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Reaching out to the American middle class: Peggy Noonan’s conservatism

Luc BENOIT A LA GUILLAUME

Résumés

Parmi les idéologues qui popularisent les idées conservatrices auprès du grand public, Peggy Noonan occupe une place intéressante. Moins extrémiste que Rush Limbaugh ou Ann Coulter, elle exprime les angoisses et les espoirs des Reagan Democrats, ces Américains moyens devenus conservateurs depuis les années 80. Cet article analyse les ambivalences d’un discours qui entre en résonance avec celles d’une partie de la classe moyenne américaine.

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Texte intégral

1The steady decline of liberal and radical ideas and the impressive vitality of conservatism in the last 30 years has led analysts to look more closely at the current conservative revival in the United States. In the wake of the 1960s, radical political movements attracted a lot of attention, because of the surge in radical activism which swept the US in the 1960s and 70s and also because many of the books on the period were written by former radicals who had become academics. As Todd Gitlin acknowledges at the end of his 1992 preface to his book on the Sixties, he had “said too little about the growth of the American right in the sixties”. However, the ebb and flow of political fortunes and academic interests is not the only reason which may account for the relative neglect of the conservative revival: one also has to take into account the change in the very nature of conservatism. Before the 1980s, conservatism was often synonymous with a defense of the status quo which avoided strong ideological connections and relied instead on common sense and the views of what Nixon famously called “the silent majority”, hence its relative invisibility. With the “Reagan revolution”, it seemed that a new, more aggressive, and therefore more visible, brand of conservatism emerged. Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter, whose best-selling book What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era  and other writings I propose to look into in this paper, is a member of this new generation of conservative pundits, newspaper columnists and talk show hosts. What distinguishes Noonan from other more strident conservative activists like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh is the way she manages to blend the two conservative traditions by translating an uncompromising right-wing agenda for the benefit of the mainstream “silent majority”. In order to understand her success, I propose first to look at her way of polarizing political debates. Noonan’s views are always defined in a them versus us Manichean dichotomy which pits conservatives against traditional Republicans, patriots against liberal peaceniks, hard-working citizens against the undeserving poor. Noonan also translates her ideology in easily understandable vignettes by making the political personal and using anecdotal evidence. Crucial to her propaganda effort is the ethos that her book manages to build: the image of Noonan as a modern, embattled Reagan Democrat with whom ordinary readers are encouraged to identify.

1. A Conservative against Liberals and traditional Republicans

Peggy Noonan: a Reagan Democrat

2Peggy Noonan’s first major book, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era, is a political memoir published in 1990, one year after the end of Reagan’s second term. Its first two chapters give us an account of the author’s life before she joined the Reagan White House in 1984. Her other major book also blends the personal and the political, anecdotes and ideology in the early 1990s. The personal, anecdotal, biographical elements of these books are essential to their success: they enable a right-wing Conservative ideologue to grab the attention and the sympathy of her readers and help make the book readable by linking conservative dogma to the life and career of an average, modern, middle-class Irish-American baby-boomer. They make these two books far more convincing than the vitriolic charge written against Hillary Clinton or some of the most outrageously partisan newspaper articles that she wrote for the Wall Street Journal (a good example: the article entitled “Why did they do it” on April 24, 2000, against the repatriation of Elian Gonzalez, in which she invokes the “miracle of the dolphins”).  It is essential to say a few words about the author, whose identity, social background, and personal career go a long way towards explaining the success of her earlier books. Born in 1950 in an Irish-American Catholic working class family in Brooklyn, Peggy Noonan describes herself as the typical baby-boomer whose family worshipped FDR and Kennedy, and who became a Conservative in the late sixties and early seventies when she went to college. After working with Dan Rather for CBS, she joined the Reagan White House in 1984 as a speechwriter. Since the late 1980s, she has worked as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and author of bestselling books which always reflect her conservative views. A few important elements stand out: her origins as a “Reagan Democrat”; her being a woman in a man’s world (especially in the Reagan White House); her Catholicism, and the fact that she is a divorced woman living alone with her only child. All this is summed up at the beginning of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, when she says:

“When I had been back in town a year a friend from Washington called me and asked, “Who do you see, what ring are you in?” I laughed at the usage. Which ring of the tree, of Saturn, of thieves.

I told her that I didn’t think I had a ring. Because of the particular facts of my life-A Republican in a Democratic town, a person associated with politics in a neighborhood dominated by commerce and the arts, a single person in a couple society, a mother of a young child whose friends are often people whose children are grown or not yet born, a writer who works at home and so lacks the society of the office, a person whose life is pedestrian and yet privileged—I am not naturally part of any group.

3Of course this description, which should not be taken at face value, enables Noonan to create an image of herself, an ethos, which happens to be that of her targeted readership: the embattled urban middle class grappling with the cultural dilemmas of modern life. Crucially, this is the best possible ethos to try to reach out to and win over those Americans who are not hard-core Conservatives. But then what kind of conservatism do her writings convey?

A militant conservative fighting against Liberals and traditional Republicans

4Even though (or perhaps because) she is not a traditional Republican, her views are those of an uncompromising conservative. Her writings predictably promote right-wing views and criticize liberal views. Noonan’s conservatism champions individual responsibility against government intervention, tax cuts and welfare cuts, a return to moral and religious values and an aggressively ideological foreign policy intent on rolling back communism. Her conservatism is often defined as a reaction against both Liberals and traditional Republicans, which gives it a populist flavour. Her books are therefore full of heroes on an ideological mission, fighting against mainstream culture, both in America and within the Republican Party. The first chapters of What I Saw at the Revolution set the tone which dominates her books: chapter 1, entitled “I am Often Booed Because of Who My Friends Are”, describes Noonan’s experience in college in the early seventies, when she discovered William F. Buckley, National Review, and the conservative cause:

I started reading NR, and it sang to me. They saw it the way I was seeing it: America is essentially good, the war is being fought for serious and valid reasons, the answer to every social ill is not necessarily a social program, when you let a government get too big you threaten your own liberties—and God is as real as a rock.

5The chapter ends with the description of a conversion experience to the conservative cause, when she was repelled by the anti-Americanism of the anti-war protesters on board a bus heading for a demonstration in 1971. The message is clearly both political and cultural, since the whole episode ends with the following rhetorical question: “What am I doing with these intellectuals or whatever they are, what am I doing with this—this contemptuous elite?”. As Thomas Frank convincingly argues in What’s the Matter with Kansas, this sort of indignation is typical of “backlash culture”, as “Conservatives often speak of their first bout of indignation as a sort of conversion experience, a quasi-religious revelation”. Noonan’s conservatism is therefore a classic example of the middle-class cum populist revolt against “the liberal elite” which in fact was nothing new in 1990: Kevin Phillips had taken exactly the same line in his Emerging Republican Majority, published as far back as 1969. As Jonathan Chait says about her rhetoric in The New Republic:

The hallmarks of the hero-worship style are a Manichaean moral sensibility, eloquent prose, and assertion rather than argument. […] In other words, the seemingly sweet hero-worship in Noonan’s writing is merely the flip side of all the traits that have made politics a death struggle—think impeachment and Florida—in recent years. If politics is a struggle between good ideas and bad ideas, a compromise can be found. If it is a struggle between good people and bad people, then absolute victory and absolute defeat are the only options.

6Noonan’s Manichean style undoubtedly puts her in the same broad category as other right-wing political pundits like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh, who have contributed to the polarization of American politics in recent decades.

7It should also be noted that her conservatism puts her at odds with traditional Republicans, who are described as

people who could get out of the Reagan administration and parlay it into a nice job with Shearson Lehman or Salomon and start pulling down 200K, and that’s before bonuses, and buy a good English suit and a pair of hand-tooled shoes. At least if you were a Republican, which our aide certainly is! If you were a conservative, it was: back to the think tanks! back to the ivy! back to the column or the talk show (or the book!)

8The last remark clearly indicates which side of the divide Noonan sees herself on. Conservatives like Noonan are seen as American idealists on a mission to rescue the American political process from its corruption: it is the 1990 version of Frank Capra’s 1939 classic movie Mr. Smith goes to Washington. Her description of the Reagan administration includes passages which praise the courage of a few conservatives who dared speak out against abortion or modern art. In a move which imitates Reagan’s frequent references to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Noonan’s admiration for Reagan and George W. Bush is matched by her respect for Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. Conservatism is used as a foil to moderate Republicanism but also as a refuge for disaffected Democrats. It is both more ideological and less partisan than the Republican label. Predictably, Noonan’s book ends with a warning against government and politicians: “Don’t fall in love with politicians, they’re all a disappointment”. Although Noonan’s right-wing populism is hardly new, its phenomenal success is linked to the clever way she makes the political personal in order to carry her readers along.

2. Making the political personal

Connotation, interpellation, and the political field

9The effectiveness of Noonan’s propaganda very much comes down to her ability to make her book readable and speak to her middle class readers in a way that resonates with their hopes and fears. In order to achieve this, Noonan turns the radical feminists’ slogan on its head: for her, the political is personal, and her book skilfully blends political propaganda and elements taken from her personal, or even private, life. The very title of her first book is revealing: What I saw at the Revolution is not the same as The Reagan Revolution: Noonan’s book is a personal memoir which openly acknowledges its subjective, even “idiosyncratic” form of expression in its introduction. The result is a book which is all the more convincing since it is entertaining. Even though its general structure is chronological, starting with a short biography of the author before she joined the White House and ending after she left in the late 1980s, the book does not seem to be linear, because each chapter is a collage of anecdotes and vignettes. Chapter 15 is a good example of this: it mixes descriptions of the summit with Gorbachev in Geneva and the story of how Noonan got married in Rome.

10Sometimes, Noonan’s way of mixing the political and the personal takes the form of direct interpellation. After describing her life before joining the Reagan White House in the first two chapters of the book, Noonan begins the third chapter in the following manner:

                       The President’s House is Many Mansions

You there, citizen, standing on E street looking in: What do you see? A white and stately mansion on a softly rising hill, a great house at rest on a wide expanse of lawn, the sort the fabulously rich enjoyed many years ago. The grounds are perfect, soft green and smoothly hilly. Encircling it all is a tall iron fence of deep dull black with golden eagles and golden stars halfway up the bars.

Citizens stand and peer in. Some put their faces between the bars as if they were watching a baseball game or a building going up. But others will not touch this gate, even it has a mystique, for it guards the stately mansion on the softly rising hill.

How do you feel, outside this gate peering in? As if it’s another world in there. (It is). How do you feel, inside those gates looking out? As if you’re in the middle of something special, the way you felt in the cafeteria in high school when you sat at the most popular table, or at a tutorial in Cambridge, England, the day you thought, No one in the world is getting a better education than I am on this day in this place.

Come see the whiteness on the elevation. Come, come in. I have cleared you in, I have given your name to the guards.

11This passage can be interpreted in a way that might reconcile Barthes’ theory of connotation, Althusser’s theory of interpellation, and Bourdieu’s theory of the political field as a microcosm after the deaths of their authors. There is a sense in which this passage is mythical, à la Roland Barthes, in so far as it is full of ideological connotations, some of which are allegorical. From The Gospel according to St John in the title, to the house/mansion on the hill (which reminds one of the Puritan “City upon a hill”), the passage is clearly allegorical. The phrase « fabulously rich » and the description of the grounds surrounding the White House all contribute to making the place appear sacred. The use of religious references is typical of the American civil religion. The White House is described as awe-inspiring, it has “a mystique”, and the reader is therefore about to enter the holy of holies. The content of this short extract is ideological in so far as it idealizes the White House and the American presidency (in fact, the picture gets more complicated if one reads on to the end of the chapter: the “many mansions” of the title refer to the divisions and the bickering within the Reagan White House: “the white and stately mansion is a place of intrigue and betrayal”. The biblical clichés are exploited by Noonan both in order to idealize and to criticize the White House). However, ideology is not merely a matter of content in this extract. It can also be found in the interpellation which opens the chapter. The subject who is hailed (“you citizen”) is both individual (each reader or each citizen) and collective (all the readers, or even all the American people). As Althusser suggests, ideology produces subjects, it interpellates individuals into subjects. The beginning of Noonan’s third chapter is reminiscent of the scene in which Althusser has a policeman hail a passer-by. The scene interpellates the readers, both individually and collectively, into subjects. Noonan’s interpellation, which might on the face of it be interpreted as an act of populist concern for the feelings of ordinary Americans, is therefore at the same time an act of interpellation which forces the reader to adopt Noonan’s point of view and to “come and see” the White House from her conservative perspective. This scene can also be interpreted using Bourdieu’s theory of the political field as a relatively autonomous microcosm. In this respect the scene is a clear attempt to bridge the ever-widening gap, which has led to a growing populist disillusionment with politics, between the political field and ordinary citizens. Noonan takes the reader by the hand and literally helps her overcome all the physical obstacles (from the tall iron fence to the security guards) which separate the political world from society. As we can see from this short extract, Noonan’s book is not merely a restatement of Reagan’s conservative populism. It is also a sophisticated attempt to reach out to the American public, interpellate her readers into subjects and help them overcome their populist distaste for politics.

The use of anecdotal “evidence”

12Another way in which Noonan succeeds in getting her conservative message across is through the systematic use of anecdotes and vignettes. When assessing this aspect of Noonan’s style, one should bear in mind the fact that she obtained a degree in literature before she started a career as a journalist, and that Reagan was famous for mixing fact and fiction in his speeches. As a result, Noonan does not hesitate to use fiction for political purposes, both in her speeches and in this book. When she defends the use of the “history is a river” metaphor against the objections of the State Department in a speech to be delivered in China, she says:

“Look, history is a river is not Communist propaganda, it’s poetry. It’s not dialectic, it’s not literal, and you can’t apply those logical standards—”

“So you concede it’s not logical.”

“I concede nothing, I concede it’s literature.”

13Noonan’s use of anecdotes and vignettes can be said to follow the same sophistic position: that fiction, metaphor, and anecdotes are weapons that can and should be used to score political points. Let me give two examples of anecdotes which serve to convey Noonan’s conservative message on crime and poverty. The first anecdote deals with Noonan’s apartment in Georgetown, Washington DC. We are told that “Georgetown was beautiful and genteel and newly full of crime”, and then a neighbor tells Noonan that her new flat was previously rented by a woman who was raped at knifepoint in the flat. The second describes the homeless people outside the White House:

There was a man who lived in a cardboard box in front of the EOB. On cold days he surrounded himself with cellophane and wore a hat. There was a hand-lettered sign propped up against his box. It explained the injustices that had been visited upon him throughout his life. Day in day out he sat there, cold and sullen. Now and then I would say hello. He made believe he didn’t hear. Or perhaps he didn’t, though the sign did not say he was deaf. In Washington in the eighties, as in every American city, the street people no longer tried to arouse an empathy or create a connection that might prompt a hand into a pocket. They often sought to menace.

There was a street person who waited until nightfall to roam the streets outside the EOB. He mumbled and was obscene. He frightened the women leaving the building. He frightened me. In another era, various factors would have inhibited him, but this was the eighties, and the work of homeless activists had convinced the unstable that they had a wholesome and immediate job to do: challenge society’s complacency and agitate for the dispossessed. In Washington in the eighties the insane were coolly used to advance ideological aims—cruelty in the name of higher compassion, engineered by men and women who were lauded in the press for their decency and concern.

14In both cases, a woman’s fears are exploited to make a political point: against crime and against the homeless. The second example uses rumour and fear and then makes sweeping generalizations about homelessness and poverty. The shift from “a man who lived in a cardboard box” to “the street people” to “the dispossessed” and finally “the insane” is chilling. Crucially, the use of anecdote forces us to see the problem through the eyes of a poor defenseless woman, a potential victim of crime. Conversely, homeless people are seen as potential criminals rather than the victims of a social system. As these examples demonstrate, anecdotes enable Noonan to score political points, they make the political personal. But there is another way in which the book appeals to its readers: Noonan presents a middle class image of herself, which helps her win over middle class readers.

3. A middle class ethos and a “benign” populism

Noonan’s in-between social position

15A middle class position like Noonan’s is marked by insecurity and ambivalence, respect and even awe for one’s superiors but also resentment and bitterness, according to sociologists like Alain Accardo. Like many Reagan Democrats, her social position is ambivalent in many ways. First, as a political pundit, she has been moving between the media and politics, starting her career at CBS before moving to the White House and finally going back to journalism. During her time in the Reagan White House, her work as a speechwriter also put her in an awkward position, which led both to satisfaction and frustration. As a middle-ranking professional, writing someone else’s speeches, she resented  the fact that she had no access to the president and that her drafts were often censored during the staffing process but also idolized Reagan. Chapter 4 is thus entitled “I First Saw Him As a Foot”, and we are told on pp. 64-5 that she “hoped to see the president” and that she “lobbied” to have a  meeting with the president. Each time Noonan meets the president, she is “excited” (p. 286), and when she is asked to write Reagan’s farewell address, she is “grateful because it is an honour”, and she marvels at the fact that she “would work once more with Reagan, my Reagan, and this time [she] would know him” (p. 325). The same ambivalence applies to her job. She describes “my Heartbreak Hill, my Hanoi Hilton, this was… the staffing process” and devotes a full chapter, entitled “Ich bin ein pain in the neck” to her battles with the State Department over the content of speeches: “it was a constant struggle over speeches, a constant struggle over who was in charge…”. But she also proudly boasts of the fact that “speechwriting was where the administration got invented every day. And so speechwriting was, for some, the center of gravity in that administration…”.

16Noonan’s attitude as a woman is also interestingly ambivalent. On the one hand, she describes her struggle in a male-dominated environment. She shows her determination to overcome obstacles in what she calls “a totally masculine culture” and mentions the sexist jokes against congresswomen. The picture that emerges from the book is definitely that of a modern, urban, professional woman. Her late marriage, at the age of 35, and her subsequent divorce, reinforce this image, which is hardly that of a traditional conservative, despite the nostalgia for the 1950s world of her childhood. But on the other hand, the book also promotes reactionary views on abortion and is full of admiration for male figures of authority, like Ronald Reagan or Colonel Oliver North. In Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Noonan takes an even more conservative view of women’s role: she argues in favour of women choosing not to work in order to take care of their children and she even says that she has: “this creepy feeling: it’s feminism that put a lot of us in the office, but materialism that keeps a lot of us there.”.

Stylistic, thematic and argumentative ambivalence

17Noonan’s ambivalent social position also leads her to adopt a style marked by ambivalence. Generally speaking, her book combines the highbrow and the lowbrow, and mixes intellectual references and colloquialisms, in a way which is reminiscent of the middling style described by Kenneth Cmiel in Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth Century America. Cmiel describes this style, which was a critical part of the Democratic idiom which appeared in the 1830s, in the following way:

Middling rhetoric married the high and the low. It was part of a larger change in the cultural landscape. As one historian has put it, American doctors and lawyers “typically strove to appear not only folksy but also erudite”

18Noonan’s middling style can be linked to this long tradition going back to the Jacksonian populism of the 1830s. Stylistically, it is both conversational and argumentative, refined and colloquial. Here is an example of this middling style:

You’d be in someone’s home and on the way to the bathroom you’d pass the bedroom and see a big thick copy of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times lying half-open on the bed. Three months later you’d go back and it was still there. Everyone had read Jean-François Revel’s How Democracies Perish and could discuss with ease Jeane Kirkpatrick’s analysis of authoritarian versus totalitarian regimes.

19Here mixing the high and the low amounts to dropping names (including a French name) and cultural references “on the way to the bathroom”.

20This stylistic ambivalence goes hand in hand with a thematic ambivalence: the general tone of the book oscillates between hope and resentment, idealism and bitterness. The last two pages of the book illustrate this tendency perfectly. It sums up Noonan’s populist attitude to politics by both praising and denigrating “government”: “If you join government, calmly make your contribution and move on” and “Don’t fall in love with politicians, they’re all a disappointment” (which comes in stark contrast with Noonan’s admiration for Reagan in the book). The very last page begins with a tirade against “the rich”, warning against their liberal bias (“Beware of the rich, who are overrepresented in politics”) and ends with on a note of sunny optimism (“And: for all this, America is still wide open. You can come here from anywhere and do anything.” […] “This is the fairest place there ever was, it’s wide open, and no one has cause for bitterness”): the very last sentence of the book is emblematic of this contradictory mood: it contradicts the bitterness and the class resentment of the previous “anti-rich” passage. The last sentence both proclaims a message of hope and ends with a denegation of “bitterness”.  

21Finally, Noonan’s ambivalence is also argumentative and results in a relative sense of balance: the anecdotes with which she talks about important social and political issues often put both sides of the argument, in a way which reflects the ambivalence of middle class reactions. The way she talks about the school busing crisis in Boston in 1974 is a good example of this. She sympathizes with the fears of Irish working class residents who were afraid of the “invasion” of black kids and opposes “high-handed corporate liberalism”. But she also includes a short paragraph describing the indignation of a black journalist. And she ends her description by saying: “Everything I meant to say was true, everything she said was true..”. In this respect her conservatism is definitely less extreme than Rush Limbaugh’s or Ann Coulter’s, whose outrageous comments on liberals and Democrats come in stark contrast with Noonan’s more measured prose.

22Noonan’s bestselling books and articles are a good example of how conservative populism has succeeded in reaching out to the mainstream of American politics by targeting the concerns of an embattled white American middle class. The result is sophisticated propaganda which cleverly avoids overtly racist or sexist overtones, using what she describes as a “benign” populism and relying instead on coded references to crime (to attack blacks and the poor) and family values (to fight abortion). Noonan’s middling style, her middle class ethos, and her typically middle class hopes and fears go a long way towards explaining the success of her books, and, more generally, of conservatism since the 1980s. Noonan’s backlash rhetoric is part and parcel of the culture war waged by conservatives, and is based on the idea that “culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern, that values matter most”. Noonan’s expression of middle-class hopes and fears makes her conservatism less strident, but perhaps no less effective than the rantings of Ann Coulter, if one judges her by the success of her published books. Maybe progressives could learn a useful lesson from this spectacular, albeit frightening, success: the success of conservative populism challenges progressives to invent a genuinely radical alternative which can appeal not only to minorities or a rainbow coalition of minorities, but to the interests of the mainstream American middle class.

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Bibliographie

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Luc BENOIT A LA GUILLAUME, « Reaching out to the American middle class: Peggy Noonan’s conservatism », E-rea [En ligne], 6.1 | 2008, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2008, consulté le 28 juin 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/146 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.146

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Auteur

Luc BENOIT A LA GUILLAUME

Université Paris X Nanterre
Maître de conférences

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