Power  /  Book Review

Myths of Doom

Can the origins of today’s right be traced to the 1990s?

Hemmer proposes multiple answers. First, there’s the fact that Reagan, despite being a conservative ideologue, was always a bit of an outlier in terms of affect: His dopey optimism, hope, and pragmatism put him at variance with the pessimistic, dour, and uncompromising tone of the movement generally. The New Right was very quickly disappointed in Reagan and never liked or trusted Bush at all. So, to a certain degree, the era of partisanship in the 1990s can be understood as a return to form: The paleoconservative revolt followed through on the aggressiveness of the New Right and returned to even older sources in its invocation of “America First” and the prewar old right. Second, there’s the end of the Cold War, which had created consensus and discipline within both the conservative movement and the country at large. Without the threat of the Soviet Union, the right was free to pursue factional struggle and focus on domestic enemies.

Hemmer also points to the more fragmented media environment created by the birth of cable TV and radio talk shows: Rather than having to appeal to the broadest possible public, right-wing messaging could remain subcultural and still find a mass audience. She notes a shift as well in political objectives, with the presidency put aside for the conquest of Congress, a move that required a mobilization of the base through confrontational tactics. (This mobilization would have lasting effects, we would later see, as the right took not just Congress but also statehouses and the courts.) Lastly, Hemmer suggests that the institutional infrastructure of the right-wing world created powerful career incentives that encouraged extreme partisanship among its ranks rather than consensus-building: “The partisans…seized the uncertainty of the rapidly evolving political landscape to accumulate political power, wealth, and fame. Though they made their political homes in a variety of institutions—think tanks, cable networks, Congress, political organizations—they all worked to develop a politics not just conservative but antiliberal, that leaned into the coarseness of American culture and brought it into politics, that valued scoring political points above hewing to ideological principles.” The new media environment further rewarded their outrageousness.