Big Think Interview with Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein: I’m Rick Perlstein. I’m the author of “Nixonland.”
Question: Has Obama succeeded on his promise of being a “post-partisan” President?
Rick Perlstein: Well, the problem with Obama’s post-partisan agenda is that he came into it. He came into his presidency at a time when millions of Americans, perhaps even tens of millions of Americans don’t consider a democrat president legitimate. Don’t consider liberalism legitimate. Don’t consider the idea of the state forming new programs to help people legitimate. So, he’s in a situation a lot like, you know, Abraham Lincoln faced in 1860 when you had millions of Americans who didn’t even consider what was going in Washington to have anything to do with them.
So, the big question for me was always was this post-partisan idea, this idea that you could kind of bring adversaries across a table and get them to agree to each other and agree with - to get them to agree with each other and achieve social progress, was that a deep-seated belief of his or was that, in a certain sense, a tactic? Not a cynical tactic, but a tactic. And I would be very with him if it were a way of thinking about politics, if it were a tactic, because the job of transformative leader is not to cue to the center, but define their own values as the center, as common sense. And if he, you know, I believe in the agenda he’s putting forward. For example, universal healthcare. You know, for example, you know, cap and trade and green jobs as a way to, you know, solve our energy problems while growing the economy. I think these are reasonable while liberal goals and if he presents them as reasonable and the reaction to them as one could knew they were going to - because there are these millions of people that don’t consider a liberal president legitimate - was irrational, extreme, that presented him an opportunity to say, “My program is rational, but my opposition has chosen extremism, has chosen unreason,” and be willing to take the hit, that there's always going to be a minority of the country. Thirty percent, 35 percent, even 40 percent who disagrees with him radically. Disagrees with him strongly, but if he’s still willing to pass his program with that 60 percent margin, the rest of the country will eventually catch up. The reactionaries will understand as they did with Social Security, as they did with, you know, women getting the vote, freeing the slaves, you know, Social Security - that actually these things were in their interests. They’ll accept them as part of the established order of American society, and in fact, 20, 30, 40 year down the road the Republicans and the Conservatives will be campaigning to save universal healthcare just like they campaign to save Social Security.
But the problem is this doesn’t really work unless you make this kind of tactical shift. If people say that you're illegitimate and your liberal agenda is extremist socialist destroying the America that we all grew up with, you have to be willing to say, “This is unreasonable. This is extreme.” And if you aren’t able to say, “This is unreasonable and this is extreme,” then you're granting your opposition an undue influence. You’re basically negotiating with the unnegotiatable. And as Abraham Lincoln said quite eloquently in this 1860 speech at Cooper Union, you can’t win that way.
Question: Will the violent undercurrent of Conservative politics ever go away?
Rick Perlstein: No, I’ve predicted - I’ve been saying for years that, you know, there are millions of Americans who basically don’t consider the liberal project legitimate. They consider it the opposite of America means to them and that they derive their identity from questioning the legitimacy and the ability of liberal government to function peacefully. So, I think that for a couple months, even more - maybe six months - Barack Obama’s charisma and his remarkable popularity kind of stunned some of these people into silence. I think people couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. But, if you look at it historically it’s, you know, quite continuous with what happened when Bill Clinton became president, you know. When you began to hear people, you know, accusing him of, you know, murdering his aides, you know. When you began to have people saying that he was actually a, you know, agent for the Soviet Union which he had visited when he was a child or when he was a teenager or when he was in college. And you saw the same thing when Jimmy Carter became president and, you know, he was immediately considered part of this corrupt Democratic Party establishment.
It happened every time a Democrat was elected and it will happen every time a Democrat is elected. It’s part of our patrimony as Americans and the challenge for Barack Obama or any Democrat or any liberal is to understand that this is just part of who we are as Americans, to acknowledge it, to respect it and to transcend it. And, you know, the lion can lay down with the lamb but it’s not going to last for very long.
Question: How will the tension between fiscal and social conservatives play out?
Rick Perlstein: Well, tactically the threat that - by conservatives, by social conservatives, by the conservative movement as they call themselves based in Washington, based in, you know, places like northern Virginia, to form a new party has always been this kind of bluff designed to, you know, bend the Republican Party to their will. And, you know, it’s usually worked because the media reports it seriously. Except for in the American context, you know, third parties very rarely work. We have a winner-take-all system. So, you know, the minute, say, Richard Viguerie, who threatens to create a third party, you know, every four or eight years because he claims that the conservatives in power aren’t really conservative - if he really did it he’d immediately be, you know, surrendering all his influence in national discussions.
So, that’s not really a serious threat. The division between let’s say corporate conservatives and religious conservatives is, you know, fascinating, interesting, rich and complex. I mean, one of the ways it worked was that traditionally - not traditionally. Basically, one of the ways it evolved in the 1970’s was that people who wanted - businesses who wanted more laissez-faire, less regulation, more control over government, more of say a “cronyist” stake in what government was actually doing, saw things like the Heritage Foundation, the Christian Coalition, the moral majority as opportunities for them to form a coalition - if you give it a generous interpretation or aggrandize their power, if you give it a little more cynical interpretation.
So, you get these fascinating movements like this war in West Virginia in 1974 by religious conservatives to kick heathen textbooks out of the schools that were sort of supposedly imposed by religious bureaucrats. It was a very local issue. It was a very localized struggle. It has a lot to do with the way politics works in West Virginia, where you have this kind of history of insurgent violence from, you know, coal miners. And you get these conservative - business conservatives in Washington at the Heritage Foundation realizing that this is an organizing opportunity for them. The Heritage Foundation sends representatives down West Virginia and helps put these people in touch with national ideological entrepreneurs, with people like Richard Viguerie. And that’s how a coalition forms that basically creates foot soldiers for an agenda that the West Virginia religious conservatives may or may not be a supporting, but eventually they’ll come to support and it’s - there’s both an inherent tension and instability in it, but there's also within American Protestantism a real strain of pro-capitalism and individualism.
So, it’s, you know, it’s interesting, it’s rich, it’s tense, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work and right now we’re, you know, at a real knife’s edge about whether it’s going to work or whether it’s going to fall apart.
Question: Has the religious side of conservatism become more powerful than the corporate side?
Rick Perlstein: You know, the CEO of say an aerospace corporation might not want to have anything to do with demonic possession, you know, in Pentecostal churches, but he needs the people who have those great passions in order to kind of anchor the conservative coalition. So the question is, when have they created a Frankenstein’s monster? When have they created something that they can’t control? You're seeing more and more indications by - from conservatives of, you know, that kind of embarrassment.
You know, I was out the other night and a West Point grad, a banker friend, who’s a conservative - he calls himself a country club conservative, and said, “I have nothing to do with those Sarah Palin people.” Well, the problem is, without those Sarah Palin people the Republicans would never win an election. So, you know, they find themselves on the horns of a dilemma and the ideological entrepreneurs on the religious right who, you know, let’s face it, have an interest in aggrandizing their power and their control don’t really have any incentive to modify or moderate their positions. In fact, they're more likely to aggrandize their power and their influence by maintaining a front of purity.
So, you know, that speaks to the whole tension and paradox behind the conservative project right now. All the people who’ve ascended to positions of power and leadership - and Rush Limbaugh is a perfect example, even though he pretty much unites the, you know, religious and business conservatives pretty seamlessly - have achieved their influence, have achieved their power through a certain kind of cultural style based on their willingness to say that compromise is inherently bad. And then it gets back to the question of whether Obama can, you know, negotiate with the 20 million people who listen to Rush Limbaugh every day and consider any compromise a betrayal of America’s promise itself. Right?
So, there's no incentive for a Rush Limbaugh to change because this is what’s given him this, you know, these 20 million listeners, you know, his mansion that has a, you know, a replica of the hall of mirrors at Versailles. So, when, you know, the Republican National Committee or a train of conservative Republicans wish to moderate the image of their party to make it seem more centrist and palatable to swing voters try and do that, Rush Limbaugh is able to not merely survive, but thrive by disdaining them.
Question: What’s a modern example of synergy between corporate and religious conservatives?
Rick Perlstein: Well, healthcare is a fascinating example of this question of how religious conservatives and business conservatives can act in coalition. You know, being on the mailing list of, you know, the American Family Association, Don Wildmon’s organization, I’m beginning to, you know, get the emails saying that, you know, healthcare - that, you know, basically, a national healthcare program is an imposition on Christians. You know, it’s going to fund abortions. It’s going to violate the sanctity of the traditional family. So, you see a pure example of kind of a right-wing Libertarian business conservatives using the leaders of the religious right in quite an effective way to, you know, undermine a mass constituency for a reform which, in the end, is actually quite conservative. I mean, what could be more, you know, what could be more judicious than, you know, like I said, letting people change their jobs if they have an entrepreneurial idea? What could be more strengthening of the traditional bonds of family and society than families not going bankrupt because someone in the family gets sick?
But, you know, there are very powerful interests who, you know, basically benefit from the status quo, and they're able to take advantage of this preexisting distrust that’s, you know, very American of anything having to do with an expanding state. And again, historically it’s the same thing you saw with Social Security. It’s the same thing you saw with Medicare. It’s the same thing you saw with the idea that the United States in the 19th century should have a central bank. You know, the same thing you saw when the government began talking about financing internal improvements like canals, the interstates, you know, which were seen as a Communist plot by some people.
So, the challenge for progressives, the challenge for people who believe that this is not only an important goal but an imperative goal, national healthcare, is not to imagine that this kind of irrational fear is going to go away, but simply to bull through it. Force healthcare down people’s throats whether they want - whether they like it or not, and watch what happens ten, twenty, thirty, forty years from now when, again, conservatives come to power promising to uphold the ideals of Obama’s healthcare program just like George Bush promised to uphold Social Security and promised to honor FDR, and just like conservatives of every generation - or I should say reactionaries of every generation say, “Well, the liberals that we’re dealing with now are unacceptable extremists. The ones we had last generation weren't so bad.”
Question: Does today’s Republican Party have a unifying leader like Reagan and Nixon?
Rick Perlstein: I mean, I don’t see it over the horizon, and Reagan is a perfect example of someone who simultaneously, you know, kind of honored the impulses of this grassroots right, but also kind of massaged them. You know, also treated them like a politician treats a member of its coalition. Like, you know, Franklin Roosevelt treated the unions or Lyndon Johnson, you know, treated the civil rights movement, the consumer rights movement. Ronald Reagan was able to basically massage the concerns of the pro-life movement without ever giving a speech to them. Without ever granting them any major policy concessions, while able to, you know, being able to place their accolades in positions of relative powerless - powerlessness, symbolic positions. You know, things like smaller ambassadorships, you know, independent government commissions, and with his charisma and skill he was able to mitigate the kinds of tensions that created. And there were tensions. You know, early in the 80’s George Will was one, Richard Viguerie was another. There were a lot of conservatives saying that Ronald Reagan is betraying conservatism, which tend to happens whenever a conservative president is politically unsuccessful. You know, conservatism never fails, it is only failed. They’ll say that a Ronald Reagan or a George Bush - it fails because they’re not conservative. And that sentiment lasts for as long as they're politically unsuccessful. With George Bush it’s, you know, every other day you hear a conservative say, “Well, the reason he failed was he wasn’t conservative enough.”
Well, the problem with that is George W. Bush brought to Washington alongside a - for most of his term a majority conservative congress and quite conservative judiciary, an entire movement, entire set of institutions, an entire bureaucracy that conservatives have built up, you know, in the years since Barry Goldwater. So, when George Bush is president, he is not just acting independently, but he’s acting for the figurehead for, you know, an enormous movement that was able to insinuate itself up and down the bureaucracy and up and down the political change. So, that’s where the blame has to lie, not with George Bush.
Question: So if you had to put forth a Republican leader, whom would you choose?
Rick Perlstein: Well, those kinds of people only come across once in a generation and you can’t pick them out of a catalog and they can - tend to come from surprising places. You know, certainly, you know, 1962 when Ronald Reagan was, you know, this washed up actor going around from GE plant to GE plant giving patriotic speeches, no one saw that it was him, you know. I don’t see who it is, but if I saw who it was then, you know, I’d be a, you know, a genius political consultant or I’d be a great leader myself. I mean, leaders see things in the public will that are often invisible to the rest of mere mortals.
Question: If a leader doesn’t arise soon, may the conservative movement die out?
Rick Perlstein: Well, there will always be an American conservatism. It’s completely continuous, you know, throughout our history. It has its own shifts and changes and evolutions and some positions, you know, that held in the past it doesn’t hold now and some positions it holds, you know, it holds now and it didn’t hold in the past. You know, for example, you know, if you're a conservative in the 1930’s you were known as someone who, you know, didn’t believe in foreign military intervention. Right? You were fighting against the idea that America should rearm for World War II. Now, of course, you know, conservatives are the people who are most likely to, you know, call for a huge defense establishment and be more eager to kind of go on overseas adventures.
But, something having to do with individualism, having to do with sort of this fetishization of the nuclear family and traditional values, having to do with the belief that a businessman’s republic kind of run by and for businessmen whose benevolence kind of trickles down to ordinary people, that’s always been a part of American political culture and always will be. I mean, the challenge for progressives is just to, you know, put together a coalition to make sure that, you know, the conservative coalition doesn’t have enough power to, I would say, push through their agenda. But, it’s often the case that, you know, they don’t have an agenda. I mean, there really is not conservative theory of government as we saw, you know, for especially the first six years of the Bush administration in which, you know, basically had, you know, a conservative hammerlock on the forces of the state and all they were able to really do was weaken, you know, the state. Weaken our ability to collectively, you know, solve our problems together.
Question: Does libertarianism have a chance to win people from the Republican party?
Rick Perlstein: Well, among conservatives, saying you're a Libertarian has always been a way to say, “I believe in everything having to do with conservatism except the embarrassing stuff.” You know, except the stuff - except the, you know, the spiritual warfare, casting out demons from certain zip codes which was, you know, a big part of Ted Haggard’s paradigm and the church - the Pentecostal church that Sarah Palin is involved with. So, it’s always been more of a gesture than anything else. Of course, the people who call themselves Libertarians within the Republican Party at least, have been quite will to, you know, go along with, you know, these kind of violations of civil liberties. They have kind of gone along with the war on terrorism. Although there are, you know, genuine Libertarians on the right who’ve been actually quite heroic, you know, at preserving the principles of civil liberties.
You know, on - among Democrats, among liberals who find themselves enraptured by the concepts of Libertarianism, it’s not as good a fit. I mean, some folks have been talking now about Liberaltarianism which is the idea that liberalism can be stripped of its kind of paternalistic elements and respect the autonomy people better. Well, the problem with that is that’s always been, you know, the ideal of liberalism and liberalism at its best and the Democratic Party in its most mature form has always, you know, attempted to create the maximum amount of a quality alongside the maximum amount of freedom. Now, it’s something that’s often honored only in the breech because that’s the hardest thing for human societies to be able to accomplish. But, you know, I mean, the liberal vision, you know, dovetails with, you know, what’s called in the rest of the world, social democracy, which is that you can’t really enjoy anything like liberty unless you have some minimum standard of living. You know, unless you're free to change jobs if you hate your boss and you're not afraid of losing your health insurance, you know, that’s neither paternalistic, you know, nor is it socialistic. It’s entrepreneurial. Right?
So, that’s, you know, that’s, you know, straight down the center of liberalism and that’s something a Libertarian would reject because it involves expanding the role for the state. But, a liberal, at its best, understands that sometimes expanding the state can actually enhance liberty in pretty profound ways.