It has only been during the GOP primaries that we have seen much evidence of internal dissent within a party famous for its lock-step unity of the Bush era. For the younger voters, this might be the first evidence of pluralism and clash of ideals within the Republican Party that they’ve seen in their lifetime.
The old-timer on the front stoop will tell you that it wasn’t always like that. There was a time when the evangelicals were politically homeless and republicans could stay the course with the New Deal, raise taxes, grow government and still get re-elected. So how did diverse and and often cross-purposed groups congeal into a single powerful political force? Ronald Reagan, of course.
One must first note the American psyche from WWII through the 1960s. We won the war and established ourselves as a superpower while most other countries were still trying to merely put themselves back together. There were some dips, but the economy was generally quite strong. There were plenty of well paying factory jobs, and taxes were a lot higher so we could afford both the cold war and good schools. American cars were the best in the world and the gas was cheap to keep them running.
The American Dream was created in the fifties. Life was pretty good for middle America and there was no reason to think that it shouldn’t be like this forever.
Forever never seems to last very long, though. The Civil Rights movement was already afoot by 1954 and JFK embraced the movement as a policy goal when he took office in 1960. The Civil Rights act was eventually passed by President Johnson in 1968. Of course, both Kennedy and Johnson were Democrats.
During this post-war era, social conservatism did not have the powerful connection to conservative economic policies. In fact, the Evangelical South were largely democratic. After all, it was Lincoln, a Republican, who defeated the south in the Civil War, freed their slaves and prevented their succession. But it were Democrats that pushed through the Civil Rights Act and that fact seriously soured the Evangelical South and social conservatives on the Democratic Party.
By the late sixties and early seventies everything appeared to be going to hell in a hand basket – at least for some. Courts blocked nativity scenes at city halls and blocked mandatory prayer in school. Abortions were legalized and birth control became widely available. And perhaps for the first time people were openly questioning the role of the church in our lives and in our society.
At the same time women were demanding work-place equality and opting out of the stay-at-home mom model. There was an emerging social acceptance of homosexuality. And the Civil Rights Act forced unwanted desegregation on a social order that had been been working pretty well (for some) for generations. Women, gays and blacks no longer “knew their place.”
And then things only got worse. When we pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, it represented the first war we lost in American history. At the same time, urban violence swung upward and there was a renewed public interest in gun-control. When did we become a nation of wimps?
By the late seventies, many Americans felt that the country they knew and loved was disappearing… and fast. Religious conservatives felt under attack and saw this as a threat to their civil liberties. Both God and the constitution are under assault. And the very definition of family was disintegrating.
Everything and I mean everything was just wrong with the world.
And then something magical happened and a tall, handsome former Governor from California showed up, and he was wearing a US flag for a cape. This was Ronald Reagan, of course. What made him magical is that he gave hope to those disparate and increasingly disenfranchised people. He said, vote for me and I will get you your America back. And when he took office in 1981, he did not ignore them.
Remember, these disillusioned Americans were rather independent of each other. There were the Reagan understood that their unification created an extremely powerful republican voting base. Finally, the Evangelical South found a new home.
What holds them together? Put three people in a room. One is worried that his gun will be outlawed, another believes that abortion is murder and a third just doesn’t like the increasingly mandated social reforms. What they have in common is a belief that America is changing for the worse.
This newly created republican base agreed that America is changing for the worse and it follows that if you change America for the worse, you must hate this country. And it were liberal democrats that have been most responsible for these changes. This was plain to see and therefore, democrats hate America. Or, so goes the logic.
The new definition of what it means to be a “real American” quickly became a package deal. It was simply not possible to be a pro-choice republican, for instance. That would be an oxymoron. A real republican was pro-life, pro-gun rights, believed in god, liberty and individual freedom. Any challenges to these beliefs were simply seen as attacks on the constitution, fundamental liberties, and the “American way of life.”
The many small cracks in the American social and political landscape were reorganized into a single great divide. The bumper stickers read, “America, Love it of Leave it!”
One was expected to wrap themselves with the flag and stand by her. Reagan re-affirmed our national exceptionalism and if America is exceptional then she could do no wrong. Reagan restored the concept of the 1950s American dream. It must be defended. It must be restored.
Reagan brilliantly gave them hope that he was the one who will restore the America that they were longing for. But the his genius was that he was able to conflate this new social identity with his conservative economic policies. Taxes were framed as an obstruction to a fundamental American freedom, the pursuit of happiness. Regulations and unions were seen as interfering with free-markets because, “A controlled market is what they do in communist countries.” Similarly, affirmative action and equal opportunity employment laws were seen as rigging the system or, at best, taking important business decisions away from the business owner.
Either you stood by these ideals or you were commiserating in the erosion of the American ideals – the destruction of America itself. This set off a political gold-rush where, for the next three decades, republican politicians are competing for the mantle of most conservative. And they are rewarded.
If you strayed from this these ideals, you did so at your own peril. In 1988, George H. W. Bush experimented with the formula by reaching out to the moderate center with a “kinder, gentler” conservative platform. He did not survive re-election in 1992. This exercise was repeated by republican representatives around the country and the lessons learned were consistent: Don’t mess with Reagan’s recipe.
It doesn’t much matter that, in fact, Reagan did raise taxes, negotiate with terrorists and increase government borrowing and spending. The important thing is that he embodied those ideals. And if you are a republican, you damn well better embody those ideals too.
Now, after a thirty year rush to the right, we are seeing the product of this prime directive. The GOP primaries have brought into sharp relief the absurd contortions that the party has gone through to model itself after this conservative ideal. Even the party elders, who for so many years had been the beneficiary of the ghost of Reagan, seem concerned that maybe they’ve reached the limits of this tack.
I have wondered about these limits for a long time now. Every four years I ask myself how much further to the right can the Republican Party go? This year, I hope I finally get my answer.