Thomas Jefferson dreamed of a society filled with white male landowners, ideally living without a state, united by a common ethos of equality. Indeed, these ideas were perhaps the motivation behind his Louisiana Purchase and his promise to reduce the size of the federal government. Today, the mantle of Thomas Jefferson is loudly extolled by conservatives who are fond of citing his metaphorical “tree of liberty” watered by the “blood of patriots”. And yet the other Jefferson, the man who believed all citizens should be equal and live without a state, sounded more like Karl Marx than Karl Rove. How can Jefferson be both a Marxist and a libertarian? In a country with parallel universes, Thomas Jefferson exists in multiple dimensions.
It is fitting that what makes it possible for TJ to haunt multiple dimensions started to develop in the 1970s. It was the freaky decade of liberated women calling for the liberation of women, the strongest military on earth humbled by jungle fighters and a constitution that was saved only after being irreparably damaged. Some American prisoners of war returning home from Vietnam had trouble recognizing the country they left behind in the 1960s, making adjusting back to civilian life difficult. It was a disorienting time where the old rules did not apply: women did not obey, the United States did not win and our leaders were not always moral. Triple x-rated movies and an urban crime wave further challenged accepted norms and standards of decency. Historian Jacques Barzun believed that disorienting times led people to what he called “primitivism”, or a reassertion of simpler, more traditional values. Phyllis Schlafly exhorted women to dedicate themselves to family and opposed the ERA. Ronald Reagan promised to lock the hippies up as governor of California. Church membership across the south increased and Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority. America’s parallel universes were forged in the fires of the modern conservative movement.
Conservatives like Schlafly, Reagan and Falwell each represented a different strand of the movement. There was something these leaders were fighting against that transcended feminists, hippies and porn. Terms like “secular humanism” found some currency until the term we know and fear today was settled upon: “liberalism”. Liberal (decontextualized from its original, European connotation) meant license, taking liberties, pushing the bounds of freedom to the point of immorality. Liberal was a group of loud feminists shouting at the upstanding women of society to abandon their families. It was long hair, acid rock and drugs. Liberal meant urban blight punctuated by peep shows, criminals and ghettos. And behind all of the bra-burners and peaceniks was an edifice of government bureaucrats and intellectuals responsible for it all. The intelligentsia that had been so successful in shaping public policy since FDR found themselves now labeled as liberal, leaving them on the hook for the failure of Vietnam, violent inner cities and, by the mid-70s, a stagnated economy. After all, it was the liberal LBJ who started sending American boys to Vietnam in earnest and the liberal Sargent Shriver whose name was synonymous with anti-poverty programs that failed to cure urban blight. Chief Justice Earl Warren, who at one point ran for Vice President on a Republican ticket, left behind a liberal legacy of desegregation and expanded rights for the accused. If this was not enough, university intellectuals were in the process of floating affirmative action programs or creating entire departments dedicated to black, Hispanic, women and queer studies. It was not lost on many conservatives that the hippies who protested against Vietnam had come straight off college campuses staffed by intellectuals and that costly anti-poverty programs were justified by intellectual economists working under a Keynesian consensus. Liberal was not just a stance towards life. Liberal was a monolith that dominated the federal government and shaped the minds of the young in academia. It seemed as if liberals had strategically stationed themselves in places that would give them the greatest possible influence for the longest possible time.
While this view might seem like the “Paranoid Style in American Politics” outlined by Richard Hofstadter, it was compelling enough to cause the conservatives to respond in kind. After all, if the liberal threat was as extensive as it seemed, it required an equal and opposite reaction on the part of conservatives. Enter Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, founded in 1972 as the counterweight to the liberal National Organization of Women. Jerry Falwell, keenly aware of the liberal bent of academia, went on to found Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1971, where students are required to attend convocation three times a week. Most importantly, three wealthy conservatives,Paul Weyrich, Edwin Feulner and Joseph Coors, founded the Heritage Foundation in 1973. Born out of the conservative disenchantment that followed from an overly liberal Nixon presidency, the Heritage Foundation would go on to be the foremost conservative think tank in the United States. They would draft not only policy proposals, but the arguments and sound bites that would sell those proposals to the American people. When George W. Bush needed help establishing his administration, Heritage was by his side in force. Add to all of this the steady increase of evangelical Christian sects throughout the south in the 70s, with all of the revenue and organization that entails, and it is obvious that a conservative movement was well underway. It ingeniously harnessed the disgust many Americans felt over what was happening in the country. Churches and moral interest groups provided organization, while those members of the wealthy classes that had been seething since the Brain Trust provided billions. A movement structured in this way was destined to turn into something more, namely an entire conservative edifice to compete with the liberal one. This edifice has been successful at not only repudiating liberalism, but constructing a competing narration of events present and past. What started as a conservative movement has become an entire conservative reality. It has become a parallel universe, coexisting but never intersecting with a liberal universe. This accounts for its rousing success, the implications of which shall be examined shortly. It also explains how Thomas Jefferson can be both a communist and a libertarian. It all depends on the universe from whence he is being observed.