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Dividing the Conservative Coalition

The Bush government, itself a coalition of the willing, cobbles together four different streams of conservatives. Like all coalitions, it is vulnerable to events. Patrick Buchanan, the journal National Interest, and the think tank Cato Institute, are conservatives against Bush’s Iraq policy. Similarly, the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation criticize Bush’s fiscal policies. Moderate Republicans oppose the party’s extreme right wing on social policies and state-church relations. Strained also by other divisions, the coalition is vulnerable to divide-and-conquer interventions if its opponents clearly understand the different origins and goals of each coalition “partner.”

The first conservative stream is chiefly economic. It comprises that part of the US business community (plus its media and academic hangers-on) that seeks to roll back FDR’s New Deal. These interests distrust and attack state economic interventions that are not subordinated to private business needs and dictates. They favor deregulation of industry, reduction of worker protections (e.g., pensions, health and safety rules, etc.), cutting taxes on business profits and dividends, raising tax deductions for investments, and so on. From Taft-Hartley in 1947 through the current attack on Social Security, these “conservatives” relentlessly undo the “welfare state.”

The second stream — “neo-conservatives” — is different. For Richard Perle, “conserving” the US requires reshaping the entire world in its image:

We are going to have to take the war against [the terrorists] often to other people’s territory, and all of the norms of international order make it difficult to do that. So the president has to reshape fundamental attitudes toward those norms, or we are going to have our hands tied by an antiquated institution [the traditional international system] that is not capable of defending us.

Such global entitlement flows from a belief in the US’s absolute social, economic, and military superiority. Not only should the US realize its global ambitions, but its sole superpower status makes that possible. The first chance, in 1945, was lost in a failure of nerve (FDR’s and Truman’s); the second chance after the USSR’s collapse was also missed (Clinton’s fault). The last and best chance to make up for lost opportunities is now.

The third conservative stream emerged in reaction to the 1960s when young people weakened the traditional subordination of women and black Americans, sexual taboos, institutionalized religions, and the authoritarianism of schools and the government. “Social” conservatives mounted sustained campaigns against abortion, affirmative action, and non-traditional sexual relationships and for the renewal of traditional families, traditional religiosity, and traditional schooling. According to Rev. Bob Enyart, pastor of Denver Bible Church, “Christians who carefully study the Bible are best qualified to teach the world how it should be governed.”

The fourth stream arose in the 1980s and 1990s as a backlash against multi-culturalism. New mass immigrations — from Asia, eastern Europe, and central America (especially Mexico) — demanded some accommodation of their different modes of thought, speech, and cultural norms; multiculturalism was one response. A new wave of conservatives countered by insisting on the absolute superiority of received US practices (English exclusivity, only “classic” school curricula, and so on). They revived earlier but still active nativist and isolationist traditions. In polarized debates, multiculturalists’ appeals for toleration of difference sometimes expanded to assertions of the relativity not only of cultural values but of science, knowledge, and truth itself. Multiculturalists thus sometimes embraced post-modernism. Outraged conservatives reacted by reaffirming the absolute superiority of US (or “Western”) culture and what it has established as truth. For the religious fundamentalists among them, that meant a return to biblical revelation. For the more secular, it meant a return to the scientific method and the objective truth it had established and upon which US society was built. By contrast, multiculturalism (and post-modernism, too) was condemned for leading civilization backwards into “pre-modern” superstition and obscurantism. For the Ayn Rand Institute,

Multiculturalism seeks to obliterate the value of a free, industrialized civilization (which today exists in the West and elsewhere), by declaring that such a civilization is no better than primitive tribalism. More deeply, it seeks to incapacitate a mind’s ability to distinguish good from evil, to distinguish that which is life promoting from that which is life negating.

Over the last 25 years, these four streams formed a hegemonic coalition within US society. Neither Bush nor the revived Republican Party accomplished this coalition; rather it produced them. Chief among the social changes that enabled conservative hegemony were (1) declining average wages since the mid-1970s and (2) consequently greater inequality of wealth and income. With their living standards and relative social positions thus threatened, most American families sent more household members out to work. Women took first jobs or left part-time for full-time employment, men and women took second and third jobs, and everyone worked more hours. When that did not suffice, American families borrowed beyond anything ever seen anywhere. The resulting exhaustion, interpersonal tensions, and financial anxieties yielded crises of divorce, alienation, depression, drug dependence, and abuse.

Desperate Americans welcomed politicians delivering tax cuts (however modest) and heroic wars “to save us” from evil. Many turned to religious leaders promising salvation or at least solace. Fundamentalist churches refashioned their image as “loving communities” beckoning Americans who had ever greater difficulty finding community or love anywhere else. New audiences cheered celebrations of “traditional values” that sounded increasingly like battle cries for a return to the good old days before workers had unmanageable stress and debt. Of course, other factors also facilitated conservative hegemony. The collapse of the USSR, 9/11, and the business concentration of US mass media all fostered or reinforced the coalition. Conservative hegemony also depended on successfully dividing the coalition that was the Democratic Party and thereby removing it as an effective opposition.           

Yet divisions and tensions also beset the conservative coalition. While some fundamentalist religious leaders share the neocons’ enthusiasm for US global “dominion,” they don’t all agree on what dominion means. Not all advocates of rolling back the New Deal see benefits from denouncing multiculturalism. Not a few Christian fundamentalists find their alliance with opponents of Social Security and with neocons uncomfortable or worse.

The strategy of the coalition’s opponents can include aggravating its divisions and tensions. Oppositional think tanks might devise arguments against anti-New Deal business interests that document their support for the social agenda of religious fundamentalists. Oppositional media might weaken the appeal of anti-multiculturalist movements by stressing their alliance with neocon imperialists and their costly war policies. Systematically exposing religious fundamentalism as a key support for the anti-New Deal assault on such programs as Social Security might well yield powerful slogans for politicians seeking to divide and weaken the conservative coalition. Connecting neocon wars with rising federal power, taxes, deficits, and falling social support programs such as student loans and public services might well do likewise.

Of course, a positive alternative program and a counter-hegemonic coalition are the crucial requirements to defeat the conservative coalition. Yet, divisive intervention — based on a clear grasp of the coalition’s fragility — can make a difference. A successful strategy to reverse the current direction of social change requires both positive and negative components.


Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002).


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