Republican Party’s Shift to the Right

The Republican Party of today had gained a reputation for being dogmatic, ideological, intransigent and combative. It takes positions far to the right on most major issues. It has become dominated by a faction that until just a few decades ago represented only a small minority position within the Party as a whole. That vocal faction now seeks to define the entire party in its own image.

GeoffreyKabaserviceSMWhat accounts for this wholesale shift to the right, and what does it portend for the future of the Republican Party? These issues are addressed in the recent meticulously researched book by the respected Yale historian Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012).

In the Preface of his book, Kabaservice provides an overview of the events that produced this ideological shift within the Republican Party. He explains that

The form of conservatism that now wholly controls the party did not even exist until the 1950s, and remained a minority faction for many years afterward. … It is only in the last decade or so that movement conservatism finally succeeded in silencing, co-opting, repelling, or expelling nearly every competing strain of Republicanism from the party, to the extent that the terms “liberal Republican” or “moderate Republican” have practically become oxymorons. [p. vxi]

How did this transformation take place? Kabaservice explains,

During the 1950s a new breed of conservatism, which became known as the New Right, developed in reaction to President Dwight Eisenhower’s brand of political moderation which, at the time, appeared to dominate the GOP. [p. vxii]

Frustrated by the moderates’ influence on Republican Party politics, the New Right sought to bring together conservatives in a well-defined counter movement.

The immediate goal of movement conservatism was to seize the GOP’s presidential nomination by taking over party organizations and the forums in which national convention delegated were chosen. The longer-term goal was to transform the Republican Party into an organ of conservative ideology and purge it of all who resisted the true faith. [pp. vxii-xviii]

This process would take decades, and it would suffer some early early setbacks. But in the end the New Right triumphed over the moderates and redefined Republican Party politics as a whole. Kabaservice explains,

Barry GoldwaterThe history of the struggles between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party opens with the 1960 GOP national convention, which marked the first time that the New Right entered the Republican political scene in a significant way. It was also the last moment when moderates exercised anything close to dominance of the party. … [T]he period from 1960 to 1964 witnessed the conservatives’ capture of most of the Republican Party machinery, culminating in the nomination of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater as the 1964 presidential candidate. Goldwater and his supporters set the tone for the conservative movement ever after by mobilizing a base of right-wing populists, refusing to compromise with moderates, and pursuing a Southern strategy aimed at attracting civil rights opponents to the GOP. [p. vxiii]

These events set the stage for what Kabaservice calls a “civil war between the party’s moderate and conservative factions.” [p. 30] In a recent interview Kabaservice states that the 1964 Republican nominating convention was a brutal affair. At the convention,

[The Goldwater camp] gave absolutely no quarter to Republican moderates, no voice whatsoever. Conservatives stood behind Goldwater’s rejection of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and they ripped up a lot of what the Republican Party had stood for through the previous several elections. Barry Goldwater’s statement that if you’re not committed to our cause you should leave, and that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice — these were messages to the moderates that they were not wanted in the Republican Party. That they needed to go.

The New Right triumphed at the 1964 nominating convention, and Goldwater’s supporters saw this as their “golden moment.” But when it came to running against the Democratic nominee, Lyndon B. Johnson, Goldwater suffered a humiliating defeat, with Johnson winning the election by a landslide.

In response, moderates within the Republican Party “staged furious efforts to retake control.” They organized around causes such as civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. They formed publications and think tanks to counter the New Right ideology promulgated in William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. Volunteers and party workers promoted the presidential candidacy of moderates like Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney. They had to contend with dirty tricks by a new breed of activists like Karl Rove within the Young Republicans organization. Republican feminists went head to head with Phyllis Schlafly and the National Federation of Republican Women. The gains were only temporary. Some of the talented young moderates of that era like Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Rumsfeld would later change sides and become prominent figures representing the New Right. [p. vxiii]

A critical mass of moderate Republican politicians remained in office after 1970, although their numbers dwindled, and moderate ideas continued to have some influence on the GOP’s positions. [p. xix]

220pxPresident_Reagan_1981The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, however, marked a resurgence of conservative ideology within the Republican Party, ushering in a nearly mythical “golden age” in the collective memory of the New Right. Moderate Republicans have never recovered. Kabaservice states that

In the years after Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 … the moderates did not simply die out, but were killed off by conservative enmity from within their own party as well as Democratic opposition and their own failures. The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed the final decline and virtual extinction of moderates’ power and representation in the Republican Party. [p. xix]

Kabaservice concludes the introduction of his book by noting that

There remain millions of voters who define themselves as moderate Republicans, and millions more who would vote for moderate Republican candidates if they could find them. But the complete domination of the conservative infrastructure in party politics, and the absence of moderate efforts to counter grassroots movements like the Tea Party, means that the GOP has for all intents and purposes become a uniformly ideological party unlike any that has existed in American history. It has also become a party that has cut itself off from its own history, and indeed has become antagonistic to most of its own heritage. This unprecedented transformation of one of our major parties is likely to change our entire political system in ways that ought to concern all Americans.

Rule and Ruin presents a fascinating study of the rise of the new conservatism that thoroughly dominates the Republican Party today. Kabaservice provides a great deal of historical detail in tracing these developments, and I will report more of his findings in future posts.

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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