Why the Right Went Wrong | E.J. Dionne Jr.

Summary of: Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism–From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond
By: E.J. Dionne Jr.


In ‘Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism–From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond’, E.J. Dionne Jr. presents a comprehensive analysis of the evolution of American conservatism. The book looks into the key shifts in conservative ideologies, starting from Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful 1964 presidential run to the emergence of the Tea Party and its impact on today’s Republican party. It discusses notable milestones and setbacks, such as civil rights, Nixon, Reagan and the George W. Bush years. The intention of the book is to unravel the overlapping legacies of Goldwater and Reagan, as well as the promises and betrayals faced by conservatives through the years.

The Roots of American Conservatism

The development of American conservatism can be traced back to Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful 1964 presidential campaign. This movement sought to loosen the grip of the New Deal on American politics and government. Ronald Reagan’s pro-Goldwater TV speech before the 1964 election established him as a conservative leader, leading to the defeat of moderate conservatism. Since then, Republican presidents and leaders have made promises to the far-right supporters without delivering on them entirely. This pattern continued with George W. Bush, whose presidency significantly shaped the current state of conservatism. Despite championing conservative causes, Reagan was unable to change the underlying structure of the government, leading to a transfer of ideological sins to George H.W. Bush, whose budget agreement with congressional Democrats included tax increases and resulted in a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan and a general election loss to Bill Clinton.

How the Clinton Administration Shaped American Politics

The 1992 defeat of George H.W. Bush by Bill Clinton shocked conservatives, but they quickly regrouped to oppose his administration’s policies. The Republicans vowed to shrink government and lower taxes, but in reality, they struggled to balance the budget and pass meaningful healthcare reform. The budget passed, but healthcare reform was defeated by conservative opposition led by Newt Gingrich. Nevertheless, Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 midterms, cementing their hold on the South and ushering in a new era of rigid partisanship. Wealthy and highly successful Americans supported the conservative movement, and Fox News emerged as a powerful voice of the right. Although Clinton’s popularity soared after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, he later faced scandal and impeachment. The struggle for power between the parties became fierce and evenly matched, and ideological splits emerged within the GOP. George W. Bush emerged as the central figure of the conservative movement, and the Democratic coalition that Clinton assembled survives today.

Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism and the Rise of the Tea Party

George W. Bush, the self-proclaimed compassionate conservative, believed in “charitable choice” as a solution to the impact of right-wing policies on the poor and disadvantaged. He aimed to redirect resources into religiously-based welfare organizations, which he thought allowed Republicans to escape the label of being “mean-spirited.” However, he did not seek to transform conservatism itself. The Tea Party’s rise came as a surprise to him, and polarization seemed like the most effective strategy. The 9/11 attacks gave Bush the opportunity to reshape the party’s image and call Americans to service, but conservatives mishandled the Iraq war and failed on social security, immigration, and hurricane relief, setting the stage for the Democratic resurgence.

The Rise of America’s Tea Party

The Tea Party, a right-wing movement composed mostly of white, working-class men arose after Barack Obama’s election. They hold “group-based hostility” towards other groups and believe in earned social benefits. Right-wing media amplified their beliefs and conservative money, like the Koch brothers, aided their efforts. Their unease with America’s diversity and the 2008 financial crisis underlies everything.

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