I’ve been in a number of conversations lately debating the meaning of the furious hordes of not-very-well-informed (okay, massively clueless) folks we’ve seen on our television screens, demanding that someone give them their country back. My own take–and I admittedly have deep Pollyanna tendencies–has been that what we are seeing is the death rattle of people who have truly been “left behind”–not by God or Jesus, but by a social paradigm shift that they can neither change nor understand.
Charles Lemos posts an interview between Bill Moyers and the author of a recent book who seems to agree with my analysis. Here is a transcript of a part of that interview, but you should really read the whole post.
BILL MOYERS: So, if you’re right about the decline and death of conservatism, who are all those people we see on television?
SAM TANENHAUS: I’m afraid they’re radicals. Conservatism has been divided for a long time — this is what my book describes narratively — between two strains. What I call realism and revanchism. We’re seeing the revanchist side.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean revanchism?
SAM TANENHAUS: I mean a politics that’s based on the idea that America has been taken away from its true owners, and they have to restore and reclaim it. They have to conquer the territory that’s been taken from them. Revanchism really comes from the French word for ‘revenge.’ It’s a politics of vengeance.
And this is a strong strain in modern conservatism. Like the 19th Century nationalists who wanted to recover parts of their country that foreign nations had invaded and occupied, these radical people on the right, and they include intellectuals and the kinds of personalities we’re seeing on television and radio, and also to some extent people marching in the streets, think America has gotten away from them. Theirs is a politics of reclamation and restoration. Give it back to us. What we sometimes forget is that the last five presidential elections Democrats won pluralities in four of them. The only time the Republicans have won, in recent memory, was when George Bush was re-elected by the narrowest margin in modern history, for a sitting president. So, what this means is that, yes, conservatism, what I think of, as a radical form of conservatism, is highly organized. We’re seeing it now– they are ideologically in lockstep. They agree about almost everything, and they have an orthodoxy that governs their worldview and their view of politics. So, they are able to make incursions. And at times when liberals, Democrats, and moderate Republicans are uncertain where to go, yes, this group will be out in front, very organized, and dominate our conversation.”
But as the rest of the post makes clear, their numbers–already a minority– will continue decline. Just as every move forward has been followed by a backlash (think about the end of segregation and Jim Crow, equal rights for women, states endorsing same-sex marriage, etc.), these outbursts come from people who–however dimly–recognize that they are on the losing side of history.