E.J. Dionne, whose political column appears in The Washington Post and nearly 100 other newspapers, has a new book out, Why the Right Went Wrong, published this week by Simon & Schuster. He talks here about what led him to become a political journalist, why he broke from his family's conservative politics, and what he thinks the future holds for the Republican Party.
1. How were you first drawn to political reporting?
I can still remember falling in love with politics when I was eight years old during the Kennedy-Nixon campaign. I didn’t understand much, but I knew it was exciting, and important, too. And I grew up in Massachusetts where the things that mattered were politics and the Red Sox.
Journalism was there from the start, too. Every Sunday, we’d go to the neighborhood drug store after church to pick up not one but four newspapers. My late dad and I loved nothing better than talking and arguing about politics, which we did happily until the day he died, sadly early, in 1968. I always say he, my mom and our boisterous and politically diverse extended family trained me for what I do for a living, and I am grateful to them still.
2. You note in Why the Right Went Wrong that you have family ties to the Republican Party and that your background gives you a particular willingness to consider conservative opinions. How did you end up as a liberal?
I began to dissent from the family creed when I was a high school student, moved by civil rights and -- this will sound strange to conservative ears -- the excitement of the Great Society reform push. I chose to read Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love when I had to do a book report for a religion class in my Benedictine school and it forced me as a Christian to confront racial and social injustice. I also read William E. Leuchtenberg’s great book, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, for a history class, and it made me understand the draw and excitement of the New Deal reforms.
Thinking through the progressive tradition, I came to feel that LBJ was trying to use government to solve important problems, and believed that Republicans should not simply stand by in opposition. I passed through liberal Republicanism on my way toward the center-left and still admire many of the progressive GOP figures from that period and later. My drift was confirmed in college when the thinkers I came to admire most – notably the brilliant and humane philosopher Michael Walzer – pointed toward liberalism of a social democratic kind.
3. Why the Right Went Wrong deals largely with how the heirs to Barry Goldwater’s far-right candidacy are still driving the Republican Party. Why do these conservative “purists” have such a strong hold on the party?
One of the book’s central arguments is that from Goldwater forward, moderating forces inside the Republican Party were either purged in primaries or fell away voluntarily. The realignment of white Southern conservatives toward the GOP called forth a counter-movement of African-Americans toward the Democrats followed by a steady defection of moderate Republican voters in the north, particularly in the suburbs.
The collar counties around Philadelphia are a classic example of this shift. As a result, the Republican primary electorate today is far more conservative than it was 20 and 30 years ago. Republicans are now predominantly a party of older white Americans, and the aging of the party is one of its most significant long-term problems. According to Pew Research Center figures, in 1987, only 39 percent of Republicans were over 50; by 2014, that number had risen to 53 percent.
This means, by the way, that “purist” is not always the correct word for describing the GOP’s right wing. Because so many Tea Party supporters are over 65, they have little enthusiasm for cutting Medicare or Social Security. Donald Trump understands this, and he has spoken out against cuts in these programs.
I also talk a great deal in the book about the sense of betrayal felt by Republicans on the right. Since Goldwater, conservative politicians have had to make a series of promises they couldn’t keep – for a government much smaller than most Americans actually want and for a rollback of cultural changes that a majority has come to accept. This sense of betrayal is feeding the radicalization in the party and within the conservative movement.
In the book, I tell the 50-year story of how Republicans and conservatives reached the point they are at now. Journalism, of its nature, focuses on the immediate and the short-term. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but we can’t understand how we got here without understanding this much longer trajectory, and I found it to be a fascinating story.
4. Donald Trump has employed an interesting mix of economic populism with ethnic nativism. Could he be the candidate that breaks the purists’ lock on the party?
Trump is more likely to break the party altogether. His nomination would likely lead to large scale-defections among even moderately conservative Republicans who would likely see Hillary Clinton, if she is the Democratic nominee, as the safer and – in an older, non-ideological sense of the word – more conservative candidate.
But as your question suggests, Trump’s nods to economic populism – more rhetorical than real, as his tax proposals show – reflect his understanding of how angry working class Republicans are. They have voted loyally for the GOP but received no material benefits in return, something conservative writers such as Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam warned the party about long ago. Trump, a billionaire, is leading one side of a class war inside the GOP.
5. You seem curiously optimistic at the end of the book that Republicans will see the inevitable trends among voting demographics and moderate their positions to avoid political extinction. What makes you think that conservatives will suddenly acknowledge what they have been rigidly unwilling to up until now?
I don’t expect the shift to be sudden. But many shrewd Republicans are fully aware of the profound demographic problem the party faces. It will not remain viable if it continues to be rejected by such large numbers of Latinos, Asian-Americans, Africans-Americans and young people. Their current coalition will become obsolete.
In the book, I quote California Republican Chairman Jim Brulte: “California is the leading edge of the country’s demographic changes. Frankly, Republicans in California did not react quickly enough to them, and we paid a horrible price.” Brulte is one of many Republicans who believe the national party needs to learn from the marginalization of the GOP in his state. Republican pollster Whit Ayres makes a similar case.
And the process will be sped along if the Republicans lose this presidential election. The example of what could happen after a third consecutive presidential loss is the British Conservative Party. It responded to three defeats at the hands of Tony Blair’s Labour Party by embracing David Cameron’s modernization efforts.
6. Which faction do you think will prevail in the GOP nominating process? And for that matter, which party do you think will win in November?
No analyst I think of as wise is certain about how this Republican fight will turn out, and I do not want to join the ranks of fools! But my best guess is that Ted Cruz’s strategy responds most directly to the changes inside the party and the increasing dominance of its most conservative voters. Cruz understands the power of the party’s right-wing factions and has, with exceptional strategic clarity and discipline, set about to uniting them, starting with the evangelical conservatives and the overlapping group of Tea Party Republicans.
Both Trump and Marco Rubio are now going after Cruz because they sense the danger to them of Cruz’s very coherent approach. I found it significant that in one-on-one matchups in the recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, Cruz defeated Trump but Trump defeated Rubio. That gives you a good sense of how the balance-of-forces inside the party tilt rightward.
But campaigns are about more than factions and math. We have to see how Cruz, as a personality, holds up; and whether Trump can build a big enough lead early that would make him very hard to take down. In a three-way fight among Trump, Cruz and a representative of the party faction we tend to describe – very imperfectly – as “the Establishment” or “the center-right,” the third candidate could win. Much depends on whether a single candidate from this faction can emerge early enough to force a three-way showdown.