When Extremism Goes Mainstream

Just how far out is the Republican fringe?
Representative Steve King of Iowa (Larry Downing/Reuters)

The most interesting, and important, dynamic in American politics today is the existential struggle going on in the Republican Party between the establishment and the insurgents—or to be more accurate, between the hard-line bedrock conservatives (there are only trace elements of the old-line center-right bloc, much less moderates) and the radicals.

Of course, tugs-of-war between establishment forces and ideological wings are nothing new with our political parties. They have been a continuing factor for many decades. The Republican Party had deep-seated struggles between its Progressive wing, led by Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Follette, and its conservative establishment, led by William Howard Taft and House Speaker "Uncle Joe" Cannon, going back to the turn of the 20th century.

The Progressives succeeded in stripping Speaker Cannon of his dictatorial powers in 1910, and TR's willingness to bolt the GOP and run in 1912 as a Progressive on the Bull Moose Party line killed Taft's chances of winning and elected Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The struggles continued with moderates Wendell Wilkie and Tom Dewey battling Taft's progeny Robert through the 1940s. And, of course, the insurgents' struggles continued through Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Reagan first moved into national politics in 1968, with an abortive challenge to centrist Richard Nixon, who won and governed in the middle on domestic policy, promoting liberal social policies on welfare and health reform. Reagan reemerged in 1976, and his foray against centrist President Ford cost Ford the election—but Reagan's own election as president in 1980 led to an era of relatively pragmatic center-right policy-making. At the same time, however, the ongoing regional changes in the country were eliminating the bases of moderate and liberal Republicans and moving the GOP center of gravity to a lily-white and hard-line base in the South and rural West.

Democrats have had their own battles. The radical populist William Jennings Bryan won control (and lost the White House three times) around the turn of the century. But the victory of the establishment with Woodrow Wilson ushered in an era of relative calm. However, a Democratic Party built on two disparate wings—Southern rural conservatives determined to maintain segregation, Northern urban liberals determined to deploy and maintain the New Deal—had an uneasy alliance that enabled the party to keep a hammerlock on Congress for decades but began to unravel in the 1960s with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

A more turbulent schism developed in the 1970s, when the antiwar and antiestablishment liberal wing led by Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern fought the establishment of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Daley, with a bloody confrontation in Chicago in 1968, McGovern's short-lived triumph in 1972, and a resurgent liberal movement in the Watergate elections of 1974. The liberal wing resisted many of the policies of Jimmy Carter; the liberal challenge of Edward Kennedy to Carter in 1980 helped to doom his reelection chances. But more consecutive presidential losses in 1980, 1984, and 1988 by liberals Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis moved the party in a more pragmatic direction with the Clinton era—Bill Clinton having been a moderate governor of Arkansas and the leader of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Clinton's election in 1992 moved the Democrats firmly to the center on previously divisive issues like welfare and crime. But it also provided the impetus for the forces that have led to the current Republican problem. These forces were built in part around insurgent Newt Gingrich's plans to overturn the Democratic 38-year hegemony in Congress, and in part around a ruthlessly pragmatic decision by GOP leaders and political strategists to hamper the popular Clinton by delegitimizing him and using the post-Watergate flowering of independent counsels to push for multiple crippling investigations of wrongdoing (to be sure, he gave them a little help along the way). No one was more adroit at using ethics investigations to demonize opponents than Newt. In 1994, Gingrich recruited a passel of more radical candidates for Congress, who ran on a path to overturn most of the welfare state and who themselves demonized Congress and Washington. At a time of rising populist anger—and some disillusionment on the left with Clinton—the approach worked like a charm, giving the GOP its first majority in the House in 40 years, and changing the face of Congress for decades to come.

Newt's strategy and tactics were abetted and amplified by the new force of political talk radio, which had been activated by the disastrous federal pay raise in 1989-90, and of tribal cable television news. As Sean Theriault details in his book The Gingrich Senators, many of Newt's progeny moved on to the Senate and began to change it from an old club into a new forum for tribal warfare. Move on through right-wing frustration with George W. Bush's combination of compassionate conservatism and unfunded social policy (and wars) and then the election of Barack Obama, and the ingredients for a rise of radicalism and a more explosive intra-party struggle were set. They were expanded again with the eager efforts in 2010 of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Young Guns (Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan) to exploit the deep populist right-wing anger at the financial collapse and the bailouts of 2008 and 2009 by inciting the Tea Party movement. But their expectation that they could then co-opt these insurgents backfired badly.

A lot of history to get to the point. What began as a ruthlessly pragmatic, take-no-prisoners parliamentary style opposition to Obama was linked to constant efforts to delegitimize his presidency, first by saying he was not born in the U.S., then by calling him a tyrant trying to turn the country into a Socialist or Communist paradise. These efforts were not condemned vigorously by party leaders in and out of office, but were instead deflected or encouraged, helping to create a monster: a large, vigorous radical movement that now has large numbers of adherents and true believers in office and in state party leadership. This movement has contempt for establishment Republican leaders and the money to go along with its beliefs. Local and national talk radio, blogs, and other social media take their messages and reinforce them for more and more Americans who get their information from these sources. One result is that even today, a Rasmussen survey shows that 23 percent of Americans still believe Obama is not an American, while an additional 17 percent are not sure. Forty percent of Americans! This is no longer a fringe view.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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