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The conservative revolution [ worth reading whether you agree or
From: David Farber <farber () central cis upenn edu>
Date: Wed, 4 Jan 1995 16:50:54 -0500

Date: Tue, 3 Jan 1995 17:36:08 -0800
From: Phil Agre <pagre () weber ucsd edu>




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                T H E  N E T W O R K  O B S E R V E R


  VOLUME 2, NUMBER 1                                  JANUARY 1995


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  The conservative revolution.


  My liberal friends are virtually all in denial.  They change the
  channel when Rush Limbaugh comes on, they cite low voter turnout
  figures as evidence against the electoral legitimacy of the new
  Republican Congress, they assert as obvious that Republicans and
  Democrats are the same by now anyway, they dismiss Newt Gingrich
  and the editorialists of the Wall Street Journal as nut-cases,
  they speculate that the 1980's provide grounds for predicting
  that the new conservative movement will self-destruct and fade,
  and they act as though they could rebut every last conservative
  argument before breakfast with one hand tied behind their backs.


  Dream on, my friends, because you are in serious trouble.  Little
  analysis of the detailed electoral numbers is required to figure
  out that we're looking at the largest and deepest shift in US
  political institutions since the New Deal.  But the strongest
  evidence goes beyond the numbers.  The conservative movement has
  built an impressive array of institutions, a system of parallel
  structures with serious funding and a genuine mass base.  This
  includes parallel media institutions (the Washington Times, talk
  radio and National Empowerment Television, all of them by-passing
  the mainstream news), parallel public interest organizations (the
  American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) competing head-to-head
  with the ACLU, as well as a batch of other conservative legal
  institutes employing the ACLU model but pressing property rights
  and anti-affirmative action agendas), parallel intellectual
  networks (based for the most part in privately funded think tanks
  like the Heritage Foundation and Manhattan Institute, but also
  in law schools and economics departments), and much else.  One
  reason why liberals can maintain their denial is that they have
  chosen, by and large, to remain uninformed about these alternative
  institutions.  Their world has remained stable for so long that
  they are unable to conceive that changing political conditions
  could simply throw a switch, channeling cultural and financial
  resources to the new institutions and leaving the old ones to
  wither and die.


  Money helps build such institutions, of course, but it's not
  just money.  The last decade has seen the rise of an extremely
  well-organized network of activists who are much more thoroughly
  studied in conservative ideology than the Reaganites of ten and
  fifteen years ago.  They support and recruit young Republican
  activists on college campuses, they get vast amounts of ideology
  distributed to people who can use it, and they sell large numbers
  of books by Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises and a world
  of other conservative theorists to people who really do read and
  understand them.  In particular, they have sophisticated ideas
  about the structure of the liberal coalition and its weaknesses,
  and they are exhibiting extraordinary precision and thoroughness
  in applying pressure along the fracture lines.


  One sign of the ongoing decimation of the liberal coalition
  is its nearly complete lack of rhetorical traction in rebutting
  conservative arguments.  We can see this, for example, in the
  impunity with which conservative rhetors have appropriated words
  like "elites" (a term which no longer includes bankers but does
  include journalists), "bigotry" and "hate" (now used to signify
  opposition to the political program of religious conservatives),
  and "political correctness" (a term which formerly was rarely
  used in seriousness by anyone but sectarian Leninists but which
  now routinely conflates social dissent and political repression).
  We can also see it in the impunity with which these same rhetors
  employ extreme vocabulary in their anti-liberal polemics -- read
  any of P. J. O'Rourke's "enemies lists" in the American Spectator
  for the prototype, but the phenomenon is pervasive.


  Much will happen in the next couple of years.  The Democratic
  Party will disintegrate.  The corporate funding on which it
  came increasingly to rely as it alienated its mass base by
  increments since the late 1970's has now shifted radically toward
  the Republicans.  (Most of the figures you'll see won't seem to
  prove this, since the radical shift only began toward the end of
  the 1994 campaign.)  Corporate money only went to the Democrats
  in the first place because money buys access and the Democrats
  were the majority party.  Now that that's no longer true, this
  money will seek its natural home and the inherent bias toward
  incumbents in the money-intensive political process will lock in
  with extra strength.  Enough things are genuinely messed up in
  Washington that the new Republican majority can be heroes simply
  by cleaning up the worst of them, starting with Congressional
  rules.  It'll take incredible discipline to institute term limits
  and pass a balanced budget amendment, but they'll do it.  Once
  they start actually balancing the budget, though, they'll need to
  considerably deepen the revolution.  If they're smart, which they
  are, then they'll take Bill Kristol's suggestion and hold "show
  trials" of failed government programs, presumably starting with
  the Departments of Energy, Transportation, and Housing and Urban
  Development.  Eventually they'll empty out the Department of
  Education, since it's a creature of the Democrats' most central
  constituency, the National Education Association, but they don't
  need to do that immediately.  What the liberal pollsters don't
  understand is that the conservative ideological network can back
  up Republican legislative initiatives with tremendous grassroots
  firepower through talk radio and other media -- the crime bill
  and failed attempts at lobbying reform in the previous Congress
  provide good examples.  What seems politically impossible today
  won't seem so impossible once this machinery gets back in gear in
  a few months.  This effect will be awesome in the 1996 election
  cycle, and Bill Clinton is more likely to be assassinated than he
  is to be reelected.


  The biggest question is whether the new conservative majority has
  enough discipline to prevent a return to the social conditions
  of the 1880's, when a laissez-faire legislative majority and
  legal system permitted the profound social chaos inherent in an
  unregulated market economy to express itself.  Large business
  coalitions are already forming to eviscerate the Securities
  and Exchange Commission and the Food and Drug Administration,
  which regulate perhaps the two most morally hazardous industries.
  Increasingly frequent proposals to means-test Social Security
  benefits will turn Social Security into a form of welfare and
  thus great increase its political vulnerability.  Once people
  like Richard Posner and Richard Epstein are appointed to the
  Supreme Court, if not before, look for New Zealand-style changes
  in labor law and the end of affirmative action.  It's a leftist's
  dream, in an unfortunate and twisted way, but it will take place
  against the background of a thoroughgoing conservative hegemony
  that will make leftist arguments nearly unintelligible.


  What does this have to do with networks?  All along, I've pointed
  at something important -- the infrastructure of the conservative
  political movement.  This includes technical infrastructure --
  radio, Newt Gingrich's videos and conference calls, direct mail
  and the databases that back it up, and so forth.  It includes
  institutional infrastructure -- activist training by groups like
  Gopac, networking groups like the Council for National Policy,
  the Free Press, and the whole world of institutions based in
  conservative evangelical churches.  It also includes what we
  might call rhetorical infrastructure -- the discursive forms of
  public relations that provide standard frames and logics for the
  ceaseless circulation and reassembly of bits of fact and argument
  and narrative by conservative pundits and activists.  And it
  includes what we might call ideological infrastructure -- the
  basic framework of abstract ideas that get filled in with this
  rhetorical material in particular settings.


  No one or two of these basic types of infastructure suffices to
  characterize or explain the material workings of the conservative
  movement.  In particular, technology is an indissociable part
  of the whole picture, but it is just one part.  In another TNO
  article I want to sketch a framework for thinking about the
  communicative metabolism of social movements in general, but for
  the moment I simply want to remark on the specific uses being
  made of communication technology by this one particular movement.
  As I keep saying, the technologies do not in themselves determine
  how they will be used, but their specific workings do matter for
  the workings of the larger social machinery -- the institutional,
  rhetorical, and ideological machinery with which it articulates
  in daily practice.


  Will the conservative movement change its character as (or, I
  suppose we should say, if) access to computer networking becomes
  more widespread?  We cannot be certain.  We can be certain,
  though, that computer networks will not themselves change any
  existing movements or create any new ones.  Rather than wait
  for that to happen, let us become aware of the specific ways in
  which different kinds of social movements take hold of particular
  technologes, and let us keep on imagining the other ways in which
  the technologies might be used.


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