Shrub Studies

In a new collection of essays, scholars assess the presidency of George W. Bush. Scott McLemee takes a look.

November 3, 2010

Next week, Crown Publishers will issue President George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points, covering what the former president calls “eight of the most consequential years in American history,” which seems like a fair description. They were plenty consequential. To judge from the promotional video, Bush will plumb the depths of his insight that it is the role of a president to be “the decider.” Again, it’s hard to argue with his point -- though you have to wonder if he shouldn’t let his accumulated wisdom ripen and mellow for a while before serving it.

Princeton University Press has already beat him into print with The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment, edited by Julian E. Zelizer, who is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. The other 10 contributors are professors of history, international relations, law, and political science, and they cover the expected bases -- the “War on Terror,” the invasion of Iraq, social and economic policy, religion and race. It is a scholarly book, which means that it is bound to make everybody mad. People on the left get angry at remembering the Bush years, while those on the right grow indignant that anyone still wants to talk about them. So the notion that they were consequential is perhaps not totally uncontroversial after all.

The contributors make three points about the Bush administration’s place in the history of American conservatism that it may be timely to sum up, just now.

In the introduction, Zelizer writes that Bush’s administration “marked the culmination of the second stage in the history of modern conservatism.” The earlier period, running from the 1940s through the ‘70s, had been a time of building an effective movement out of ideological factions (fundamentalists, libertarians, and neoconservatives, among others) “none of which sat very comfortably alongside any other.” Following Reagan's victory in the 1980 election, “conservatives switched from being an oppositional force in national politics to struggling with the challenges of governance that came from holding power.”

This summer, Zelizer published a valuable review-essay on the recent historiography of the American right. It can be recommended to anyone who wants more depth than the following (admittedly schematic) remarks will manage.

(1) In the chapter called “How Conservatives Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Presidential Power,” Zelizer points to a tendency among earlier generations of American conservatives to be suspicious of the executive branch. He traces this back to polemics against FDR during the 1930s, when conservatives painted the New Deal as akin to Hitlerian dictatorship or Stalinist five-year planning. And he quotes the early neoconservative intellectual James Burnham saying, in 1959, that “the primacy of the legislature in the intent of the Constitution is plain on the face of that document.” A strong executive meant growing central power, while delegates to Congress had an incentive to protect local authority.

This sensibility changed in the course of the cold war, writes Zelizer, and particularly under the leadership of Nixon and Reagan. Distrust of executive power gave way to increasing conservative reliance on it. Concentrating executive authority in the hands of the president (rather than spreading it out among various agencies) would promote efficiency and coordinate decision-making -- so the argument went. But just as importantly, it would mean that a conservative president could curb the regulatory powers of the state.

The claims for executive authority intensified under the War on Terror -- yielding what Zelizer calls the Bush administration’s “defiant, if not downright hostile [attitude] about any kind of congressional restrictions whatsoever." But this was not just something that “the decider” decided. It reflected a decades-long reorientation in conservative ideology. "The Right cannot legitimately divorce itself from strong presidential power,” writes Zelizer. “[A]n expanding historical literature … is attempting to revise our knowledge about conservatism by demonstrating how conservatives have had a more complex and less adversarial relationship with the modern state than we previously assumed.”

(2) There was a time when manufacturing "stood atop the commanding heights of the U.S. political economy,” writes Nelson Lichtenstein -- a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara -- in his chapter “Ideology and Interest on the Social Policy Home Front.” He identifies this epoch as running from 1860 until 1980. The Bush presidency belongs to the era of "retail supremacy," in which the employment trend is low-wage and high-turnover. As of 2008, there were five times as many jobs in the service sector as in “the ‘goods-producing’ industries that once constituted the core of the U.S. economy” such as agriculture, construction, and manufacture.

Free-market principles were a basic part of conservative ideology in both eras. But the beneficiaries have changed. Once upon a time, advocates of laissez-faire would sometimes find themselves accused of being mouthpieces of the National Association of Manufacturers, averse to trade regulation and price controls. But by the Bush years, that was a thing of the past. “As employers of many low-wage workers,” writes Lichtenstein, “most retailers favored the lightest possible regulatory hand, especially when it came to welfare-state mandates such as those covering employee health insurance, retirement pay, and health and safety issues.”

The gaps created by stagnating wages and shrinking benefits were plugged – for a while anyway – by "cheap imports, easy credit, an overpriced dollar, and an array of new financial products that widened the range of assets (mainly houses) that both homeowners and bankers could borrow against."

An older style of right-wing thought lauded the free market as a merciless field of combat -- a way to test the entrepreneur’s self-control and the manufacturer's commitment to increasing productivity. But the form of conservatism taking its place has freed itself from notions of delayed gratification or expanding domestic output. Wal-Mart capitalism in the Bush years claimed only to deliver the goods cheaply, no matter where they might come from.

(3) In the 1970s, conservatives liked to say that their ranks were filling up with “liberals who had been mugged by reality.” That phrase suggested that reality is one tough dude -- totally indifferent to anybody’s mere opinion.

It was quite another matter when a leading Bush administration official (unnamed but often assumed to be Karl Rove) told a reporter for The New York Times Magazine in 2004: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Nor was this merely the judgment of a solitary solipsist. In his chapter "Creating Their Own Reality,” David Greenberg -- an associate professor of history, journalism, and media studies at Rutgers University -- maintains “the Right under Bush found itself promoting a view of knowledge in which any political claim, no matter how objectively verifiable or falsifiable, was treated as simply one of two competing descriptions of reality, with power and ideology, not science or disciplined inquiry, as the arbiters.” (Or deciders, if you will.)

There was no reality, only interpretations of reality -- and the existence of weapons of mass destruction was a function of who controlled the narrative. Little surprise that there were jokes about the rise of conservative postmodernism during the ‘00s. If Fox denied that climate change was taking place, who had the right to insist otherwise? Not some elitist, anyway.

Greenberg traces the right's “forays into epistemological relativism” back to influence of networks of right-leaning think-tanks and journalists. He quotes a contributor to The Weekly Standard from 2003, on how the right had created “a cottage industry” for spin: “Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It’s a great little racket.” And going a step beyond what Greenberg describes, we see another development along the same reality-aversive lines: the growing importance of conservative political figures whose authority within the movement comes primarily, or even exclusively, from their status as mass-media celebrities.

The former president did not create any of these tendencies. He simply took them over as legacies from what has been, for 30 years now, the strongest and most disciplined force in American politics.

Several passages in The Presidency of George W. Bush were obviously written in the flush of assumptions that the election of 2008 was a major turning point in the country's history -- the point at which the conservative movement had not just lost any chance at constructing a "permanent Republican majority" but condemned itself to wander in the electoral wilderness for a long season. Well, nobody should expect historians to be prophets, or political scientists to be bookies.


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