By: Joe Morris Doss
The Strategy of the Conservative Movement After Reagan
After Ronald Reagan’s re-election to a second term as President, a group of leaders within the Republican Party gathered to think ahead about what should be done after he went out of office. Their primary loyalty was to the Conservative Movement and they considered how to continue building that movement. The nation was moving in the desirable political direction according to their purposes, as Reagan had taken advantage of the mood of the country and certain developments in foreign relations to take it well to the right. Lincoln’s vision had professed government of the people, by the people, for the people; Reagan succeeded in having government deemed “the problem.” The techno-economic sphere of society had become dominant over those of the polis and culture and the growing influence of money in politics was considered a very good thing. The appointment of young, ideologically conservative judges was an established pattern. The word “liberal” had become a term that was to be avoided as an insult, even by “progressives,” – something radical and out-of-step.
The Republican Party had become the primary vehicle for the Conservative Movement, even in the states of the old Confederacy. Now these leaders were determined to see it become the Party of the Conservative Movement. The Conservative Movement was to co-opt the Republican Party. In other words, there was to be a Conservative Party over against a Liberal Party, and that Conservative Party was to become completely dominant. Leaders such as Karl Rove made no secret of their hope to destroy the Democratic Party. How to go about this was the strategic question.
The first decision was based on a novel idea: after Reagan left office he was to be turned into the equivalent of a political saint. These seasoned campaigners knew well enough how to accomplish this, and the right experts were hired to conduct a public relations campaign throughout the next decade.
Attention then focused on how to attack their “enemies,” those institutions that were likely to stand in the way and create problems for the Conservative Movement: the academy, the media, and the church. To address the problem of the news media, in addition to the ongoing attack against “the lamestream” liberal press, the new thrust was to be in the use of radio talk shows. Conservative talk hosts were to be put into place all over the land, given microphones to push the agenda, set day by day within a national scheme for a coordinated message. The media was to become an advantage instead of a problem, and a plan was hatched for a new TV network with 24-hour cable news programming that would be compliant to the Conservative Movement.
The academy, that source of so much information, ideas, and facts that too often ran counter to the aims and policies of the Conservative Movement, such as persistent concerns regarding global warming and economics that went beyond the concerns of business economics (micro-economics), were to be countered first with a generalized anti-intellectual message, belittling scholarship and appealing to “common sense.” But more directly it was decided to enhance the effectiveness of the conservative “think tanks” and create several new ones. Scholars of these institutions were to counter directly the liberal ideas and facts to be expected from educational and research institutions of higher learning, as well as liberal think tanks. The public institutions of education, especially higher education, were to be squeezed financially, under the rubric that government should be smaller and that they should operate like a business – one that sells services. Meanwhile, those educational institutions and organizations on campuses that were more in line with the Conservative Movement, such as Liberty University, were to be boosted; for example, recruiting and promoting their students into the political working of the Republican Party and its various administrations.
The church was a special problem and a special opportunity. The general aim was to convince the public, through the use of its new tools, that Christianity is inherently conservative and limited in its scope to private matters of personal moral behavior and individual “spirituality,” that when the church supports liberal causes it has been captured by a secular agenda, e.g. feminists, gay, civil rights, etc. and ultimately that the proper public role of the church is to support laws and policies that will suit the views of its most conservative Christians. A coalition of sorts was developed: the all-in fight of the right wing fundamentalist, largely sectarian, evangelicals, the timid but convinced support of the single protestant denomination composed almost entirely of white people of the South, and the uneven support of conservative members of the Roman Catholic Church.
Key to everything was the concerted and well-funded support of wealthy secular conservatives. In almost all cases, the people contributing the necessary funds to create the divisions were not themselves members of the churches they were trying to influence or undercut. To create conflict within what they considered liberal mainline churches formal organizations were established within each of the targeted denominations, as well as having several national organizations formed and supported. Soon, their reach stretched out beyond the US to Africa, Asia, and South America where the rapid growth of the church is grounded in the very conservative churches that evangelized them. This has highlighted the general sense of trouble within communities of liberal Christians and created influence.
We have moved into a new day, in which the Conservative Movement’s co-option of the Republican Party has become highly problematic for that political party. The conservative Christians and relatively uneducated recruits on which the establishment relied for their dominance over the last 40 some odd years may now be taking over from the bottom up.
No one knows for sure what that original meeting of those determined to build on the Conservative Movement by using the Republican Party will finally lead to. But to understand what ever happens it is necessary to understand the period from the Reagan administration until the present moment. And for the Christian Church it is important to understand the dynamic in which it has played such an important, and divisive, role.