Why the Right Went Wrong
By E.J. Dionne
March 11, 2016
Critical Book Review
When stripped to its bare essentials, the story of the “right going wrong” is the story of a con game played on voters.
While there have been conservatives since the founding of the country, the New Deal marked the start of a conservative movement opposed to President Franklin Roosevelt. Nonetheless, an organized conservative movement did not appear until the 1950’s. The forces behind this movement were the wealthy businessmen who feared the loss of their money and power to taxes needed for the New Deal and what they saw as the growing power of labor unions.
These wealthy businessmen merged their opposition to the New Deal liberalism with their growing concerns about the threat of communism. This merger presented the movement with the opportunity to adapt some of the philosophical and economic arguments that had been aimed at Communism—once any distinctions between liberalism and Communism were ignored. Ludwig von Mises and especially Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom were seized by these businessmen to add legitimacy to what otherwise would have been a simple paean to greed. Covering their self-interest with a patina of intellectual rationalizations became a hallmark of the conservative movement.
Besides philosophical and economic rationalizations, the conservative movement seized justifications for racism from various policy entrepreneurs to capture the segregationist votes in the South. William F. Buckley, for example, wrote that “in the South, the white community is entitled to put forward a claim to prevail politically because, for the time being anyway, the leaders of American civilization are white… a conservative feels sympathy for the Southern position.”
Barry Goldwater’s disastrous run for the Presidency in 1964 (he lost to President Lyndon Johnson 52 to 486 in electoral votes and 39 to 61 percent in the popular vote) was the outgrowth of efforts by Southern “intellectuals” and policy entrepreneurs to ally conservatives to white supremacy. Their nascent southern strategy was to link conservative opposition to New Deal labor practices, such as the Fair Employment Practices Commission, to white supremacist determination to continue their oppression of blacks.
Their nascent southern strategy was to link conservative opposition to New Deal labor practices, such as the Fair Employment Practices Commission, to white supremacist determination to continue their oppression of blacks.
The adoption of a southern strategy linking “free market” conservatism to white supremacy did not bear fruit until Richard Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 election to the Presidency. From then until now, the Republican Party has preached a conservative political theology in which free market conservatism has been cemented to Republican dog whistle racism. One consequence of this alliance has been the GOP’s increasing focus on policy issues benefitting business interests and wealthy donors at the expense of the working- and middle-class GOP voters. In exchange for their votes, average GOP voters received lip service supporting their social issues. However, to the increasing frustration of these voters, the GOP has been unable slow the social and political gains of blacks, women, and the LBGT community.
The ascendance of Donald J. Trump as the most likely nominee of the Republican Party is a mark of the current frustration of GOP voters. Despite their allegiance the conservative movement, election efforts, and financial contributions, they have seen the election of a black President, the growth of the Latino and immigrant population, the erosion of the privileges ascribed to white males, and marriage equality. Conservatives have economically favored their wealthy donors while denigrating the working- and middle-class voters on whom they have depended for electoral success. Now, to add insult to injury, conservatives are calling for radical decreases in the Social Security and Medicare benefits on which these GOP voters depend.
Conservatives have economically favored their wealthy donors while denigrating the working- and middle-class voters on whom they have depended for electoral success.
Dionne identifies two points at which the Republican Party took the wrong turn and lost the opportunity to become a governing partner with the Democratic Party. Instead, they chose to obstruct Democrats at the cost of undermining governance. Former GOP Congressman and TV host Joe Scarborough cites President Dwight Eisenhower as a model the GOP should have followed to help ensure a conservative governing partner.
The first point at which the Republican Party took the wrong turn was the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater for President. Perhaps the most important consequence of the nomination was that it alienated the moderate wing of the party, and thus, drove the party to the right. In addition, Goldwater began a narrative about moral decay in the U.S. that still persists.
“…he [Goldwater] spoke of crime and law and order. Above all, he broke the Republican Party’s historic alignment with the interests of African-Americans and created a new Republicanism in the South built on a backlash against the civil rights movement.”
In establishing conservatism as a “legitimate and popular creed,” Goldwater set conservatism up for the frustration that continues to animate GOP voters in 2016. Despite the elections won by Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes, GOP voters have not seen the conservative changes they want and expected.
The second point at which the Republican Party took a wrong turn was the failure of George W. Bush to retool the party to attract the moderates that were turning to the Democratic Party. Although constrained by the limits of conservatism, Bush had hoped to use “compassionate conservatism,” as a means of achieving the liberal goals sought by moderates. Compassionate conservatism not only failed because of resistance to it by conservatives and public opposition to the Iraq War, but contributed to the GOP moving even further to the right. Dionne argues that the Tea Party was a direct outgrowth of Bush’s failures.
Compassionate conservatism not only failed because of resistance to it by conservatives and public opposition to the Iraq War, but contributed to the GOP moving even further to the right. Dionne argues that the Tea Party was a direct outgrowth of Bush’s failures.
Dionne says he has “a respect for the conservative tradition that is rooted in my own experience.” And, it is that respect that may have obscured his vision of the sham intellectual underpinning of the conservative movement. The Republican Party, captured by the conservative movement, was held together by a devotion to lower taxes and unregulated markets, not philosophy. Some parts of the conservative movement wanted to turn back social changes; other parts wanted relief from regulation, and still other parts wanted a world in which the U.S. would play the role it had played in 1945. The conservative movement was formed by a dissatisfaction that the movement could not sate. The proof of the dissatisfaction within the GOP is its dissolution now underway.
Just as Goldwater’s 1964 campaign and eventual nomination dismantled the Republican Party of moderation, the Trump campaign is dismantling the current party. The name “Republican Party” will undoubtedly persist, but the appeal and constituency of the party has already changed and will continue to do so. A key question is what, besides the GOP, will be dissolved when Trump either fails to be elected President or fails to deliver what he has promised.