Like Christ writes:

"I look at these religious television shows," [Goldwater] said, "and they are raising big money on God.  One million, three million, five million – they brag about it.  I don’t believe in that.  It’s not a very religious thing to do.

But Goldwater was also deeply worried about the Religious Right’s long-term impact on his beloved GOP.  "If they succeed in establishing religion as a basic Republican Party tenet," he told U.S. News & World Report in 1994, "they could do us in."  In an interview with The Post that same year, Goldwater observed, "When you say ‘radical right’ today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party and make a religious organization out of it.  If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye."

But most importantly, Goldwater was deeply concerned about the Religious Right’s relentless war on the Constitution and basic American freedoms.  In a Sept. 15, 1981 senate speech, Goldwater noted that Falwell’s Moral Majority, anti-abortion groups and other Religious Right outfits were sometimes referred to in the press as the "New Right" and the "New Conservatism."  Responded Goldwater, "Well, I’ve spent quite a number of years carrying the flag of the ‘Old Conservatism.’  And I can say with conviction that the religious issues of these groups have little or nothing to do with conservative or liberal politics.  The uncompromising position of these groups is a divisive element that could tear apart the very spirit of our representative system, if they gain sufficient strength."  Insisted Goldwater, "Being a conservative in America traditionally has meant that one holds a deep, abiding respect for the Constitution.  We conservatives believe sincerely in the integrity of the Constitution.  We treasure the freedoms that document protects. . .  "By maintaining the separation of church and state," he explained, "the United States has avoided the intolerance which has so divided the rest of the world with religious wars . . .  Can any of us refute the wisdom of Madison and the other framers?  Can anyone look at the carnage in Iran, the bloodshed in Northern Ireland, or the bombs bursting in Lebanon and yet question the dangers of injecting religious issues into the affairs of state?"

Goldwater concluded with a warning to the American people.  "The religious factions will go on imposing their will on others," { he said,} "unless the decent people connected to them recognize that religion has no place in public policy.  They must learn to make their views known without trying to make their views the only alternatives . . .  We have succeeded for 205 [now 232] years in keeping the affairs of state separate from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups and we mustn’t stop now" { he insisted}.  "To retreat from that separation would violate the principles of conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic."

 

See also: Culture Peace.

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