December 31, 2007
A frequent respondent of mine, Adriana, wrote as a comment on my most recent blog that Democrats can afford to publicize their “platform.” Republicans, by contrast, cannot do so because the masses no longer accept their real views. But this judgment is only partly true. Popular opinion on most social issues has indeed veered sharply leftward in the last forty years, as can be determined from Gallop and other relatively reliable national polls. More problematic is Adriana’s certainty that political parties and political movements identified with the establishment Right have gone with the flow of public opinion in order to survive. Supposedly we have no real choice in this matter and therefore Republicans have had to “hide their platform.”
My own view, which can be found in Conservatism in America, is markedly different from Adriana’s. Let me begin by noting that center-right parties here and more dramatically in Germany and in other European countries began their journeys toward the left decades ago. The leaders of these groups often lunged leftward out of ideological conviction and not merely to survive in a radicalized cultural environment. Already by the 1960s the Republicans were taking positions that were farther on the left than those held by many Democrats. It was Republican Senators who voted in much larger numbers than Democratic ones for the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and it was Nixon’s Republican administration that plunged the country into affirmative action programs.
In the 1980s, under neoconservative prodding, “conservative” journalists and Republican newspapers, e.g., the Washington Times, were strenuously advocating a national holiday commemorating Martin Luther King’s birthday. It is hard for someone who, like me, witnessed the success of this project, to believe that Republicans and movement conservatives were only pushing the MLK commemoration because they were competing with the Democrats for black votes. The Right was also moving leftward because its leaders and spokesmen had changed their thinking but not necessarily political identification. Moreover, a younger generation was supplanting an older one on the establishment right, and the new generation shared what had once been characteristically leftist views, which were popular with their contemporaries. What distinguished part of this rising generation from their peers, however, is that they continued to call themselves Republicans and/or “conservatives.”
Note that the centrist CDU-CSU Union in Germany has spent the last thirty years moving away from its onetime Christian-national principles. Some German journalists expressed astonishment that the party went in the direction that it did, even when periodic popular support existed for a Rechtswende (a turning toward the right). The Union went this way even while sacrificing part of its base and without picking up comparable support on the left. In 2005 the vote total of the CDU-CSU fell in the federal elections by three points relative to what the Union had received in 2002.
This disparity resulted from a decision that had been made at the top. In 2005, current German chancellor Angela Merkel had refused in her electoral campaign to express recognizably “Christian values” or to challenge the antinational position represented by the Greens and Social Democrats. Like the German Left, which argues that the Germans have lost the moral right to be a sovereign nation state, Merkel never hid her belief that the Germans should cede their sovereignty to the EU—and do so without a popular vote. This Saxon female politician, who had been educated under a communist government, eschewed the national and Christian Right, and she worked not to rattle her friends in the media. But her standdid not necessarily reflect electoral realities and, as the CDU researcher Stefan Eisel documented, Merkel actually hurt her party by taking her cues from the multicultural left.
What I am suggesting is that the Right’s leftward course has influenced our political culture. It does not simply mirror external circumstances. The most telling example of this trend, and one that I have spent years discussing, is the effect of the neocons” takeover of the American “conservative movement.” If the neocons had not achieved their end, it is easy to imagine that the range of permissible “conservative opinion” would be less politically correct than it is at the present time. Nor would being “conservative” center on arbitrary “litmus tests,” e.g., who is more or less in favor of the nationalist Right in Israel or whether the Republicans or Democrats revere the achievements of Martin Luther King more .
Shifts in political opinions on the part of non-leftist parties are not based simply on looking at polls. Their initiators sometimes act independently or even against immediate electoral interest because of their conviction or owing to their fear of giving offense to those whom upper-class WASPs may feel morally obliged to reach out to. Because of such gestures, the establishment Right enables the Left to be itself on social and lifestyle issues. This faux Right is itself a critical factor on why things continue to move leftward. It has joined the other side in creating fashions. I”ve no idea why so few historians have perceived this fact. It seems to me to be self-evident.
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