It is no exaggeration to say, as Geoffrey Kabaservice does at the very outset of “Rule and Ruin,” that there is today “an uneasy sense among many Americans that while their society and culture remain vibrant, their governing system has become quarrelsome, dysfunctional, and incapable of coping with serious national problems,” and that “the transformation of the Republican Party over the past half-century into a monolithically conservative organization” is a, if not the, chief reason for this. Not to make light for a moment of the excesses and foolishness to which the Democratic left is prone, the takeover of the GOP by the tea party and its allies in the media, the religious right and sympathetic boardrooms has brought the American political system to a state of near-paralysis.
Now, in the early weeks of what promises to be a rancorous political year, we have two books that explore this phenomenon and attempt to explain its meaning. All three of their authors are academics — though Kabaservice has no university connection at the moment, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson are in the Harvard government department — and both books are published by the same academic house. Kabaservice’s loyalties clearly lie with the moderate-to-liberal establishment (his previous book was a sympathetic account of Kingman Brewster’s presidency of Yale), while Skocpol and Williamson appear to be well left of center, but all three authors have made honest efforts to treat their controversial subject fairly.
Kabaservice’s “Rule and Ruin” is the better and more useful of the two books, because it is a thorough history of the evolution of the GOP from the Eisenhower years to the early 21st century, but “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism” contains a great deal of valuable information about who the tea partyers are and what they believe.
Moderate Republicans may not be extinct, but they clearly are endangered. It wasn’t so long ago that they were a crucial part of the political landscape. As Kabaservice says, “Moderate Republicans helped shape many of what are typically thought of as Democratic achievements, from certain Progressive and New Deal reforms to the architecture of the post-World War II global order and civil rights legislation.” Lyndon Johnson may get the credit for the great civil rights laws of the 1960s, but none of these would have passed without the support of such Republicans as Sens. Everett Dirksen and Clifford Case and Rep. William McCulloch, whose votes exceeded those of the Southern Democrats who united against the bills. Kabaservice is right to say: “If American politics can be compared to an ecosystem, then the disappearance of the moderate Republicans represents a catastrophic loss of species diversity.”
It is no small irony that, as Kabaservice points out, Republican support for the civil rights bills backfired, because their enactment enraged the white South and opened the way for the “Southern strategy” formulated by Kevin Phillips in “The Emerging Republican Majority” (1969) and pursued with surpassing cynicism by John Mitchell as he presided over the Republican midterm campaign of 1970 and the presidential campaign of 1972.
I was living in the upper South at the time and writing editorials for a newspaper of moderate inclinations, and I still remember with something akin to horror the manifold ways in which Mitchell and his henchmen played on the racial fears and animosities of white Southerners to herd them into the GOP, where they have remained ever since. Though Skocpol and Williamson bend over backward to give today’s tea partyers the benefit of the doubt on racial matters, they concede that “racially laden group stereotypes certainly did float in and out of [our] interviews, even when people never mentioned African-Americans directly.”
The evolution of the Republican Party to a point at which such views became tolerable, even politically useful, was slow and not without resistance. Among the best aspects of “Rule and Ruin” are its careful accounts of Advance, a magazine briefly published by young moderate Republicans in the early 1960s, and the Ripon Society, founded in 1962, which “in time would replace Advance as the most visible moderate Republican activist organization.” That society, which struggles on to this day, has frequently been vilified by ultra-conservatives as somehow disloyal to Republican principles, but it has been true to the tradition of Robert Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and George H.W. Bush, all of them exemplars in different ways of the honorable tradition of moderate Republicanism.
Kabaservice is also right to point to the demise in 1966of the New York Herald Tribune: “Nothing could replace the Tribune’s importance as a publicist for moderate Republican politicians, a mouthpiece for moderate values, and an outlet for some of the faction’s best writers and intellectuals.” The decision by John Hay Whitney to fold it may have been strictly “dollars-and-cents,” but it also was “testimony that moderates were simply less willing than conservatives to suffer and sacrifice for their cause.” But of course one of the central things about moderates — and one of the best things — is that they are, well, moderate. Whether they call themselves Republicans, Democrats or independents, they don’t get up on soapboxes, they don’t spend six hours a day glued to Fox News, and they don’t pour out in overwhelming numbers to vote in party primaries.
This last factor, more than anything else, is what explains the demise of Republican moderation and the victory (for now, at least) of Republican extremism. Though Skocpol and Williamson pay surprisingly little attention to the role of the primaries in the tea party’s ascendancy, the enthusiasm of its members for turning out on primary day is a key to their success. Ask Mike Castle of Delaware, the popular moderate Republican congressman who was headed for a Senate seat in 2010 until the tea party trounced him in the primary, or Bob Bennett of Utah, the reliably conservative senator who was tossed by tea partyers that same year because he wasn’t conservative enough. As Kabaservice writes:
“The more widespread use of binding presidential primaries and caucuses advantaged the right, whose better-mobilized troops tended to dominate those lower-turnout elections, while state party organizations exercised less control over the nominating procedures. Although moderate politicians often had considerably more general-election appeal than their conservative challengers, they found it much more difficult to survive primary challenges, especially when extra-party forces such as the Club for Growth [a lavishly financed ultra-conservative PAC] entered into the equation.”
It isn’t clear to what extent the tea partyers realize that they are being used as cat’s-paws by organizations such as the Club for Growth and by professional loudmouths such as those in the employ of Fox News, but at this stage in their evolution they aren’t the independent, grass-roots force they may have been at the beginning. They are, as Skocpol and Williamson amply document, “overwhelmingly older white citizens, relatively well educated and economically comfortable compared to Americans in general.” They “are more likely to be evangelical Protestants than mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, or nonbelievers.” More of them are men than women, and many are “small business owners, often in fields like construction, remodeling, or repair,” endeavors that have been hit hard in the present economic climate. They speak angrily about big government and budget deficits, but cherish their Social Security and Medicare benefits and do not want them diminished or stopped. They believe these are benefits they have earned, as opposed to social support programs extended to the “undeserving” needy who have not, in their view, earned such benefits. And they absolutely loathe President Obama.
They are people with passionate political views who are, in many respects, just like the other ordinary Americans whose views they so detest. Skocpol and Williamson found many of them to be likable and hospitable. But they also are privy to some pretty wild fantasies — that what they call “ObamaCare” includes “both death panels and the abolition of Medicare” or that “the Obama administration plans to seize all 401k savings to pay off the deficit” — and they are absolutely opposed to compromise in any form. Given that what remains of the Republican establishment is scared to death of them, and that moderate Republicans have gone underground, this explains why Capitol Hill is in what is beginning to look like terminal deadlock. The tea party seems to believe that the best way to save the nation is to destroy its government, an interesting notion to say the least.
RULE AND RUIN
The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party From Eisenhower to the Tea Party
By Geoffrey Kabaservice
Oxford Univ. 482 pp. $29.95
THE TEA PARTY AND THE REMAKING OF REPUBLICAN CONSERVATISM
By Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson
Oxford Univ. 245 pp. $24.95