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How the Republicans Got That Way

Mark Peterson/Redux
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, speaking at the Great Exodus Church, Philadelphia, 2006

In the 1960s Catholic conservatives were in the forefront of the campaign against birth control and later against abortion. In 1970 Buckley’s brother- in-law L. Brent Bozell, a Catholic convert and also a founding editor of National Review, organized a violent demonstration at a hospital clinic at George Washington University, beginning a new phase of radical protest on the right that, Kabaservice writes, “would give the conservative movement the passionate, all-involving cause that civil rights had been for moderates and opposition to the [Vietnam] war for the New Left.”

The bond with Protestant evangelicals came in the 1970s. Opposition to Roe v. Wade was one reason for it. Another was race. The civil rights movement, once it migrated north, antagonized white ethnics, many of them Catholics, who objected to “forced busing” and to affirmative action in hiring and admissions policies. In these last instances, social grievances sometimes spilled over into economic conflict. A third reason for growing discontent was the generalized anxieties of a middle class that had been lifted into prosperity by the New Deal but now feared those gains would be taken from them by a “new class” of liberal policymakers intent on “redistributing” wealth (and spoils) to a population of undeserving minorities.

These attitudes bred a new form of protest that anticipates the culture wars of today. An early instance came in 1974, when a battle over school curriculum and the use of textbooks thought too liberal by some social conservatives—for instance, one textbook was attacked for comparing the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den with that of Androcles and the Lion—in Kanawha County, West Virginia, became enmeshed with a coal miner’s strike. “One reason the textbook controversy became so bitter was that it was class warfare,” Calvin Trillin wrote at the time:

The protesters often said that they and their religious beliefs were being mocked by those who were educated or rich or powerful. They were right, of course. Their opponents called them “borned-again Christians,” and “the Armies of Ignorance.” Office workers at the Board of Education talked about people who phoned in to object to the way the books were “wrote up.”1

These are the sentiments Santorum drew on when he called Obama “a snob” who wants “everybody in America to go to college.” And while they don’t necessarily conflict with the sentiments of the Tea Party movement, they exist somewhat apart from them—they exclude, for instance, any serious component of libertarianism. On the contrary, the emerging conservatism of the moment is rooted in the right’s traditional authoritarianism, with its promise to cleanse the nation’s morals and rescue it from cultural depravity. This was the message imparted by Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, who mobilized support for Reagan in the 1980 election, and by Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. Robertson, of course, came in second in the Iowa caucus in 1988, preparing the way for Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012.

Another evangelical organization of the period, the American Coalition for Traditional Values, was led by the Baptist Tim LaHaye (better known today for his apocalyptic Left Behind series of novels). LaHaye described Reagan’s presidency as a divine intervention and said a second Carter administration “might have plunged us into another French Revolution, only this time on American soil.” More recently, the movement’s dominant figure has been James Dobson, the radio host who founded Focus on the Family, the powerful political-evangelical organization.

Santorum is the authentic heir of this strain of conservatism. As expected he secured Dobson’s endorsement, two days before the South Carolina primary, won by Gingrich, though the result helped propel Santorum in the following weeks. Santorum’s partnership with Dobson dates back to the George W. Bush years, when they were leading proponents of the Federal Marriage Amendment, an attempt to insert a ban on same-sex marriage into the Constitution, an important episode in the decade’s social conservatism. At the time, many congressional Republicans found the marriage amendment “drastic and far-fetched,” Gilgoff wrote in The Jesus Machine. Santorum was one of a “handful of Republican true believers in the Senate” who “actively worked to convince Christian Right groups that passing a constitutional amendment was feasible and worth fighting for.”

Thus today’s GOP is less a party attached to specific policy ideas than a cluster of attitudes and sentiments. But this ideology ignores the practical necessities of governance, and few doubt that the broad electorate is looking for a candidate who will deal with them. It is here that Romney has made his strongest appeal. His mantle of electability rests on the feeling among more moderate Republicans that his successful business career and his single term as governor of Massachusetts give him the credibility to grapple with and perhaps solve what are, after all, the most urgent issues of the day—a still-sluggish economy that doesn’t provide enough jobs, the still-diminishing expectations of the middle class, not to mention the effects of globalization and energy dependence.

How persuasive this will prove to the general public is another matter. In 2008, when Obama and Hillary Clinton battled through the primary season, their debates offered a primer on Democratic policy in areas ranging from health care to nuclear proliferation. The Republicans debates in 2012 instead had the atmosphere of antigovernment revival meetings. When Romney recently said, in one of his many gaffes, “I’m not concerned about the very poor—we have a safety net there,” he betrayed not callousness so much, perhaps, as indifference to broad questions of economic disparity and social injustice that still concern much of the public.

For those voters the metronomic promise to “repeal Obamacare” (without specifying which popular features will be repealed) and to lighten the tax burden (without saying which popular subsidies will no longer be funded) may seem thin and weak—and overshadowed, in any case, by the zeal of Tea Party–aligned legislators in Congress, who seem allergic to the very notion that the federal government has a useful function to perform even as many of those same legislators siphon millions in “earmarks” for their home districts.

The absence of policy rigor in the GOP is the result, Kabaservice argues, of the party’s campaign, lasting more than half a century now, to purge itself of moderates. Aspects of this story have been told before. As long ago as 1989 the political scientist Nicol Rae described “the decline and fall of the liberal Republicans,” and blamed it in part on changes in American politics and the election system. “The proliferation of presidential primary elections ended the influence of state and local party leaders over national politics and gave a more influential role to the media, candidates’ organizations, and the ideological activists of the right.” At the same time, Rae noted,

ideological coherence had been a consistent problem for Republican liberals since the New Deal…. In their eagerness to adapt themselves to the New Deal, Dewey, Willkie, and Eisenhower exposed themselves to allegations of opportunism, or “me-tooism.” This failure to define a cogent liberal Republican philosophy seemed to legitimize the claim of the conservatives that they stood as the guardians of the Republican faith, representing a politics of principle as opposed to the “shameless expediency” practiced by the eastern moderates.2

This formulation holds true today. Indeed it is the argument Romney’s critics on the right have made time and time again. But ideological purity comes at a cost—especially in a two-party democracy. And moderates had a part to play, as mediators and once also as lawmakers. “Historically, moderates had provided much of the brains of the GOP and made it an effective governing party,” Kabaservice writes. “In some cases, their ideas and influence even helped to reshape conservatism, and made it a more realistic and powerful creed. The marginalization of the moderates actually hamstrung conservatives’ ability to pass conservative policies.” Even now there appears to be at least some appetite for new approaches to policy on the right. Witness the ascendancy of Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, whose latest blueprint for reforming the tax code and reining in entitlements—whatever its defects, and they are many—has aroused more interest than any concrete idea put forward by Romney.

Kabaservice’s book is a painstaking and well-argued attempt to resurrect the losers in the GOP’s fratricidal war, the liberal and moderate Republicans, including many from the northeastern states where today their influence still lingers, though the Maine Senator Olympia Snowe’s announced retirement may further reduce their number. For these legislators and policy thinkers, the goal was not to purify the GOP or punish Democrats, but to draw on longstanding Republican ideals, some dating from the Progressive Era, as a means of solving the crises created not by “liberals” or “the Democrats” but by the realities of post-industrialism—urban blight, racial strife, economic insecurity.

Kabaservice has researched his subject prodigiously, examining more than a hundred archive collections and exploring the careers and contributions of political and intellectual figures seldom discussed today. These include the editors of Advance, a magazine founded in 1960 by two Harvard undergraduates who offered sharp critical analyses of both parties—the Democrats, tied to corrupt urban political machines and captive to a powerful bloc of segregationist legislators; the GOP, with its indifference to minorities and its “superpatriots…who were hostile to the United Nations and foreign aid and seemed too willing to risk nuclear war.”

The 1960s were, in some respects, the peak period of the moderate GOP. Kabaservice accurately notes that the 1966 elections, commonly described as an eruption of white “backlash” against the Great Society, capped by Reagan’s election to his first term as governor of California on a platform that capitalized on a tide of opposition to the Fair Housing Act,3 also swept in a fresh wave of moderate Republicans. The victors included Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction—no token figure but a “Massachusetts moderate” who opposed Great Society programs but also “called for the construction of affordable housing, an increase in the minimum wage, the extension of Medicare to children, and massive investment in subpar urban schools.” There was also Charles Percy, the Illinois Republican who countered LBJ’s proposal for federally supervised urban renewal, which would include “bulldozing entire neighborhoods,” with a plan that would promote “home ownership by the urban poor.”

Kabaservice is right to emphasize the 1960s, the most tumultuous modern decade, but also one in which politicians in both parties, for all their differences, could at least agree on the problems that needed solving. Moderate Republicans like Pete McCloskey and Charles Goodell were among the most articulate opponents of the Vietnam War. Kabaservice also reviews the career of George Romney, who quarreled with Goldwater over civil rights in 1964, developed a strong critique of the Vietnam War, and in 1967–1968, Kabaservice pointedly writes, briefly seemed the GOP moderates’ “last and best chance to elect one of their own to the presidency.”

  1. 1

    Calvin Trillin, “Kanawha County, West Virginia: Some Elements in a Dispute that Resulted in the Closing of Schools, the Shutting Down of Industry, the Wounding of Men, and the Cancellation of Football Games,” The New Yorker, September 30, 1974. 

  2. 2

    Nicol C. Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans from 1952 to the Present (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 156, 60. 

  3. 3

    See Richard N. Goodwin, “The Shape of American Politics,” Commentary, June 1967; and George Packer, “The Fall of Conservatism,” The New Yorker, May 26, 2008. 

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