A conservative journalist and former radio host from Wisconsin, Charles Sykes now contributes opinions to national media outlets and still champions the voices of a few voices he calls conservative, e.g., Jennifer Rubin, George Will, Bret Stephens, Bill Kristol, among others. His conservative bonafides are proven by his longtime support for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin politico, now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Sykes broke with the lunatic fringe that has taken over right wing politics during the lead up to the 2016 election when people he knew would contact him with crazy stories they’d gotten off the web, which were then passed around and repeated by candidates and lawmakers, despite clearly being false stories.
Sykes traces a dawning recognition of the Right’s delusions to the 1964 essay by Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics:”
“The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has gradually been undermined by socialist and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.”This sense of loss can also be seen in the Right’s far-right wing. In her groundbreaking book, Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean traces this fear to a monied class--the "old competitive capitalism"--that was essentially Southern money accumulated through the use of slaves. Integration and the Voting Rights Act threw that old slave money into a tizzy. They didn’t want ‘intellectuals’ or government telling them what to think or how to spend their inheritances.
Back with Sykes’ main thesis, we are treated to a quick run through Republican history since the1960s, noting in passing Buckley, Goldwater & the Birchers, and the rise of the New Right in the 1970s who were impatient with establishment conservatism, i.e., conservative IV-Leaguers were “sellouts” back in the 70s (?!) Sykes credits Nicole Hemmer in Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics for pointing out that the Reagan presidency oddly coincided with a declining conservative media. Without that conservative echo chamber we see now, there was no group enforcing political purity and Reagan had more latitude.
That ended in the 1990s, when the end of the George W. Bush presidency showed the party to be in disarray. Many political analysts on both sides of the aisle now point to the Gingrich Contract with America (1997) and the rise of Fox News (also 1997) as the beginning go the end for democratic systems as we had always known them, with both parties far more aggressive and divisive than ever before.
While we go along without much objection to Sykes’ analysis through much of the book, a few things hit a false note:
“Many journalists do not recognize their bias any more than a fish recognizes it is wet: The swim in an ocean of like-minded professionals. Being pro-choice on abortion was simply the position of everyone they knew, while opposition to abortion rights was, by definition, 'controversial.'”This from a man whose profession is journalist. Controversial it would be to oppose abortion rights, obviously, because abortion rights have been the law of our great country for forty years. Following the law is not a bias, sir.
Sykes defense of Ryan is indefensible:
“In contrast to Trump. Ryan’s approach reflected the distinctive sort of conservatism that had flourished in Wisconsin: principled, pragmatic, reformist, but not afraid of taking on tough, controversial issues.”I guess we can put those ideas to bed now, given Ryan’s not-so-principled stance at the feet of DJT. Ryan was always about ignoring the country when it suited him. Pragmatic, perhaps. Principled, no.
Sadly, Paul Ryan is not the furthest right one can get without falling off the planet. His Breitbart-supported challenger Paul Nehlen horrifies with his statements about immigration and support for white supremacy. But Sykes begins to talk about Friedrich Hayek, Ryan’s favorite political philosopher, on the subject of authoritarianism:
“Emergencies have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.”Hayek also says the populist impulse leads to handing power to a 'strong man,' a position which precedes the suppression of democratic institutions and the creation of a totalitarian regime. This is Sykes now:
"the preconditions for the rise of a demagogic dictator is a dumbed-down populace, a gullible electorate, and a common enemy or group or scapegoats upon which to focus public enmity. The more educated a society is, Hayek says, the more diverse their tastes and values will be…the flip side being that ‘if we wish to find a high degree of uniformity and similarity of outlook, we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive and common instincts and tastes prevail.’"Since modern societies do not have enough of these primitive people, “he will have to increase their numbers by converting more to the same simple creed,” which is where propaganda comes in.
This is pretty heady stuff when we look at this past twenty-four months, when Breitbart & co put all this jazz into action. It actually worked. Paul Ryan and his henchmen rode on the coattails of the dumbing down movement and have shafted us with proposals we did not like and do not want. Near the end of this long explanation for the Republican Party decline, Sykes addresses the so-called Christians. Evangelicals were read portions of editorials suggesting DJT’s appeal was "dangerously close to Satan’s offer to Jesus in Luke 4:9: ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’" The study found white evangelical support dropped after hearing this argument. Good grief.
The conservative party is over, gone, kaput, destroyed. Just this morning in the Washington Post, conservative pundit Jennifer Rubin said the same thing. Good riddance to bad rubbish is how I look at it. Hold onto some important ideas and start again. The left needs a right or it gets out of kilter. Stop bemoaning the implosion of your party (something the ‘liberal intellectual elite’ saw long ago, by the way) and get to work rebuilding a coalition. We have work to do! Governance. What a novel idea.
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