It has been reported that this term is shaping up to be one of the most liberal at the Supreme Court since 1969. Another report by Eric Posner shows that the justices appointed by Republican Presidents are agreeing less among themselves, while the justices appointed by Democratic Presidents remain a united bloc.
We should be cautious about reading this information as a trend. The case mix changes from year to year and thus there can be expected to be overall ideological variation from year to year depending on that mix and the justices’ idiosyncratic views. But there is no doubt that the country is moving left at least on social issues and the oldest adage about the Court’s decision-making is that it follows the election returns. Certainly, the expected creation of a right to same-sex marriage would be unimaginable without the rapid and dramatic shift in public opinion on the issue.
The more interesting question is why Republican justices tend to fracture while the Democrats stay united. The first reason is that Supreme Court opinions implicate not only ideology, but jurisprudential methodology and Republicans are more divided on jurisprudence.
The fanfare surrounding the 30th anniversary of The Breakfast Club may puzzle some people—anybody, in fact, who wasn’t born between 1966 and 1979 in the United States of America. Those of us who are older (as I am) or younger than that might well have missed “the movie that defined a generation.” The writer-director John Hughes made The Breakfast Club as the second in what became a trilogy of teen movies, in between Sixteen Candles (1984) and the box-office smash Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
The words “conservative” and “conservation” are similar; surely their meanings overlap. They do, says the English philosopher Roger Scruton, and conservatives need to think more seriously about conservation than they have hitherto. To be a conservative is to value the cultural and political traditions we have inherited from the past, to hold them in trust, and to pass them along undiminished to our descendants. To be a conservationist is to value our ecological heritage and to pass it along undiminished to our descendants. By this telling, environmentalism ought not to have a leftish slant at all.
When a political movement changes labels, that usually means its adherents are unelectable. Take the Democrats in 2004. When the presidential candidacy of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a liberal protégé of the state’s senior senator, Ted Kennedy, went down in flames, their party almost immediately switched from the buzzword “liberal” to “Progressive.” Not only was this changing the subject, it was reaching for the latter term’s historically bipartisan connotations. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson had been adapting himself to a doctrine first put into circulation in national politics by a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt. The initiators of the change in emphasis, Democratic consultants Paul…
At the height of the Iran Contra scandal in Washington, “Saturday Night Live” had a funny skit about Ronald Reagan. It showed the President’s folksy, out-to-lunch personality to be a façade. Behind closed doors, he was a worker bee, driving younger staff members to exhaustion. Liberals could only entertain such a possibility fictionally. To them, Reagan was a lazy leader, “sleepwalking through history.”
Liberal avoidance of such a possibility tracked back to Dwight David Eisenhower’s 1953-1961 administration. To the liberals of that era, he was a disconnected President, more interested in his golf game than in leading the nation. Worse, he lacked political courage, specifically with regard to halting a rampaging Joe McCarthy.
There are a couple of questions that I have often been asked but to which I still have found no satisfactory answer. The first relates to history: What use is it?
Moral outrage, when it is not fatuous, is politically potent. Vivid examples of politicians and commentators in full-throated, red-faced attacks against malignant motives and vicious political acts come easily to mind for all but the most apolitical. In some cases these outbursts are reactions against assaults on how things are or have been—on the decent order of things as inherited. But any honest observer must acknowledge that the more successful production of moral outrage has issued from those seeking fundamental transformation.
Rick Perlstein’s reputation rests upon his award-winning first book from 2001, Before the Storm, about the crushing defeat of conservative icon Barry Goldwater in his 1964 run against President Johnson, and the conservative movement born in that defeat.
A frank left-winger who got his start at the Nation, Lingua Franca, and Mother Jones, Perlstein nevertheless was, Orwell-like, harder on his own side than on his opponent’s. Although taking swipes at Goldwater for denouncing federal intrusions into the business world when his family’s fortune was gained with government help, Perlstein depicted the Republican as much more admirable overall than President Johnson. (As an example, Goldwater ran a clean campaign whereas LBJ brought out the heavy lumber, authorizing CIA agent Howard Hunt to violate the Agency’s domestic charter and bug Goldwater’s campaign headquarters.) Perlstein saw it all and was so fair-minded, with a slight bias toward the Right, that it was hard to detect any agenda in that book.
The same cannot be said of his latest, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.
Books reviewed in this essay:
The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, by Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).
The Crusade Years, 1933-1955: Herbert Hoover’s Lost Memoir of the New Deal Era and Its Aftermath, ed., George H. Nash (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).
New power emerges out of confusion—and ours is a confused age. No dominant historical narrative supplies us with a common story, and without a common story we belong neither to each other nor to shared ideals. When a people are unscripted by history, the past becomes raw material, to be processed via key moral and political vocabulary by those who would willfully impose “new modes and orders,” to quote Machiavelli.
Disordered times produce the search for order and the desire to impose order. Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport are in the former category. Their book The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism seeks to revise our historical understanding of the rise and development of American conservatism by tracing it to Herbert Hoover.