The Fate of the GOP

“In no partisan spirit I contend that the Progressive movement began within the Republican Party. It rapidly advanced its control, shaping policies of state administrations, and stamping its impress upon national legislation as a distinctly Progressive Republican movement. And upon this fact in recent political history I appeal to Progressive Republicans everywhere to maintain their ogranization within the Republican party.”

Robert M. La Follette, La Follette’s Weekly Magazine, Volume 4 (1912)

Here are some thoughts on the historical origins, present state, and future potential of the Republican Party. Besides those like Cindy McCain and Mitt Romney, there have been waves of moderates, conservatives, and traditionalists (not to mention neoliberals and neocons) leaving the Republican Party or otherwise pulling away from partisanship (along with big biz taking its money elsewhere, at least for the time being). It most clearly began with Donald Trump’s nomination and first presidential campaign. The news media, at the time, reported on many Republican leaders who spoke out against Trump or even spoke in favor of the Democrats. Trump, as a demagogic opportunist, was able to takeover precisely because the GOP was the weakest it had been in more than a century; and Trump would only weaken it further.

It was a dissolution that, in Republicans gaining victory and wielding power, would worsen. The previous fractures in the party broke wide open and have become a gulf, such that a large number of former officials from the Bush administration are now disavowing their ties to the party: “Kristopher Purcell, who worked in the Bush White House’s communications office for six years, said roughly 60 to 70 former Bush officials have decided to leave the party or are cutting ties with it, from conversations he has been having. “The number is growing every day,” Purcell said” (Tim Reid, Exclusive: Dozens of former Bush officials leave Republican Party, calling it ‘Trump cult’). Others like Reagan Republican Joe Scarborough had left a couple of decades ago, presumably already having seen George W. Bush taking the party in an undesirable direction, maybe in having set the stage for the right-wing reactionary takeover of the party that was completed with Trump’s reign.

With the attack on the Capitol, QANON conspiracists in Congress, and GOP’s continued defense of Trump, yet more Republicans have been disgusted and demoralized, some finding appeal in Biden’s nostalgic call for the norms of established institutions and the normalcy of respectablty politics (no matter that this rhetoric seems hollow to many others). This is how the GOP might fully become Trump’s party, as the last of the anti-Trumpists leave and so cause further concentration of the extremists within an ideological homogeneity and insular echo chamber. And it’s not limited to GOP leadership abandoning ship. Recently, tens of thousands of voters have changed their Republican Party affiliaton — over 10,000 in some individual swing states like Arizona (Reid Wilson, Tens of thousands of voters drop Republican affiliation after Capitol riot), possibly causing them to swing toward the Blue for a long time to come.

Consider the Mormons who, according to a 2010 Gallup survey, “are both the most Republican and the most conservative of any of the major religious groups in the U.S. today” (Frank Newport, Mormons Most Conservative Major Religious Group in U.S.) — more Republican and conservative than white Evangelicals? Dang! Yet Mormon partisanship was already weakening by then: “Mormon support for the Republican ticket dropped from 80 percent in 2004 and 78 percent in 2012, to 61 percent in 2016, even as most other Christians moved further to the right, according to Pew” (Alex Thompson & Laura Barrón-López, Mormons rejected Trump as blasphemous. Now he likely can’t win without them.), although not entirely true as many Christian groups have moved left in recent years, the main exception being white Evangelicals — the latter being a key element of the ‘Ferengi’ minority demographic (Polarization Between the Majority and Minority). By the way, the Mormon vote has played a pivotal role in swing states like Arizona that lost more 10,000 Republicans, which might be why Joe Biden flipped that once stalwart Republican state.

So, the Republican base becomes smaller and narrower, louder and more threatening — the ‘Ferengi’ fringe. That is combined with the realignment that happened over the past half century, with the GOP now having taken the rightward path to its furthest endpoint, over a cliff. In living memory, there once was a large wing involving a combination of black Republicans and log cabin Republicans, progressive Republicans and liberal Republicans; even pro-choice Republicans. The last remnants of this held on into the ’80s, until they were squeezed out by the changes of media deregulation, ideological polarization, and rabid partisanship. Before that happened, the Republican Party of Eisenhower and Reagan used to include the likes of Hillary Clinton, Arriana Huffington, Thomas Frank, Cenk Uygur, etc — major names now in the Democratic Party or in leftist alternative media.

The religious right ‘moral majority’ always was a myth — even limiting it to the religious, such demographics have always been mixed and often holding views different from the religious minority of white Evangelcals. This is the reason for the necessity of the Wirthlin effect and symbolic conservatism, specifically the powerful wedge of the culture wars, as Americans are operationally liberal (i.e., actual positions and policies supported). Republicans couldn’t win elections without this rhetorical con game. The very people promoting the claim of a right-wing ‘moral majority’ knew they were lying. Rather than being a majority, it was explicitly anti-majoritarian. That was the whole point, to use empty rhetoric and political power to force a false narrative, to win by havng declared that they’d already won and then having convinced the media and political elites to repeat this spin — with some help from FBI’s COINELPRO that silenced opposition in the decimation of the political left, such as the assassination of Fred Hampton (combined with the string of other assassinations: MLK and Malcolm X, JFK and RFK).

Bill Moyers, in discussng how the Republicans took over through anti-democratic tactics like gerrymandering, gives a bit of historical background to the “founding of the Moral Majority” (as part of an interview of Davd Daley, Republicans Admit They Lose When Elections Are Fair and Free). “Thousands of religious conservatives gathered in Dallas, Texas, to launch what is now the most influential base of the Republican party. Ronald Reagan running for the Republican nomination, spoke to them. And one of the most influential Republicans of the past 60 years was there. Paul Weyrich was his name — right-wing Catholic, brilliant strategist, outspoken partisan [who] founded the Heritage Foundation, founded the Moral Majority, on and on and on. He really was an architect of the Republican domination today.”

Moyers then shared “a brief excerpt” of his speech and added that, “It brought cheers from those religious conservatives.” Weyrich, without shame or a sense of hypocrisy, stated: “Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome — good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” This was part of the Republican rhetorical attack on government in order to take over government, based on a demented ideology that democratic governance, public good, and the social compact were irrelevant or worse than irrelevant, a threat to their ambitions for unrepresentative power.

To put it in historical context, consider the original moral majority, the religiously-motivated American Revolutionaries. In having “read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack,” according to 86 year old Captain Levi Preston (as interviewed by Mellen Chamberlain in 1843), “what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should” (Spirit of ’76). This may have been an unlearned populism, but it was bluntly democratic. Those rough-hewn working class radicals, carrying on the old tradition of religious dissent from the English Peasants’ Revolt and English Civil War, knew how to deal with aspiring tyrants like Weyrich. Keep in mind, that was old school evangelicalism. The mention of Watts’s Psalms and Hymns refers to the popular preacher who articulated the conflict between church and state, in challenging religious monopoly and religious tests, a public debate that earlier had enlivened Oliver Cromwell’s army (J. F. Maclear, Isaac Watts and the Idea of Public Religion).

As for Weyrich’s theocratic machinations, Trump’s personality cult, in gaining the zealous support of white Evangelicals, is the culmination of this dark faith; and it may seem to be going down in flames. Nonetheless, this might not mean the GOP is in terminal decline; but it guarantees that, if it survives, it will be radicially and permanently transformed — that brief period of a coherent conservative movement (or rather it’s rhetorical narrative as portrayed in corporate media) won’t be coming back anytime soon, if ever. Republican Senator Ben Sasse, under threat of censure by some Nebraskan Republicans, stated that, “The anger has always been simply about me not bendng the knee to one guy. Personality cults aren’t conservative. Conspiracy theories aren’t conservative. Lying that an electon has been stolen, it’s not conservative. Acting like politics is a religion, it isn’t conservative” (Former GOP Lawmaker Now Dedicated To Fighting Misinformation).

Others, in having left the GOP, have also had harsh words. “The Republican Party as I knew it no longer exists. I’d call it the cult of Trump,” said Jimmy Gurulé, one of those former Bush officials who could accept blatant lies, illegal wars of aggression, mass innocents deaths, and torture prisons but Trump’s Twitter tirades went too far (Tim Reid, Exclusive: Dozens of former Bush officials leave Republican Party, calling it ‘Trump cult’). “If it continues to be the party of Trump, many of us are not going back,” threatened Rosario Marin, yet another one of these respectable Bush cronies. “Unless the Senate convicts him, and rids themselves of the Trump cancer, many of us will not be going back to vote for Republican leaders.” These Republicans hold to a nostalgic image of respectability, real or false, that once was taken seriously in the mainstream but has now been entirely discredited. Was there ever a time when American conservatism was not at least a bit crazy and dangerous? That is questionable from a leftist perspective, but it’s understandable why many conservatives long for a return to what they perceive as pre-insanity Golden Age, a time when they weren’t mocked and ridiculed.

One could debate what is or is not conservative or what it should be, but this isn’t the first time that conservatism found itself in the dumps, as likewise happened in the early 20th century. Then, following World War II, conservatism became respectable again (or at least put on a good act) because of Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr., and that was carefully achieved by ruthlessly banishing the right-wing fringe and conspiracy nuts, even if that simply meant pushing a cleaned up version of Bircherism, racism, and fascism. The point is conservatism was once solidly part of the mainstream, and it wasn’t that long ago. Some argue that an honorable conservatism is essential, whereas when dishonor sets in it becomes perilous to all of society.

“I don’t think conservatism can do its job in a free society in opposition to the institutions of that society,” said conservative Yuval Levin, “I think it can only function in defense of them. And a conservatism that becomes anti-institutional looks like a mob attacking the Capitol, which I don’t think is where anybody wants to end up” (interview by Ezra Klein, An Appalled Republican Considers the Future of the G.O.P.). It is never conservative to tear down institutions, not even liberal (or pseudo-liberal) institutions like universities, and especially not public institutions. [Actually, an argument could be made that conservatives have always attacked institutions, in that conservatism orginated as a modern ideology and reactionary backlash in opposition to the failing traditional institutions of the ancien regime that proved their unworthiness by having allowed liberalism and leftism to take hold; and so conservatives sought to eliminate and replace traditional institutions, an inherently destructive act and, in creating something entirely new, quite radical at that; but we’ll avoid that complication for our purposes here — for more on this view, see posts on the reactionary mind and reactionary conservatism.]

In the prelude to Klein’s talk with Levin, a book is briefly mentioned — Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy. It was written by a Harvard Political Scientist, Daniel Ziblatt, who “shows […] that democracies live or die based on how responsible their conservative parties are.” Klein says that, “In particular, the question is whether the center right quarantines the anti-democratic far right, in which case democracies tend to live and thrive, or it allies with them, in which case, the far right often takes over and democracies often fall. We are in that kind of moment right now.” If that is true, we are in trouble. Conservatism is inherently a reaction to liberalism — always has been — and so it acts as the shadow to liberal society. And so conservatives are closer to this darkness in either holding it in check or becoming possessed by it. The latter seems to be the case for the United States in this demagogic hour at the dawn of a new millennia. The burning flame of moral imagination as dark fantasy and ideological realism is powerful and, for that reason, potentially dangerous and destructive — as attested, again and again, by history (consider the Nazi conspiracy theory of Cultural Bolshevism and Jewish Bolshevism resurrected as the American conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism).

If the GOP is no longer able to pretend to be a respectable conservative party and can no longer uphold a mainstream conservative movement, then what is it or where is it heading? It could become even more of a right-wing reactionary party, maybe devolving to a third party, where its platform would be entirely defined by conspiracy, xenophobia, ethnonationalism, etc; maybe things much worse like fascism and eugenics. Or it could reverse course toward the progressvism of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower (or even Richard Nixon); before the GOP became exclusively anti-liberal. This might be more of a conservative, capitalist-friendly, and paternalistic progressivism as seen previously, but one that made room for liberal tendencies and democratic proceduralism. Progressivism originally was understood as democratic reform from within the system to defend against leftists, partly by stealing the thunder of leftist demands and promises, which was TR’s strategy (Capitalists Learning From Socialists).

That was at a time when liberalism was clearly distinguished from leftism, as reactionary rhetoric hadn’t yet fully conflated the two as a singular slur. “Many of the men who call themselves Socialists to-day,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his autobiography, “are in reality merely radical social reformers, with whom on many points good citizens can and ought to work in hearty general agreement, and whom in many practical matters of government good citizens well afford to follow” (see other TR quotes in Capitalists Learning From Socialists). His brand of progressivism was as conservative as it came, quite nationalistic and imperialistic, but he drew inspiration from the political left. To put this in context, the progressive era saw many Klansmen, Evangelicals, and Mormons supporting child labor laws, universal public education, Social Security, and much else — social conservatives and Republicans having helped pave the way for Teddy’s fifth cousin, progressive Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to create the New Deal and, following it, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. One can’t help but be reminded that Donald Trump won election to the presidency through explicitly progressive rhetoric that was in certain ways to the left of Hillary Clinton’s platform (Old School Progressivism).

Also, don’t forget that it was the Republican Party that introduced progressive taxation and defended it for a long time, at a time of extremely high tax rates on the rich. Also, Eisenhower said that liberalism was the way to run government, although he believed conservatism was the way to run the private economy; while Nixon spoke positively about liberalism, passed the EPA, and pushed for a basic income. We are presently experiencing a right-wing populist backlash with weak leadership that has splintered the political right, but we might return to that prior era of early-to-mid 20th century when strong progressivism and moderate liberalism was considered the framework for both parties, the center of the politcal spectrum, and the moral majorty of public opinion. Conservatism existed back then as well, but it was chastened and moderate, forced into a secondary role in public debate and forced into making alliances. This allowed conservatives to do serious and frutiful soul-searching, the kind of soul-searching that many conservatives find themselves returning to as they’ve become homeless and out of power.

The Republicans will likely be out of power for a generation, assuming they ever regain power. That was the prediction of William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their generations theory about the Fourth Turning. Back in the 1990s, they foresaw a period of crisis, as they theorized typically happens every 80 years (in a cycle of 4 generations). Through destabilization or destruction, the crisis shows the weaknesses and failures of institutions. That was effectively demonstrated, symbolically and practically, in the insurrectionist attack on the Capitol building; an event that, if the overruning of the Capitol police had happened mere minutes earlier, numerous Congressional leaders could have been held hostage, injured, and killed (Vice President Mike Pence was being targeted as well); and it turns out that individuals within the institutions created to prevent such a dangerous situation may have been complicit in instigating, planning, and/or allowing the attack. That is a crisis that would’ve been hard to have imagined decades ago. What Strauss and Howe argued would follow the period of crisis would be a period of institutional rebuilding within society. That will be an opportunity for the political right to rebuild itself as well, maybe from the ground up.

* * *

Further Reading:

  • To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party
    by Heather Cox Richardson
  • When Republicans Were Progressive
    by David Durenberger & Lori Sturdevant
  • Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics
    by Michael Wolraich
  • Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP
    by Mary C. Brennan

11 thoughts on “The Fate of the GOP

  1. Interesting read.

    A few points: “The Great Society” came after FDR and “The New Deal” and the GS was LBJ.

    I was pleased to see you bring in Kirk and Buckley.

    However there’s an interesting nuance to their conservatism that actually adds to your points about how as in the case of TR, we find conservatives working the same side of the street as socialists and progressives.

    Kirk was a good friend of T.S. Eliot and like Eliot exemplified what we might call High Church reactionary views. Kirk’s fascism like Eliot’s was elegant and refined. Claret first (and in the correct glass) followed by excommunication and executions.

    Thus his rejection of the Birch types while authentic didn’t exclude him from preaching the same bs just in tweed and with the the rest of the uniform of the would be upper class.

    As to Buckley I was just reading about a book that covers Buckley’s (in) famous debate with James Baldwin at Cambridge in 1965. (“The Fire is Upon Us.”)

    Buckley offered faux sympathy to the “Negro” and ended by saying that if Baldwin et al didn’t shut up then he (Buckley) and his gang would March into America’s ghettos and burn them to the ground in the same way that the allies had liberated Europe from the Nazis.

    In other words Baldwin and co were, as leftists, the same as fascists (thus contextualizing the Lobster King of Toronto as a neo Buckley loon and fascist) and Buckley was advocating industrial scale state terror. (Similar to Eliot’s support for Mussolini as a Christian defense vs the godless leftists).

    In that sense he and Kirk ere stealing the argument from the GOP version of the Brownshirts and repurposing it for their own needs.

    But still, insane.

    Buckley of course was able to insert himself as a kind of not insane conservative appearing on Johnny Carson and other establishment venues but he was to use a technical term, crackers😎

    As to the rest, all valid points and interesting analysis.

    • About the New Deal and Great Society, I meant to say it the other way around. My bad. I’ll fix that.

      As expected, I agree with you. This post could have gone off in other directions. But I was keeping it simple. It’s true that the collective GOP madness is a slow growing cancer that was ignored by many until it became a grotesque tumor.

      I was sort of taking conservative rhetoric at face value or giving it the benefit of the doubt. For all the insanity of ‘respectable’ conservatism, it’s at least not Trump and QANON levels of batshit crazy, although in the end it was the former that made the latter possible.

      Stephen Colbert pointed out how George W. Bush lied about WMDs that led to the deaths of millions of iinnocents and Karl Rove believed he could make up his own reality.

      Is Trump and the modern equivalent Birchers really worst? That is part of the point I was making, if not emphasizing, in how this has been a long time coming. But it’s also good to remember that the GOP once really was far different, even if we have to go back quite far to discover it.

      The TR and Ike Republicans were military imperialists and such. But they weren’t opposed to certain reasonable and necessary changes, even if they argued for slowing down the pace of change. There was disagreement about that, though far different than the disagreements we have now, like whether insurrection should be prosecuted or not.

    • Back in the day, those like Buckley might have soft-pedalled Bircher rhetoric. Here is the difference.

      Buckley was filtering it through respectability politics that still maintained a basic level of defense of institutions. Heck Buckley was on PBS. The GOP then was crazy on meds and now it’s crazy without meds.

      In that era, the outright Birchers were kept out of the highest levels of DC politics, as far as I know. It’s not clear what is the historical equivalent of QANON conspiracy theorists elected to Congress.

      • I agree and that’s sort of what I was getting at with Kirk’s brand of conservative politics. It occurs to me that they were/are to the Birch gang as the Prussian elite were to the Nazis. It’s one thing to be a fascist but, per Buckley et al, keep it “classy” and quote Roman poetry while ordering the mass executions;-)

        • I must admit that ultimately those like Reagan and Dubya are far more dangerous to Americans and the world than Trump could ever hope to be. I still stick to my conclusion that Bush’s administration was the worst in recent history because of the War on Terror and imperial presidency pushing authoritarianism to a whole new level.

          But even Ike had a dark stain. In warning against the Military-Industrial Complex, he conveniently forgot to mention he was part of power structure that created it. His use of the CIA to commit atrocities should’ve been prosecuted as war crimes. Yet Ike was willing, however reluctantly, to be a moderating force in racial reforms. He gets some credit.

          • Eisenhower wasnt perfect by any measure, and toppling the Iranian democratically elected government had arguably led to a vicious theocracy down the line -cough- (Obama, Egypt 2013), I would like to believe however that benevolence was at the core of his actions, as the soviet union was considered the evil atheist empire engulfing the world, so in face of extreme evil he made short term decisions without considering the long term, lets not forget how back then the world was a few hours away from complete annihilation at any given moment.

            Back then, the culture of not disclosing your salary wasnt because employers wanted to keep employees in the blind for maximum exploitation, but rather to downplay the importance of money and to make employees feel on par with each other regardless of pay scale, so many historical facts and cultural customs we misinterpret today similarly, the present colors our vision of the past.

          • Eisenhower was a Cold War warrior who fought in WWII. He was part of an elite that embraced the Cold War as an excuse and motivating vision to do anything at any cost. But the saddest part is Stalin never wanted to be in conflict with the West and never intended to attack the West. The paranoid propaganda that inveted the Cold War out of thin air was done cynically, as the ruling elite at the time knew Stalin had no capacity to start such a war.

            I’m not sure how much Ike was to blame for that, but he should’ve known the game of power being played and avoided it. He demonstrated a profound lack of faith toward democracy in committing war crimes, something he should’ve fully understood the implications of as a military leader.

            I don’t know about the cultural history of salary disclosure. But in my experience when I do study such things, there tends to be a diversity of perspectives, interpretations, and contributing factors.

            The cultural custom of not talking about economic issues in general goes back to the ancien regime. One of the things the aristocrats and monarchists despised about the emergent liberal democracies was that fiscal issues became the subject of public debate.

            It had much to do with social and economic hierarchy. This was part of what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination, the robes of power that shouldn’t be touched by rabble, much less removed.

            I don’t know how much of that attitude carried over into the later practices of capitalist employers. But it should be noted that issues about salary were major issues of that day that led to violent labor movements. So, not a minor area of disagreement, whatever the views may have been about salary disclosure.

            I do know that this kind of thing came up during the Populist Era in the 1890s. Big biz elites, such as railroad tycoons, were very secretive about financial issues. The Populists in the farmer-labor alliance dug into financial records as part of their strategy to achieve economic reforms.

            Still, I’m no expert on such things. I just know enough to realize a lot was going on in the past, most of it being well within the range of my ignorance. All I can do is discern some outlines and sometimes speculate, probably often leading to false conclusions.

            It is an interesting topic, though. When I have the time and motivation, I do love digging into scholarly tomes and original texts. I’ll keep that salary issue in mind and maybe I’ll come across something about it in the future.

            But if you have further info about it, I always love recommendations, quotes, and such. My curiosity is immense. And I do try to follow your advice, as well as I can, in remaining humble about the past.

          • BTW why did you bring up that about salary disclosure. I was looking back to see if it came up somewhere else, but I couldn’t find what you might’ve been responding to. Maybe I was overlooking something. Sometimes, much pops up in the comments section and I lose track.

          • I brought up the salery issue because its been on my mind lately as ive been negotiating my own, it is not the best example to bring up in this context so I do apologize, the broader point I was making was that customs have origins we forget or misinterpret after an “x” amount of years, when the generation that first had them dies away and is replaced by new generations who take them for granted but still need a rational reason as to “why” we have them.That is where the modern mind confabulates reasons emergant from the modern environement.

    • This post began as an email to my father. I never sent the email and, instead, ended up expanding my thoughts. It remains a message to a particular kind of Republican, those who felt uneasy about Trump but still defensive of the GOP legacy. I was touching upon the nostalgia for respectability and arguing it does have some validity.

      I was trying to portray an alternative by offering a reminder that the Republican Party once was far different. The distance between Lincoln and Trump is vast beyond imagination. Yet there is no reason why Republicans couldn’t return to their progressive roots. It’s never too late to step back from the edge of madness.

  2. There is an argument I’ve been pushing for many years; or actually, there are two related arguments. First, conservatism is not separate from and opposite of liberalism, but a subset of liberalism. A conservative is simply a reactionary liberal and so any liberal who is pulled into the reactionary mind inevitably becomes conservative-minded and, for all intents and purposes, identical to a conservative. Related to that is the second argument. A liberal democracy can’t be based on conservatism or dominated by conservatism. As history proves when that happens, it inevitably means doom and destruction with some combination of violence and oppression or maybe collapse. That is because, whenever conservatism becomes powerful, it always turns into a reactionary backlash of paranoia, bigotry, xenophobia, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. Always!

    This is equally true of something like supposed ‘leftist’ Stalinism. Research shows that, in former ‘communist’ countries, authoritarians tend to be ‘leftists’; whereas, in longtime capitalist countries, authoritarians tend to be ‘right-wingers’. Originally, the political left referred to egalitarianism, but it’s obvious that in practice Stalinism was never egalitarian. This is why we have to look past rhetoric, as reactionaries have a talent for co-opting rhetoric. Stalinists and Nazis targeted many of the same perceived enemies of the state: free speech advocates, freethinkers, the free press, radical artists, liberal-minded intellectuals, sexual deviants, feminists, libertines, labor organizers, Marxists, Trotskyists, anarchists, libertarians, etc. What these authoritarians had in common was social conservatism, no matter their views on economic issues. It is social conservatism that is the central issue defining conservatism.

    Social conservatism is the core of the reactionary mind. But some people mistakenly conflate social conservatism with traditionalism, the two actually being in opposition (I added some commentary about this in the post above). Going back to the revolutionary era, conservatism and traditionalism were always opposed, since the original modus operandi of conservatism was to eliminate and replace the traditional institutions and social order of the ancien regime. Conservatism is inherently and inseparably a part of liberal society. To be healthy or at least to not be morbidly diseased, conservatism must be contained within a strong liberal culture and strong liberal institutions. That is because dominant liberalism can allow conservatism in a way dominant conservatism cannot allow liberalism. That is maybe what Ike was intuiting when he stated liberalism was for governance and conservatism for the private economy, that is to say liberalism must be the framework in which conservatism operates.

    To understand what this means, this broad liberalism must not be conflated with the Democratic Party or with leftism. Liberalism in a liberal society is the entire framework of society, not a single party, movement, or ideology. This might be where Daniel Ziblatt goes wrong in “Conservative Political Parties and the Birth of Modern Democracy in Europe.” He is arguing that conservatism, when too weak is problematic, but the reality we face is not a weak conservatism, rather a conservatism that has come to dominate. One might argue the Democratic Party, in recent decades, has become that strong, respectable, and dependable conservative party that Ziblatt claims is needed, but he doesn’t recognize how far right the DNC elite have gone relative to the public majority since this is obscured by the RNC elite going even further extreme right. That is the problem. This bipartisan conservatism is holding all the power and defining itself as the center, which is what allows the political right to go further and further into insanity. There is no functional and effective liberalism to hold it all together, to keep it from spinning apart. The Democrats have refused to allow basic liberal reforms and policies, often acting expliclitly anti-democratic.

    Ziblatt might be right that health and survival of democracies is determined by center-right parties, but what is mistaken about is that it’s the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party, that is center-right. He genuinely thinks the Democrats were a center-left party that has moved toward centrism. That is so sad, disappointing, and frustrating. He offers no way of determining what is the center and, instead, accepts the American ruling elite’s declaration that they are the definition of the center. He seems to know what is democracy and values it, in stating: “Democratic rule is not just majority rule. That is certainly the case. But democratic rule without majority rule is certainly no democracy.” Yet he has no comprehension that the American majority is so far left

    .His analysis of the GOP is correct, but he doesn’t apply the same analysis to the Dems where it’s even more true. He says that, despite appearing strong in winning elections, the GOP is weak and hollowed out. It’s being controlled by outside forces of the astroturf movements, corporate media complex, think tanks, interest groups, lobbyists, and dark money. Sure that is true of the GOP, just as it is basically true with the Democrats. What he is trying to describe but lacks the language for is inverted totalitarianism with the democratic dressings of a banana republic.

    The best review/critique of Ziblatt’s book on the topic, of course, comes from a left-winger. It was published over at Jacobin. The reviewer is actually quite generous in pointing out that the basic historical accounting is on target, but where he differs is in not seeing any evidence-based justification to place faith in a strong conservative party. There has been other examples, he points out, where strong conservative parties chose authoritarianism in opposition to allowing the working class have power. Where I disagree with the reviewer, similar to where I disagree with Ziblatt, is in the claim that the Democrats are a liberal party. They are only liberal in the sense that everything is generally liberal in this society built on Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment liberalism.

    Another Joacobin article also refers to the GOP as a conservative party and then argues there is no ‘mainstream’ conservative party since the GOP has gone far right. I disagree. Yes, there is a mainstream conservative party. They’re just looking at the wrong party. There are some technocratic liberals in the Democratic Party, but it’s fundamental structure and agenda is conservative. For example, they are center-right to moderate on social issues relative to the general population, with the prime example beng how most Amercans supported same sex marriage years before did the DNC elite. More importantly, they support big biz corporatism,

    About Ziblatt, he should be given credit for offering a nunaced view. He states that, “I’m not sure if they’re more important than liberal or progressive parties, but their importance is definitely underappreciated by most liberals and progressives.” So, he’s not really making as extreme of an argument as it may seem. He just thinks conservatism has been underestimated as a stabilizing force. Maybe. Still, he has yet to contend with the point I’m making. The US does have a mainstream conservative party found in the Deomcrats, whether or not one believes it to be strong, responsible, and well-organized (he claims GOP is not well-organized wiithin its party structure but controlled from withut; does that apply to the conservative DNC?).

    If he really does consider liberal and progressive parties as possibly more important, shouldn’t he be more concerned by the entire lack of a major party that is liberal or progressive? That is the really worrisome part. He talks about the importance of competition, which is why he goes on and on about conservatism, but then he ignores what it means when an aspiring liberal society has no leading liberal party to defend democracy and represent the majority. What is worse than a two-party system where neither represents some ideal conservatism is a two-party system where both are varying forms of dysfunctional conservatism. Maybe what causes this conservative dysfunction in a supposedly liberal society, as I argue, is the very lack of a well-organized liberalism reinforced by a large and powerful left-wing movement focused on majoritarianism, popular mandate, public good, and culture of trust with some combination of social democracy and democratic socialism.

    Besides, it should be noted and emphasized that liberalism isn’t the same as leftism, but there is an important link between the two that helps us to understand liberalism. Only leftists can hold the line in order to give liberals breathing room to hold the center, and that in turn might allow the Democras to become a center-left party or else, more likely, allow some other party to rise into that role. Yet the Democrats, in attacking leftists for generations, have destroyed any hope for a liberal society. An attack on leftism is, by default, an attack on liberalism. Liberalism doesn’t need to align with the political left, but if it goes too far in attacking it stops being liberalism. That is because, when liberalism is constantly in reaction to leftism, it becomes reactionary conservatism. Leftism is the lifeblood to a strong liberalism that resists becoming reactionary.

    The mainspring of anti-liberalism might simply be high inequality. Economic inequality is a major factor, but it’s far from limited to that. Any vast inequalities will undermine, incapacitate, and eventually destroy all traces of liberalism. This includes inequality in power, representation, and influence; privileges, opportunities, and resources; education, libraries, and training; healthcare, healthy food, and recreational centers; greenspaces, clean air, and clean water; housing, utilities, and transportation; and on and on. And that goes along with a culture of trust. There never was a culture of trust, much less fairness and justice, in the presence of vast disparities and inequties, particularly exacerbated by the extremes of poverty. A Harvard review of Ziblatt’s book notes he entirely overlooks the influence of poverty, although it doesn’t mention inequality or issues with a struggling, precarious middle class and opportunities for economic mobility. Most of the countries that went authoritarian had a severely impoverished population, probably a relic of the feudal caste system transformed into a capitalist permanent underclass.

    In an interview, Ziblatt did acknowledge wealth and class as an issue, but he barely passed over it and didn’t note the strong link to authoritarianism and poverty, specifically as countries industrialized and inequality grew. That was a missed opportunity, as it feels like he dismissed it without exploring the evidence. In that interview, there was this interesting bit: “The common thread among the conservative parties in his study is not ideology, but who they primarily represented when they were founded: “upper-class propertied economic elites” or “political elites” with ties to the old, pre-democratic regime in each country.”

    Immediately, what came to mind was the Democratic Party, the oldest party in the world that originated in the aristocratc slavehlding South which was a direct carryover of the feudal order and ruling elite of the ancien regime. There is a reason that it was Southern and conservative Blue Dogs like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton who made the Democrats into the mainstream conservative party. About conservatism in general, Ziblatt admitted that, “conservative elites historically might not have conceded democratic reform unless facing heroic liberals and working-class movements demanding political rights,” and that reminds one of the political movements that forced the DNC elite to make some democratic concessions. Even JFK dared the populist left to make him do the right thing, which was an admission that otherwise he would only serve elite interests.

    Referring to a culture of trust is to touch on the beating heart of democracy, which fundamentally is always cultural. We have to have a liberal culture as the foundation of all else. But with high inequality, there is fear and anxiety, division and isolation. What inequality does is weaken culture and the social order, and weaken institutions and governing bodies. Some point out that strongmen, in many countries, gain power not through socially conservative and economic grievances, as often their supporters are middle class professionals who are quite dfferent than many working class traditionalists who identify with the mainstream. These anti-institutional reactionaries want to bring back order and re-create a strong system of authority. That analysis is fine as far as it goes, but it misses a central point. The society-wide crippling of political will and governing capacity is a result, not a cause. The real impulse is a reaction to the corruption and injustce of inegalitarianism, but this gets distorted through paranoid and fearful fantasies.

    It’s liike how the Joker, rather than merely wanting to watch the world burn as Alfred claimed, sought the simple fairness. The Joker explained: “Introduce a little anarchy – upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos – it’s fair.” It’s a simple philosophy, the last refuge of the deformed democratic impulse. It reminds one of the Peasants’ Revolt when there was an uprising aganst oppression but without any coherent understanding of what they were fighting against and fighting for. It doesn’t matter how anyone wishes to judge it. The moral impulse itself can’t be denied because it’s a response to an unsustainable social reality.

    The important part in this is understanding the cause. As always, politics is where attention is focused. It’s the gangrene that is noticed long after rot has taken hold deeper in the flesh. Talk of inequality sounds too abstract. The more visceral motivation to the outcry is more along the lines of, Am I not human? Do I not matter? The injustices and oppression of our society are literally killing people, sometimes quickly but more often slowly. We have a suffering and traumatized population, and in their pain they sometimes lash out in unhelpful ways. There is another aspect of inequality and maybe the most important. The appeal of authoritarianism seems the strongest among the middle class, which represents the part of the population most likely to move up or down. This is related to the schism among the rich and super-rich, between factions of elites, the uneven distribution of power and position, privilege and prestige. The elites fight among themselves and so an anti-institutional ideology becomes a rallying cry, and indeed it’s typically a response to actual corruption about which conspiracy theories are spun.

    There is Peter Turchin’s argument that inequalitiy among the upper classes creates a situation wehre there are more aspiring elites than there are opportunities for elites. This mirrors inequality in the larger society and creates an alliance between counter-elites and the middle class, both of whom feel slighted for not being given what they feel they deserve. This is also the appeal to all other groups, such as white supremacists, who took to heart the promise of their own presumed superiority. What all of this hinges on are the diverse expressions of inequality, which on a human level simply feels wrong, whether or not most understand what exactly is actually wrong. And, as Keith Payne points out, the stress and anxiety of inequality mimics poverty, including for those economically well off. Yet who in American society understands any of this? Very few. Words like ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ have become just more empty rhetoric. We don’t learn about it in school. We don’t hear about in the corporate media. And we never experience it in politics. So, in not knowing what we lack and why everything is so fucked up, we have no way of grasping our way toward a solution. Nonetheless, the moral impulse of liberalism and democracy persists and continually erupts.

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