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.