Nostalgia for 1990s Conservativism

Wistfulness for the 1990s is in fashion. This is understandable, if not always healthy. As Millennials approach middle age, our thoughts increasingly turn to our juvenescence. Given our frustrations with today’s elected officials, the urge to look fondly back at the political era dominated by Bill Clinton and New Gingrich can be irresistible. Sure, there were plenty of scandals and demagogues, but in retrospect the era seems placid and functional.

Although far from a work of nostalgia, Nicole Hemmer’s new book, Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s is well timed to take advantage of this cultural moment. Hemmer is currently employed with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project at Columbia University. She is an unapologetic progressive, and her political loyalties are clear throughout the text. Although they will likely have many misgivings about her analysis, fair-minded conservative readers will also enjoy her work.

With her previous book, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, Hemmer established herself as an important historian of American conservatism. As was the case with Partisans, her first book made no secret of her political prejudices. It nonetheless received little attention and even less pushback from conservatives. In part, this was because Messengers of the Right focused heavily on figures from the post-war era now largely forgotten. Few people today remember, let alone have strong feelings about, conservatives such as Clarence Manion and William Rusher. This will not be the case for Partisans. The overwhelming majority of her readers will remember Rush Limbaugh’s role as de facto leader of the conservative movement, the rise of Fox News, and Newt Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker of the House. They furthermore already have firm opinions about these people and events.

Hemmer argues that conservatives shifted their tone in the 1990s. Ronald Reagan was a paragon of sunny optimism. However, many of the attributes that made Reagan a successful politician enraged some of his right-wing allies. His pragmatism and willingness to cut deals with congressional Democrats caused much grumbling among conservative elites. They could nonetheless do little to oppose Reagan, given his extraordinary popularity among the G.O.P. rank and file and the country more broadly. With Reagan out of the public arena, however, the party’s ideologues were free to pursue a more brutal form of right-wing politics.

New Leadership

Partisans follows a mostly linear narrative, beginning with a whirlwind description of the right in the 1970s and 1980s. Hemmer accurately describes the so-called New Right, which understood that social issues could bring new demographic groups into the Republican camp. As Hemmer notes, however, the New Right was never particularly enamored with Reagan, wanting a more aggressive proponent of their worldview.

Reagan was followed by President George H.W. Bush, who, unlike Reagan, was never given the benefit of the doubt by conservatives. Bush represented an older, more genteel variety of conservatism, one that fit poorly with the populist rabble-rousers that were increasingly prominent in both the G.O.P. and the conservative movement. For his betrayal on taxes, many conservatives were willing to consider an alternative candidate for the top of the Republican ticket in 1992.

Populist conservatives of the early 90s found their champion in Patrick J. Buchanan, a long-time Washington insider who worked for Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, and had become a mainstay on television. Despite his credentials, Buchanan campaigned as a political outsider and won a dedicated following. The mainstream conservative movement was ambivalent about Buchanan. National Review dedicated an entire issue to the question of whether Buchanan was an anti-Semite, ultimately concluding that the label was appropriate. National Review did not at the time launch a continuous frontal attack on Buchanan, in part because they also had many problems with Bush. It turned out not to matter in any case. Buchanan never came close to taking the 1992 Republican nomination, and Bush was handily defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton. Buchanan tried again in 1996, achieving a bit more success, but once again it was a quixotic effort.

The 1994 “Republican Revolution,” in which Newt Gingrich led his party to victory in congressional elections, was a critical period in Partisans. A new breed of Republican politician, bolstered by right-wing masters of talk-radio infotainment, painted the moderate Democratic President as a crazed left-wing radical. In substance, the G.O.P.’s “Contract with America” was dull and wonkish, but Gingrich and his allies carefully sold it and the rest of their agenda with populist, focus-grouped slogans. Hemmer suggests Republican pollster Frank Luntz “shape[d] the politics of the 1990s.”

Hemmer dedicated an entire chapter to Rush Limbaugh. She makes no secret of her dislike for the late king of the AM dial, yet even in her telling of his improbable rise to wealth and influence, it is hard not to be impressed by his accomplishments. Hemmer also suggests that, despite their mutual hostility, “Clinton and Limbaugh swam in the same cultural waters with ease, even as their politics sharply diverged. Theirs was a politics of connection, contingent on creating intimate emotional ties with listeners or voters.”

The book then focuses on the futile efforts of Republicans to impeach the president. This is well-known history, but Hemmer tells the story well. Her chapter on the militia movement, however, exaggerated the threat that various small groups of right-wing goons LARPing as revolutionaries ever represented to the country. In hindsight, it is clear that the movement was doomed to suffer a catastrophic loss of public support after one or more of its supporters inevitably engaged in real-world violence. This is what occurred after the Oklahoma City Bombing, and the movement never recovered.

Racial Politics

Beyond obvious leaders like Limbaugh and Gingrich, there is no scientific means to discern which 1990s conservatives were most important and represented bellwethers for the right’s future. I was nonetheless surprised by the amount of space Hemmer dedicated to Dinesh D’Souza. She argued that his book, The End of Racism, represented the triumph of a new variety of conservative racism, one that simultaneously appealed to white racial resentment while claiming that it represented the true anti-racism.

I wish Hemmer had given D’Souza considerably less attention, or a bit more. His relationship with racial controversies was more complicated than Partisans suggests. Although her description of D’Souza’s writings was factually correct, she left out some important details. More than anyone else, D’Souza was responsible for getting Sam Francis fired from The Washington Times—in The Washington Post, D’Souza recounted a racist speech Francis gave at a conference in 1994, and Francis lost his job shortly thereafter. This was significant because Francis was, at that time, the most important bridge between the radical right and mainstream conservatism. Purging Francis from conservatism’s ranks, depriving him of any influence over the mainstream right, was more consequential than anything D’Souza wrote in any of his books.

The good news of 1990s is that partisan politics can be vicious, unfair, and often stupid, yet also lead to generally positive outcomes for the country.

Hemmer also notes the nativist writings published at National Review in the 1990s, especially focusing on a cover story on immigration by Peter Brimelow when John O’Sullivan edited the magazine. What she does not mention was that the 1990s, rather than foreshadowing further moves to the right on immigration, represented a high-water mark of nativism in National Review. O’Sullivan’s tenure was short, and his successor, Rich Lowry, moved the magazine in a less right-wing direction on the issue—though he did maintain the magazine’s opposition to amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

The 1990s was a strange moment in the history of racial politics. Hemmer is correct that, across much of the right, racial “dog whistles” were often a powerful political tool for politicians and talk-show hosts. This was also a period, however, when taboos about explicit racism were becoming increasingly strong, even on the right. To use the contemporary colloquialism, several conservatives were “cancelled” by former allies for violating new norms when it came to racial discourse.

Hemmer seems scandalized by conservative opposition to affirmative action. The truth is that affirmative action is highly unpopular, especially when the polling questions explicitly mention racial preferences for hiring and promotion. This seems like an obvious winning issue for the G.O.P., and the more interesting question is why the party does not pursue the issue with greater energy.

A Pre-History of Trump

Hemmer insists that “this book is not a prehistory of Trumpism.” Yet that is often how it reads. In her final substantive chapters, she connects developments in the 1990s to the Tea Party’s rise and, of course, Donald Trump. If Trump had not been elected president, I doubt she would have given so much attention to Pat Buchanan’s three failed presidential campaigns—none of which brought him anywhere close to the presidency. Like many other observers, Hemmer notes the similarities between the themes Trump promoted in his successful presidential run and Buchanan’s campaign platforms, implying there was a straight line between them. The book suggests Trump, or someone like Trump, was the inevitable result of political currents set in motion by Gingrich, Limbaugh, and other partisan bomb-throwers in the mid-1990s.

I am not so sure. In retrospect, Trump’s presidency seems like an example of American politics’ stochastic nature, rather than something predetermined by decades of history. Had Trump not chosen to enter the political arena in 2015, either Hillary Clinton or some conventional Republican would have been elected president. Had that happened, I doubt Hemmer would have written this book.

Hemmer laments the vicious politics of the 1990s. I share many of her complaints, and in hindsight find the right’s attempts to force Clinton from office especially absurd. Partisans contrasts Gingrich and his supporters with Reagan, who Hemmer notes was often willing to compromise and was less ideologically consistent than many contemporary conservatives imagine. The more interesting thing to note, however, was that, in terms of governance, the 1990s was a surprisingly well-managed period in American history. Fiascos like the brief government shutdowns must be acknowledged, but compared to preceding and subsequent decades, the 1990s seems like a paragon of responsible government.

We can debate how much Reagan should be blamed for the Iran-Contra scandal, but it was a major scandal and a national embarrassment—more embarrassing, in my view, than Clinton’s dalliances. For all his virtues, Reagan was largely responsible for the explosive growth of the national debt.

At least when compared to Clinton and Gingrich, Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil’s relationship with Reagan was cordial and productive. Yet it was in the 1990s that the federal debt problem was on track to be solved. The 1990s witnessed mostly responsible foreign policies. President George H.W. Bush prudently decided not to send tanks to Baghdad. Clinton similarly found it satisfactory to keep Saddam Hussein contained and toothless. We can debate the merits of Clinton’s actions regarding Kosovo, but from the U.S. perspective, it was a trivial affair.

We now only hear critiques about criminal justice policies developed in the 1990s. I have no problem considering new policy reforms that are less punitive, but it is also true that in the 90s we finally witnessed a decline in the horrifying violent crime rates that defined previous decades. This was not a small accomplishment.

More Than Theatrical Politics

Nostalgia is a vice, one conservatives especially fall prey to. Yet there are good reasons to have fond feelings for politics in the 1990s. The good news of that era is that partisan politics can be vicious, unfair, and often stupid, yet also lead to generally positive outcomes for the country. This should provide comfort to people concerned that vitriol and polarization in national politics will necessarily have disastrous results. We should thus try to understand what made the 1990s different from today.

Hemmer does not directly address this question, but she does hint at answers. One reason that government operated reasonably well was that Gingrich’s attacks on Clinton were often more performative than substantive. The President and the Speaker of the House, despite their public battles, actually managed to compromise and implement meaningful legislation. Welfare reform was the best example of this.

Hemmer points out that Gingrich, despite his overheated rhetoric about the president, had privately sought to avoid the impeachment farce. He did so because he “had things he wanted to get done with the administration, a goal that impeachment would stymie by requiring Clinton to try to close ranks in the Democratic Party.” Gingrich, Hemmer suggests, tried to maintain some separation between the political theater and the business of governing.

Had President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi behaved more like Clinton and Gingrich, we probably would have still witnessed a preposterous impeachment effort. We may, however, have also seen important infrastructure investments that both sides would have been proud of, or perhaps some centrist legislation aligned with Trump’s more populist instincts. Instead, we saw nothing but vitriol and obstruction—as was the case when President Obama faced a Republican-led congress.

Although I am not optimistic, I hope that, if the political tea leaves are correct and we soon return to an era of divided government, the next congressional leaders and President Biden can give us an era of compromise analogous to the mid-1990s. This, unfortunately, represents a best-case scenario.

I take it for granted that political rhetoric will remain mean-spirited, dishonest, and short-sighted. Neither party’s activists will accept anything else in this political climate. This is worsened by social media, which allows legions of irritable activists to publicly register their discontent at the first sign of ideological apostasy from politicians. We could therefore benefit from leaders a bit more cynical and phony. Compared to the status quo, we will be fortunate to have more politicians willing to surreptitiously compromise and collaborate with their partisan opponents, even if they must remain forever outraged, ideological, and intransigent for the cameras.


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