Tag Archives: GOP

How We Got Here

I have been pretty scornful of the MAGA crowd and its belief in “the good old days”–its nostalgia for a time that existed (if at all) for a very small subset of White, middle-class, male Americans. But if I’m honest, I’ll admit to a similar, albeit far more limited, nostalgia: a time when being Republican simply meant adherence to a philosophy of limited government and free-market economics.

My recollections are admittedly as selective as those of the MAGA crowd. In both cases, a reality that was true for some limited number of people ignored a much larger–and less rosy– picture.  Those fondly recalling the 1950s– “mom’s baking cookies!”–somehow fail to mention the discriminatory practices that gave mom her underpaid household “help,” and the desperation over women’s subordinate status and economic dependence that often had mom drinking in the kitchen.

Similarly, the nice Republicans with whom I worked rarely noted the “fringe” elements on the Party’s far right;  when they did, they typically sneered. It was okay to use “those elements” to do partisan grunt-work , but the more genteel and intellectual “movers and shakers” would set the policy agenda.

Little by little, of course, that fringe–the Evangelical “Christians,” the Birchers, the Neo-Nazis and other assorted racists, cranks and anti-Semites--became the GOP.

As a recent book review in The New Republic put it, the GOP establishment (naively) believed it could appeal to its extremist fringe without succumbing to it. The review was of a book by Nicole Hemmer, titled “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” and Hemmer evidently  focuses on the “moment the Republican Party lost its ability—or desire—to keep its fringe at bay.”

It prefaced the description of the book with some history:

Although some of the most prominent Never Trump pundits—such as William Kristol, editor at large at The Bulwark, and New York Times columnist David Brooks—remain shocked by the obliteration of a more cerebral conservatism, the media-driven partisanship that dominates U.S. politics today is hardly new. Since advertising professionals entered the political consulting business in the 1950s, political messaging has been designed to translate ill-formed, often unconscious, ideological predilections into conservative voting majorities by ever more intense appeals to voters’ emotions and grievances.

Those appeals always circulated on the extremist right. For mainstream politicians who wanted to win these voters, the rule of the game—one that infuriated activists like Phyllis Schlafly—was to disavow the fringe, while signaling to its members. In 1964, even as Barry Goldwater denied that the John Birch Society was promoting his candidacy and deploying canvassers for him, his campaign slogan—“In your heart, you know he’s right”—was designed to reassure those activists that Goldwater embraced their values. The nature of campaigning in the 1950s and ’60s required hiding extremism’s dark side. Television and radio ad buys on channels governed by the Fairness Doctrine made it not just possible, but almost compulsory, to court voters outside the party: A successful campaign could not purposely make itself noxious, as campaigns do today. And although alternative political media provided platforms for extremism, mainstream news outlets did not.

The article traced the trajectory from Goldwater’s campaign through Nixon’s Southern Strategy, through the coded slogans employed by Reagan and George W. Bush, to their  “populist descendants”—Patrick J. Buchanan, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, and the Tea Party—still believing that party leaders could contain the ambitions of the “pitchfork politics” voters to whom they pandered.

The review describes Hemmer’s book –which I intend to read–as focusing on the question

how did one of America’s two major parties become dominated, not just by vicious, public attacks that used to be the province of undercover dirty-tricks specialists, but by a proud rejection of democracy itself? How did virulent nativism, homophobia, and racism spread from the far-right, where the Republican Party successfully contained it for decades, to take over a whole political party? When did culture wars, promoted between both right-wing pundits acting like politicians and right-wing politicians acting like pundits, stop simply motivating voters and shift the center of gravity in the GOP to conspiracism and illiberalism?

The review is lengthy, and situates Hemmer’s explanation in a political history that is familiar to those of us of a certain age. But here we are. The Democratic Party is far from perfect, as commenters here predictably remind us, but it remains a traditional political party. The GOP, however, has abandoned policy and embraced emotion, primarily racism and resentment; the refusal even to create a party platform marked its surrender of any pretense to care about governing.

The GOP is now the pitchfork party–and those of us who once saw it as something else need to come to terms with that reality.


The American Idea

It’s December. Are we ready for the War Over Saying Merry Christmas?

I don’t mean to be flip. After all, when you step back and look at the issues that are currently pitting Americans against one another, virtually all of them are rooted in a profound disagreement about what I call “The American Idea”–a disagreement that animates the Christmas wars.

On the one hand, we have the Christian Nationalists, whose vision of America has much in common with the “blood and soil” beliefs that roiled Europe for centuries. America, to them, is a White Man’s country, with various “others” here essentially as guests. So long as we “others” mind our manners and recognize the rightfulness of their ownership–so long as we “know our place”– we can be permitted to stay and participate in the workforce and (to an extent) political life.

Most of us see the American Idea rather differently. As I read the country’s history and philosophy, an American is someone who believes in the governing philosophy advanced in the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Unlike citizenries that depend upon some element of identity–ethnic, religious, etc.– for their cohesion, one becomes an American via acceptance of those overarching ideas. As G.K. Chesterton argued, America aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.

As America has diversified, White Nationalists have found themselves faced with a new and unpleasant reality: rather than inviting “guests” to “their” national table, they are facing claims to shared ownership.

In a very real way, how we manage difference is a fundamental challenge of humanity, and it is a challenge we can no longer evade, thanks to the communication and transportation technologies that increasingly shrink the distances between people. It has become more and more difficult to isolate like-minded and otherwise similar folks into the kinds of self-contained communities that used to dot the American landscape.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this clash between world-views goes a long way toward explaining our current political dysfunctions. It also helps–but doesn’t completely explain– the differences between Red and Blue states. I recently came across a  chart ranking the states by various measures and types of diversity, and I was unsurprised to find that my own state of Indiana was ranked 40th overall. Indiana clearly has a long way to go when it comes to recognizing, let alone accommodating, diversity–thus far, our legislature is firmly in the grip of lawmakers who think they still live in the “Father Knows Best” 1950s.

The study on which the graphs were based broke “diversity” into a number of different kinds of difference: racial, religious, political, income and other categories, providing sociologists with intriguing data that can be mined to determine what sorts of differences are most or less politically relevant.(Different states, of course, come to these challenges with very different political cultures–and taking very different approaches to their changing populations. The top two states on the diversity list were California and Texas, states with governments that have responded to their growing population differences in dramatically different ways.)

White Nationalists are not responding well to the country’s changing demographics, to put it mildly. In his book “The End of White Christian America,” Robert P. Jones offered some trenchant observations about Americans’ very different approaches to the American Idea, and the degree to which those different world-views have influenced the identities of today’s Republicans and Democrats. He especially highlighted contrasting responses to the country’s changing demographics and culture as the country has ceased to be a majority White Christian nation — going from 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today.

As Jones has written,

Democrats — only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian — are embracing these changes as central to their vision of an evolving American identity that is strengthened and renewed by diversity. By contrast, Republicans — nearly three-quarters of whom identify as white and Christian — see these changes eroding a core white Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them.

America’s first  motto was e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.  Our “Christian soldiers” prefer to substitute “One nation under God.” Those competing slogans tell the tale of Americans’ contending approaches to nationhood. We either celebrate our differences within the overarching philosophy embedded in our constituent documents, or we revert into a “blood and soil” society based upon acceptance of White Christian male dominance.

It’s a war, and not just about Christmas.


Culture Overwhelms Politics…Eventually

American politics is no longer about politics. Genuinely political disputes revolve around the role of government, around contending policies. That today’s GOP is consumed by very different issues should have become clear when the Party simply dispensed with the production of a platform.

Jennifer Rubin recently reported on a study of Evangelicals conducted by PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute. The study confirmed what has become obvious to political observers: people who identify as Evangelical are claiming a political label, not a theological one. These are the voters who form the base–and constitute the majority–of today’s GOP.

A striking 71 percent of these voters think the country has gone downhill since the 1950s (when women were excluded from most professions, Black Americans faced barriers to voting, 50 million Americans still used outhouses and only about 5 percent of Americans were college-educated). Because White Protestant evangelicals make up such a large share of the GOP, that means 66 percent of Republicans want to go back to the time of “Leave It to Beaver.

Other results from the research fill in the blanks. Six in ten white evangelical Protestants (61%) believe that there is discrimination against white Americans and that such discrimination is “as big a problem as discrimination against racial minorities.”
Some 58 percent of all Americans realize that white supremacy is still a major problem, but only 33 percent of White Evangelical Protestants agree– the lowest percentage among all religious groups.

Fifty-one percent are convinced that public teachers and librarians are indoctrinating students with “inappropriate” curricula and books.

Fifty-four percent of Evangelicals believe in the “big lie” of a stolen election.

And on immigration, only 30 percent of Americans buy into the “great replacement theory.” But 51 percent of White evangelical Protestants agree that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.”

I’m personally appalled by that “only” thirty percent figure…But I digress. As Rubin sums up the findings,

In a nutshell, this group’s beliefs clash with the essence of the American experiment and conflict with objective facts, demography and economics. White evangelical Protestants’ outlook is warped by right-wing media and refracted through a prism of visceral anger and resentment.

That “visceral anger and resentment” are in response to–and in conflict with– the current state of American culture.

Today’s Republicans are rejecting reality. As Rubin quite correctly notes, they want something that is unattainable. America is steadily becoming less White, less male-dominated and less religious, and no election, no politician can change that. Women are not going docilely back to the kitchen; Black and Brown folks aren’t going to regain a shuffle and “know their place.” White guys who want to be dominant are going to have to prove their bona fides–they will no longer wield control merely by virtue of their gender and skin color.

Moreover, White evangelicals are fundamentally out of step with the majority American opinion on everything from abortion to immigration to the legitimacy of the 2020 election. That, too, won’t change, no matter how angry they become.

The anger and frustration uncovered by the PRRI study (and confirmed by several others) does explain the willingness of the  GOP base to support incredibly flawed candidates.  People who feels besieged don’t cast their votes on the basis of candidate merit; as Rubin says, they “don’t much care about a candidate’s smarts, ethics or decency. Faced with a perceived existential threat, these Americans are inclined to support anyone who gives voice to their frustrations.”

That is the answer to the persistent question–why?— from those of us who have been at a loss to understand why any sane American would vote for Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Donald Trump or the other numerous, despicable culture warriors who currently populate the once-Grand Old Party.

Even the most casual student of history realizes that cultural change eventually dictates political policies and movements. But zealots hostile to the culture can do enormous damage in the meantime.

If it takes control of the House or Senate next Tuesday, the current iteration of the GOP can and probably will reverse years of social and economic progress. At a bare minimum, it will continue its assault on immigration, do further harm to the environment, and withdraw support for Ukraine– upending the global balance of power. It will weaponize its ongoing assaults on women, people of color and non-Christians, and do enormous damage to America’s constitutional liberties and to the rule of law.

What it can’t do–what it has absolutely no interest in doing–is govern.





Coping With Uncertainty

There is a genre of op-eds/”guest essays” that I generally don’t read: the “what my [parent/relative/meanest boss] taught me about [life/politics/persistence/etc.]  It isn’t that this particular approach to self-help isn’t interesting or useful–these reflections are often quite thoughtful. But given the number of information resources we all receive, most of us need to pick and choose the materials we actually access and consider, and my priorities are elsewhere.

I made an exception to my usual practice a week or so ago, however, for a guest essay titled “What My Father’s Death Taught Me About Living.” I’m glad I did, because the “lesson” the author conveyed really applies to a great deal more than our individual lives; it is directly relevant to the contemporary political environment.

The author of the essay reported that, as she was trying to come to terms with her father’s imminent death, she had asked her wife about the wife’s experiences as a social worker.

What, exactly, do you do with people who are dying? How do you help them and their families? Beyond helping with their practical needs, she explained, she tried to help them normalize their feelings, minimize their regrets and see that people have the capacity to change, right up to the end.

She said that the thing people wanted more than anything was answers. How long does my wife have? Is my mother suffering? These are questions that are impossible to answer, so her work consisted of something else.

“I try to help them increase their tolerance for uncertainty,” she told me. In the absence of answers, she tried to help them live with not knowing.

This conversation struck me as profound, in ways that go well beyond the prospects of a loved one’s life or death.

I have long been convinced that living in the modern world requires one absolutely essential skill above all: the ability to tolerate ambiguity– a recognition that authentic “bright lines” are rare, and that large areas of our lives will necessarily be lived in shades of gray.

The inability to cope with moral and political ambiguity explains so much of what is wrong with today’s politics. Americans today are faced with questions that don’t have easy or obvious answers. That reality goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of bizarre conspiracy theories–such theories provide “answers” to people who find the lack of certainty intolerable. That inability to abide uncertainty also helps explain the evident need of so many people for identifiable “bad guys.”

The need for certainty partly explains the “reasoning” of people who insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good–either X is without fault, or he is unworthy of support, no matter how much worse Y might be. Their discomfort with nuance and complexity requires  an “either/or” world–not one in which progress is incremental and white knights rare.

In a very real sense, America’s political parties have sorted themselves on the basis of tolerance for ambiguity: today’s Democratic Party, whatever its faults and failures, grapples with and argues about the world’s complex realities, while the GOP responds to that complexity with “certainties” that have either been discredited by repeated real-world evidence or invented out of whole cloth.

What the Republican Party does understand is that, in a world that is complicated and devoid of certitudes, scapegoats are essential.

Are there several interrelated causes that are thought to contribute to California’s wildfires?  Too complicated; it must be Jewish Space Lasers. Do job openings available to me require skills my parents’ generation didn’t need? People of color willing to deploy those skills are being brought across the border to replace me. Are my children embracing strange new ideas that are at odds with what I was raised to believe? It’s attributable to a “woke” culture that accepts same-sex marriage and homosexuality.

See? There are clear answers…They just aren’t rooted in (or even in the vicinity of) reality.

Later in the essay, the author addressed that all-important but elusive ability to live with uncertainty.

There is something so powerful about this idea, something so broadly useful to modern life. We all want to know what happens next, to fix upon some certainty as an anchor in the rough seas of our times. But to tolerate uncertainty is to become buoyant, able to bob in the waves, no matter the tide.

I would go further than “buoyancy.” I would identify the ability to function thoughtfully and purposefully in an increasingly complex and ambiguous world as absolutely essential to life in the 21st Century.



Give The Man Points For Honesty

The morphing of America’s conservative movement into something much darker has been going on for a long time. I still recall my youngest son’s response, over twenty years ago, to a colleague who’d invited him to join the local branch of the Federalist Society.  He declined, explaining that he didn’t look good in brown shirts…

Even then, the trajectory was clear.  Today, the fascists are coming out of the closet.

Last week, The Federalist published an essay that was certainly forthright: it was titled “We Need To Stop Calling Ourselves Conservative.” Here’s the lede:

Why? Because the conservative project has largely failed, and it is time for a new approach. Conservatives have long defined their politics in terms of what they wish to conserve or preserve — individual rights, family values, religious freedom, and so on. Conservatives, we are told, want to preserve the rich traditions and civilizational achievements of the past, pass them on to the next generation, and defend them from the left. In America, conservatives and classical liberals alike rightly believe an ascendent left wants to dismantle our constitutional system and transform America into a woke dystopia. The task of conservatives, going back many decades now, has been to stop them.

A “woke dystopia” is presumably a country that extends those “individual rights and freedoms” to citizens who were previously denied them. The author is rather clearly horrified by the prospect of allowing women and LGBTQ+ citizens to participate in society on an equal basis.

After all, what have conservatives succeeded in conserving? In just my lifetime, they have lost much: marriage as it has been understood for thousands of years, the First Amendment, any semblance of control over our borders, a fundamental distinction between men and women, and, especially of late, the basic rule of law.

The rest of the essay is a call to abandon notions of limited government (which is not the same thing as small government, a distinction which seems to elude the author) in favor of acquiring and weaponizing the power of the state to “stop the Left.” The author wants  the Right to use the power of government as “an instrument of renewal in American life — and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed.”

And how would that instrument be deployed?

To stop the disintegration of the family might require reversing the travesty of no-fault divorce, combined with generous subsidies for families with small children. Conservatives need not shy away from making these arguments because they betray some cherished libertarian fantasy about free markets and small government. It is time to clear our minds of cant.

In other contexts, wielding government power will mean a dramatic expansion of the criminal code. It will not be enough, for example, to reach an accommodation with the abortion regime, to agree on “reasonable limits” on when unborn human life can be snuffed out with impunity. As Abraham Lincoln once said of slavery, we must become all one thing or all the other. The Dobbs decision was in a sense the end of the beginning of the pro-life cause. Now comes the real fight, in state houses across the country, to outlaw completely the barbaric practice of killing the unborn….

Drag Queen Story Hour should be outlawed; that parents who take their kids to drag shows should be arrested and charged with child abuse; that doctors who perform so-called “gender-affirming” interventions should be thrown in prison and have their medical licenses revoked; and that teachers who expose their students to sexually explicit material should not just be fired but be criminally prosecuted.

There’s much more, but the cited paragraphs are illustrative. The message is unmistakable: government should be used as a weapon against anyone who differs from the author’s theocratic/nationalistic/paternalistic worldview.

The author is not some rogue essayist invited by the magazine to provoke a discussion; his name isJohn Daniel Davidson and he is a senior editor at The Federalist. 

Actual conservatives–including Bill Kristol– have responded negatively. As one blogger wrote:

Davidson’s “restorationists” could probably be better described as “revanchists,” as they not only want to restore lost territory but also to “retaliate” against those who have torn apart the glorious world he imagines we once had.

It’s an explicitly authoritarian vision. The word “democracy” never once appears in the essay, and references to the concept only refer to events in the past…

Once in power, the revanchists should forget all about the (alleged) conservative idea of “small government” and instead learn to love Big (Brother) Government, inserting it deeply into private life.

Dobbs was just the beginning.

The blogger went on to compare Davidson’s explicit goals to the elements of fascism, and to confirm the fit.

In eight days, Americans will either vote Blue–or vote to buy brown shirts.