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How the Republicans Got That Way

The period’s most interesting figure was perhaps Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a lifelong Democrat who was nonetheless sympathetic to GOP ideas of governance and joined the cabinet of Richard Nixon, devising an ambitious plan for a national guaranteed income based on Milton Friedman’s idea of a “negative income tax,” an alternative to existing welfare policy “that was both activist and Republican,” Moynihan later wrote. “It was relatively easy for conservatives to accept, because Friedman was very much a conservative Republican”—in fact, an adviser to Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. In addition, the program reflected public sentiment. A 1968 Gallup Poll

reported that “big government,” more than “big business” or “big labor, was seen by the public as posing the greatest threat to the future. Yet this same public had, if anything, a more lively sense of social ills than ever before. It wanted something done, but something that would work…. Ideologically, the American public is conservative; in practice it is liberal. This is one of the most notable, if least noted, findings of American social science. The French maxim “Think left, live right” is reversed in the New World. The best politicians know this. The three Presidents of the nineteen-sixties understood and accepted it. This is to say that, apart from personal preferences, they understood that the American public was willing to accept liberal programs when these were cast in non-liberal terms.4

“No other president implemented as much of the moderate agenda” as Nixon, Kabaservice writes, much of it drawn from the innovative proposals of the Ripon Society, the moderate GOP organization and think tank:

Nixon’s speechwriter Lee Huebner recalled that when he went from the Ripon Society to the White House, he brought with him a list of major policy proposals…. Virtually all became part of the Nixon program, including revenue sharing, welfare reform, government reorganization, an end to the military draft, and normalization of relations with China.

Nixon was “simultaneously the moderates’ greatest ally and enemy,” Kabaservice observes. He tried to appease Strom Thurmond and other Dixiecrats by nominating segregationist jurists to the Supreme Court while at the same time he enacted a program that wielded the incentive of federal funding to desegregate labor unions in the North. But Nixon was also obsessed with political “enemies,” real and imagined, and fixated on the sins of his cultural adversaries—“intellectuals, cosmopolitans, free-thinkers, activists, media elites, business leaders (‘those farts’), and university presidents (‘those assholes’).” It was the politics of grievance we are hearing today, most recently in Santorum’s outburst at a New York Times reporter: “Quit distorting my words. It’s bullshit.”

Unable to reconcile his enlightened policy instincts with the politics of “absolute rule,” Nixon personified the GOP’s internal divide, climaxed by the crimes of Watergate, that sent the party on its current course, in which the imperatives of responsible governance are overwhelmed by the excitements of culture warfare. Moderate Republicanism was doomed to fail, Kabaservice acknowledges, precisely because it lacked an ideology. It was a useful instrument of governance, but not of politics.

This was the lesson conservatives took from Watergate. Soon after Nixon’s resignation, Patrick Buchanan and Kevin Phillips, writers and strategists who had worked in his administration, translated Nixon’s embattlement with the “elite” into the basis of sustained political protest. “The last best hope of the Republican Party,” Buchanan wrote in 1975, was to “place itself at the head of the middle-class revolution boiling in the countryside.” The sources of that rage were the “5.6 million Americans getting unemployment benefits, 11 million on welfare, almost 17 million employed by the federal, state and local governments, and the armed services, another 20 million on food stamps, and almost 31 million living off Social Security.”5 Phillips, in his book Mediacracy, glimpsed “the outline of traditionalist resurgence” in the “religious reaction to the upheaval of the nineteen sixties,” and in the high “ratio” of church members and churchgoers in the US.6

This is politics as culture war and it remains very much with us. Ralph Reed notes a “remarkable overlap” between the Tea Party and evangelicals. This may well be the case. But if so, its basis isn’t a coherent set of ideas and principles. The Tea Party has been exposed, increasingly, as a diffuse, localized phenomenon, its adherents confused ideologically and divided in their loyalties.7 Meanwhile, evangelicals remain the GOP’s most identifiable and impassioned constituency. Romney and the “establishment” are right to be worried. A candidate such as Santorum who attracts only angry insurgents can’t possibly be elected president. But the Republican nominee who fails to lure evangelicals to the polls may very well be defeated in November.

—This is the second of two articles on conservatism and current politics. The first appeared in the March 8 issue.

  1. 4

    Daniel P. Moynihan, “Income by Right,” The New Yorker, January 13 and 20, 1973. 

  2. 5

    Patrick J. Buchanan, Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories: Why the Right Has Failed (Quandrangle/New York Times Books, 1975), pp. 99–100. 

  3. 6

    Kevin P. Phillips, Mediacracy: American Parties and Politics in the Communications Age (Doubleday, 1975), pp. 51, 54. 

  4. 7

    See my previous article, “Will the Tea Get Cold?,” The New York Review, March 8, 2012. 

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