Stuck in the Big Ditch

Visiting Scholar
Gerard Alexander

Gerard Alexander reviews Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch, by Adam Clymer.

The prominent historian Alan Brinkley wrote in 1994 that "it would be hard to argue that the American Right has received anything like the amount of attention from historians that its role in 20th-century politics and culture suggests it should.” He'd be hard-pressed to say that today. Starting even before 1994, historians have produced a small river of books on the subject, and they are joined by political scientists, sociologists, journalists, and even some of those psychologists who continue to treat right-of-center views as a kind of mental impairment. Given all their work, we are now in a position to say that there might be one thing worse than hundreds of academics and journalists ignoring the Right, which is the same group writing about it.

Many recent books have been written by authors drawn to the subject by profound antipathy for conservatives. And many authors are searching for some singular event or development that would explain the rise of conservatism at liberalism's expense in modern America. In a 1986 book, Sidney Blumenthal helped launch the trope that conservatives won because they organized more strategically, inspiring some even now to recommend that progressives imitate what Thomas Edsall has called the Right's "highly coordinated network of individuals and organizations--with a shared stake in a strong, centralized political machine.” George Lakoff pointed to a different advantage, saying that conservatives frame issues more successfully than liberals. Others reject these claims as shallow, and look instead to deeper sociological roots of politics, such as the politicization of conservative evangelicals in the 1960s and 1970s. Recently, a large slew of studies have argued that conservatives won by using the busing, crime, and tax issues to corral white "racial conservatives” into their electoral column.

Clymer's own discussion shows that the overarching theme of his book is badly over-hyped.

The most quixotic entrant into this crowded market is Adam Clymer's claim that the Panama Canal played a major role in the "rise of the Right.” The U.S. had famously built the Canal and treated the Canal Zone as its territory. The Panamanians were initially gratified by their independence and mollified by annual payments, but eventually wanted it back. Presidents from Eisenhower onward wrangled with the issue of U.S. control, and Jimmy Carter eventually negotiated treaties with the Panamanian government, led at the time by the leftist strongman Omar Torrijos. America's debate on the question reflected serious concerns on both sides. Continuing U.S. control might deepen anti-Americanism in Latin America, even to the point of inspiring crippling attacks on the Canal. But if Washington relinquished control to Panama, the Canal could become a victim of that country's unstable politics and Torrijos's flirtation with Cuba. The treaties turning over the Canal to Panamanian control by century's end were eventually ratified in contentious votes in the Senate in 1978.

Clymer, a former New York Times reporter and editor, isn't courting controversy when he says that conservatives used the Canal's national-security aspects to whip up sentiments, enroll activists, and make life difficult for pro-treaty senators at the time. But he goes on to argue that the Canal issue ultimately sustained Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, and thereby may have made possible his run in 1980; delivered Reagan a batch of allies in the Senate in 1978 and 1980; helped shift the GOP to the right; and inspired the durable legacies of independent-group spending in campaigns and vicious single-issue attack ads (though for some reason only a Republican attack on a Democrat comes to his mind as an example). He reaches a climax when he claims that the "Panama Canal no longer divides Panama. But the fissures it opened thirty years ago have widened; they divide the United States.”

Now, of course conservative activists made use of the Canal, just as they would have done with any other issue at hand. The Canal fight turned up new names for Richard Viguerie's mailing lists, it may have provided the edge in one or two Senate races, and it permitted Reagan to generate one of his trademark phrases ("We built it. We paid for it. It's ours.”). But even Clymer's own discussion shows that the overarching theme of his book is badly over-hyped. Reagan did not base his 1976 bid on the issue, and Clymer acknowledges that it was "never central” in 1980 either. He focuses heavily on the fate in 1978 and 1980 of senators who voted for the treaties. But, in many of these cases, even he concludes that the incumbent would have lost anyway or that the data are too slim to be sure. So Clymer's evidence is underwhelming, even before you notice that he omits mention of the majority of pro-treaty Democratic senators who were reelected in the uphill year of 1980. The book's thesis isn't exactly strengthened when entire chapters about conservative political-action committees and the early Reagan administration scarcely mention Panama.

Clymer never contends with the plausible alternative, namely that conservatives cared about the Canal treaties only because, in the late 1970s, they seemed just one more instance in a lengthy and unfortunate record of American loss of confidence and lack of resolve. Beyond that, the issue had no intrinsic interest. This would explain why, once Reagan was elected and reversed that slide, Panama evaporated as an issue and Reagan never tried to revise the treaties (something that George W. Bush, in the case of the ABM treaty, proved to be quite possible). And it would explain why the episode left no obvious scars on the body politic. As Clymer acknowledges, when the handover of the Canal took place during the Clinton administration, America's top officials did not attend--because no one cared. This makes it all the more mystifying that this book was ever written.

It also raises the question why so many authors have assumed that there is a "key” to the rise of the Right. Many seem to be treating liberalism as the natural state of affairs, and the conservative rise as an event that requires an explanation. Maybe it's a sign of intellectual progress that Sidney Blumenthal has just written a book titled The Strange Death of Republican America. Good luck with that too.

Gerard Alexander is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Gerard Alexander is also an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.  He is currently researching and writing a book on issues of race and the modern conservative movement in America.  His previous work has examined the conditions for stable democracy, America's policy of democratization abroad, and perceptions of the United States abroad after 9/11. He is the author of The Sources of Democratic Consolidation (Cornell University Press, 2002).
  • Phone: 202-375-7826

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