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The Phantom Menace Effect


Now that there’s a fairly broad consensus that The Phantom Menace was godawful, it’s often forgotten how well the movie was initially received not only by many fans but by much of the media as well. The likes of Roger Ebert gave the movie good reviews and taped fawning interviews with the hacktacular Mr. Lucas. The subtext was that anyone who pointed out how atrocious the movie was in every respect–an archetypal popcorn movie about a trade dispute?–was an elitist spoilsport. Now that the movie’s sheer awfulness is widely accepted, much of this has been retrospectively forgotten.

Something similar is going on with the attempts to argue that Reagan represents the triumph of 1960s movement conservatism. In fact, the historical significance of Reagan to American conservatism was that he could leigitimize the rough contours of the New Deal and Great Society among conservatives in a way establishment Republicans like Nixon and Ford couldn’t. As Matt Ygelsias notes:

When he captured the GOP nomination in 1980 and achieved re-election in 1984, the status of conservatism as a mainstream American political movement was secured. And yet, Goldwater’s heir took a small-c conservative attitude toward the Great Society rather than a reactionary one. He smoothed off the rough edges, rolled back what he saw as its excesses, but ultimately ratified its main commitments. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Civil Rights all survived intact. Perhaps most important, even the nature of opposition to these programs shifted. From Reagan on forward, no one questions the notion that, fundamentally, ensuring the health, education, and retirement security of the American population are proper governmental functions.

What’s going on here is, to paraphrase Ace Rothstein, a morality car wash for movement conservatives. Pick up the National Review in 1960, and you’ll see opposition to Social Security, Medicare, Brown v. Board, and any federal intervention to protect civil and voting rights (and often substantive support of Jim Crow.) Pretending there’s a seamless web from Goldwater to Reagan allows conservatives to pretend they’ve always supported civil rights and the basics of the welfare state. The problem is that this is ahistorical nonsense. In the same way that film reviewers would like to think that they always recognized that The Phantom Menace was crap, Sean Hannity would like to pretend that nobody except Robert Byrd opposed the Civil Rights Act.

This isn’t to say that Reagan was irrelevant. As Mark Tushnet puts it in The New Constitutional Order, the Republicans have convinced people not that the government can’t solve any problems, but that they can’t solve any more problems. This isn’t a trivial change. But there’s a big difference between conservative consolidation and reactionary consolidation. Reagan made conservatism respectable by largely jettisoning its most unpopular and/or indefensible elements.

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