Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s

Here are some highlights from this 2022 book by Nicole Hemmer:

* Ronald Reagan, himself a radio and television host, set out to repeal the Fairness Doctrine from the start of his presidency, something his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally accomplished in 1987. 26
Unlike Reagan, Gingrich had not always been opposed to the Fairness Doctrine. When Congress first tried to reinstate it, Gingrich signed on as a cosponsor. And he was not alone: in 1987 the Fairness Doctrine had plenty of conservative supporters, from Gingrich and Trent Lott, to Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Buchanan, to the Heritage Foundation and Ralph Reed. These conservatives, though generally fans of Reagan-era deregulation, believed that the Fairness Doctrine could be a useful tool to get conservative voices on air. If it were true, as conservatives contended, that liberal bias permeated US media, then a regulation requiring political balance could be a powerful weapon for conservative activists. 27
What conservative supporters of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 did not foresee, however, was the rise of right-wing talk radio. The Limbaugh juggernaut suddenly left the right wary of government regulation that might be used to hem in the popular radio host, who by the early 1990s was on over six hundred stations with an estimated twenty million listeners. Overnight, a bipartisan piece of legislation that had previously passed through Congress handily became anathema to Republicans. Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal dubbed the proposed legislation the “Hush Rush bill,” making clear that any vote for the legislation would be considered a vote against Limbaugh. The new bill went nowhere. 28
Once the Hush Rush crusade had passed, Gingrich and Limbaugh teamed up again to help kill antilobbying legislation. It was an odd crusade for Gingrich, who had built his reputation as a reformer but, in reality, was weaponizing ethics complaints to topple Democratic leaders. His biggest coup was successfully pressuring Democratic Speaker Jim Wright to resign in 1989 after stirring up an ethics scandal. While his intent was obvious—to take out prominent Democrats—he always insisted he was genuinely committed not only to reform but to cutting back on congressional luxuries and privileges. He had been hard at work on the Contract with America’s reform agenda, and a few months earlier he’d even given up his chauffeured car after his primary opponent attacked him for the extravagance. 29
Gingrich understood that opposing the lobbying reform bill cut against his arguments about ethics and reform. But he also knew that lobbyists had become a critical part of the apparatus connecting grassroots conservative organizations (and those that claimed to be grassroots) to Republican politicians in Washington. The reforms wouldn’t come soon enough to hamstring the GOP in the 1994 campaign, but they could annihilate the conservative political apparatus if enacted. So Gingrich, in addition to undertaking his own aggressive campaign against the bill, activated the other centers of power within the conservative movement.

* But the popularizers of this new racism, who wrote books like Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve , Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism , and Peter Brimelow’s Alien Nation , presented their ideas with all the trappings of intellectual respectability. Their heavily footnoted books brimmed with charts and references to scholarly works. And they touched a nerve: each was treated seriously by established news outlets and at times even caught the eye of Democratic moderates who found the scientific-sounding books to be a modern alternative to rank bigotry in their efforts to appeal to white voters.

* “Time to rethink immigration?”
That was the question National Review asked on its cover in June 1992—a moment when, other than Pat Buchanan, not many Americans were thinking about immigration at all. Just a few years earlier, George H. W. Bush had signed bipartisan legislation to increase immigration to the United States with a focus on family reunification and skilled workers. The legislation had also created a commission to study immigration policy, which was quietly at work in Congress. But as a political issue, it did not appear to be top of mind for most Americans, garnering little notice in the 1992 election.
Still, the cover story caused a stir. The author, Peter Brimelow, was an immigrant himself—he grew up in Lancashire, England, before eventually settling in New York City—as was the editor who commissioned it. Brimelow had been through the process of becoming a US citizen, and what he saw as he waited in the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) revolted him. Comparing the INS waiting room to the tenth circle of hell, he declared there was “something distinctly infernal about the spectacle of so many lost souls waiting around so hopelessly, mutually incomprehensible in virtually every language under the sun.”
So far, he could be describing the frustrations of any bureaucratic experience. But he had some other thoughts on the inhabitants of the room. They struck him as docile in the face of the INS’s opaque and seemingly arbitrary rules, and he mused that such docility may have been “imbued in them by eons of arbitrary government in their native lands.” One other thing struck him about that waiting room, something he’d noticed elsewhere in his adopted home of New York: “Just as when you leave Park Avenue and descend into the subway, on entering the INS waiting rooms you find yourself in an underworld that is almost entirely colored.” 1
He elaborated on that idea of a colored underworld in his book Alien Nation , released in 1995. The book revolved around what he called “a plain historical fact”: “the American nation has always had a specific ethnic core. And that core has always been white.” The immigration patterns of the past quarter century, however, had threatened to change that, triggering a “demographic mutation” that was steadily replacing the country’s “specific ethnic core” with one that looked more like the people waiting alongside him in the INS offices. To defend that white ethnic core, Brimelow concluded, the United States would have to enact restrictive immigration laws that heavily favored white Western countries. 2
Doing so would require repealing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which did away with a racist quota system that limited immigration to almost exclusively white European migrants. Brimelow wanted that system back. Even though he argued that immigration—both authorized and unauthorized—had grown much too quickly and should be dramatically scaled back, he also railed against any limits on eastern European immigration, believing that the United States could easily assimilate those white migrants. He insisted that this was about not race but culture : immigrants from the “Third World,” if they arrived in large numbers, simply could not fully assimilate into US culture and, being poorer and less educated, would tax every system in the country, from welfare, to jobs, to health care, to the environment.
Brimelow’s insistence that his argument was not about race was undercut not only by his repeated emphasis on whiteness but by his distinction between earlier waves of immigration and the post-1965 pattern, which he described as dangerously dominated by “visible minorities.” He nonetheless swatted back the charge of racism in his introductory chapter. “Because the term ‘racist’ is now so debased,” he wrote, “I usually shrug such smears off by pointing to its new definition: anyone who is winning an argument with a liberal .” 3
That preemptive claim did not, of course, stop reviewers from pointing out the racism in the book. But it did show how Brimelow approached his critics: by framing his ideas as controversial truths that had been walled off from the realm of acceptable conversation. “The country is being transformed against its will, by accident, in a way that’s unprecedented in the history of the world, to no visible economic gain,” he told Brian Lamb in an interview about the book on C-SPAN. “And you’re not supposed to talk about it, so of course I couldn’t resist,” he added, his thin lips curling into a smile, as though he’d dipped into a tempting dessert rather than engaged in handwringing about the shrinking white majority. 4
Brimelow’s book grabbed attention for a number of reasons. His journalistic bona fides (he was a senior editor at Forbes and an editor at National Review ), his lilting northern English accent, his branding as a controversialist—all of these allowed him to present his arguments about race and immigration on national platforms throughout the mid-1990s. He had learned something that Pat Buchanan had figured out when he first contemplated a presidential run: “The principal press bias is not a liberal bias. It’s a bias for a good fight. The press loves to see a fight start, and hates to see it end.” Both men understood how media worked because they had been part of the journalism world for decades, connections that won them a hearing for their arguments about the superiority of white Western civilization and how best to defend it. 5
But Alien Nation , which Newsweek ’s Jerry Adler described as “one of the most widely discussed books of 1995,” also grabbed attention because it landed in the midst of a newly politicized debate over immigration. Across the United States in the 1990s, the politics of immigration were rapidly changing. Buchanan’s call for a border wall in 1992 looked prescient two years later, when California state politics exploded over Proposition 187. The proposition, if enacted, would strip undocumented immigrants of access to any social service, including public education. It passed with overwhelming majorities and the support of Democrats as well as Republicans. With the new bipartisan embrace of immigration restriction, Buchanan went even further, calling for new limitations on authorized immigration as well. He also veered away from economic arguments against immigration and toward something different: arguments about culture, whiteness, and the American identity that would become a defining feature of the neo-nativism of the 1990s.

* Both parties would shift right on immigration in 1993 and 1994. Both tended to frame the debate in fiscal and economic terms that, on their surface, were unemotional hard-numbers appeals. Yet, in both parties the actual debate over immigration took on a darker tone of invasion, criminality, and decline. When talking about immigration, Feinstein emphasized overcrowded schools and housing shortages. And while she never said, “They’re stealing your jobs,” “They’re cheating your children,” “They’re why you can’t afford to buy a house,” the implications were clear. They were even clearer in Wilson’s infamous border-crossing ad. It featured grainy video of migrants crossing the border while a narrator gravely warned of the ceaseless flow of Mexican migrants, evoking images of an invasion from the south.

* When he initially explored the argument for Losing Ground in a pamphlet he wrote for the Heritage Foundation, a donor read it and said it should be given a book-length treatment. Serious fund-raising—to the tune of $125,000—went to the project, setting Murray up at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, to write the book. 27
The Manhattan Institute was less thrilled with his next project. When Murray signed on to write The Bell Curve , the think tank’s leaders couldn’t stomach the genetic component of his argument. They severed their relationship with Murray after learning he was writing the book, at which point the American Enterprise Institute scooped him up. Murray and Herrnstein went ahead with the project, knowing that if it was already shaking things up in the planning stages, the book was destined to make a splash when it landed.
Of course, it was one thing to court controversy and another to be cast out as an extremist. Here, Murray benefited greatly from the way the mainstream press treated The Bell Curve . One reviewer, Charles Lane, writing in the New York Review of Books , refused to pull his punches. He noted that the book relied on studies from white nationalist and eugenicist sources and that their conclusions shared a great deal with those sources. “Both sought to restore the scientific status of race, and to reintroduce eugenic thinking into the public policy debate.” But in other coverage of the book, its sources and conclusions were rarely presented so baldly, and even when they were, they were bracketed by Murray’s insistence that the book was not racist. This matters, because, while it did land on the best-seller list, most Americans would encounter The Bell Curve through articles like the sprawling, twelve-page story that appeared in New York Times Magazine the week the book came out: a look at Murray living the high life while calling for the end of welfare for the poor. 28
Others would read about it in the New Republic , which devoted most of an issue to The Bell Curve , reinforcing the notion that controversy sold, even as it roiled the institutions that it touched. The decision to publish the excerpt triggered an explosive fight at the New Republic . Editor Andrew Sullivan had initially planned to simply run the excerpt as a cover story for the magazine. But that decision met with fierce resistance within the publication, leading to a lengthy series of rebuttals that ran alongside the excerpt. The editorial note that introduced the “Race & IQ” issue applauded the magazine’s courage in running Murray and Herrnstein’s work and denounced some of the internal objectors as illiberal. “If the TNR editors who authored some of the responses had had their way,” the opening essay read, “the debate before you—and the arguments of those very editors—would never have seen the light of day.” 29
In addition to framing publication of The Bell Curve excerpt as a matter of free and open debate, the opening essay went one step further: it declared that the book’s authors were not racist and that their findings were true. “A magazine should publish what is true. Sometimes the truth is intricate and ambiguous, which is why a debate may be needed to reveal the core of the matter.” It also bought in to the notion that Herrnstein and Murray were offering up a hidden truth: something unspeakable but accurate. For magazines like the New Republic , spotlighting The Bell Curve , even though it caused significant disruption at the publication, had important upsides: it reinforced their brand as defenders of free speech and purveyors of dangerous—but necessary—ideas.

* In response to the publication of The End of Racism , two Black conservatives at AEI, Glenn Loury and Robert Woodson, resigned in protest. In a joint interview, they denounced D’Souza’s book as “an anti-black pejorative” written in “an intemperate, irreverent, insulting way.” Both men had previously argued that at least some inequality was driven by what they saw as “dysfunctional behavior” in Black communities, but D’Souza’s screed landed differently. “We’ve been called Uncle Toms, which we are not,” Loury said. “But to be silent in the face of this book, written by a conservative colleague, would make us Uncle Toms.” 37
The resignations were not the first sign that this turn toward scientific and cultural racism was driving a wedge between Black conservatives and the rest of the movement. Loury had already gone through a split with the neoconservative magazine Commentary after it refused to run his review of The Bell Curve . Now he would sever ties with AEI over The End of Racism . D’Souza and Murray would remain at the think tank for years, part of what one critic called AEI’s “race desk”—which now had no Black conservatives. More than that, AEI had now rewarded the politics of outrage, outrage, making clear that it valued precisely the kind of controversy that led to Loury’s and Woodson’s resignations. 38
For D’Souza, it was all upsides. His and Brimelow’s and Murray’s experiences served, for a conservative movement that had grown uncertain about how best to talk about race, as proof of concept for how to use controversy to gain stature and win big advances in the post-Reagan conservative movement.

* Nineteen ninety-five was Laura Ingraham’s year. You could find her everywhere. Settled in the driver’s seat of her army-green Range Rover, zipping through Washington, DC, at sixty mph. Lounging in the back of a black limousine en route to the airport to make that evening’s taping of Politically Incorrect . On the cover of New York Times Magazine in a leopard-print miniskirt, arms crossed and chin jutting up in a defiant pose. “It’s getting a little crazy,” she told a Wall Street Journal reporter writing a profile of her that fall, “but it’s fun.”
Practically overnight, Ingraham had become one of the most sought-after conservative commentators in the country, the breakout star of a new group of right-wing women pundits. Young, telegenic professionals, they marketed themselves as next-generation conservatives: stylish, outrageous, media savvy, and steeped in pop culture.

* While the 1990s marked a turning point for right-wing media, which flourished online and on air, places like the new cable channel Fox News were not the main breeding grounds for the new brand of conservative pundit. Like most up-and-coming stars of the right, Ingraham made her way into the spotlight as a right-wing voice in mainstream outlets. She was a regular on Bill Maher’s comedy show Politically Incorrect , where she learned to blend politics with humor and outrage. She wrote occasional op-eds for the New York Times and worked as a pundit for CBS before being given her own show on the new cable network MSNBC in 1996. The style often credited to Fox News—the flashy graphics, punch-to-the-face punditry, and leggy blonde anchors—had been well-developed elsewhere first.

* Though she seemed like an overnight success, Ingraham had been laying the groundwork for a career in punditry for over a decade by the time she appeared on the cover of New York Times Magazine . Her career flowed from two main tributaries: the Dartmouth Review and the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF). Those conservative institutions played a significant role in shaping the identity and style that would fuel her success in nonconservative outlets in the mid-1990s.
She arrived at Dartmouth in 1981, a few years after Dinesh D’Souza, and quickly fell in with him and the rest of the crew at the Dartmouth Review . Under his tutelage, she honed her ability to provoke liberals and snag headlines. She became editor of the Review after D’Souza graduated, practicing the same style of provocation publishing that had come to define the paper.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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