To tap conservatism’s deep-rooted power, the author of “Nixonland” advocates “massaging” pro-lifers and other special interests.
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.
Recorded on: October 19, 2009