by Bruce Dunlavy
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From the mid-1950s until the early 1970s, the left side of the American political spectrum was predominant. Since then, it’s been downhill all the way for the left. What has spurred the half-century hegemony of the political right in the USA?
Of course, as Thucydides confided long ago, history travels in cycles. Periods of motion are followed by periods of rest. The periods of greatest motion are followed by the periods of greatest rest.
The 1960s – and a few years on either side – were among the most active in American political and social history. There was indeed great motion in those days. One might question whether all since has constituted a period of “rest,” but it certainly comprises a time when conservatism has become a more and more potent force.
Louis Hartz’s iconic “Fragment Theory,” propounded in his works The Liberal Tradition in America (1955) and The Founding of New Societies (1964), puts forth the notion that there is no real classical conservatism in America, only differing degrees of classical liberalism. The USA never developed a substantial socialist tradition, nor does it have a history of monarchist, tyrannical, or similar political movements.
Conservatism in this country has more often been a rear-guard holding action against the perceived inevitability of progressivism. As such, it has developed one persistent feature that has never been absent from its makeup:
American conservatives have always defined themselves in terms of what they are against.
In a discussion or argument, and especially a political or social one, it is invariably easier to succeed in rallying and galvanizing people (and voters) against something than for something. When there is a definable situation or thing – physical or metaphysical – that is known and can be identified and held up as undesirable and worthy of abolishment, creating opposition to it is easier than propounding something new.
The new is always untested, untried, and usually inchoate. Its theoretical/hypothetical nature will not allow easy examination because it does not have a track record. The unknown is always perceived as riskier than the known. As Hamlet advised (Act III, Scene 1), such consideration “makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of.”
During the time of left-wing dominance mentioned above, the things to be against were in existence, were easily identified, and were clearly supported by the right wing, namely, racial injustice and the Vietnam War. In addition, there were obvious solutions available. Racial injustice could be attacked by repealing or supplanting Jim Crow laws and instituting new liberties in voting, housing, and public accommodations. The solution to the Vietnam War was even simpler – just end it.
Since the end of the Nixon-Ford years, however, progressive notions have rarely been attached to anything that could be easily shown and opposed. They are more nebulous and harder to pin down. Such topics as climate change, gender identity, and political stability are all things that require nuanced explanation. Nuance is not easily transformed into common opposition to anything.
The attempt to explain such abstruse or tortuous concepts as climate change (which can be measured, but not demonstrated with simplicity), or the wide spectrum of transgender issues (which cannot even be distinctly measured) does not convert to opposition.
On the other hand, opposition to “liberals trying to turn boys into girls” is a very easy concept to explain and to be against. So it is with most of the issues that have been at the forefront of the conservative agenda since the 1970s. “We are against abortion,” we are against gun control,” and “we are against open borders” are a lot easier to say and to fire strong responses to than anything that the left has come up with in the last 50 years.
The success of conservatives in America can be attributed to a great extent to their ability to identify existing situations that can be transformed into things to oppose. Conservative politicians have had great success in throwing out things to be against and waiting to see if their followers will join in. Numerous successes include being against:
- Gun control
- Easy immigration
- Illegal drugs
- Slavery reparations
- Transgender rights
- Fossil fuel reduction
Sometimes it takes a little longer. After the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, abortion was widely accepted as a response to unwanted pregnancies. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, the USA’s largest Protestant body and one of its most conservative, did not want to undo Roe v. Wade. The SBC president in 1973, W. A. Criswell, pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist Church, wrote, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
By the end of the 1970s, the American right had established abortion as something so easy to be against that it was used to create tens of thousands of activists and hundreds of thousands of single-issue voters. Meanwhile, the left wing was left to try to express a nuanced view of the matter as something to be in favor of, and since anti-abortionists had taken to calling themselves “pro-life,” those who favored abortion rights were left with the moniker “pro-choice,” which seems scarcely more powerful than “pro-death.”
Trying to explain a multi-faceted, pluralistic outlook on a complex issue that may not even exist yet is hard work. Working up people to be against things is easy.