When I was in college, a popular refrain from many academics was to explain the rise of the “Right” or conservatism in the American South as a dynamic brought about because of race. Books like Dan T. Carter’s The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics attempted to link the politics of George Wallace to Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism. And if you are suspicious of that theory because Wallace was a New Dealer there is even an explanation for this lofty leap in a book by Joseph Lowndes titled From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism.
Books like these dismiss the more obvious causes like migration from the Frost Belt to the Sun Belt, the rise of the “New Left,” and a surge of evangelicals participating in the political process. The reason I mention these works is because they share a striking similarity to Adam Clymer’s new book Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch: The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the Right. Clymer has his own explanation for the rise of conservatism on a national scale, the Panama Canal Treaties. It is true that the Panama Canal issue was a pivotal issue that helped to rescue the insurgent Reagan primary campaign against Gerald Ford, but Clymer supposes if Reagan had lost in North Carolina in 76, where his back was up against the wall, he would have never ran for president again or won in 1980.
Odd statements like “His [Reagan] five-minute daily commentaries had a good number broadcast outlets, and an audience estimated at 20 million listeners a week, but they never stirred national notice” reinforce Clymer’s misunderstanding of Reagan. Reagan’s appeal was both national and popular, and Reagan was already deeply entrenched in the conservative grassroots movement. His radio addresses were highly effective in selling conservatism to mainstream audiences. Those that listened to him knew he of course wasn’t a single issue minded leader and his career wouldn’t end or be extended with the Panama Canal Treaties.
The Panama Canal fiasco however was a powerful and visible symbol for the decline of American might and influence around the globe after retreat from Vietnam. Reagan and other conservative politicians capitalized on the unpopularity of giving it away while the Soviets were flexing their might across the world. But in its symbolism attacking the canal giveaway represents, especially in regards to Reagan, Cold Warriors frustrated with the overall policy of American retreat and détente, which was magnified all the more under Jimmy Carter’s watch.
Clymer does cite some credible evidence that the canal issue brought grassroots conservative organizations together to raise money, but that was for a short time and other issues like the Equal Rights Amendment surely did the same. Clymer notes:
David Keene, then an ACU board member and subsequently its long-term chairman, observed in 2007 that the Canal issue was a double edged sword. He explained, ‘The canal issue was a great boon for us. It raised a lot of money. Afterwards, there was a letdown and it almost destroyed us.’
Clymer’s overarching point is that the Panama Canal issue transformed the Republican Party into a more conservative party. He also claims that Democrats become more conservative nationally because of the canal issue, a statement many may like to challenge.
Clymer also identifies five conservative Republican Senators who won their seats in 1980 campaigning against the Canal Treaty. But he even undercuts his own premise by noting the Democrat incumbents who lost their Senate seats were probably too liberal for the districts they represent and other issues in those campaigns were often just as formative, if not more so, like high unemployment and inflation to name a few. Ultimately Clymer laments the Panama Canal as a divisive issue because he sees it as a major downfall in the politics of consensus building and the rise of hot button issues like abortion, gun control, and same-sex marriage. Clymer bemoans with his own example:
It is not a long conceptual leap from suggesting that a McIntyre or Church [Democrat Senators defeated in 80] is a dupe of the Soviets designs on the Canal to Saxby Chambliss’s 2002 ads suggesting that Senator Max Cleland, a triple amputee from Vietnam was soft on terrorists, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden because he voted against the Bush administration on some elements of the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security.
While his book does a respectable job in tracing the canal issue through several presidential administrations and the debate in Congress, Clymer’s conclusions about the canal in relation to the ascendancy of conservatism is over – reaching and incoherent. Much of his evidence seems to contradict his own premises. One is forced to wonder if Clymer came up with the thesis and title before he started the actual research. Those interested in the rise of conservatism would be much better served reading Alfred S. Regnery’s recent book Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism.