How the Right Seized the Republican Party---And Then Failed

by Randy Shaw, 2013-02-07

The widely-accepted narrative of United States politics since 1964 highlights the role of race, religion and social issues in transforming the Republican Party into the voice of the nation’s extreme right wing. Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” Ronald Reagan’s mantra that “the government is the problem,” and the Party’s over two decades of unrelenting opposition to new taxes all played critical roles. But as Geoffrey Kabaservice shows in his thought-provoking book, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, Republican moderates had greater and longer influence on the Party’s direction than is commonly thought. Jacob Javits, Mark Hatfield, Charles “Mac” Mathias and other Republican Senators played key roles in implementing what today would be viewed as a very progressive agenda; yet their impact is forgotten amidst the story of the right’s rise. Also often overlooked is that a movement driven by a hatred of Eastern elites and Wall Street bankers has achieved its greatest political success in enriching both---while failing to deliver on its core social agenda.

That one of the two major United States political parties is controlled by those with views associated with the extremist right four decades ago is not news. The common narrative goes something like this: after passage of civil rights laws, the once solidly-Democratic South went Republican. Barry Goldwater’s losing 1964 campaign galvanized conservative activists and led to Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy and his 1966 election as California Governor. Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination and the divisive Democratic Convention brought Richard Nixon’s election, and an “emerging Republican majority” driven by a politics of resentment around social issues and a “Southern Strategy” around race. The rise of the “Christian right” in the late 1970’s increased the power of right wing forces, which, in concert with anti-tax billionaires, went on to create the Tea Party and the Republican Party of today.

What’s been missing from this familiar snapshot is how the Republican Party’s takeover by anti-government extremists could have been avoided. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had the resources to build a massive moderate Republican grassroots network, but foolishly thought he could win over the conservative activists who despised him by avoiding challenges to their rise.

Moderates Fail to Fight

Kabaservice describes how conservatives invested in organizing to take over the Republican Party, while moderates stayed on the sidelines, failing to recognize the stakes. As the right wing prioritized defeating moderate Republicans in primaries over winning general elections---this is not a Tea Party invention but goes back forty years---moderates faced a tough choice. Either leave and join the Democrats---as future Michigan Senator Donald Riegle did---or go along as often as possible in the hope that a moderate influence can have some impact in some areas.

And there was a third option, chosen by onetime moderate leaders like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney: shift your political views to the hard right in exchange for political advancement.

Moderates deluded themselves into believing Nixon was on their side, and saw progress in the election of George H. W. Bush to the presidency in 1988. Some of the examples cited by Kabaservice are almost pitiful in the way politicians clung to a Republican Party that now opposed civil rights, public investment and the true fiscal conservatism that long distinguished Party platforms.

Of course, there is another explanation that Kabaservice does not adequately emphasize for the refusal of bankers, corporate executives and other core Republican moderates to aggressively challenge conservatives: greed. The right-wing despised Wall Street but its policies enriched the moderate Republican elite as never before. Kabaservice’s sympathy for moderate Republicans causes him to downplay this point, but Republican moderates made a deal with the devil and were satisfied with the results.

Reinterpreting 1964-2013

The book reminds us how far the Republican Party has shifted from the Goldwater base’s anti-Wall Street agenda to becoming the voice of the 1%. It also caused me to rethink the politics of the past fifty years.

For all of the right wing’s electoral success during this period, the greatest impact of its governance---dramatically increased economic inequality---was not a chief goal of Goldwater, Reagan, Nixon, or George H. W. Bush. George W. Bush was the first Republican President to make enriching the wealthy his primary aim, and it resulted in a political backlash that continues to this day.

Social issues have driven the right-wing since the late 1970’s, yet abortion remains legal (though less available), women’s rights have advanced, and gay marriage is now supported by most Americans. The right won control of the Supreme Court, but its pro-corporation, pro-wealthy decisions have also primarily benefitted the constituency that right-wing populists long opposed: the 1%.

In other words, despite setbacks on economic fairness, the United States is far closer to the vision progressives had in 1964 than that of the Republican activist base. And since 2009, the nation has moved, and continues to shift, even further from the right-wing’s longtime agenda.

Kabaservice’s book uncovers an entire hidden history of moderate Republican support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act progressive policies. But its greatest contribution may be its highlighting of the failure of the right-wing’s agenda, particularly its inability to prevent elite interests from gaining the most from Republican political success.

As the Republican Party vigorously fights for the 1%, one wonders what those cheering Barry Goldwater at the raucous 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco would think of how dramatically their movement has strayed from its original goals.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.