Three lengthy books chronicle the rise of American conservatism and its liberal doppelgängers.
The left-wing American journalist Rick Perlstein has been on a quest to chronicle the rise of the far right in the United States and the division of the country into “red” (conservative and Republican) and “blue” (liberal and Democrat) areas. But in fact what is emerging from Perlstein’s indefatigable labors is a sociopolitical portrait of a society that is not only profoundly divided, but also frequently struggles to understand itself.
This summer, the third installment of his chronicle, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, was released by Simon & Schuster. It follows two earlier volumes, the brilliant 2008 Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, and his first effort from 2001, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.
All three volumes are putatively tied to the fortunes of three specific bellwether right-wing American politicians — Barrry Goldwater, who was the first iconic symbol of the new right; Richard Nixon, who successfully parlayed the politics of division and resentment of liberal elites into a new ruling coalition; and Ronald Reagan, who turned that coalition into a vehicle for a right-wing American politics that combines a Nixonian resentful and dystopian rage with Reagan’s relentless optimism.
But in Perlstein’s hands, the story of the rise of the American right isn’t simply an evolving political analysis, a compendium of facts, or even (although he does dabble in it) psychobabble about the individual personalities. Instead, Perlstein’s readers are both treated and subjected to exhaustive and exhausting chronicles of what the United States is and how it got that way. The principal protagonists frequently disappear for scores, and occasionally hundreds, of lengthy passages in these books that are all well over 800 dense, intricately packed pages.
Perlstein seems determined to make sure that the reader has a strong grasp of the cultural zeitgeist in which these politics emerged. So what he has ended up producing is, in fact, relatively comprehensive chronicles of not just political developments but also popular culture, economic developments, social trends and a good deal of what frequently looks like minutia. But it’s not.
You won’t find a better popular account of nationally polarizing controversies such as outrage over busing in south Boston or textbooks in West Virginia. Perlstein draws a vivid portrait of how movements such as these, along with that most powerful American right-wing cause célèbre — abortion — both emerged spontaneously out of a genuine cultural conservatism that he takes seriously on its own terms, and how these impulses were organized and marshaled by cutting-edge political techniques such as direct mailing, other appeals that went over the heads and behind the backs of established party leaders, and crucial aspects of what has come to be known as the “ground game” in American politics.
Perlstein doesn’t have any illusions. He understands that Nixon was a bitter and paranoid personality, brilliant but profoundly flawed and astonishingly dangerous to American liberties and constitutional order which barely survived his malfeasance. He appreciates Reagan’s deft manipulative abilities, grace and charm, but he understands that much of what lay at the core of the “great communicator’s” messages was self-contradictory, patently false, or simply meaningless but emotionally appealing jingoism.
Nonetheless, and this is the great strength of these three marvelous books, Perlstein takes the entire American conservative movement seriously on its own terms. He does not dismiss the social, cultural and political right-wingers with whom he is in such profound disagreement as bizarre or ridiculous figures. Rather, he understands, and effectively communicates, that they represent a powerful and very important trend in American culture and society, one that is genuine, authentic and passionately believed in.
The concept of “false consciousness” hangs heavy in these pages, at least for some of us, but only between the lines. But those manifest lines include a noble effort to try to understand and fairly represent the conservative movement he is struggling to not only chronicle, but also to conceptualize and even empathize with. In order to tap into the profound emotional sentiments that inform this conservative movement, Perlstein keeps a steady hand on the cultural pulse of the country during the various periods he chronicles.
Perlstein’s work has two overwhelming strengths. First, it refuses to idolize, coddle or excuse liberals and leftists for their own amazing excesses, mistakes and absurdities. Second, it does not try to push back against the United States that really exists, and existed at the times he is describing. Rather, he accepts, and tries to describe and even, at times, explain the society and culture that produced the polarization of the present moment between “red” and “blue” America.
“Nixonland” — a nasty neologism Perlstein picks up from Adlai Stevenson and his supporters — was originally intended by its coiners to describe merely the Nixonian side of the politics of division that drove his political career, and which he cultivated with such enormous skill. But in Perlstein’s infinitely more fair-minded approach, liberals and the left, driven by hatred of Nixon, are equally a part of “Nixonland” as are the right-wing, anti-elitist popular constituency the Stevenson crowd was intending to denigrate with that phrase.
The Invisible Bridge, even more than his earlier two books, includes remarkable and extended readings of popular culture that are genuinely illuminating. For example, Perlstein’s extended meditation on the popularity of “The Exorcist” horror film, and his understanding of what anxieties were being mediated through that enormously successful movie (featuring a little girl called Reagan, of all things) is a superb example of the art of illustrating political developments through cultural artifacts that somehow embody the (or at least a) spirit of the times.
Equally outstanding is his reading of “Jaws,” the disaster film about sudden attacks by unseen and unknown predators, and the coming together of three iconic American figures (a hippie-ish scientist, a hard-bitten lawman, and a brooding and alcoholic World War II veteran driven by posttraumatic demons) come together to defeat the unnamable, unimaginable threat.
The Invisible Bridge culminates with the razor thin 1976 Republican nomination victory by President Gerald Ford over Reagan. Quite obviously the story doesn’t end there. We can expect at least one more volume on the rise of the new right and the conservative movement, and the shaping of the presently divided American political and cultural landscape. But probably more than that.
Americans are having their recent political, and to some extent cultural, evolution being chronicled for them by Perlstein’s exhaustive and exhausting volumes. It’s a service that people on both sides of the “red/blue” divide ought to appreciate, particularly given the fairness with which he approaches his subjects. However, for all those outside the United States who wonder how, where, when and why such a sophisticated society has continued to harbor such a large, powerful, extreme and, especially in our era, increasingly obscurantist right, particularly of the religious variety, these books are even more valuable.
Anyone who wants to know where this all came from, and even where it might be going, is being given an extremely detailed, painstaking and precise guidebook.