By Jim Swearingen
Why the Right Went Wrong
By E.J. Dionne
Simon & Schuster 544 pp. $30
The Grand Old Party is dead – and Republicans have killed it. The party’s decline, and how it might be able to find its way once again, is the story Washington Post political columnist E.J. Dionne tells in Why the Right Went Wrong. Spoiler alert: Dionne thinks the party needs to break free of the grip of its most radicalized members if it wants to save itself.
Dionne’s deeply researched, fascinating book chronicles the history of the Republican far right, which has only recently branded itself the Tea Party. He traces the arc of this ultraconservative bloc from the 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign to the 2016 Winter of Trump. In Dionne’s telling, the far right is feeling spiteful these days not so much because of Democrats and liberal policies – it’s not about building that wall and getting Mexico to pay for it – but rather because a succession of Republican leaders have wooed and then betrayed them, election after election, for over half a century.
Repeatedly, establishment Republicans have made empty promises to the far right hoping to win elections by tapping their atavistic frustrations. But once in office, they have been unwilling and unable to deliver. Now, the party establishment is being stormed by a band of vengeful Jacobins hell bent on purging the GOP of any last vestige of moderation or conciliation.
Dionne delves into past party platforms, congressional election tallies, and county-by-county demographic trends – he is a man with strong views about the voting patterns of the Philadelphia “inner-ring suburbs” – to make his case: the Tea Party is not a new phenomenon. Their ilk has always been with us.
He offers a far-reaching historical travelogue of right-wing extremism, one that goes back a great deal further than the last 50 years. He recalls the aptly named Know Nothings of the 1850’s, who argued that immigration was polluting the white, Protestant character of the country—through the Scopes Monkey Trial, which left the evangelicals of the day feeling that their religion was under assault from Godless, Eastern intellectuals— and on to Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat, anti-civil rights presidential candidacy that faulted Harry Truman for exceeding the Constitutional limits of his authority.
But Dionne argues that the pivotal moment came when Barry Goldwater famously declared at the 1964 Republican Convention, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice . . . And moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue,” making conservative zealotry respectable overnight. Goldwater galvanized a political orthodoxy that rejected the spirit of legislative compromise advocated at the founding by James Madison in Federalist 10. While that revolutionary fanaticism did not win over establishment Republicans, it did afflict a powerful voting bloc that the GOP was eager to exploit.
And they are, very loudly, with us today. These conservative zealots, drawing on Ayn Rand’s political theory, have never made peace with the enduring legislative landmarks of the New Deal. The countless House resolutions to abolish Obamacare originate in the Tea Party’s apoplectic frustration that government has continued to expand even as their own numbers have grown.
As with most revolutions, as the dogma becomes more extreme, old allies are trotted off to the guillotine for the crime of obsolete ideology. Thus an “apostate” like the far-from-liberal Eric Cantor lost his House seat for being too moderate—and too establishmentarian. No one who considers working across the aisle is safe.
The result is the current toxic environment in Congress. When extremism in pursuit of liberty is no vice, government shutdowns, downgraded credit ratings, and shaken confidence in the United States abroad become acceptable casualties.
The ire of the radical right toward Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Bush’s 41 and 43, and House Speakers Newt Gingrich and John Boehner is astonishing. No one could accuse any of them of being chummy with Democrats. But none of them could govern responsibly and still live up to the expectations he generated when stumping for conservative votes. Dionne lays out the ultra-right’s case for their political indictments chapter by chapter.
Which takes us up to today – and the Obama presidency. To say that opposition to Obama has been racially motivated only tells a part of the story. As Dionne shows, there have always been bigoted enclaves within the radical right— from the Know Nothings to the Dixiecrats, from the John Birch Society to the National Review, from Nixon’s southern strategy to Donald Trump’s demonization of Mexicans and Muslims.
But the book makes a compelling case that Congressional obstructionism and attempts to undermine Obama’s presidency are just the latest manifestations of an impatient radical force that will brook no compromise with Federalism. It is hard to imagine what new political atrocities await the next Democratic administration, or the coming primary season.
Tea Party darling Donald Trump has tapped into twin channels of working class resentment and ethnic suspicion, a tested and proven combination for getting votes in challenging times. The leading contender for the Republican nomination—of a party that brought us the Emancipation Proclamation, the Marshall Plan, the Interstate Highway System, and the Environmental Protection Agency—has advocated rounding up 11 million people for deportation, for starters. One wonders if the railroad cars will have TRUMP painted on the sides.
It all sounds fairly bleak. Ultimately, however, Dionne is optimistic that logic will prevail within the Republican Party. With rapid changes to the ethnic makeup of the country and the social liberalism of the younger generation, he argues, time is against the hard right. The party is likely to become more reasonable in the future, he believes, simply because it has little choice if it wants to remain politically viable.
This is not simply wishful thinking on Dionne’s part. He cites evidence that conservative policy analysts are busy grappling with the contradictions inherent in their party: hourly wage earners still struggling financially while job creators shelter their tax cuts offshore; potential deportation of illegal aliens crippling small businesses; free market capitalism wreaking havoc on traditional family values; pro-life measures imposing governmental restrictions on individual freedom; and bigotry alienating more voters than it attracts.
The thought of a Republican Party that is sensitive to such things may seem jarring today, after all of the intolerance and cold-heartedness the party has stood for in recent years. It would, however, be a return to first principles – the Republicans got their start, after all, as the far more temperate Party of Lincoln. This party, too, once held the audacity of hope. Looking at it historically, as Dionne does so well in this book, it is the relatively recent ascendancy of hate that is new to the Grand Old Party.
Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.