A phenomenon of the 1970s. Richard Nixon, despite having won two elections, was a bit wishy-washy in his conservatism - he could secretly bomb Cambodia while "selling out" South Vietnam at the negotiating table. He could drag his feet on the desegregation of public schools while giving his OK to things like the EPA and OSHA and Roe v. Wade. He could give "law and order" hell to dissenters while pronouncing "we're all Keynesians now". Then that Watergate thing messed things up further - when Nixon became the most hated man in America, he dragged the fortunes of the Republican Party down with him.

The New Right was an attempt to breathe life into the GOP, by forming a coalition that was a bit more consistently conservative. There was Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation, for starters. And the Goldwater wing of the party, brandishing copies of The Conscience of a Conservative like it was Mao's "Little Red Book". Money from billionaires (e.g. Joseph Coors) to the right of Goldwater. William F. Buckley's National Review magazine, and young upstart Conservative Digest. The few remaining hard-liners in Congress, like Phil Crane, Jack Kemp (champion of the Laffer Curve, economist Arthur Laffer's explanation of how high tax rates lowered tax revenue), and Newt Gingrich. The fundamentalist capitalism of Milton Friedman and his flock. The beginnings of what would be called Reagan Democrats, built from a foundation of pro-life Catholics, evangelicals, and blue collar workers struggling with both McGovernites and the post-Bretton Woods economy. Cold War hawks more in tune with Dr. Strangelove than Dr. Kissinger.

Their first show of strength was the 1976 presidential campaign of 60s icon Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California; while he failed to win the nomination, it was still impressive to pull off a strong challenge against a sitting president (old-school Republican Gerald Ford).

But that defeat showed a couple of things... Reagan, during the last part of the campaign, desperate for convention delegates, was willing to have Richard Schweiker, a liberal Republican, be his running mate - i.e. winning was more important than whether or not Schweiker could pass a litmus test. There was a little consternation in the ranks...

A common thread of the Conservative Age (that began with the Reagan 1980 victory) has been hunger for power, mixed with intramural bickering. Part of the New Right's initial energy came from Goldwater conservatives, pissed over the fact that their wing's ascendance lasted from 1964 to 1964 - they were willing to bring more of the Religious Right into the fold, as long as they knew their place. Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, and Jerry Falwell would bash gays, while somehow keeping schtum (in public) on the homosexuality of Richard Viguerie, et al...

...and Saint Reagan himself - divorced, with an astrology-fan wife, a ballet-dancer liberal son, and a hippie daughter - wasn't exactly Ozzie and Harriet material, once you got past the John Wayne exterior, plus he chose George Bush - pro-choice scion of milquetoast New England tories, and the man who called Reagan's budget plan "voodoo economics" - as his 1980 running mate...

...the "budget hawks" never got a balanced budget (or a Balanced-Budget Amendment to the Constitution), but could sleep reasonably well knowing that the Laffer Curve had become the "Nike swoosh" of supply-side voodoo and that Reagan's bloated deficits put the kibosh on any "Great Society" initiatives. The pro-life people never got their Pro-Life Amendment, but kept plugging away for the GOP cause, eventually becoming the fine-tuned engine of the Christian Coalition's early years.

After Newt's "Contract with America" helped the GOP gain control of Congress in 1994, the Christian Coalition offered a "Contract with America's Families", implying that Newt's efforts were chump change (and Roe v. Wade still clings to life, despite the Reagan/Bush "efforts" to kill it); some constituencies eased over to Howard Phillips' Constitution Party (formerly the US Taxpayer's Party), or lost interest in partisan politics altogether. Conversely, some in the hardcore-capitalist camp jumped ship for the Libertarian Party, where they could be free of the God-botherers.

There have been attempts, of late, for a "Republican Leadership Council" to roll back the two decades of the Right's influence, akin to Bill Clinton's DLC weeding out what remained of "liberals" in the leadership of the Donkey Party. But the "rally 'round the Shrub" movement is just another version of the "we'll do anything to win" ethos that started in '76. We'll see what happens.

Standard disclaimers:

  1. I were but a wee lad.
  2. YMMV.
  3. I'll clean this up later.

A good many of you Americans have grown up in a country that has known nothing but the New Right and its offspring and its bandwagon-jumpers (Clinton/Gore included) in power. Though its various roots go back a lot further than the 60s/70s, the long dominance of the Right in the politics of the nation (for they are still, despite a few wounds, its center of gravity) has been a fairly novel thing for this century. If you don't like it, know that it wasn't always this way, nor does it have to be.