The most comforting thing about reading history is that you know the story comes out at least sort of OK. After all, if the world had really ended back then, you wouldn’t be sitting here reading this book.
This week I’ve been reading Rule and Ruin: the downfall of moderation and the destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. You might imagine that story would be depressing, but I’m finding it strangely hopeful, for this reason: Republicans have gone crazy before, and they more-or-less recovered from it.
So they might recover again.
Regular readers of the Weekly Sift know that I think the current Republican Party is insane. I agree with David Frum that conservatives have created an alternate reality “with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics”. As a result, the main Republican “accomplishments” of recent years have been to prevent the country from dealing with real-world problems like global warming or growing inequality, and they’re fighting a last-ditch effort to stop Democrats from doing anything to help the 50 million Americans who lack health insurance.
Delusional thinking is understandable when the fantasy is at least pleasant. But in the conservative Bizarro World, our country is ruled by foreign-born usurper who is trying to destroy the Christian religion and replace the Constitution with either Communist dictatorship or Sharia or (somehow) both. We are beset by all manner of bizarre conspiracies, mapped out from beyond the grave by Saul Alinsky and orchestrated by Marxist multi-billionaire George Soros.
The real world has many problems, but at least it’s not that bad. If somehow we could shake our Republican countrymen awake from their nightmare, we’d be doing them a favor.
So anyway, I’m down on Republicans these days. But what you might not realize — because I have assumed it goes without saying — is that I fully support the idea of a Republican Party. I agree with a recent Thomas Friedman column: America doesn’t need a third party,
What we definitely and urgently need is a second party — a coherent Republican opposition that is offering constructive conservative proposals on the key issues and is ready for strategic compromises to advance its interests and those of the country.
On all sorts of issues — education, pollution, housing, poverty — we need a vigorous two-party debate on national standards vs. local control. Neither side should win that debate once and for all, because both represent American values that go all the way back to Hamilton vs. Jefferson.
Similarly, all the way back to the construction of postal roads and the Erie Canal, American economic development has balanced the public and private sectors. We need one reality-based party championing public-sector development and another championing private-sector development.
Isolationism vs. internationalism, workers’ rights vs. owners’ rights, preserving traditional mores vs. correcting past injustices — what’s called for in each case is not a final victory of one side over the other, but a continuing tension between conflicting values. That’s why we need two parties.
Two sane parties, that is.
Consider the budget. Just about everybody understands that it’s a bad idea to borrow another trillion dollars every year from now on. So there’s room for reasonable people to debate whether to close that deficit primarily with spending cuts or with tax increases; how that pain should be spread among the rich, the poor, and the middle class; whether to start tightening the screws immediately or wait until the economy is stronger; how to split the spending cuts among safety-net programs, investments in education or infrastructure, and defense; and many other questions.
Instead, last summer we debated whether or not the United States should pay its bills. That was not a sane discussion. And in a Republican presidential debate in August, none of the candidates would accept a hypothetical deal in which spending cuts outweighed tax increases 10-to-1. Instead, all Republican candidates have proposed tax reforms that would substantially decrease revenue. They focus tax cuts on the rich, while sometimes actually increasing the taxes of the working poor. Vague or completely unspecified spending cuts make up the difference.
On social issues, Republican presidential candidates (eventually including Romney and Paul) have endorsed an anti-abortion “personhood” position so radical that it was decisively voted down in Mississippi. Got that? Mississippi is too liberal for the current crop of Republican presidential candidates.
It’s crazy over there.
So here’s the comforting lesson from Rule and Ruin: Republicans were at least this crazy in 1964, and they got over it.
Those of us old enough to remember Barry Goldwater at all have had our memories sepia-tinted by the mellower Goldwater of the 80s, and 90s, who warned against the dangers of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. But the Goldwater of 1964 was every bit the full-blown loon that Michelle Bachmann is today.
Just like present-day crazies, the 1964 extremists imagined a previously invisible conservative majority that Richard Nixon had failed to inspire in 1960, but which would turn out in droves if Republicans nominated a “real” conservative this time. In the defining pro-Goldwater tract A Choice Not an Echo Phyllis Schlafly explained:
it looks as though there is no way Republicans can possibly lose so long as we have a presidential candidate who campaigns on the issues. But … how did it happen that, in four major presidential campaigns*, Republicans were maneuvered into nominating candidates who did not campaign on the major issues?
It wasn’t any accident. It was planned that way. In each of their losing presidential years, a small group of secret kingmakers, using hidden persuaders and psychological warfare techniques, manipulated the Republican National Convention to nominate candidates who would sidestep or suppress the key issues.
Top that, Sarah Palin.
[*the four treacherous candidates were Wendell Wilkie in 1940, Thomas Dewey in 1944 and 1948, and Richard Nixon in 1960]
The Tea Party of 1964 was the John Birch Society, whose founder believed Dwight Eisenhower had been a communist sympathizer. “It is difficult,” he wrote of the five-star general and two-term Republican president, “to avoid raising the question of deliberate treason.”
But within a few years all that had been swept away. Just as Goldwater’s elderly mellowness brightens our memories of him, Kent State and Watergate have darkened our picture of Nixon, who presided over a very moderate administration overall. From the Nixon years we get the Clean Air Act, OSHA, the EPA, and the first SALT treaty with the USSR. Nixon opened relations with China, appointed more blacks than Johnson had, and increased the minority role in federal contracts both on the small-business level and in labor unions.
Nixon’s Republican Party is what I wish we had back: a party of diverse views, leaning conservative and sometimes pandering (as any party does) to the electorate’s baser instincts, but by-and-large facing the nation’s real problems and trying to solve them. Even the party’s right wing was purging itself, as Bill Buckley succeeded in marginalizing the Birchers.
So how does an insane party get its mind back? First, it has to nominate a true extremist like Goldwater. (Rick Santorum would fill the bill nicely.) Until it does, the delusional system will explain every defeat as it did McCain’s in 2008 or Nixon’s in 1960: He wasn’t extreme enough.
Second, the extremist has to go down to a historic defeat (like Goldwater’s 61-39 shellacking by LBJ) that proves for a generation that the invisible majority does not exist. Again, I’m confident Santorum could handle this part of the script.
And finally, the sane-but-cynical conservatives who thought they could harness the crazies have to become targets of insanity themselves. This is already happening. Fox News and the Drudge Report, for example, are already under fire for having “turned left”. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have been assailed as “liberal” and even “socialist“. Newt Gingrich is “not a real conservative” either.
This will keep getting worse, because when reality becomes optional, no one is safe. At some point, even conservatives with impeccable credentials will realize that the beast is eating its own and has to be put down.
And then they will put it down. It happened before. It can happen again.