On Thursday, HUMAN EVENTS editor Jed Babbin interviewed Al Regnery about his new book on the history of the conservative movement. Here’s a transcript of the interview (edited for length).
JB: Al, you titled the book, “Upstream.” If the United States really is a conservative country, why are conservatives having to fight ‘upstream’?
AR: Well, because they are challenging the status quo of the intellectuals and of the opinion-makers. I think there is a split between the opinion of most Americans and what they are told by the intellectual “authorities.” Those people who have labeled themselves as opinion-makers: those in the news business, in most of the book-publishing companies, in universities, a lot of the big think tanks, the foundations and all of the other places that exert influence on the way people think. It’s an attitude that’s been going on for, probably since sometime during or after World War II; and those people don’t like to be challenged. They have very, pretty definite ideas about the way things should be, moving the country to the left. So they have erected obstacles for conservatives wherever they can. And I think it’s always been an uphill fight, and I think it always will be.
JB: One of the points you make — and I think it’s pretty early in the book — is that much of conservatism is reaction to liberalism. What’s the difference really in terms of the independent-thought bases? Is there less independent thought or core philosophy, in conservatism? Are we really what we used to be called — reactionaries?
AR: Well, a great deal of conservative activism and the way conservatives join together to get things done by the political process is reaction to things that the left has done. But I think, nevertheless, that there is sort of a normal tendency of Americans to believe in what this country was originally all about, about constitutionalism and federalism and limited government and that sort of thing. But there is this constant barrage of information telling them that that isn’t so. Of course a great many voters are not terribly sophisticated in these things. Case in point: I remember the 1966 election. A lot of people voted for Jimmy Carter because they thought he was the more conservative of the two candidates.
AR: Now, he really wasn’t, but that was the impression he gave them.
JB: He really ran on a false pretence.
AR: Well, he did, and of course he wasn’t a conservative president at all, but the way he talked, and some of the things he said, people thought he probably was. I would guess that you might have had the same, to some extent, with Bill Clinton when he first ran.
I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised, if there were a lot of people who thought, you know, as a Southern governor, he’s been reasonably successful as a governor, he’s probably going to do some conservative kinds of things. So that is one of the problems you have. But, in terms of the reaction, there have been a lot of things that have been done by the left that didn’t reflect democracy, or republican values — republican with a small ‘r’ — which conservatives did react to.
I think case in point is, starting with 1953 with the elevation of Earl Warren, the chief justice in the Supreme Court, the things that the courts have done, by unelected people, which have been moving this country to the left, actuARly since the Roosevelt administration. That’s been somewhat corrected now, but there is a tendency of judges oftentimes to rule in ways that certainly would not be what the people want them to do. They do that by judicial fiat, and the normal thing of conservatives to do is to get together and react to it one way or another.
JB: That leads to another point. One of the things, it seems to me, that differentiates between liberals from conservatives is that conservatives are more dedicated to personal freedom. And when you have the courts imposing limitations on those freedoms, conservatives are more apt to react negatively.
AR: Well, that’s true. In a broader sense, conservatives are also, really, more dedicated to the rule of law and due process. And even in cases where the result may not bother people, the way the courts went about it often sends conservatives up the wall. Case in point is, as I point out in the book, is the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1953 and ‘54, desegregating the schools. A lot of people thought, there’s nothing wrong with desegregating the schools, it’s the right thing to do. But what in the world are these nine unelected people in Washington telling us in Texas or Mississippi or wherever it may be how to run our school systems?
JB: Let’s get to another key point in your book. One of the things that you say is that Reagan was a conservative first and a Republican second. Tell me what you mean by that and why was it important.
AR: I think that the conservative movement and the Republican party have two very different jobs. The Republican Party — as with any party — has the job of electing people. Finding people who are going to run, raising the money, helping them put together campaigns and electing them. And, from a party standpoint, it doesn’t make too much difference what those people believe, as long as they’re going to be good partisan people. And if you go through the ranks of just people who are in the Republican Party, many of them really aren’t, particularly, philosophical at all.
But by the same token, the conservative movement has the job of establishing the foundation, the ideas, the principles that are what they think should be should be brought to bear in government. And most of those people are today Republicans. They didn’t used to be; there used to be a lot of conservative Democrats as well. Their job is, therefore, to help shape candidates’ thinking so they’ll do conservative things.
When people get elected, conservatives need to keep influencing them, to bring pressure to bear on them for whatever reason, to get them to move to the right. And, in terms of Ronald Reagan, of course, he was a Democrat before he was a Republican. But, if you look at the things he said way back in the times when he was a Democrat, he was a conservative. What Reagan really had were some core principles that he believed right down to his foundation. And he was more interested in getting those things done than he was in furthering the interests — whatever those might be — of the Republican Party.
Certainly he wanted to have other conservatives elected, other Republicans elected, who could support him in the Congress in the things that he wanted to do, but, when Ronald Reagan came to the White House, as I quoted in my book, he said, ‘I have an agenda, and there are certain things I want to get done.’ And basically those things are to cut taxes and reestablish a sound economy, which is certainly one of the principles of the conservative movement; to win the Cold War, which was another very, very big piece of it; and to reestablish peoples’ faith in the rule of law and government, and in knowing that the government’s working for the people rather than against it, and so on, and in the presidency. And he certainly accomplished all three of those things, not because he was acting as a partisan Republican, but because he was acting as a conservative.
JB: Let’s look at — just for a minute — both the Goldwater campaign in ‘64 and Reagan’s first campaign in ‘80. It seems that both of those were, at least for a while, a struggle between the so-called Republican establishment and the conservative wing of the party. How did that play out? Is that something that we’re seeing again this year with John McCain?
AR: Exactly. In fact, it didn’t start in 1964. I think it started in 1952, when Eisenhower was nominated over Taft. Taft was the conservative’s choice. Eisenhower wasn’t even a member of the party; the Democrats had tried to recruit him for running for president, and he sort of weighed both, and decided he would do the Republican thing. And it has gone on in virtually every single nomination process since then. Certainly, Goldwater was the one that won over Rockefeller in 1964. Rockefeller was beginning to run in 1960, as was Goldwater. And of course, Nixon was nominated, and Nixon was sort of in no-man’s land between being a liberal and a conservative. But, we look back at the 1976 campaign, Reagan running against Gerry Ford, Reagan almost won.
At that time the Republican, the conservatives were beginning to have much more power within the Republican party. Again, in 1980, there were a couple of moderates who ran against Ronald Reagan. We had the same thing with George W. Bush, with the first George Bush, and you’ve got it again with McCain now. In many ways, McCain is much more conservative than some of those moderates and liberals that were running in times past. I mean, you look at Nelson Rockefeller, who ran several times, he was –
JB: He was pretty much a pluperfect liberal.
AR: He was pretty much indistinguishable from a Democrat, I mean they believed in the same things.
AR: … and he made no bones about it. But, you know, sure, you have the same thing. Unfortunately in this election the conservatives didn’t have any one candidate that they all rallied behind. Had they had a Ronald Reagan, or somebody like that who, sort of, had all of those kinds of qualities, I don’t think there’s any doubt that that person would have been nominated. They didn’t. So the conservatives were quite split and the result is that you have somebody that many conservatives don’t think is the perfect candidate.
JB: Well, one of the thing’s we’re split over, even amongst conservative ranks, is the Iraq War, the global war on terrorism, which I think really is global war.
JB: You point out, in chapter 7, the differences between the neo-cons and the new right and what’s going on with the grassroots. First off, what is a neo-con, and what is their function in the party right now?
AR: Well, originally, neo-cons were Democrats who were foreign policy conservatives, or anti-Communists, and they were sort of domestic liberals. And actually they first started questioning whether the great society was working, whether these programs were doing any good, and they concluded in many cases that they weren’t. The newer neo-cons are, mostly, as Bob Novak said, they’re more “neo” than “con.” In many cases they really don’t have any particular link to conservatives except for foreign policy, and even then they differ with many conservatives on foreign policy. Most of them are not concerned about lowering taxes, and about limiting government, and about traditional values, and those sort of things. Generally speaking, their primary goal is taking what they see as American ideals and planting them in other parts of the world to improve what they see as inferior systems elsewhere.
JB: Yeah, really, a neo-Wilsonian sort of thing.
AR: Yeah, exactly.
JB: Well, in terms of the role of the party right now. Let’s go through two scenarios. What do you think happens, first, if John McCain wins the election this year, where does conservatism go?
AR: Well, I think what conservatism needs to do is to make it very clear to John McCain that conservatives are a very significant force in American politics, and they need to do everything they can to hold his feet to the fire to do things that he otherwise wouldn’t do. Understand, it’s not going to be perfect, they’re not going to get everything they want. But, if they do it right, they will get a quite lot of things.
JB: Ok, let me stop you right there. How do we ‘do it right’? I mean what should conservatives be right now, before McCain even gets the, well, gets the formal nomination?
AR: Well, to the extent they can, they get themselves into his campaign, conservatives should surround McCain with people that are our kind of people, who will advise him on doing the right things. To his credit, he’s got a good many of those people around him. I mean, after all, Jack Kemp is working for him, Ted Olsen is working for him, Sam Brownback, Frank Keating, you know, Phil Gramm — there are some very, very solid conservatives who are on John McCain’s team.
It’s important that conservatives put pressure on him to name a good conservative vice president, simply by letting him know that that’s what we want. Also, I think that we put pressure on him to the extent that we can by talking to him, by writing him letters, by all the other things that you do to make some of those people I just named his Cabinet.
After he’s elected, we do things like we did with the Roberts and Alito nominations — and, I outlined that in the last chapter of my book in great detail — as to the pressure that was brought to bear on the Bush administration to name good Supreme Court justices.
I think if conservatives hadn’t done what they did — Bush’s first choices were Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzalez for Supreme Court. And, it was because conservatives put together a grand coalition of all of their different factions and all of their different organizations, and they raised money, they trained people in media relations, and all the other things that needed to be done. They had a grand campaign. They let the Bush administration know that it is unacceptable if you name people like Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzalez to the Supreme Court, and we will do everything we can to see that they’re not confirmed. Which is exactly what happened with Harriet Miers.
The reason that she went down was because conservatives brought a great deal of pressure through the grassroots, through millions of Americans who were educated and let their senators know that this was unacceptable. And when Sam Alito was nominated, they went to bat for him within literally minutes of the time he was announced, because he was one of the people on the short list for a conservative standpoint. And they did everything they could to bring pressure to bear on, moderate Democrats, for example, in the Senate, to support Alito, and it worked. And I think that if there had been another Supreme Court vacancy in this administration, I think the administration would have done what the conservatives wanted again, because they don’t want to lose another one.
JB: Right. Well, let’s tlk about the other alternative. I think we have to admit that it’s quite possible that there will be a democratic president next year.
AR: Could be.
JB: So, let’s say the worst happens, and either Hillary or Obama is our next president. Conservatives will be fractured. How do you start getting things back together?
AR: Well, first of all, it’s not the end of the world. I mean, the United States will survive. It’s hard to believe that sometimes, but Obama or Hillary Clinton will not put these plans into place, I don’t believe, because Congress will resist, and because they will hear from constituents who are, in many cases, moderates, conservatives who don’t want those things to happen.
But, as it always happens, I think the conservative movement, if either one of those two people is elected, it will coalesce, it will strengthen it, it will help us recruit more people, help us raise money, help us think in a more unified way than we had been before, as it Always does. I mean, during the Clinton administration, conservatives made enormous headway. Coming out of the first Bush administration, conservatives were fractured again. By the time Clinton was done we had unified. We had started new think tanks, new organizations, these statewide conservative groups sprung up in virtually every state. I mean, there’s a huge network of things, most of which were the result of fighting the Clinton administration. Actually, you look back on the Bill Clinton administration, there were a good many things that conservatives got that wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t exerted that kind of pressure. Welfare reforms are a case in point. And I think there’s going to be a lot to do, both in trying to stop what the Obama or Clinton administration is doing and secondly, recruiting and training people to run for the next time.
JB: Last question. You’re — like every good journalist — a little bit of a betting man. What is your prediction, in January 2009, who’s going to be raising their hand to be sworn in as president of the United States.
AR: Well, I usually don’t make those kinds of predictions, because there’s a pretty good chance I’m going to be wrong. And I keep telling people a week is a long time in American politics, and eight months, or whatever it is till November, is an even longer time. And I have no idea what’s going to happen. My guess is, I just have a hunch that there’s going to be some major disruption, whatever that might be, that is going to change things dramatically from the way that we think they’re going. And I have no idea what that’s going to be, but I think it’s going to be something that’s going to surprise all of us, and things aren’t going to turn out exactly the way they appear to be going.
JB: Al, thanks very much.