Rick Perlstein | Essays

What is Conservative Culture?

Goldwater AuH2O license plate, 1964.


In the long march of the conservative ascendancy, Folk Songs to Bug the Liberals, the 1964 LP by the satirical conservative quartet the Goldwaters, was only a blip. Four Tennessee college students put on "AuH2O" shirts and recorded an album of songs like "Down in Havana," "Barry's Moving In," and "Row Our Own Boat." They dropped out of school to warm up crowds before Goldwater campaign appearances. The record reportedly sold some 200,000 copies. The Goldwaters were never heard from again. I suggest a critical reconsideration.

Ask a conservative activist to explain what anchors and unites their fractious movement, and he will point to ideas: to weighty tomes by Eric Voegelin, Russell Kirk, Wilhelm Roepke, Edmund Burke; to the development of the philosophy of "fusionism," by which the furrow-browed theorists at National Review cogitated their way past the conflicts between the traditionalist, libertarian, and anti-communist strains of the American right. They will make it sound almost as if the 87 percent of Mississippians who voted for Barry Goldwater did so after a stretch of all-nighters in the library.

They will not mention an illustration popular among college conservatives in the 1960s: a peace symbol-shaped B-52 bomber with the words "Drop It" on the wings. Nor will they discuss the annual "McCarthy-Evjue" lecture that student conservatives in Wisconsin (among them, present-day right-wing luminaries David Keene of the American Conservative Union and Alfred Regnery, formerly of Regnery Publishing) put on to honor their favorite Wisconsin senator and to mock William Evjue, the editor of the Madison newspaper William F. Buckley labeled "Prairie Pravda." (They advertised the lecture on pink paper.) They will not mention the Southern Californians who flocked to church basements, high school auditoriums, and VFW halls to hear hellfire-and-brimstone lecturers like World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, author of The Socialistic Sixteenth — A National Cancer, or the Reverend Billy James Hargis ("Is the Schoolhouse the Proper Place To Teach Raw Sex?").

And they certainly will not mention the John Birch Society meetings in suburban parlors nationwide, in which chapters no bigger than two dozen members — a cell structure ostensibly to prevent Red infiltration but that, as it happened, was also the ideal size for a cocktail party — plotted how to forestall the Communist takeover of the PTAs by taking them over first. "I just don't have time for anything," a Dallas housewife told Time in 1961. "I'm fighting Communism three nights a week."

They will not mention, in short, the extraordinary role the development of a self-contained and self-conscious conservative culture played in transforming the politics of the United States. One way to define "culture" is not as a set of ideas or a static social code, but rather as the performances people enact in their everyday lives that outline the boundaries between those who belong and those who don't. "Culture" is the set of practices that reminds each individual within the group that they are normal and correct, that their beliefs are natural and true.

Conservative culture was shaped in another era, one in which conservatives felt marginal and beleaguered. It enunciated a heady sense of defiance. In a world in which patriotic Americans were hemmed in on every side by an all-encroaching liberal hegemony, raw sex in the classrooms, and totalitarian enemies of the United States beating down our very borders, finally conservatives could get together and (as track twelve of the Goldwaters' Folk Songs to Bug the Liberals avowed) "Row Our Own Boat."

But now conservatism has grown into a vast and diverse chunk of the electorate. Its culture has become so dominant that one can live entirely within it. Shortly after the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, a Washington activist could, if he so chose, attend nothing but conservative parties, panels, and barbecues; a recent Pew Research Center study suggested that partisan divisions are increasing at the community level. And yet, far inside these enclaves, conservatives still rely on the cultural tropes of that earlier period: At one living room "Party for the President" in 2004, a woman told me, "We're losing our rights as Christians. ... and being persecuted again." The culture of conservatives still insists that it is being hemmed in on every side. In Tom DeLay's valedictory address, as classic an expression of high conservative culture as ever was uttered, he attributed to liberalism "a voracious appetite for growth. In any place or any time on any issue, what does liberalism ever seek, Mr. Speaker? More. ... If conservatives don't stand up to liberalism, no one will."

How to explain these strange continuities? And what does it say about the politics of our own time? Kirk offers no answers, because what holds the movement together isn't its intellectual history but its cultural one. Folk Songs to Bug the Liberals is this mystery's Rosetta Stone.

National Review recently began concentrating much of its energies on defining a canon of conservative popular culture. For instance, national political reporter John J. Miller compiled a list of "NR's top 50 conservative rock songs of all time": "Gloria" by U2, "Won't Get Fooled Again" by the Who, "Rock the Casbah" by the Clash. To outsiders, the choices will seem utterly inexplicable.

For some of the choices, Miller produces arguable, if fanciful, connections to conservative philosophy; the Who, for example, is singing an anthem "that swears off naïve idealism" — just like Buckley warned that conservatives should never "immanentize the eschaton." That at least half makes sense. But why does "Stand By Your Man" by Tammy Wynette make the conservative hit parade? Because "Hillary trashed it — isn't that enough?" Consider also number four, "Sweet Home Alabama" — a "tribute to the region of America that liberals love to loathe."

Conservatives are always beleaguered, always under siege. "I think we had better pull in our belts and buckle down to a long period of real impotence," National Review Publisher William Rusher wrote in a 1960 letter. "Hell, the catacombs were good enough for the Christians." Five years later, M. Stanton Evans wrote in The Liberal Establishment: "For decades Liberalism has ruled the government and opinions of the United States with little or no effective challenge to its pretensions."

Listen to conservatives now, and they're still in the catacombs. "Just because a rock song is about faith doesn't mean that it's conservative," National Review explains of U2's "Gloria." "But what about a rock song that's about faith and whose chorus is in Latin? That's beautifully reactionary." Note the tone of sturdy defiance: So few bold souls, these days, are brave enough to publicly profess that underground faith, Christianity.

The liberal colossus is somehow still just as colossal, despite the fact that Republicans have controlled Congress and the White House and shifted the news media's center of gravity to the right for several years. I have one 2005 book — forworded by Steve Forbes and blurbed by Evans, Buckley, and former Senator Jesse Helms called Free Choice for Workers: A History of the Right to Work Movement. The flap proposes: "George C. Leef chronicles the thrilling 'David and Goliath' struggle between the bosses of Big Labor and the American citizens who oppose their lust for coercive power." Somehow, the conservatives have even pulled off making Wal-Mart sound like the little guy.

There's a precedent for acting beleaguered even in victory. In 1964, the Goldwater faction had just won a party presidential nomination. Folk Songs to Bug the Liberals was part of an avalanche of Goldwater kitsch — the more ostentatious the better — that loyalists lined up to purchase at campaign events: gold Goldwater pins, Goldwater cowboy hats, books, pamphlets, and magazines galore to pass on to your liberal neighbors. It was only one part proselytizing. It also proved the bearer's stout-heartedness. Its meaning relied on Goldwater remaining unpopular in an overwhelmingly "liberal" culture.

That is why, now that conservatives own the government, conservatives are still stuck in their past: Their marginal self-identity is who they are. The trick is inventing new ways to soak in one's marginalization. I have a favorite, more recent, manifestation. It costs $2,995. It is a 16-inch bronze bust of George W. Bush in his "Mission Accomplished" flight suit. The pleasure it gives, its manufacturer advertised in 2005, is ensured by its provocation. Let them call your Dear Leader a chickenhawk: "President Bush has demonstrated that he has political courage and that is why he was re-elected. By owning a bust of President Bush, Commander in Chief, you will be making a statement and in a politically charged environment, it takes courage."

As the number of conservatives has grown, we read every day of how jerry-rigged the conservative coalition is. Nothing could be more deceptive. What is remarkable about conservatism is how easily it hangs together. Conservative culture itself is radically diverse, infinitely resourceful in uniting opposites: highbrow and lowbrow; sacred and profane; sublime and, of course, ridiculous. It is the core cultural dynamic — the constant staging and re-staging of acts of "courage" in the face of liberal "marginalization" — that manages to unite all the opposites. It keeps conservatives from one another's throats — and keeps them more or less always pulling in the same political direction.

Consider conservatives' virgins and whores. In some Christian right communities, a new kind of prom has sprung up, not for high school seniors but for prepubescent girls. They dress up in party dresses and take their fathers as dates. After the fox trot, the daughter reads to her father from a card: "With confidence in His power to strengthen me, I make a promise this day to God, my family, myself, my future spouse, and my future children; to remain sexually pure until the day I give myself as a wedding gift to my spouse." The father responds: "I, (daughter's name)'s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity."

That, in all its Victorian glory, is part of conservative culture. But so, in all its slatternly innuendo, is this e-mail from the far-right website NewsMax: "Ann Coulter Gone Wild," the subject line reads, after the late-night mail-order videos of college girls taking their tops off. Open it, and there stands Ann in a come-hither, skin-tight dress on the cover of her latest book — the one where she (courageously) accuses September 11 widows of being "witches" and "harpies." Conservatives call such right-wing raunch culture "'South Park' conservatism." It's also represented by the notorious website ThoseShirts.com, which sponsors many conservative blogs. Buxom ladies model silk-screen t-shirts like "Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms Should Be a Convenience Store, Not A Government Agency" and a braying Hillary Clinton with a line struck through her face and the legend "Re-Defeat Communism 2008."

Somehow, it works. Liberals are always going on CNN to "Sister Souljah" other liberals. But you never see the sponsors of purity balls going on CNN to denounce "Ann Coulter Gone Wild." Let 100 flowers bloom. Because, whether it is purity balls or impure thoughts about conservative talking heads — or the Orange County housewife fighting the creeping national cancer of socialism in her kitchen — all serve equally as markers of a beleaguered minority holding the line against the real enemy: ever-encroaching liberalism.

Consider another set of polar opposites that unfolded a few blocks and a few hours away from one another in New York during the second night of the Republican National Convention in 2004. Conservatives cheered Arnold Schwarzenegger booming from the podium, "To my fellow immigrants listening tonight, I want you to know how welcome you are in this party. ... It doesn't make any difference if you're like me and couldn't even speak English until you were in your twenties." They roared even louder when Laura Bush proclaimed, "We are determined to provide a quality education for every child in America."

Earlier, some of them had trooped down the street for "GOP Comedy Night" at the Laugh Factory. One of the conservative comics slayed them with, "Islamic prayer in Spanish — that's the next step." Another had them roaring with, "[W]e have to face the fact that there are some dumb kids. It's time to give just a few of them coloring books, some crayons — press on to what we can save."

Why do the bathos and the sadism both fit comfortably within conservative culture? The answer lies in the Goldwaters' liner notes: "Conservatives Unite! Bug the liberals." Bugging liberals, you see, being bugged by liberals, is not incidental to conservative culture, but rather is constitutive of it — more so than any identifiable positive content. Seeing Republicans appropriate liberal-sounding rhetoric on immigrants and education and getting credit for it — even while their policies corrode public education and also stoke an anti-immigrant backlash — bugs the hell out of the liberals. Which is, for Karl Rove no doubt, part of the calculation. Rove knows that the pleasure of watching liberals' heads explode is the best way to keep his team rowing in the same direction.

To give credit where credit is due, conservative culture also has its monuments. Some might cite C.S. Lewis, others Winston Churchill's histories, others even Bach or Jane Austen. Fair enough, by the terms of my argument above: If you call yourself conservative and you consume it as a performance of your own "conservativeness," Austen and Bach are conservative — your own personal finger in the dike against the floods of liberal hegemony. (Bach might not inherently bug the liberals. But claiming him as conservative property certainly does.)

Purple Hearts are constitutive of conservative culture. So are Purple Heart Band-Aids. Both (conservatives feel) bug liberals. So is the simple pre-adolescent pleasure of blowing things up. That really bugs the liberals. The tone of conservative culture shades easily into a righteous lust for pissing people off. A billboard off the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago for a talk-radio station reads, "Liberals Hate It!" For, if you piss people off, that proves you are beleaguered.

Over the last few years, as their own success challenged conservatives' feelings of marginalization, they just started working harder to sustain it. Fox News helps; that is why the vice president of the United States insists that any television in any hotel room he uses already be tuned to it before he'll deign cross the threshold. For conservatives, moving right will always be a losing career move, a sacrifice: "Veteran ABC newsman John Stossel ... abandoned his liberal perspective, became a libertarian — and paid a heavy price, he recently told NewsMax in an exclusive interview..."

And don't expect any of this to change much if Republicans lose the House in 2006 and the White House in 2008 — or if Stossel somehow ends up in the gutter. A true conservative loves a test of faith: It only proves him stronger in his convictions. I often exchange e-mails with two favorite conservative activists. I started out with a plan: One of them posts frequently on FreeRepublic; another writes on his blog of FreeRepublic's "shrieking lunacy." I've tried to get them to fight each another. It never works. They've got me, a liberal, to bug. That is how conservative culture works so well: the joy of feeling as one in their beleaguered conservatism. I've found, paradoxically, that, for this determined remnant, conservative identity becomes stronger the more discredited conservative governance becomes. They seem to take their lumps in stride and emerge all the more confident in their ideology from the challenge.

Hold on to your bronze busts of Bush in his flight suit. Among the true believers, its value is sure to appreciate. If his ratings fall below 30 percent, displaying it will really prove their courage.

Rick Perlstein is completing a book to be titled Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk, 1965-1972. His previous books include Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo: How the Democrats Can Once Again Become America's Dominant Political Party. This essay was originally published in The New Republic on July 3, 2006.

Posted in: History, Politics

Comments [45]

Ach, how eloquently you express the same point I have been attempting to communicate, only I was aiming (mostly) at religious conservatism. There's something oddly creepy about the solidarity of the populace and its misappropriation of the language of persecution. (I feel somewhat obligated to make a snarky comment about Bill O'Reilly and holidays, but I will refrain, having sufficiently alluded to it.)

Though while maintaining the appearance of persecution is, I agree, an integral part of their self-identity, it also seems that cultural autonomy is seen as a real aggressor. From what I can gather it is not that external groups are intent on marginalizing or defenestrating the conservative culture that is really the thorn in their sides; it is that they are not allowed to enforce conservative mores on those who disagree. It is as if self-determination in its rawest form is offensive to conservatism.

I digress. This was an insightful, cogent article that cuts to the heart of the primary psychological move of the conservative movement, and one that needs to be analyzed further.
the Brightside

Let me add that while some of the specifics described above are particular to american conservatives, I feel the overall strategy of "martyrdom" and prosecution, as well as the "bug the liberals" part seem to be an integral ingredient of the ideology itself and not related to geography. I´ve observed it in Spain, where I live, where most conservative media advertises itself using the "swim against the tide" metaphor, even if conservatives are in power.
Felipe Gil

this has what to do with design?

There is no connection to design unfortunately, but it is fun. Arguing about the use of Comic Sans font can only get you so far.

Personally, I think the writers are a little miffed, appalled really, that so many "designers," or at least people who read this site, actually have opinions that could be lumped into Perlstein's diabolically ingenious conservative blob. Read the comments on the "Regrets Only" post for example.

Perlstein's painfully constructed attempt to demonize a huge group of people by lumping them into one silly category is pathological. He does exactly what he accuses others of, and yet he seems blissfully unaware of it.

As for how this might relate to design. Design is fundamentally both problem-solving and communication, and it is not too difficult to read the construction of the conservative self-image as a large and largely unconscious design project. This is no different than articles that discuss branding or user experience, and the only difference is that the user experience/brand experience occurs within the scope of a political party.

This is also a good example of design gone awry. Having created a self-image that placed persecution or "uncoolness" or this aloof solidarity at its core, once the conservative population achieved majority status (or at least political majority) then there is no longer a persecuting force, no antagonist. So the designers of the self-identity, the followers of the conservative movement, have instead of redesigning that identity maintained a comfortable fiction of their insular persecution.

They solved one problem, and solved it well. Now when different problems arise, instead of solving those, they rely on the same solution in the same language.

I'd say that's a hell of a design problem.
the Brightside

I disagree. Any basis in design or communication for this article is tenuous at best. This rings os a follow up to the debate after the "Regrets" article.

I don't consider myself a conservative, but am still somewhat disapointed - when the RSS feed showed a new article, I was hoping for something more focused on design.

OK Brightside, I might be willing to buy into your argument for the design relationship, although I think it tenuous at best. That said, what I find interesting is why you believe it is a case of Design gone awry? Seems to me that is a continuation of the attitude from many posters on the "Regrets" issue. When design or mass communication is used effectively by the right it is design gone awry or worse it could even be characterized as "an assault on meaning"

I often see designs for issues that I am against, yet I have no trouble admitting they are excellent, even brilliant, uses of the medium. I think that is what caused so much division on the regrets issue, the idea that effective design as employed by the right is actually a misuse of design. Seems kind of silly to me.

I was under the impression that the Design Observer articles were Writings on Design & Culture. Do some people just enjoy complaining, or simply know not how to read?

I felt this article was very interesting, thank you for posting it.

Actually "T" I had not noticed that line on the masthead. I stand corrected. i would complain that it seems the negative culture articles always seem to be about the right but I don't want to sound like a persocuted conservative.

Dear Dave (and anyone else with the question "What does this have to do with design?"):

If you haven't already seen it, please check out another article here at the site called "Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content."

And then consider yourself warned!

Michael Bierut

Before I forget, Design Observer's editorial staff commented on the very issue of non-design content a ways back. So perhaps my abstracted interpretation of the article as the analysis of a political identity design was unwarranted (that is, there is no need to defend non-design content because it is not wrong in itself).

Now, to Dave: "awry" was, as you've correctly stated, not the right word, though I guess it depends on what you perceive the purpose of a political party to be. If the conservative cultural identity exists to create an unassailable unity to present to its opponents, then the persecution gestalt has worked, and this would be a design success.

(The best contrast to prove your point was the Republican solidarity--not necessarily voter base but media presence--behind George W. Bush in the previous elections and the seeming impotence of the Democractic campaign to produce one important icon rather than a plurality of symbols.)

I disagree that the issues presented by the protestors serve as examples of brilliant design on the administration's part, and while both the Bush Administration's and the conservative cultural identity's use of language and visuals are definitely skillful, in the context of this article I think there is a greater responsibility to the creation of a political majority than the simple sustenance of an ego-mass.

Creating a body of conservatives who believe in their own persecution solidifies the conservatives, and thus is useful to leadership, but it also demonizes their opponents (all opponents), investing them with an unnecessary otherness, which is harmful to the process of government. So perhaps the question is not whether this solution worked (because obviously it did), but whether it was the best solution.

Hopefully that clarifies my point.
the Brightside

Here's the PDF of an article I wrote about progressive traditionalism that upset many conservative traditionalism.

In the article, I said, "After 100 years of Modernism, traditional ideas and values are making a comeback in many areas of culture, the arts and politics. But as in so many areas today, the academy and the media are stuck in confrontational positions in which one is either modern and liberal, or traditional and conservative. The political correctives in the academy want no part of tradition, and on the whole, journalists still tend to associate tradition with the conservative. James Taub spoke for many editors and journalists when he recently wrote in The New York Times Sunday magazine, "The machine-clean and functionally mapped future toward which Modernism once beckoned now strikes us not only as soulless but almost comically archaic as well; and yet the organic and folkloric alternative offers us a city in amber - the urban equivalent of the retro baseball stadium."

Taub has lived through the brief period in history when Modernist ideology was the norm, and seems unable to imagine that the Modernist outlawing of tradition might have outlived its period of usefulness, even though like most journalists he probably lives in a traditional house and neighborhood. His comment about the "retro" baseball stadiums seems more a matter of dogma than the result of visiting one of the popular baseball parks.

Meanwhile, those who don't have to produce intellectual justifications for their actions are less constrained by theory. After a 50-year hiatus, the building committee at Princeton University, for example, has made the decision that new dormitories and new construction of any type in the center of the campus will once again be Gothic, for two simple reasons: they've judged that their traditional buildings made a better campus than their Modernist buildings, and the students have made it clear that they want to live in the Gothic buildings rather than the Modernist ones.

Having to answer only to their students and alumni, rather than professional intellectuals, they made the intuitive and easy choice. But in the world of the intellectual, where ideas are expected to be written for analysis and critique, the progressive position for tradition in the 21st century has yet to be articulated."

BTW, I was interested to see that savvy politicians like James Carville are starting to talk about progressive traditionalism.
john massengale

I want to step into this discussion as the Design Observer editor who championed this essay. We frequently have posts that are not literally about graphic design, but explore design as a broader discipline (including fashion, architecture, interiors, product, landscape, book, advertising, photography, media, art, etc.). We have maintained from the beginning that politics is an interesting and ripe zone for conversations about design. We intentionally named this site Design Observer: Writings on Design and Culture to open our minds to broader forms of cultural and critical dialogue, with an emphasis on writing.

This fascinating essay by Rick Perlstein seeks to explore how conservative ideology has been informed by signs and symbols, cocktail parties and sculptures, TV shows and logos — even buttons and pins. What we know of the conservative movement over the last 40 years has been informed by these details. We hope, and believe, that many of our readers will appreciate such bits of cultural history. (And we would be equally interested in reading such a history of the liberal movement.)

For you that want your design chatter pure and uncluttered with politics and modern life, Design Observer may not be your cup of tea. This is OK. Just don't clutter the dialogue here with your complaints that posts are not about design. There are so many other sites to visit on the internet. Thank you.
William Drenttel

Dear Michael Bierut, brightside and "T"

I, now, after reading the suggested article and the above posts, consider myself warned, clarified and "able to read" and to a lesser extent educated and even humbled. But now it is time to go to the hospital for my monthly iv full of chemicals. Have a good evening. I do hope I have not aggravated anyone with my ignorance of the site's scope or my obvious persecution complex. Peace.

My previous comment was in all due respect to the author - and editors.

I certainly do not wish to waste anyone's time or clutter the dialogue with unwanted feedback.

"This fascinating essay by Rick Perlstein seeks to explore how conservative ideology has been informed by signs and symbols, cocktail parties and sculptures, TV shows and logos — even buttons and pins."

What I particularly enjoy watching on my commute to and from work is the battle between liberals and conservatives to appropriate the "Jesus fish".

First it was simply the wire Jesus fish on the back of cars. Then the Jesus fish grew legs to become the Darwin fish. But alas, the convervatives have won this one again with the Darwin fish being eaten by a larger "Truth" fish.

After this, there is so much that could be said on liberalism, its message, and its current problems, but I think john massengale starts in the right direction.
Steven K.

Did anyone else's head explode after reading "this?"
Joe Moran

At the risk of being slapped on the wrist by our editor, William Drenttel, I want to chime in on the appropriateness of yet another politically oriented post. Coming so closely on the heals of the "Regrets Only" firestorm, (of which the fire has yet to go out and is easily the most commented subject in the recent [if ever] past). I would beg the editors to pace their political offerings a bit further apart. Here we go again. My knee jerk reaction was to surmise that this site had just discovered a way to gin-up comments by submitting politically controversial topics. While it is apparent that this topic may not garner the plethora of posts of the previous political submission, I would hate to see this become a weekly reoccurrence. After appreciating the high points of the poignant "My Phone Call to Arnold Newman" or the insightful "The Mysterious Power of Context", I would hope this blog does not degenerate to offering too many red meal tomes as the above.

Such an obviously bias historical rehash of the Republican past and it tenuous connections to design does not, in my estimation, further the high level of discourse so prevalent in these pages. Politics being the lowest form of communication, I would hope for a higher standard set by this blog in the future.

Please allow me to revise and extend my previous remarks.
I could easily become a sycophant for Michael Bierut and his writings in this blog. Particularly when he relates his copious experience to incidences of everyday design life. I just read his reference " "Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content." and concur that design is about everything, so we should absorb everything we can to fill our design reference bag. However, I still maintain this post comes to close on the heels of "Regrets Only".

As one who was, justly, gently slapped on the wrist yesterday, I respectfully disagree. I think the timing of the two articles was probably one of coincidence rather than an effort to boost comments via the political carrot.

While I think the article is way over the top to the point of lunacy, it has some merit as a design history piece. and i am not just saying that because I was "slapped."

There are enough references to pop culture, kitsch, & mass media in this article that it's not inappropriate content for Design Observer. However, its main argument that the Conservative movement is (a) hypocritical, (b) self-deluding, or (c) openly deceitful, is a petty political point surrounded by anecdotes of conservative pop culture. This essay is about as interesting or revealing of conservative culture as a post on a conservative design blog (if any exist) about how silly tie-dye looks, how poorly designed most organic food packages are, and by extension how strange liberal culture is. I'm not impressed.

What Time is it? Wonkette Time.
Joe Moran

Oh goody! More heaping, steaming piles of leftist crap.
Fashion Critic

Conservatives, Liberals, Libertarians, Independents, Greens, and the whole lot of political parties in the U.S. all function by different but equally scrupulous means. We don't live in a just and righteous world and it's atypical for someone to really have the best interest of others in mind. Surely this doesn't surprise anyone.

So, what's the big deal about this article?

Well, I'd speculate the readers of this site are primarily interested in design, and when an article like this one is posted a few of us feel like we've been blind sided with propaganda. We waste time reading through the article waiting, hoping for the design connection to be made, but the link to design is never made. People feel tricked, so I understand why people get disappointed. Herein lies our design problem.

Wouldn't it be great if there were an icon, a color, or some visual indicator that helped the reader to be mentally prepared for what he or she was about to read?

Goldwaters' version of less government Conservatism philosophy is NOT the 'conservatism' the current administration is claiming.

As a regular reader of this site, I'd like to say that I appreciated both this article and the "Regrets Only" posting and am not in the least put off by the political content or the fact that they take a bigger view of what "design" and "culture" can mean. I am grateful for the editors decision to create a public forum where dialogue like this can take place. It is anathema to the premise of a blog to suggest that the editors ought not to discuss subjects which they themselves find meaningful. If you lose a few readers in the crossfire, so be it. There are many more of us still out there.

Whether one agrees with the political bent of this essay, one must agree that it wholeheartedly embraces design. We are the proponents and caretakers of visual communication. We strive to stir the hearts and minds of the populace every day in everything we do from selling the latest product, campaigning for the prevention of AIDS, to convincing someone that their vote does indeed count in this country. We live here. We collectively strive to steer the society in which we live to our way of thinking. Communication and expression is our passion and yes, that includes politics.

If you don't agree with what is said, feel free to express those opinions. All opinions should be welcome in an open forum such as this. In fact, go one step further and write an essay that answers or rebuts the suppositions proposed in this article and submit it for publication. Then we can chat about the merits of your essay. That's how it works folks.
James D. Nesbitt

Most of today's conservatives aren't conservatives at all. They just hate liberals for being icky and smarmy. Conservatism is defined almost exclusively by not wanting to be associated with liberal people -- it's an ideology based on fear and anger.
Christopher Fahey

The original post wasn't that good. Lots of words, little content. I still can't make it to the end. Perhaps I am neither persecuted nor disempowered. Or whatever the point was.

Good writing requires a respect for white space, too.


What has happened here? I don't really care about being slapped on the wrist by the editor, I feel slapped in the face by the staff already! I see your caveat which loosely sanctions this sort of 'writing' but honestly, I think the entire site (web design included) has suffered a serious blow in terms of quality. Trying to paste over that fact by going for some sort of cheap sensationalist writing that massages or irritates people's emotions is sad. To hear that you are trying to rationalize this shark-jumping through a liberal definition of the word 'culture' is even more sorry. The addition of these sorts of essays to the site makes as much sense as a car dealership selling apricots, too ("oh, so you'd like to buy a car? I bet you'd want apricots, too! ":( I think this was eloquently illustrated by a previous poster:

"Well, I'd speculate the readers of this site are primarily interested in design, and when an article like this one is posted a few of us feel like we've been blind sided with propaganda. We waste time reading through the article waiting, hoping for the design connection to be made, but the link to design is never made. People feel tricked, so I understand why people get disappointed. Herein lies our design problem."

This whole article is like an exercise in trivia and name dropping, like talking to a crap designer at a cocktail party. "Oooh, 'David Carson' this, 'Photoshop Filters' that..." Seriously, this article is so loosely cobbled together it makes me think of some sort of collegiate stream of thought exercise. Not that I am picking on this writer specifically, but generally, there has been a drastic decline in the authors' ability to hold subject. The design vs. craft one? C'mon! Did that even have a point?

I hear this recurring thought on this site that design should be left to the professionals but I think that DO should apply that logic to themselves and leave punditry to the pundits.

Nice post, great thread.


And for those who hate to see the designs within political culture discussed...skip over it.

Heavens, what a largely useless set of comments! If the article isn't to your liking, click your mouse once and be done with it, people.

Thanks for posting this essay, D.O. proprietor(s); new Perlstein is an event.

To complainers: Solely on the strength of his first book, Perlstein has established himself as a fair-minded major cultural historian. His research comes before his partisan anger and makes it meaningful rather than reactionary or gestural. Before the Storm, about Goldwater's 1964 presidential bid, reads as quickly and breezily as a novel but is in fact an archaeological document of remarkable depth and fairness. That book's most impressive achievement is that its harsh indictment of the contemporary conservative media edifice is entirely suggested, never stated outright; the narrative follows Goldwater and his army of supporters, but the shadow figure in the story is Ronald Reagan, and the book serves as a kind of prolegomenon to a consideration of Reagan. (Perlstein's working his way up to Ol' Rawhide.)

This is a compelling article, and the complaint that Perlstein simply 'lumps in' all self-identified conservatives misses his point entirely (indeed, it suggests that the complainers have not in fact read the piece). Perlstein's making provocative claims about the social psychology and history of affiliations with Right and Left, and his historical claims about the origins of today's (for instance) calcified, corrupt GOP coalition go almost entirely unanswered from the Right. It's not an argument about the essential nature of ideas, it's an argument about a particular social formation, grounded in a particular place and time and cultural milieu, and Perlstein's making it with great care over thousands of pages and years of archival research.
Wax Banks

An outsider to conservative culture might see the "annoy the liberals!!" message as the unifying and therefore defining element of conservative culture.

An insider, however, might point out that it is instead the only element the many diverse groups have in common. This, however, does not mean it defines conservative culture.

A Christian fundamentalist will not be any less Christian if conservatives or Christians begin to no longer perceive themselves losing all the time. A gun rights activist will be no less gun-toting even if the NRA takes over the world.

So I must respectfully disagree with the conclusion of this entire article. Bugging the liberals may be fun for everyone, but that doesn't mean it's the point.

AU H20 -- a kind of magic formula for me, having grown up in a Birch Society family in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, early 60s. My parents hosted JBS meetings at our house, no cocktails though.

The Huntington Library's Huntington Frontiers magazine (Spring-Summer 2006) offers a fascinating article on right-wing activism in that period :
"What Did You Do In the Cold War, Mommy? A Scholar's Questions to Dozens of Local Women Lead to the Acquisition of Two Unique Collections."
(The collections are enormous archives of conservative literature and ephemera from that period.)

The article includes a staged photograph of studious conservatives, one of whom is reading The Naked Communist. I could recognize that book a mile away, though I've never read it.

Goldwater politics was emotional. "In your heart, you know he's right," was the phrase. That's a strong pitch.
John McVey

The point? What is the point of this article?

Perlstein, like many liberal ideologues, is looking for the one thing that the democrats have been unable to muster; the ability to hold together a coalition of truly diverse views and win political contests. Maybe if he was able to do an objective "brand review" he would be able to help his party accomplish the same thing. Unfortunately he, like much of the left, has such contempt for the 'right" that he is unable to do a truly thoughtful analysis.

Instead he chooses to concentrate on one aspect of conservative culture and translates that one trait into an all-pervasive unifying theme, or as governmental proposal writers would say, a 'win theme." Pitty he is so myopic, if he could just get past his partisan contempt for a minute he might be able to do something constructive with the "thousands of pages" of research a previous poster claims he has.

As a member of this loose-knit coalition of conservative minded voters I do not want to bug liberals any more than i want to decide who can marry whom. Nor do I have any recolection of Barry Goldwater and any of the political kitsh sold to further his agenda. I believe what i believe and vote the way I vote because i have considered the alternatives, examined both sides of most issues, and believe the republican candidates, while far from being the perfect choice, are more in line with my priorities.

While I do feel liberalism pushing in on me from many avenues, PCism in the workplace, NPR, mainstream media, education faculty that use their position as a place to push their views etc., I do not base my decisions on that feeling. My particular association with conservatism is based, not on fear or culture, it is based on an honest evaluation of how we should govern ourselves.

Perlstein and his peers would be better served at examining the problem of holding the liberal coalition together. As I see it their's is a culture in turmoil. i think it should be pretty clear after the last presidential election, mere hatred for Bush is not enough to move america back to the left.

Union membership is at an all time low. More americans are wondering if just throwing money at the educational monopoly is going to fix anything. Gay marriage rights has fractured the african american base. Many of the traditional blue collar dems have health care through their employers so the nationalized health scare is not as big an issue. These are just some of the problems dems face; or more accurately, do not face. Instead of facing the deteriation of their own culture they choose to blame conservatives and try to create interesting reasons for it's ability to do what they cannot.

The sad fact is, there are more and more people left standing alone at the center. dems use to speak for them. my family was democratic, I cosidered myself a democrat, but the party got hijacked. The people pushing the agenda are too far left for most americans outside of major cities. Unfortunately for the dems that is still where most votes are cast. Hillary can pretend to be moderate but no one really believes her. Dems on the left will try, as many on the far right will also try, to portray themselves as being more moderate but we are not fooled.

I was not old enough to vote for JFK but I would leave the republicans if there was another person of the same cloth out there. Problem is, if there was, he would never get nominated. JFK passed one of the largest tax cuts in history, for the rich, and didn't get flogged for it. Think that would fly in todays democratic party?

re conservative culture
can we agree that Ann Coulter is a middle class alternative to the professional wrestling milleu?

Dave wrote:

I was not old enough to vote for JFK but I would leave the republicans if there was another person of the same cloth out there. Problem is, if there was, he would never get nominated. JFK passed one of the largest tax cuts in history, for the rich, and didn't get flogged for it. Think that would fly in todays democratic party?
Ok, right, but WHY didn't JFK get flogged for it?

Because at the time the highest rate on the top bracket was 91%. 91%!!! And why was that rate so high in the first place? Because it was a holdover from the Gilded Age when income disparity was so extreme that attempts were made by the government to encourage the growth of the middle class (income re-distribution), of which I'd wager most of us reading this blog benefited (or our families did).

Now the highest rate is what? 38.6%? Can't you acknowledge there's a pretty reasonable difference and that economic thought has evolved since the '60s?

I'll also mention that most economists are now saying the income disparity in this country has gotten so great they haven't seen anything like it since... the Gilded Age.

I'm not saying tax rates should just back to 91% (of course not). But I am saying this post is a perfect example of what Rick is writing about. The argument above was completely without context and portrays liberals as these tax raising nuts, completely ignoring the REASONING behind the events the writer discusses. Like the previous poster who said Goldwater's line, "In your heart, you know he's right," is a good pitch. Yeah, it's an advertising pitch. But where's the goods? I don't buy a car or a house on an advertising pitch, I buy it on the facts like mileage, safety for my family (and yeah, some style, yo). Shouldn't the public policies that govern our lives face the same scrutiny?

He wants to talk about priorities and being fair and rational. Awesome. Let's do that and have a meaningful conversation. But then let's do it with all the facts at hand and toss aside the BS demonization and misinformation. Otherwise, it's just about bugging the liberals.

Wow.. I forgot why I quit reading Design Observer til right now.



someone reading your last post might get the impression JFK dropped the highest tax rate down to 36% only that isn't the case is it? Nope, he dropped it down around 50%. Fifty friggin' percent! That means for every dollar made you would've had to give Uncle Sam 50 cents; for what? the highest tax rate is at 36% now thanks to 2 republicans; Reagan and W. Personally I think 36% is plenty But it appears you disagree.

Income re-distribution benefited my family? not hardly. My family prefers to earn the money we get. We don't take handouts, we don't need government services. higher taxes did nothing to help the middle class, nothing. My dad, blue collar, always hated it when the democrats would demonize tax cuts by saying they were for the rich not the working man (sound familiar, it is still being used). He would always reply, "I have never been hired by a poor guy." dad understood rich people get rich because they use their money, they don't sit on it, they create businesses that employ people. They create products and services that make life easier. taxing the hell out of them doesn't help the working stiff. JFK understood this, so did Reagan, and so does Bush (there may be a lot he doesn't get, but he gets this).

Besides, saying the top tax bracket is at 36% is a little disengenuous. that is without social security. How many of the people at the top bracket are gonna need social security? Oh yeah, I guess they have a moral responsibilty to take care of the rest of us.

As someone who spends most of his on-line time on political blogs and news sites, it is truly fascinating to read the comments on this article.

Perlstein is generally thought of as a thoughtful, thorough writer and researcher. And in the context of other political writing, and in the context of his own, other writing, this article reflects his thoughtfulness and thoroughness.

How some of the commenters here can see this as a polemic is beyond me.

And, hey - there are web sites all about design? Who knew!?

Man, anonymous, you said a mouthful of truth there. Followed a link here from straight-up politics site. Sorry to all the posters here who think politics is irrelevant to design, but I think that's one of the most annoying things about your profession (or I should say, some of its practitioners).

Perlstein is one of the most engaging cultural historians writing (perhaps this explains why he is not a professor). Check the notes and acknowledgements in the Goldwater book: conservative muckety-mucks love talking to Perlstein--because he is genuinely curious about them, he asks the right questions, and he gets it right. Interestingly, that pisses off guys like Dave. Just why that is could be the subject of another article by Perlstein. Dave?

anon 2

It's fascinating that the natural response of conservatives to this article is to immediately attack. They attack the site, they attack the editors, they attack the original author of the piece.

Like a jellyfish they are hair-trigger conditioned to immediately lash out in any direction. To a conservative, there is no such thing as fair criticism when the target is themselves or their institutions.

I have a very conservative friend who exhibits this behavior. For instance, we were discussing Senator George Felix Allen's "Macaca" moment. When I condemned Allen's asinine remarks, my friend changed the subject to something racist Joe Biden apparently said.

"So?" I said, "I despise Joe Biden too." He was taken aback and changed the subject.

Time and time again, I perplex my conservative friend when I forcefully condemn the Democratic party, which I financially support. He seems pathologically incapable of doing the same to the GOP. He wouldn't even mildly criticize Allen for one of the biggest PR screw-ups in political history.

That's how strong the "victim" DNA has been woven into modern conservatism. My friend can't pick on a conservative, because only liberals do that. It is a masterpiece of political design that will destroy the GOP.

This closed-feedback loop the GOP finds itself in leads to things like unpopular, ill-advised wars of choice. Hopefully they (and the Democrats who supported it) will be held accountable this fall.

Here's a question to cause conservative brain lock: Do you really think the party that won't let you have liquids on a plane or forbids pictures of buildings or trains is going to let you have guns much longer?

Let that sink in.

The answer is: of course they will. Which is why conservatives know that what they are doing with security is meaningless theater and they are JUST FINE with meaningless security theater. The average conservative doesn't really think THEY are going to get blown up. But somebody will and that will be good for conservatives because it says "See, we told you terrorists are a threat and you wouldn't let us have unlimited power to stop them, so the blood is on liberal hands." Conveniently forgetting that "Bring It On" followed by security theater was their own policy. OK. So they brought it, and we told YOU so.

Actually, the singing group, the Goldwaters, did not totally fade into obscurity. One of the members was future right-wing Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

Jobs | July 02