Did Today's Right Originate in the 1990s? (Review)Historians in the News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, Newt Gingrich, 1990s, Pat Buchanan
John Ganz is working on a book about populism in the 1990s and has a newsletter called Unpopular Front.
PARTISANS: THE CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTIONARIES WHO REMADE AMERICAN POLITICS IN THE 1990S
By Nicole Hemmer
In 1992, the mood in the United States should have been triumphal. The country appeared on the verge of reigning supreme: The Soviet Union had fallen, and the rusting tyrannies across the Eastern Bloc were turning to democracy. The US military had recently pummeled petty dictators in Panama and Iraq, exorcising the ghosts of Vietnam. And although China had avoided the fate of the USSR by brutally crushing dissent in Tiananmen Square, the country was embracing the American way—or at least its markets—and emerging as an eager trading partner. But going into the election year, the United States was surly, restless, preoccupied with grim fantasies of decline and collapse, and fearful of being overtaken by old foes and new rivals.
A brutal recession, the result of a bubble in real estate development caused by financial deregulation, only cast further doubt on the notion of a “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War. With the end of that conflict, declining arms production put thousands out of work, and scenes reminiscent of the Great Depression could be witnessed in many US cities, with crowds lining up for food or meager employment. Radio talk shows broadcast a constant stream of invective and complaint. Voters cast about for alternatives to the two parties. The previous decade had begun with Ronald Reagan’s superficial sunniness and optimism; now a new decade was beginning with gloom, doubt, and the reappearance of monsters with names like “populism,” “nationalism,” and even whispers of “fascism.”
At the vanguard of the cortege of national disappointment and disillusion was the conservative movement and the hard right of the Republican Party. One might expect the vanquishing of the Soviet Union to have provided some satisfaction to a party that had organized itself around a militant anticommunism for four decades, but the hard right experienced the so-called “Reagan Revolution” as anything but, just a series of modest reforms swamped by the continued dominance of the Democrats in Congress and the cultural hegemony of establishment liberalism. “Reagan gave conservatism a beachhead in Washington, but he didn’t follow through,” National Review senior editor Joe Sobran wrote. “The libs have sold the Administration on the myth which Reagan’s victories should have demolished: that Republicans thrive by adopting ‘moderation.'”
Even worse to many conservatives was the presidency of George H.W. Bush, whom the right had viewed as ideologically suspect and politically unreliable, a remnant of the well-to-do mainline Republicanism that had dominated the party prior to the conservative ascendancy. It did not matter how much Bush attempted to placate those to his right rhetorically or in practice, by elevating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court or by vetoing what he labeled the “quota bill,” the Civil Rights Act of 1990; he was not one of them and was increasingly seen as an enemy. In 1991, Bush would even sign a compromise version of the Civil Rights Act, enraging the right and triggering Pat Buchanan’s primary challenge.
The right-wing movement searched for political avatars for its next incarnation, such as the populist protest candidacies of former KKK wizard and neo-Nazi David Duke in Louisiana. After failing as a Democrat, Duke successfully whipped up an insurgency of disaffected lower-middle-class whites in the state against country club Republicans and the national GOP, toppling the mainstream Republican incumbent governor in the primary. Buchanan was intrigued by Duke’s success: “The way to deal with Mr. Duke is the way the GOP dealt with the far more formidable challenge of George Wallace. Take a hard look at Duke’s portfolio of winning issues and expropriate those not in conflict with GOP principles,” he wrote in his nationally syndicated column. “In the hard times in Louisiana, Mr. Duke’s message comes across as Middle Class, meritocratic, populist, and nationalist.” While Buchanan sought to retool Duke’s race politics for a presidential run, Newt Gingrich was developing his own confrontational and provocative parliamentary style to challenge the seemingly unshakable Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. The conservative vanguard correctly read the mood of the country as “pissed off” and began to organize a politics to harness that energy.