Republican Party’s Shift to the Right – Part 2

As previously reported, the Republican Party once embraced a broad variety of political positions; it contained both conservative and moderate wings. During the 1950s the moderate faction held the reins of power with Dwight D. Eisenhower serving as one of the most popular presidents of all time. But with the rise of the New Right in the 1960s the moderates came under increasing attack. In recent years the moderate wing of the Republican Party has all but disappeared.

GeoffreyKabaserviceSMGeoffrey Kabaservice traces these developments in his recent book, 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 opening chapter Kabaservice describes how the Republican Party used to represent a broad coalition of differing political views. He amplifies this discussion in a recent interview with Sagar Jethani for PolicyMic.

In 1960 there were four main factions within the Republican Party: the conservatives, the moderates, the progressives, and a new upstart faction known as the New Right.

1. The Conservatives

Robert TaftThe largest political faction, long forgotten now, was known as the “Tafties.” It was largely concentrated in the mid-West and reflected the traditional conservative values of Middle America. The Tafties were wedded to the policies of Robert Taft, the Republican Senator from Ohio from 1939 to 1953. Robert Taft was the eldest son of William Howard Taft the 27th President of the United States (1909-1913) who later served Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His name was well respected, and his personal influence on the Republican Party was immense. By 1950 he had become “the acknowledged national leader of the GOP’s conservative faction.” He campaigned for (but failed to win) the Republican nomination for President in 1940, 1948, and 1952.

Robert Taft was a long time opponent of FDR’s New Deal, and is best remembered for the Taft-Hartley Labor Act (passed in 1947) limiting the power of labor unions; it defines basic labor law to this day. On other domestic issues, however, Taft pursued policies that would mark him as socially progressive today. As Kabaservice reports,

[Taft] recognized that parts of the New Deal were legitimate responses to real needs, and he tried to offer social welfare alternatives more in keeping with Republican ideals of small government, sound finance, and local responsibility. He supported government-funded old age pensions, medical care for the indigent, an income floor for the deserving poor, unem­ployment insurance, and an increased minimum wage. … [H]e advocated urban slum clear­ance and public housing. Because he believed that all children deserved an equal start in life, he … called for federal aid to education. Because he did not believe in deficit financing he was willing to raise taxes to pay for these needed measures. (Rule and Ruin, p. 6)

On international policy

he preferred that the country stay out of World War II rather than accept the large activist intrusive government that total war would require. … He became sharply critical of the military buildup, increased political power, and overseas involvement accompanying the conflict, which to Taft smacked of imperialism. … He voted against the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), tried to cut funding for the Marshall Plan for post-was European reconstruction, and blasted what he called the “tendency to interfere in the affairs of other nations … .” (Rule and Ruin, pp. 5-6)

Taft even questioned the constitutionality of the Korean War. Kabaservice notes that his strong anti-internationalist stance was the primary factor in his defeat at Republican moderates at the Republican presidential conventions of 1940, 1948, and 1952.

2. The Moderates

ThomasDeweyOpposing the conservative faction were the moderate Republicans led by Thomas Dewey, the Governor of New York (1943-1954). Dewey was chosen as the Republican candidate for President in both 1944 and 1948, but lost both elections. Kabaservice states that Dewey’s “primary appeal was to middle-class professionals attuned to the need for social reform and an internationalist foreign policy.” (Rule and Ruin, p. 7)

These moderates represented the Eastern establishment, and were sometimes referred to as “Wall Street Republicans.” As such, it was felt that they “could be trusted to keep a steady hand on the economy and be responsible on foreign and domestic policy.” (Rule and Ruin, p. 22) Republican moderates supported many of FDR’s New Deal policies, but criticized the way they were managed, promising to run them more efficiently. They opposed the isolationist policies of the conservative faction, and strongly supported the United States’ involvement in international conflicts.

On social policies the Republican moderates were even more progressive than the conservative Tafties. As Governor of New York, Dewey personally

put forward social programs that included unemployment insurance, sickness and disability benefits, old age pensions, slum clearance, state aid to education, … infrastructure projects, … and pathbreaking anti-discrimination legislation. (Rule and Ruin, p. 8)

By the early 1950s Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (1936-1944 & 1946-1952) had become the main spokesperson for this moderate internationalist faction of the Republican Party. Other important moderates within the Republican camp during the 1950s were Michigan Governor George Romney, the father of the 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, the father of George H. W. Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush.

3. The Progressives

In addition to these two main wings of the Republican Party, there was also a small group of progressive Republicans who harkened back to the progressive policies of Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican President in 1901-1909. Roosevelt is remembered for supporting union causes, breaking up monopolies like Standard Oil and the financial trusts, regulating interstate commerce, and his policies of conservationism. Internationally, Roosevelt championed a vigorous U.S. interventionist policy.

Nelson RockefellerThese political progressives saw themselves, like Roosevelt, as “willing and eager to use government power to promote economic growth and social development.” (Rule and Ruin, p. 20) The movement found its strongest support in the New England States and in the Pacific Northwest. By 1960 its main representative was New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Soon Senator Jacob Javits of New York (1957-1981) also came to prominence. Javits saw himself as “a political descendent of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Republicanism.” He had a strong commitment to social issues, supporting the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and was soon regarded as “the most outspoken Republican liberal in Congress.”

4. The New Right

Joseph-Mccarthy-1The final faction within Republican circles was the smallest of the four, and is the most recent in origin. Whereas Taft did not regard Communism as much of a threat to America and so did not emphasize it, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy mounted a vigorous anti-Communist campaign in 1950 that drew considerable attention. As Kabaservice explains,

McCarthy’s movement constituted a new political force within the Republican Party, one that was very different from the Old Guard faction around Taft. (Rule and Ruin, p. 9)

McCarthy is remembered for his abrasive, populist and anti-intellectual rhetoric. His campaign sharply divided the Republican Party, with him drawing much of his support away from the conservative Old Guard. But eventually McCarthy’s grandiose conspiratorial claims were discredited, and he died a rejected and broken man in 1957.

buckley-williamFive years after McCarthy’s initial rise to national prominence, William F. Buckley Jr. and William Rusher founded the National Review magazine (in 1955) and gave the new conservative movement McCarthy had spawned a more rigorous intellectual foundation. In an early interview, Buckley described himself as “a revolutionary against the present liberal order. An intellectual revolutionary.” (Rule and Ruin, p. 16)

Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (1953-1965 & 1979-1987) was the one who brought this new political movement to prominence. He presented a political stance that appealed to “militant economic, social, and cultural right-wingers.” It was also strongly “anti-government in rhetoric if not always in practice.” (Rule and Ruin, p. 25)

Barry GoldwaterGoldwater actively campaigned against the Soviet Union, labor unions, and what he called “the welfare state.” He and likeminded conservatives “considered the New Deal to be wholly alien to the American tradition and aimed to eradicate it.” They also claimed that “liberalism led inexorably to socialism and Communism, and that the smallest government effort to provide for the general welfare constituted the first step on ‘The Road to Serfdom’.” [The phrase comes from the title of the 1944 bestselling book by the libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek. (Rule and Ruin, p. 25)

Kabaservice notes that many moderates saw this new conservative movement as “a totally new element” within the Republican Party that had nothing in common with the established Taft conservatives. They therefore rejected them out of hand.

The conservatives in turn saw the moderates and progressives not as misguided brethren, but as traitors to be destroyed. (Rule and Ruin, p. 25)

In 1960 Goldwater published his own political manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, which garnered enormous attention and made him a hero in the eyes of many fellow conservatives. He soon had attracted a considerable following throughout in the American South and the Southwestern States.

As Kabaservice reports,

Goldwater and his followers believed that a “hidden” majority of Americans were conservative; the reason that Republicans usually lost elections was that they put forward moderates who were too similar to the Democrats to inspire the conservative majority to turn up at the polls. (Rule and Ruin, pp. 18-19)

According to this view, if a Republican candidate came forth who presented a clear alternative to the policies espoused by the Democrats, the conservative majority would turn out in large numbers to provide a Republican victory.

This political movement known as the New Right had one important advantage over the other factions within the Republican Party at the time. As Kabaservice notes,

[They] had a sense of themselves as an ideologically coherent group [united together] in a movement. … [They] were also the sole faction calling for an ideological realignment of the American political system. They argued that converting the GOP into a party of pure con­servatism would bring in some previously unrepresented groups such as white South­erners and working-class white ethnics, including many Catholics. (Rule and Ruin, p. 25)

During the 1960s, the New Right would continue to gain strength within each of these demographic groups. In the 1964 presidential campaign this newly ascendant faction would take control of the Republican Party and put forward the name of its hero Barry Goldwater for the office of president.

That story will be told in the next blog.

 

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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