“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.
* * *
- 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