Guarding the right’s flank
To understand what is wrong with today’s political right, look no further than the American Conservative Union. The ACU made headlines last month when it snubbed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. A source told National Review that Christie hadn’t been invited to the ACU’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which begins Thursday, because of his “limited future” in the Republican Party.
To put that in perspective: The ACU found ample room at CPAC for Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.
Nor did it stop at Christie. For the second year in a row, the ACU gave the cold shoulder to GOProud, a conservative gay rights group that had participated in previous years. It also excluded Pamela Geller, a past CPAC attendee and vocal critic of Islam.
In preparation for this year’s conference, the ACU drew arbitrary dividing lines all over the conservative map. If the group has its way, the realm of “true conservatism” will be a minuscule state with irregular boundaries, constant border skirmishes and ever-diminishing hopes of producing a national leader.
As columnist Jonah Goldberg put it: “It’s not CPAC’s fault that the borders of conservatism are shrinking, but it would be nice if at this moment it acted less like a border guard keeping all but the exquisitely credentialed out and more like a tourist board, explaining why it’s such a great place to visit — and live.”
The irony is that half a century ago, the ACU was formed to do just that. In the wake of Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election, conservative leaders founded the organization to make right-wing politics more palatable and popular. They were, after all, looking to win national elections. If today’s conservatives would like to do the same, they will have to look past the ACU’s current border wars to its more pragmatic history.
When the ACU was established a month after Goldwater’s crushing loss, it was designed to be both border guard and tourist board. The right had seen the 1964 election as “a choice, not an echo,” a contest between conservatism and liberalism. After Goldwater’s landslide defeat, it seemed the American people had overwhelmingly rejected conservatism.
Except conservatives didn’t interpret the election results that way. They counted the 27 million votes for Goldwater as the conservative core, a measure of their ability “to penetrate the deceits and distortions” of the other side. But to win elections, as one ACU pamphlet put it, “We have to aim our arrows at the uncommitted.”
Yet spreading the conservative message to the uncommitted wasn’t enough. The problem wasn’t that Americans hadn’t heard about conservatism; the problem was what they had heard. And what they heard convinced many voters that conservatism was part crackpot conspiracy theory, part mental illness.
In 1964, Goldwater supporters were labeled “nuts and kooks.” The candidate himself had his mental health repeatedly questioned. Fact magazine ran a story headlined “The Unconscious of a Conservative” with a cover that blared “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President!” Pro-Goldwater campaign buttons declared, “In your heart you know he’s right!” Anti-Goldwater buttons responded, “In your guts you know he’s nuts!”
With that in mind, the ACU couldn’t start as a tourist board. Asylums aren’t well-regarded vacation spots. So it had to be a border guard first, rooting out the right’s worst offenders. The founders of the ACU — including William F. Buckley Jr., John Ashbrook and Robert Bauman — pegged the John Birch Society as the Goldwater albatross. The JBS co-founder’s statement that President Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy” tainted everything the society touched. The ACU determined no one with ties to the society could serve on the ACU’s board.
It was not the first time conservatives had drawn borders to protect both their respectability and their potential for growth. In the late 1950s, Buckley declared that no one who appeared on the masthead of the American Mercury could write for National Review. The Mercury had taken an anti-Semitic turn in 1955, and Buckley understood that any links between the two publications would indelibly tarnish National Review and the conservative movement. “Conservatism,” Buckley later wrote, “must be wiped clean of the parasitic cant that defaces it, and repels so many of those who approach it inquiringly.”
But today’s ACU, like much of today’s right, is more likely to draw borders that repel. When the ACU resumed its fight with GOProud last month, the big tent shrank. MSNBC hosts Chris Hayes and S.E. Cupp, a liberal and a conservative, respectively, refused to participate in CPAC 2013 unless GOProud was invited. National Review denounced the decision to exclude Christie from CPAC, arguing that it “fuels a narrative of marginalization on the right.” And pundits Michelle Malkin and Mark Levin criticized the ACU for turning away Geller.
Debate over conservatism’s limits is nothing new. The power to define is, after all, the power to control. But the boundaries drawn by the ACU and National Review in modern conservatism’s early years were drawn with a purpose: to safeguard the movement from the extremist elements that would hinder the right’s ability to expand.
The current border wars, centered around but not limited to the ACU, differ in a crucial respect: They limit, rather than nurture, conservative outreach. Unless the ACU takes more care, it may find itself policing borders no one wants to cross.
Nicole Hemmer, a research associate at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, also teaches history at the University of Miami.
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