The Right divide
With binocular vision, people tend to see only two sides in politics. So Right and Left alike frequently have misunderstood conservatives as a solid monolith. Republicans’ control of Congress and President Bush’s 2004 victory gave weight to the belief that the GOP is not only a victory machine but a unified bloc.
But just review the administration’s stinging policy defeats at the hands of a Republican Congress. Or the recent spate of conservative judges upending policies beloved of other conservatives. Bush’s approval ratings may bounce around (within a certain range) but his power is, politically, a wasting asset.
In truth, the impression of conservative solidity always has been something of an illusion. Conservatives compose an alliance, not a monolith. There are religious conservatives dismayed by what they view as moral decline — abortion, gay marriage, secularism, evolution and so on. Then there are anti-tax, anti-government conservatives who back deregulation and privatization.
Far less numerous are the so-called neoconservatives (now in their fourth decade, so it may be time for a new label), whose fervor is for the remaking of the offshore world under American auspices, and the libertarians, who deplore government incursions on freedom, whether in markets or civil liberties.
No less an authority than Ronald Reagan firmly recognized, in a 1977 speech, that conservatives came in two principal varieties — social conservatives and anti-tax conservatives — and that they could prevail over their liberal antagonists only if they federated. Today, the fraying seams are showing more conspicuously than in many decades.
When alliances have to be knit together, leadership counts hugely, because it is the leader’s charisma and his aura as a winner that persuades the often-contentious groupings to submerge their interests into a larger cause. And conservatives have been fortunate indeed in the symbolic force of their standard-bearers, along with the vividness of the enemies they could mobilize against.
Reagan fastened on Iranian hostage-takers and communists, George W. Bush on jihadists. Both orchestrated their priorities so that the social conservatives would be sufficiently satisfied to rally around them.
In recent years, conservatives have had only two large interest and identity groups to unify. Liberals, by contrast, number at least seven (with overlaps): trade unions, blacks, Latinos, feminists, gay and lesbian groups, environmentalists and the university-based Left. Pro-free-trade and welfare-reforming centrist Democrats complicate the task.
Not surprisingly, they have produced only one adroit politician in the past quarter of a century: Bill Clinton.
In 1968, a liberal cleavage over the overlapping preoccupations of Vietnam and race cracked the Democrats so badly they took decades to (partly) patch up their differences. Richard Nixon exploited the cleavage and picked up some of the breakaways.
Today, as liberals and other Democrats feel their way toward equivalent strategies of their own, the question for conservatives is whether they face a single dividing chasm or several shallower, cross-cutting ravines. If the latter, they may yet pull through.
But if one cleavage deepens, conservatives may well discover how fragile the heights of power can be.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of “The Intellectuals and the Flag.”