Since the Crash of 2008 we have witnessed the resurgence of free-market libertarianism on the American Right. The bailouts of the banks may have kept the cogs turning in the capitalist system, but it was a violation of everything held most often by free-market libertarians. It didn’t take long and the Tea Party movement emerged as the basis for a renewed Republican opposition to the Obama administration. Backed by Fox News and associated nut-hatch Republicans the Tea Parties flourished at city halls where they fought for health-care to remain privately run for profit and not on the basis of need. It seemed peculiar for liberals and radicals that the conservatives had managed to mobilise protests across the crisis-riddled body of America. Even for conservative Republicans it was an odd sight, right-wingers taking to the streets like anti-war protestors. The parallels reached an apogee of high farce with Glenn Beck leading demonstrators to Washington in an obscene satire on the March for Jobs and Freedom. In a way these farcical scenes are nothing new.
It may be a surprise for some, but there is a long history of this on the American Right. It was Christian rightist Paul Weyrich who infiltrated the activist circles of the New Left in the 1970s. He would set out to use these same methods to mobilise the conservative evangelical community as an electoral bloc for the Republican Party. The right-wing televangelists were easily organised once it looked like the churches might lose their tax-exempt status. The spiritual leader of a hippie commune Francis Shaeffer snapped at the landmark decision of Roe v Wade on abortion. He had been a figure of the 1960s cultural revolution and yet Shaeffer flipped and became a major fundamentalist leader on the issue of abortion. He would lobby the Ford administration and even advocate terrorism as a necessary method in the battle to defend the sacred foetus and its right to life. By the time Shaeffer died the Moral Majority had taken over with much more reactionary agenda of rolling back advances in women’s rights and gay rights (causes that he had actually supported).
Developments on the Right are not to be separated from the circumstances of the time. The revival of a Protestant Right came in the 1980s in reaction to the dramatic cultural changes of the 1960s when a greater sphere of freedom was attained for African-Americans, as well as homosexuals and women. Feminism had emerged from the failure of the Commune movement in its descent into patriarchal forms of domination. The increased accessibility to contraceptives and abortion had liberated individuals from the old sexual morays of the past. There was a burgeoning opening for civil liberties and rights, as well as some economic opportunities, for African-Americans. The Right did not need so much an economic reaction as a cultural reaction to try and slow these developments. And so the Christian Right swooped in to elect Ronald Reagan in a coalition with the anti-Communists, the neoconservatives and the libertarians.
We find the same when we look into the history of the anti-Communist Right. The cause of anti-Communism had belonged to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the 1940s originally before it was absorbed by the Republican Party with the demagoguery of Joe McCarthy and the ‘Red Scare’ of the 50s. The best way to support a rightward shift in the Democrats was to co-opt the means by which the Truman administration had sought to justify the military-industrial complex. The Republicans had found a way to outmuscle the Democrats. This was later made further evident by the Democratic administrations which launched the war in Vietnam. The Republican administration of Nixon intensified the war to win not just one term but two terms in office. So anti-Communism became a solid pillar of American conservatism until 1989 when the Berlin Wall, unexpectedly, collapsed when faced with the might of the German people.
After that the anti-Communist Right largely lost its purpose as its mission seemed to have been fulfilled, and not by American hegemony but by forces endogenous to the Soviet system. Significantly, old Cold War conservatives such as Pat Buchanan have moved to a non-interventionist position on foreign policy since the Berlin Wall fell. The CIA agent Chalmers Johnson and army man Lawrence Wilkerson have made similar ideological shifts. It is consistent because if one believes that the American hegemon was necessary to safeguard the free world from the tentacles of the Soviet conspiracy for world domination then once the threat is gone the US should retreat and become a normal country. This has opened up a space for other rival tendencies on the American Right: such as the neoconservatives who updated the rational for American military aggression. Yet it also created greater space for scepticism of the military establishment from such sectors as the free-market libertarian Right.
By the end of the first decade of the 21st Century the prevailing forces of reaction would have largely discredited themselves and opened up a space for the Tea Party movement. The Bush administration was a lot like the Reagan administration in that it was an alliance of the Christian Right with the neoconservatives. Bush had posed as a ‘compassionate conservative’ pledging a prudent foreign policy of staying out of other peoples’ business. Before the election of 2000 was successfully stolen Bush had found an ally in Dick Cheney, a hawk of unbelievable proportions. Once in office the Bushites jumped at the opportunity to crackdown on civil liberties and engage in multiple wars. The Protestant and Catholic Right were mobilised to support the Bush administration in its support for abstinence promotion in Africa, its opposition to abortion, gay marriage, as well as euthanasia and stem-cell research. The neoconservatives moved in to provide the rationalisation for the bloodbath in Iraq. By the election of 2008 both the Christian Right and the neoconservatives were left largely discredited just by association with the crimes of Bush.
With the incoming Obama administration the Republicans had to open up a new front as Obama was following a more hawkish position in foreign affairs than Bush. The prospect of economic reform had to be fought because the country was in a deep recession and the Left might win greater ground in such desperate times. What is called ‘Obama-care’ really comes out of the conservative searches for an alternative to serious health-care reform in the 1990s. It was supported by Newt Gingrich. The individual mandate was a means to safeguarding the state of affairs which denies the American citizen a fundamental right to adequate health-care. Reform is somewhat inevitable given the role that the health system has played in bankrupting American industry. But at the other end the pharmaceutical and health insurance industry will be pushing hard to make sure their interests are covered. As if this situation weren’t bad enough the Koch brothers moved in to finance a surge in libertarian protest. Faced with this the Obama administration had no reason to establish a national health service. Once again, serious and much needed reform was offset and America would remain the only advanced capitalist society – other than South Africa – without universal health-care.
So the space had been opened up for a resurgence of interest in Ron Paul, the Austrian economists and even the fiction of Ayn Rand. The paranoid rambling clown Glenn Beck rose to stardom. Significantly Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan, a member of the Ayn Rand cult, as his running mate. It was a necessary front opened up by the bailouts of banks under Bush and Obama. The agenda of shrinking the state had newfound support given the new mission was austerity to destroy what little of the New Deal had survived the decades of erosion by Republican and Democratic administrations. It should also be noted that the space has been opened up to paleoconservatives who have positioned themselves against the military adventurism of the neoconservatives. Yet it has been the libertarians who have been able to muster a position in mainstream American politics. The Tea Party movement succeeded in providing the basis for a Republican victory in the midterm elections of 2010 and Ron Paul made it into the debate at the 2012 election. Even still this is more so a symptom of chaos on the American Right – to be compared with Barry Goldwater’s winning the Republican ticket in 1964 – than an emergent platform to see take office in 2016 or even 2020.
This article was originally written and posted at the Third Estate on September 12th 2013.