Defeat does strange things to a political coalition. It can send a political party out into the wilderness for generations, or it can lead to fierce internecine fighting that destroys a political movement altogether. Sometimes it can lead to a resurgence and a return to power that no one could have predicted.
Decades of working in the margins of American politics brought the conservative movement to a head with the Reagan coalition and Reagan’s stunning defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan’s big tent GOP was famously described as the Three-Legged Stool of conservatism: social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, and defense conservatism all wrapped up in one. This brought evangelicals, national security and anti-communist hawks, and fiscal libertarians and deficit hawks all under one broad umbrella, and allowed Reagan to siphon off a number of socially conservative blue collar Democrats, or Reagan Democrats as they’ve come to be known.
This conservative unification also gave life to the flagging culture wars which were all but out of steam. Now, anti-communist rhetoric, far-right Christian evangelism, and economic conservatism coordinated efforts into a broad culture war against the perceived failings of both political and social liberalism. Reagan’s natural affability may have tempered this to some degree – as evidenced by his openness to immigration, for instance – and his leadership held the loose coalition together for the duration of his presidency.
The conservative movement took a blow when Bill Clinton and the New Democrats swept to power in the early 1990’s, but Newt Gingrich and his Contract for America ensured that liberalism did not find its feet during the Clinton years. Unlike Reagan, Gingrich was not a charismatic figure and while he was able to whip together all three legs of the Reagan coalition, he was unable to reunite the country under a new conservative leadership. Instead, conservatives worked tirelessly to stall government in its tracks, and to demonize Democrats and Bill Clinton. Washington remained divided until the turn of the century and the election of George W. Bush.
Unfortunately, Bush had little of Reagan’s leadership ability and none of his character. A toxic mix of neoconservative hawkishness, anti-tax evangelism, and socially-conservative opportunism tilted the conservative movement wildly away from any semblance of fiscal responsibility and toward the recklessness that now defines the first eight years of the 21st century. Bush launched two wars and pushed the expensive Medicare D prescription drug entitlement through Congress despite its enormous price tag. Indeed, Medicare D makes the recently passed Affordable Care Act look like the very epitome of fiscal discipline. Meanwhile, the wars have cost American taxpayers over one trillion dollars and counting.
Nation-building, inspired by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and a new resurgence of social conservatism, fueled in part by the accelerating successes of the gay rights movement, increasingly shaped Republican policy-making. Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, America invaded Afghanistan. Less than two years later, American troops pushed into Iraq to topple Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. Social conservative policies like abstinence-only sex education and an end to the public funding of stem-cell research became the new normal. Talk of a federal ban on gay marriage began to gather steam. The Patriot Act, domestic surveillance programs, and other national defense programs increased the size and scope of the federal government and gave new meaning to the national security state. If anyone felt more excluded from Washington policy-making than American liberals, it was American libertarians whose small government ethos was all but extinguished by Bush administrations power grabs.
Now, thirty years after Reagan’s coalition swept to victory, the Three-Legged Stool is broken and the conservative movement – like the American economy – is in tatters. The ties that bound fiscal, social, and defense conservatives together for so long are coming undone and with them the culture war as we know has drawn to a halt. The old culture warriors have been replaced by Tea Partiers, and the old culture war message replaced by an economic battle-cry. What explains this new focus? Partially the economy, which has not recovered after two years of Democratic leadership. But the conservative movement itself is on rocky ground, and leaders on the right are once again turning to issues which unite, rather than divide, the conservative base.