Hey, here's a treat to read on a cold winter's night: a profile of our brilliant pal Rick Perlstein in The Chicago Reader:
In Before the Storm, the 2001 history that made his reputation, Rick Perlstein put his readers inside the skin of a pimply college freshman cast adrift on a sprawling concrete campus in the 1960s. “Wearied from his first soul-crushing run-in with Big Bureaucracy,” the imagined student is buying his required texts in the campus bookstore when he happens on a slim book with big type. He flips it open and “standing, reads fourteen short pages inviting him to join an idealistic struggle to defend the individual against the encroachments of the mass.”
And the kid is hooked. “Freedom, autonomy, authenticity: he has rarely read a writer who speaks so clearly to the things he worries about, who was so cavalier about authority, so idealistic.”
This mesmerizing book isn’t by Che Guevara or Abbie Hoffman. It’s Barry Goldwater’s ghostwritten The Conscience of a Conservative.
The story Perlstein began to tell in Before the Storm, and will continue telling in May with its sequel, Nixonland, isn’t what you might expect. It’s not the story of how hippies and radicals turned America upside down, because they didn’t. Perlstein is telling the story of the other major grassroots movement of the 1960s, the one that grew up and elected 20 years’ worth of presidents. Holden Caulfield, meet George W. Bush.
Do read the whole thing because Rick is the most astute observer of the right wing I've ever come across. As you all know, Rick invited me to write on his blog The Big Con a few months back at Campaign For America's Future, and it's been great fun. He talks about the blog in the interview:
“My fantasy for the blog,” he says, “was that readers would send posts to Aunt Millie—that it would be a way to get people talking. But people aren’t forwarding them to conservative relatives and friends. They aren’t talking to them.” Perlstein, on the other hand, is. “I have a group of four very different conservatives I’ve been e-mailing back and forth [as a group] since 2003. I can’t imagine living my life, intellectually and politically, without keeping these lines of communication open to people I disagree with.”
And he doesn’t just disagree with them; he appreciates that “people genuinely believe that good order has to be protected from people with scary values.” By his reckoning even Watergate, the ultimate dirty trick, sprang from a genuine fear that if George McGovern were elected president it would spell disaster for the country. No doubt Perlstein would’ve thought the same thing of Nixon’s reelection that year, if he’d been 30 and not 3, but he can still recognize himself in the ideological mirror. He says, “If I were an academic, I’d be talking about ‘incommensurate apocalypses.’”
The point is, if you can’t feel what they feel, then you can’t take them seriously as political opponents. You see only the flimsy intellectual foundations and miss the motivating power of strategically harnessed resentment. From Adlai Stevenson to John Kerry, high-minded liberals have acted as if they were blind to the root feelings that feed the followers of politicians like Nixon and Bush. Instead, they alternate between expecting a fair fight on the issues (and getting swiftboated instead) and imagining that once people realize what a bad person Nixon or Bush is, the people will turn against him.
Conservatism isn’t just a temporary delusion or a wacky distraction. In Perlstein’s view, it’s a deep-seated expression of human nature. He recalls the Gilbert and Sullivan song from Iolanthe about two kinds of babies: “I often think it’s comical / How nature always does contrive / That every boy and every gal / That’s born into the world alive / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative.” His point: “We’re not going to eliminate them. The best we can do is to win our 51 percent. What’s fascinating is that we share this country together.
He's right about this. Conservatism is not an aberration. It is a facet of human nature and a permanent fixture in American life. At the moment they have a successful political movement that first grew out of a genuine grassroots uprising and was soon funded by the aristocrats (who are always conservatives) to help them protect their interests.
We will not eliminate conservatism or even transcend it. But we might be able to win a governing majority for a while and do some good. This back and forth and give and take, between the polarities of our American philosophy --- freedom and equality, opportunity and security, tradition and progress--- is America. We are, as a people, both conservative and liberal.
The conservative movement is adept at advancing its agenda from the minority and keeping the movement alive when they are out of power. But they have a problem:
Perlstein and other bloggers have been making the case that conservatism is a failure—not because of incompetence or cronyism but because it is not and cannot be a governing philosophy.
Progressivism, on the other hand, is a governing philosophy. The key for us is to create a movement that pushes its political party to govern in both principled and effective fashion when it holds power and knows how to advance its agenda when it's out. It can be done. And progress most certainly can be made, in spite of conservatives' best efforts to thwart it.
Read the whole interview. His book is coming out soon and it's going to knock your socks off.