Rebuilding Democracy in 2018

This post was originally published at Public Seminar on December 27, 2017

What happens in the aftermath of a crushing political defeat?

In October, almost a year after the election that brought us Donald Trump, I was at the Library of Congress immersed in the archive of a man named Paul Weyrich, and thinking about the long aftermath of political catastrophe. Weyrich, some of you may recall, was a squeaky-clean political consultant from the Midwest and a midwife to modern conservatism in the United States. The son of working class Roman Catholic parents, he was born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1942, and grew up among people passionately committed to Joseph McCarthy. Weyrich went to parochial schools, excelled at debating, and by high school had developed two passions: politics and media. As a teenager, Weyrich moved up the ranks of the Young Republicans, known then as the YGOP, and on the weekends spun platters and read the news at a local radio station. Weyrich went to a two-year state school, but never finished his BA: he was too busy for that. By the age of 21, he was married with two children, and having moved up the ranks as a radio journalist, in 1963 took a job as a local politics reporter on The Sentinel, a major Milwaukee newspaper. In late fall of 1964, Weyrich — a blond, boyish youngster with a broad smile and slightly jumbled teeth — became a television news reporter at WISN-TV, a CBS network affiliate.

It was in the WISN studio that Weyrich, on November 3, 1964, witnessed one of the worst drubbings in American political history. As the young reporter and conservative activist was reporting local election results spewed out by the station’s spanking new Monrobot Mark XI computer, Walter Cronkite was tracking Senator Barry Goldwater’s defeat by Lyndon Johnson.

Weyrich loved Goldwater, and had resented the Johnson campaign’s strategy of depicting the senator as a madman: the crushing repudiation of conservative politics that he watched that evening may have been life-defining. It propelled him out of journalism and into political activism. He became a media consultant to Colorado Senator Gordon Alcott, and in 1973, Weyrich co-founded the Heritage Foundation, a critical fund raising machine and policy think tank for the right, as well as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), designed to package model legislation to be passed at the state and local level. Weyrich, who was so conservative in his faith that he left the Roman Catholic Church for the Melkite Greek Catholic Church over the de-Latinisation of church rites, also became a key figure in suturing religious conservatives to the Republican Party’s right wing. This alliance transformed the GOP forever and in 1980  propelled Ronald Reagan — a former Goldwater surrogate — to the presidency.

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