The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s
By Nicole Hemmer
358 pages. Basic Books. $32.
Even for those of us who remember them all too well, the 1990s were something of a muddle. The decade was like a long transitional moment between the casually rapacious spirit that preceded it and the War on Terror that came after.
The Clinton administration may have shown that the American political center of gravity had shifted to the right, with a Democratic president signing a punitive crime bill in 1994 and making good on his pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” But part of the confusion over the ’90s seems to lie in the discrepancy between what was actually happening and the soothing language that was used to describe it — bland clichés about a post-Cold War consensus, with establishment politicians coalescing around “the end of history” and “the third way.”
So much for all that. As the historian Nicole Hemmer writes in “Partisans,” her lively and clarifying new book, the conservative movement of the ’90s was doing much more than biding its time. Unlike Dana Milbank’s “The Destructionists,” which also looks closely at the Republican Party during the ’90s, “Partisans” is less a prehistory of the Trump presidency than an autopsy of the short-lived Reagan era.
Reagan’s victory was supposed to mark a turning point for Republicans, toward a conservatism that was “optimistic and popular,” Hemmer writes. Sure enough, Republicans still like to invoke Reagan’s name. But Hemmer shows that Reaganism as an ideology and an attitude collapsed almost as soon as he left office; his name became a mantra without actual meaning. What happened, and why did it happen so quickly?
When Reagan first ascended to the White House in 1981, what made his approach distinct wasn’t his conservatism, with its hodgepodge of small-government libertarianism (less money for education) and big-government anti-communism (more money for the military). Hemmer locates Reaganism’s core in his particular style: flexible, pragmatic, relentlessly cheerful.
Reagan hated to be associated with any policy that was unpopular, retroactively trying to pin the blame for slashing the funding for school lunches on a bureaucracy that was out to get him (“none of this was true,” Hemmer writes). He was open to immigration reforms and liked free trade. His faith in the revenue-generating magic of tax cuts was a reflection of his sunny outlook — tides would rise, boats would lift (only they didn’t, and after cutting taxes inflated a ballooning deficit, he raised them again).
While some Republicans found the Reagan presidency winning, others found it infuriating. Hemmer reminds us that despite the mythology that has flourished since, Reagan got castigated by plenty of conservatives. In 1984, Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia railed against the president for being too focused on “governing” and too enamored of unity, when he should have been “forcing a polarization of the country.” A decade later, as the House minority whip, Gingrich would engineer a landslide victory for Republicans that would elevate him to speaker of the House.
Gingrich is just one of the figures in this book who contributed to Reaganism’s demise by fueling a populist right. Not that Gingrich himself was much of a populist in any real sense, spouting incendiary rhetoric to fire up the base while quietly compromising on legislation behind the scenes. Among conservatives, Gingrich was considered enough of a sellout that he was widely distrusted, even by the likes of his fellow showboat Rush Limbaugh.
Hemmer, whose previous book traces the history of conservative media, devotes a substantial swath of “Partisans” to the way that the media ecosystem changed in the ’90s. Limbaugh’s radio show was nationally syndicated, propagating his mix of clowning and rage. Fox News fixtures like Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson had their careers nurtured by MSNBC. Bill Maher’s talk show “Politically Incorrect,” though brimming with ridicule for both Democrats and Republicans, was especially welcoming of guests like Ingraham, because saying offensive things was apparently entertaining — at least according to Maher, who had declared he wanted a show that “made controversy funny.”
Maher wasn’t so much a partisan as a contrarian; but like Ross Perot, another contrarian in Hemmer’s book, Maher turned out to be an inadvertent enabler, helping to shake things loose, opening enough space so that the real partisans— previously relegated to the margins — could get their share of the spotlight.
The main partisan in Hemmer’s narrative is Pat Buchanan. Despite serving as the communications director in the Reagan White House, Buchanan wasn’t a buoyant Reaganite but a grievance politician — an anti-immigration isolationist who attracted Klan support (which he did little to rebuff) and, as Hemmer puts it, “dabbled in Holocaust denial.” He declared his admiration for Franco, the Spanish dictator, and South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Buchanan tried and failed to get the Republican nomination twice, and ran as a third-party candidate in 2000. But just because he didn’t succeed in the immediate sense doesn’t mean that he hadn’t planted a seed. “His politics were already taking root in the institutional structure of the Republican Party,” Hemmer writes, describing how the party’s platform was amended in 1992 to include one of Buchanan’s demands — “structures” on the southern border.
But the finer points of policy — or “governing,” as Gingrich derisively put it — seemed to have little to do with the conservative transformation that was taking place. The overall sense you get from Hemmer’s book is that none of Clinton’s maneuvering during the ’90s, including his frequent tacks to the right, made conservatives feel heard; if anything, Republicans just “lurched further to the right themselves,” Hemmer writes, “rejecting compromise in favor of perpetual warfare.”
Reading about how the performance of grievance can harden, I was reminded of that old warning given to children (1990 was probably the last time it was given to me): Keep making that face and it’ll freeze that way.