The Birth of Un-Cool: How Disgusted Liberals Became Neoconservatives

In the 1970s, a group of urbane, happily bourgeois erstwhile liberal intellectuals seized up in horror at the radical rabble that had recently edged its way into the center of their political culture.

It was the end of a season in which alienated, politically committed members of the upper-middle class imagined some commonality between their own aspirations and those of, say, black nationalists or the countercultural avant-garde. Tom Wolfe’s famous New York magazine piece, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” a vivisection of a fundraiser for the Black Panthers held by composer Leonard Bernstein, captured the zeitgeist the emerging neoconservatives were reacting against, showing socialites reveling in the revolutionary glamour of people who aimed to destroy them and all they valued. But Wolfe captured something else, too—the moment when fashion shifted, and the lefty mascots once glorified for their salt-of-the-earth authenticity suddenly appeared gauche and irrational and actually pretty threatening. He captured, in other words, the birth of the neoconservative spirit.

Something similar seems to be happening today among urbane, bourgeois, conservative intellectuals. For years, they’ve lionized (and patronized) Christian fundamentalists and various southern populists with something of the same credulity that an earlier generation of liberals brought to their dealings with the far left. Conservative elites thumbed their noses at the staid mores of their class by celebrating NASCAR, megachurches, guns and cheap American beer. They congratulated themselves for being more in touch with everyday people than their snobby peers. And then something changed, and suddenly they realized they had little in common with people like Joe the Plumber and the acolytes of Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. Social conservatives, especially the religious right, have become a bit of an embarrassment and an albatross.

The GOP Should Go Upscale,” was the title of a syndicated column Michael Barone published a few days ago. “The debate among Republicans is whether to go after downscale or upscale voters,” he wrote. “Those who argue for going downscale usually have a 2012 candidate in mind: Sarah Palin. She has an undoubted appeal to such voters and revved up part of the Republican base—cultural conservatives, and rural and small-town voters—throughout the campaign… But my examination of the exit poll results and county-by-county election returns has led me to conclude tentatively that going upscale is the right move.” The future, he argued, lies with educated and millennial-generation voters, and capturing their votes “means downplaying the cultural issues that were an important reason for Republican victories from 1980 to 2004.” The culture war has become politically counterproductive.

Others in the party have similarly decided that their marriage of convenience with the religious right has run its course. The friction was noticeable as far back as the primaries, when Republican elites recoiled from Mike Huckabee, and grew more widespread in the backlash to Sarah Palin. The aftermath of the election only exacerbated it. Shortly after Obama won, Kathleen Parker, a columnist who had once promoted the absurd canard of a secular “War on Christmas,” decided that “the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party.” Former Bush speechwriter David Frum made a more conciliatory version of this argument in a recent Newsweek piece titled, “How the GOP Can Rise Again.” “Republicans need to modulate our social and cultural message,” he wrote. “Not jettison. Not reverse. Modulate. For example: we are a pro-life party, but every Republican platform since 1980 has gone much further, calling for a federal constitutional amendment to ban all abortions in all states under almost all circumstances. We don’t mean it. We don’t act on it. Yet we keep saying it.”

The election of Michael Steele as chairman of the Republican National Committee marks a concrete attempt to put some distance between the GOP and the religious right. Many religious conservatives opposed his candidacy, largely because of his association with the centrist Republican Leadership Council, a group he co-founded with Christine Todd Whitman and John Danforth, both vocal critics of fundamentalism. Colleen Parro of the Republican National Coalition for Life told that “Michael Steele has been keeping company with those who justify Roe v. Wade, oppose the pro-life plank in the Republican National Platform, wish to purge the Party of its [pro-life base].” When he won, it was taken a clear indication that the Republican Party is moving in a bigger-tent direction.

It’s My Party, and I’ll Cry if I Want To

In the end, though, Republican elites aren’t going to be able to take their party back. If anything, they may end up defecting and forming a new movement (though the phrase “neo-liberalism” is already taken.)The fact that Steele’s win was seen as a loss for the religious right only highlights how much power it has already assumed. After all, Steele is a man who has compared abortion to the Holocaust, and who believes it should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest. Though he opposes a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, he supports such amendments on the state level. His sin isn’t personal heterodoxy so much as his willingness to reach out to moderates. That such willingness is controversial shows how rigidly orthodox the GOP has become. And now, in trying to helm a party without many moderates left, Steele will be forced to pay obeisance to the hardliners.

Unfortunately for people like Frum and Barone, social conservatives have far, far more sway in the Republican Party than leftists ever did with the Democrats. Nixon hung the social disorder of the late 1960s and 1970s around the necks of his political opponents, but the forces of anarchy and rebellion never had a real foothold in their party. (The notorious violence outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was evidence of how great the divide between the party and the counterculture really was). The same is not true for the forces of social reaction. Where the New Left was sloppy, the Christian Right that emerged in its wake was disciplined. Throughout the 1990s, it worked diligently and systematically to take over the Republican Party from the precincts up. This troubled some secular Republicans, but more cheered the arrival of the new foot soldiers.

Now, the irony is that the more marginalized the GOP becomes, the more powerful the religious right becomes within it because it’s one of the last constituencies standing. The 2006 and 2008 elections each left the party more socially conservative than before, as moderates were defeated. The remaining voters seem to like it this way: According to a recent Rasmussen poll, a plurality of Republicans think their party has been too moderate during the Bush years, and fully 55% of them want their party to model itself more on Sarah Palin. The conservative intelligentsia has spent the past generation hymning the virtues of simple heartland believers indifferent to the opinions of coastal eggheads and cultured cosmopolitans. Now, they’re going to have to realize that that includes them.