Answering Norris

A few days ago, Norris Lineweaver left a question prompted by my partisan history.

Once upon a time, you were an active Republican. What were the pillars of Republican ideas then versus now? What pillars of Democrat thinking (at large) attracted you to make a change? What major shifts took place in the Republican Party that define them today?

Fair question, and Norris isn’t the only one who has asked it. Every so often, a student would come across my book What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU? and confront me with a version of “You were a Republican?” It’s difficult to convey to younger people, especially, the immense difference between today’s GOP and the party to which I once belonged.

Here’s a clue: In 1980, I ran for Congress. I was pro-choice and pro-gay-rights (although LGBTQ issues weren’t the subject of much discussion back then, a story in NUVO made my position clear). I WON a Republican primary. Convincingly. That just wouldn’t happen today.

It’s difficult to overstate the extent to which the Republican Party has become radicalized. 

I became politically active in 1960. A Facebook meme that looked at the Republican Party platform from 1956 was found “mostly true” by Politifact.  That platform endorsed: Providing federal assistance to low-income communities; Protecting Social Security; Providing asylum for refugees; Extending the minimum wage; Improving the unemployment benefit system to cover more people; Strengthening labor laws so workers can more easily join a union; and Assuring equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.

Today’s Republican Party rejects all those positions–although it still gives lip-service to protecting Social Security. There’s a reason so many of us “old” Republicans insist we didn’t leave the GOP–the GOP left us.

As Republicans began their transformation into culture warriors, those of us who considered ourselves “traditional” Republicans differentiated ourselves by protesting that we were “social liberals and fiscal conservatives.” For most of us, being fiscally conservative meant being prudent–neither profligate spenders nor pious “conservatives” for whom fiscal conservatism was code for cutting social programs and enacting tax breaks for the rich. 

As the GOP continued its war on reality and sanity–not to mention Black and Brown people–I was one of many who concluded the disease was terminal, and I left.

As Tom Nichols recently wrote in The Atlantic,  today’s Republicans find themselves in their own version of end-stage Bolshevism– members of a party “exhausted by its failures, cynical about its own ideology, authoritarian by reflex, controlled as a personality cult by a failing old man, and looking for new adventures to rejuvenate its fortunes.”

The Republican Party has, for years, ignored the ideas and principles it once espoused, to the point where the 2020 GOP convention simply dispensed with the fiction of a platform and instead declared the party to be whatever Comrade—excuse me, President—Donald Trump said it was….

A GOP that once prided itself on its intellectual debates is now ruled by the turgid formulations of what the Soviets would have called their “leading cadres,” including ideological watchdogs such as Tucker Carlson and Mark Levin. Like their Soviet predecessors, a host of dull and dogmatic cable outlets, screechy radio talkers, and poorly written magazines crank out the same kind of fill-in-the-blanks screeds full of delusional accusations, replacing “NATO” and “revanchism” with “antifa” and “radicalism.”

Nichols compares today’s GOP to the final “aggressive and paranoid” Soviet-era holdouts in the Kremlin, and notes  that they blame their failures at the ballot box on fraud and sabotage rather than admit their own shortcomings. 

And then, of course, there’s the racism. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank observed,

Trump’s overt racism turned the GOP into, essentially, a white-nationalist party, in which racial animus is the main motivator of Republican votes. But in an increasingly multicultural America, such people don’t form a majority. The only route to power for a white-nationalist party, then, is to become anti-democratic: to keep non-White people from voting and to discredit elections themselves. In short, democracy is working against Republicans — and so Republicans are working against democracy.

Bottom line: Today’s Republican Party has absolutely nothing in common with the party I joined in 1960, or even the party whose nomination I won in 1980. The Democrats certainly have their problems, but at least most Democrats are sane.

Hope that answers Norris’ question.


  1. Good question, yes, and good answer. But there’s a deeper question. How did so much the electorate devolve to a condition where they do not merely enable, but violently support what the Republican party has become? What institutions failed us to the point that so many people failed to grow with the times and refuse to engage in critical thinking to the point that they’ll believe any lie that comes out of the mouths of the short-fingered vulgarian or Fax talking heads? How could anyone born after 1950 be so completely regressive and willfully ignorant?

  2. Are we discussing the Republican Party who’s candidate opened his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi? Or the Republican Party that embraced the South African apartheid regime and removed many of the sanctions placed by prior administrations? Or is it the Republican Party that brought us open-minded individuals like Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas? Perhaps we’re discussing other Republican leaders such as Patrick Buchanan or Newt Gingrich?

    Bottomline: Trump did not change the Republican Party. He is merely a logical outcome from 30+ years of Republican racism, hatred, xenophobia, and lies.

  3. From Nixon’s southern strategy (racism) and Reagan’s anti-government and racist stands (Welfare Queens), these people have been on the way to the their current state for over 5 decades. Now they are where they are. But they are not done. Now they are VERY hard at work with state level voter suppression laws. Some, perhaps many, of them will be successful. These people are still a serious threat to the country as we know it. Please do not underestimate them. They are not all bumpkins with horns.

  4. Patmcc,

    Yep. The Rogue’s Gallery of the GOP sewage factory has a long and fetid hallway of portraits. But let’s begin with John Birch. Then, move one space down to Charles and David Koch. The latter pair of greedy, misguided ideologues started funding the “think” tanks and universities to embrace libertarian nonsense. Then there is Karl Rove, Lee Atwater, Donald Regan, Reagan, Nixon, Roger Ailes, Lester Maddox, Jesse Helms, most Texas Republicans after Ann Richards lost to the dummy and now McConnell, Greene, McCarthy, Kevin and the rest of the House and Senate caucuses who simply don’t care about the American people… even the ones who vote for them.

    These are really bad people still propping up a losing political party with bad politics, NO policies about anything, and a fealty to perhaps the worst human being on the planet, right now, Donald Trump.

    How did the demise of Sheila’s Republican party happen in one lifetime? Money. Lots of it for the institutions of disinformation and ideological B.S., but not all that much for buying inherently corrupt politicians who lack vision and any sense about governing or lawmaking. Well done, SCOTUS! The Republican-appointed Justices produced Citizens United v. FEC. This “action” will live in infamy as the biggest nail in the coffin to our democracy.

  5. Regarding the current strategy of Republican legislatures enacting voter suppression laws in various states, I would actually have more respect for them if they would just come out and say it: “We just don’t want black and brown people to be able to vote”. At least then they would be honest.

  6. Sheila; the entire paragraph beginning with your statement, “I became politically active in 1960”, brought back my days proudly working in the Mayor Hudnut administration.

    I worked in the Division of Community Services which was a division of the Mayor’s Office; we monitored all federal funds (from the Nixon administration) supporting the multi-service, health and senior centers throughout Indianapolis and Marion County. The services provided by these centers often included donated time and work by the center employees for all residents in their areas; food, clothing, medical help, counseling, whatever was needed. One center, the Hispano-American Multi-Service Center, provided all Immigration and Nationalization Services (INS) for all refugees and did an amazing job. English as Second Language (ESL) classes, citizenship classes which celebrated each class as they became American citizens. One councilor at the Near Eastside Multi-Service Center, a single mother of 7 children, took abused women and their children into her home because there were no centers at that time. Then Reagan was elected and ended federal funding; the centers struggled on relying on donations but assistance suffered.

    In 1980; I was an Independent voter and voted for you for your stand on those issues. The outward, drastic change in the Republican party came quickly here; going from the Mayor Bill Hudnut administration to the Goldsmith administration was like the change from President Obama administration to the Trump White Nationalism. Trump’s power is still active at frightening levels and has reached criminal levels in many areas under the guise of the Republican party which has become the party of wealthy Plantation owners, losing even the semblance of humanitarianism the Republican party had lowered itself to.

    Richardallen; we are discussing the state-by-state changes with Indiana being a northern Mississippi going public with its States Rights agenda. Trump became the Republican racist poster child; the man they had been looking for with the gall, or lack of good sense, to run on their racist platform. Even the Republicans who have admitted Trump is a liar, is willing to override democracy, Rule of Law and destroy the Constitution, continue to support him to speak their innermost racist and bigoted beliefs they didn’t have the nerve to speak publicly themselves. He was the perfect foil and fool to carry out their dream of Republican dictatorship.

  7. Nixon’s Southern Strategy was from the 1960s, so maybe Sheila was just a little naive from a conservative upbringing, somehow transforming into her own self as she matured. Being an ACLU lawyer as a Republican certainly is an odd mix.

    I was a solid Republican when I was much younger, mainly because my family was conservative. I moved out of Indiana to Orlando, and my eyes and opinion slowly changed. I also didn’t care too much about politics back then. I saw what both parties did to our small community with all the factory departures.

    I didn’t so much leave the Republican Party as it left me while it slid to the right, and so did the Democratic Party. I also believe the media environment changed my belief system and probably influenced Sheila. And then there were periods of wokeness or spiritual experiences which altered the way I see the world. The more transformation taking place, the more I see the world from a different perspective.

    In essence, the world got smaller. It was so huge at a young age, and I was told that the world owes you nothing — what you get is the result of what you go after. It was a minimal self-centered concept of the world. When I moved back to Indiana, most of my high school classmates are still in the same mindset as I had when I graduated. They haven’t changed in 40 years, and they are all solid Republicans.

  8. Thank you, Sheila. Very insightful answer and provocative discussion that follows, as usual. I identify my myself as a shameless Lugar Democrat. I am third generation Democrat who at times voted a split ticket. Since Senator Lugar was primaried by the Tea Party, I have had no compelling reason to cross the ailse at the ballot box.

  9. It’s “Democratic” thinking. One difference is that Republicans deliberately misstate the Democratic Party’s name. They have no respect for anyone. I consider membership in the GOP to be irrefutable proof of immorality, but I still call them by their proper name.

  10. Yes, it’s been a long slow decline in the Republican Party. Then came 2016. In 2016, the party collectively jumped off the cliff. I don’t think they can recover, but that doesn’t mean they won’t win elections. It should be clear to everyone that decency, honesty, and integrity have nothing to do with politics and, frankly, the Republicans play the game better than the Democrats. The name of the game, by the way, is CONTROL and it is always easier to win if you don’t care about anything except control.

  11. History is complicated, and the history of these two political parties certainly is. But overall, the Republican Party has had many “conservative” tendencies since the post-Reconstruction era. There was a liberal wing of that party, and it probably looked different in various states and districts. A quick history of the two parties (too brief but a start) is here, from a historian and journalist:

  12. With folks like Sheila having left the GOP, the ones that left are very united in their power/anger and ready to vote. On the other side and the “indifferent, tired of politics” middle, no clear messaging. United and “feeling their oats” will beat the discombobulated every time. 2022 will be very dangerous…

  13. Documenting the departure of the GOP from its rational platform pre-1960 does little towards governing America in 2021. The multitude of laws being put in place in many states are more powerful than iterations of the evil, racist Republican state legislatures. Actions speak louder than words. 2022 must create Democratic turn out of voters as powerful as what happened in Georgia. The Democratic Party must oppose GOP voter suppression in the courts from the instant the ink is dry until November of 2022, and beyond.

  14. What is also interesting here is the change in the Democratic Party during the same time period. They went from being avid segregationists to their current program which is just the opposite.

  15. I really wonder how many current “Republicans” have really looked in the mirror and compared the reality of the Republican party as it currently exists with the Republican party they grew up endorsing. They are not the same and candor would make the decent people run from this current bunch as though their hair was on fire because, ideologically, it is.

  16. All good comments, but I single out Peggy’s, for her focus on “CONTROL!”
    I have never been anything but a progressive, and the Democratic party was the closest to my thoughts. There was, once, the Liberal party, but I was not politically engaged enough to register as such, assuming that there was an opportunity to do so. I was, however, a fan of Adlai Stevenson, who, I assume, had no chance against the American hero of WWII. Why did Ike choose to run as a Republican, rather than as a Democrat? I do not know. And bring the likes of “Tricky Dick” (whom he named) along for the ride, after the (in)famous “Checkers” speech?
    I was raised by a very progressive family, and of the grandparents who raised me, my grandfather was the outspoken one. He once told me, and I am going back close to 70 years for this, that the Republicans were interested in establishing a Monarchy. I doubt that those republicans were, but, boy, talk about prescience!

  17. Richardallen @ 6:57 am, I would agree with your comment, “Bottomline: Trump did not change the Republican Party. He is merely a logical outcome from 30+ years of Republican racism, hatred, xenophobia, and lies.”

    The GOP base looked on The Trumpet and realized he was one us. No more dog whistles or code words. You could lie, and proudly display your racist attitudes and paraphernalia because The Trumpet gave you a permission slip. The Trumpet is the visible manifestation of today’s GOP.

    The Koch Brothers and other fellow travelers in the GOP funding hierarchy have no use for the Reactionary-Right Wing Evangelicals and Rambo wannabes, except as a reliable voting base, to carry out their real goal of lining their own pockets.

  18. I too was born a Republican but was apolitical for many years. The government seemed to work OK in the background of the center stage which was making a living and raising a family. I think that retirement at the beginning of this millennium gave me some time to start paying attention. By then the Republican train was being derailed by the Tea Party and Rush and Roger Ailes and their entertainment media cohorts and the direction that the GOP was taking was more than clear. While that was enough for me to leave that party it was the Obamas who attracted me to the other party. There is some truth in the idea that it was the Obamas who destroyed what was then a teetering GOP. They could not be hated enough for who they were and their success as examples.

    Trump was retaliation for the Obamas and that says it all.

  19. A bit of personal history. . . So, Sheila, you became “active” in Republican politics in 1960? In 1960 I was in a law firm in the Circle Tower Building in Indianapolis with four others all of whom were Republicans. They were “old” Republicans you describe and we were not so ideologically different. One of them, Keith, used to stick his head in my office on occasion and ask how “the village socialist” was doing today, to which I would reply “better than the indifferent rich” and we would laugh about our exchanges.

    Sheila, you probably voted against me in 1960. We had 82 Democratic candidates in Marion County for 11 seats and I was fortunate to be slated by the County Committee and ran in the fall. It was a Republican year and we all lost. I ranked third among our eleven losers. Two years later I became active in the campaign of the “kid from Terre Haute,” a guy named Birch Bayh, who served three terms in the Senate. Imagine my surprise when serving as Deputy Attorney General as tax counsel for the Government of Guam when one day ten years later I looked up from my CCH and there stood Marvella Bayh! In Guam! I asked her what the heck she was doing there and she said that Birch had to go to Toyko, that they were on the way back, that Birch was out at the air force base talking to the generals and admirals, and that she had told him she was going to run downtown and see me! What a small world! The Bayhs kept track of their friends.

    Back to topic. . . I have been predicting for years that the the Republican Party is headed back to the Whigdom from whose ashes it arose in 1854 (a metaphor for its end) and I think we are seeing it come apart before our eyes. It is not a “party” as we think of parties inasmuch as it has no platform, no governing philosophy or any other of the indicia of issue solving and compromise involved in the governing process; it rather (and as aided by brigands such as Trump) has become a mere interest group using every means possible to remain alive via pretense, lying, insult, and lately, an attempt to seditious overthrow of the government.

    However, it is possible that a new party arising out of the soon to be ashes of the Republican Party will awaken to changing realities in the polity, reform itself, adopt a rational governing philosophy, and with a burst of political energy that comes from a new start, become a formidable foe in the political world. Proof? Lincoln was a Whig in 1854 when that party dissolved and the Republican Party arose – and only six years later that newly energized party elected him as president.

    Our task? Sturdily resist the current edition of the Republican Party, win, and govern fairly and honestly while awaiting our new opposition’s transformation, perhaps one back to the old party’s Eisenhower days that Sheila so fondly remembers before the party left her. Perhaps.

  20. I think anyone who argues that Trumpism is a logical development from Nixonism then Reaganism, is missing the unique nature of Trumpism. Over the years, the policy positions of the Republican Party, like all political parties, have changed. But there has always been a deep commitment in the GOP to American democratic values and respecting the outcome of free and fair elections.

    That changed with Donald Trump. Trumpism, which came to dominate the GOP following Trump’s election, is not a political philosophy or a refinement of Reagan Republicanism. It is a full-blown personality cult. The issues the GOP stands for via Trump depend entirely on the whims of Dear Leader aka Donald Trump. Whatever positions Trump takes on issues, that is by definition the correct position. Indeed, the 2020 GOP platform, which doesn’t even address particular issues, pretty much says exactly that.

    During the Reagan years, Republicans in Congress were permitted to disagree with the President. We didn’t have Republicans targeted for defeat because of “disloyalty” to the President. Now, when Trump takes a position, then every Republican in the country, from U.S. Senator to precinct committeeperson is expected to get in line.

    To say Trumpism is about wrongheaded political views is to miss the existential threat to our Republican are facing. We are living in unique times. We should not simply assume that our democracy survives.

  21. Gerald; I have fallen into a conspiracy theorist mindset at times since 2015. This week it is questioning the increasing number of Republican Senators who are opting not to run for office again. Especially Johnson and Grassley. Why; with their level of power in the party are they leaving? Is it to form a Republican Committee such as the one which formed when Barack Obama was elected president to stop as much of his progress as they could? I am now wondering if it isn’t a deliberate move to bring in younger Trumpists to strengthen his hold on House and Senate while appearing to be moving away from Trump? Trump is trying to stop Republicans from using his name to promote their candidates and to send all donations to his MAGA campaign headquarters in Mar-A-Lago as he earns money from hotel rooms, meals, the golf course and those golf carts. Come election time, will the two factions come together as one to combine the strength of whatever form the Republican party will become?

    As I said; I slip into this conspiracy theory mindset at times and this seems a good time with high powered Republican Senators “appearing” to be jumping ship. And is the Grand Poo Bah, Mitch McConnell, actually facing opposition from Democrats and Republicans or is this part of the grand plan…IF there is one?

  22. Shiela I can easily talk with Republicans who are social progressives and fiscally conservative. I have met a few Republicans like that. Over the years , it became obvious to me that Republicans did not care anymore about the social safety net nor the rights of minorities and women( I don’t think women are really a minority.)

    So I’m wondering if you are still a fiscal conservative. I call myself a fiscal moderate. Let’s have a social safety net with programs that have proven they are effective. And let’s make sure vendors of contracts are not price gouging and not giving us unrealistic target dates for the completion of their work.

  23. Much would change in the NAFP (New American Fascist Party) – AKA formerly but still formally the GOP, if we could kill Citizens United and get the authoritarian (read that fascist) Christian Fundamentalists to stop sleeping with the party leaders. The changes were already underway in many ways but the curve took a decided upward swing when the Fundamentalists decided to get actively involved to get Jimmy Carter out and Ronald Reagan in by any means necessary. They are now so embedded (read that “in bed”) with the party leaders that they have become one and the same.

  24. Most interesting, Sheila. You became a Republican for reasons that sound similar to why I became a Democrat. Of course, in those days, both parties had ideological diversity. Democrats had racist Dixicrats and northern Liberals. Republicans had their John Birchers (although even Goldwater didn’t like them) and their Nelson Rockefellers.

    Democrats still have diversity, but the Will Rogers quip is still true – we aren’t an organized political party. Republicans, sadly, had become a cult, with all fealty due to Glorious Leader.

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