Roots of Republican Populism Run Deep in Suburban Sun Belt
JUST what is this Republican impulse that grips the American body politic by the collar? That has Speaker Newt Gingrich and his armies reopening the Constitution to weaken their own branch? That has the mayor of New York City - the citadel of the welfare state -
plannng the deepest budget cuts in the city's history?
It is a populist revolt against the elites - against the big news media, big Hollywood, big unions, and big business, but most of all against the big, highly centralized, monopoly power of government.
One way to peer into the heart of this moment in US politics is to go the places that sent the current House leaders to Washington.
The places are in the suburban subdivisions of the Sun Belt South. Newt Gingrich represents Cobb County, Atlanta's northern suburb of glass towers and growing neighborhoods. House majority leader Dick Armey is from a high-tech center between Dallas and Fort Worth. Tom DeLay, the third ranking House member, is from a Houston suburb of housing tracts displacing farms.
From Orlando to Las Vegas to the Piedmont cities of North Carolina, these are the places that have grown the most in the past decade.
The people who live there have largely become middle and upper-middle class, often quite recently, notes Merle Black, a scholar of Southern politics at Emory University. ``These are success stories, and they see themselves as self-made.''
Their ideology is growth. The first principle, as Dr. Black describes it, is that government ought to ``let people make money and keep money.''
These are not traditional Southerners, pining for the old order, nor are they nostalgic about the past. Many, after all, are from somewhere else. Mr. Gingrich grew up in Pennsylvania. Mr. Armey comes from North Dakota. Mr. DeLay spent much of his youth in Venezuela, where his father drilled for oil.
``They've left their past,'' says Black.
No Eisenhower Republicans are these. They are not of the golf and moderation set. Nor do they seek board-room respectability. But then neither do they share entirely the nostalgia-suffused conservatism of Ronald Reagan, summoning back the virtues of simpler times. These are Rotary Club Republicans gone anti-establishment.
Traditionally, American conservatism has looked backward for virtue. But conservatives such as Gingrich, talk-show star Rush Limbaugh, and humorist P.J. O'Rourke, for example, are a new breed. Anne Norton, a University of Pennsylvania political theorist, calls them ``anti-nostalgic, tough-minded, masculine,'' rejecting ``any kind of sentimentality.''
These conservatives see themselves as overturners of the powers that be. To some extent, that includes the business establishment. Many see in the House leadership a mild anti-corporate sentiment. The Contract With America Gingrich drafted before the 1994 elections is closer to the agenda of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, with its membership of florists and muffler shops, than the Business Roundtable and its Fortune 500 stalwarts.
One former Bush administration official - himself a millionaire entrepreneur and an activist against government regulation - spoke bitterly of ``corporate socialists'' in big business who had made their peace with big government.
It is the start-up business and the small operation, after all, that can be crushed by the cost of workers' compensation taxes or land-use restrictions. Big business can shift around its resources - to outside the country, if necessary.
Big is out. While big corporations have been downsizing, small employers have been hiring. The means of production, as Karl Marx might have put it, are no longer just huge milling machines that require big capital investment. They are increasingly personal computers within reach of most household budgets.
Jim Pinkerton, a former Bush official and decentralization advocate, compares the PC economy to the way the invention of the printing press helped spur the Reformation. ``Everybody can own their own Bibles, translated into the local vulgate, then they can think for themselves.''
The prosperous, new-money Sun Belt suburbs are also the home of the evangelical megachurches where pastors are not reticent about their conservative Christian politics.
But if the cultural politics of Gingrich and Limbaugh are sympathetic to school prayer, anti-abortion activism, and the social agenda of the Christian right, they talk much more about other cultural battles that center on the decline of personal responsibility: crime, out-of-wedlock children, long-term poverty.
At a gut level, there is the resentment of self-made, self-improved people - who are not, don't forget, having an easy time of it in this economy - against the comfortably sophisticated or those who demand extra help.
What they resent most, notes Michael Kazin, author of ``The Populist Persuasion,'' are the voices from campuses or the renovated brownstones of Eastern cities ``preaching to them about how to live.'' The populist Republicans, notes Black, refuse to feel guilty for the crime and poverty of others. And while virtually no one wants to roll back the great legal milestones of the early 1960s that gave blacks equality under the law, the subsequent steps down the road of affirmative action and racial balancing offend them.
Most who voted Republican last year are not part of the hard Christian right. A streak of live-and-let-live runs through the rhetoric of many of the new House leaders. But they also repeatedly describe a civilization spinning away from its moral center. And in this picture, government - from a dependency-creating welfare system to lenient courts - is a force on the wrong side.
Before the New Deal, Populism was the rising up of small farmers and merchants against the banks, or the revolt of wage earners against the abuses of big business. The people's ally against big money and the capitalist elite was big government. Populism was a movement of the left.
The New Deal enshrined that role for government, and government action became the focus of elite thought and the tool of elite power. Liberalism became the establishment credo.
As Kevin Phillips, a former Nixon strategist who foresaw many of the current trends in the late 1960s, has written: American liberalism shifted its status from ``outsiderism to cosmopolitan elitism.'' Conservatism was colored by popular ``animosity toward taxes, bureaucracies, regulations, judicial rulings and sociology by administrative fiat.''
Conservative populism has not always been pretty. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his crusade against communists in Hollywood and the State Department was an early version. A decade later, George Wallace, speaking for racial resentments of white Southerners, was another.
It took Ronald Reagan to breathe real popularity into conservative populism. He was never fully approved in the more elite Republican circles, but he spoke the language of popular disenchantment with government in a way that sounded like common sense, and he spoke with all-American optimism.
The intellectual foundation of this populist Republicanism was laid largely by an unlikely group - the neo-conservatives. Mostly Jews and Catholics who grew up as ethnic outsiders, thinking of true Americans as someone else, the Neo-Cons often began life as Democrats or even communists. They believed in upward mobility and free markets. They were militant against world communism and believed in a strong US role in the world. And they observed early on that the generosities of the welfare state would create a ``new class'' of bureaucrats whose primary interest would become preserving their programs and positions.
Writers from Irving Kristol (father of leading current GOP strategist William Kristol) to Michael Novak developed the first fully American conservatism - one that did not look longingly to the class order of Europe, a la William F. Buckley - and made it intellectually respectable.
Before the Neo-Cons, says University of Connecticut political scientist Everett Ladd, ``there was no intellectually respectable opposition to the New Deal.''
What Gingrich and company are about now, says Dr. Ladd, is nothing less than ``the end of the New Deal era.''
These voters will remain skeptics of big government, says Kevin Phillips. But if the economy crashes again, the middle class will look for a safety net where it always looks: school lunch subsidies and unemployment extensions.