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.
As for the radicals in elected office or in control of party organs, consider a small sampling of comments:
"Sex that doesn't produce people is deviate." —Montana state Representative Dave Hagstrom.
"It is not our job to see that anyone gets an education." —Oklahoma state Representative Mike Reynolds.
"I hear you loud and clear, Barack Obama. You don't represent the country that I grew up with. And your values is not going to save us. We're going to take this country back for the Lord. We're going to try to take this country back for conservatism. And we're not going to allow minorities to run roughshod over what you people believe in!" —Arkansas state Senator Jason Rapert, at a Tea Party rally.
President Obama has "become a dictator" and needs to face the consequences of his executive actions, "whether that's removal from office, whether that's impeachment." —Iowa state Senator and U.S. Senate candidate Jodi Ernst, one of a slew of elected officials calling for impeachment or at least putting it front and center.
"I don't want to get into the debate about climate change. But I'll simply point out that I think in academia we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There's no factories on Mars that I'm aware of." —Kentucky state Senator Brandon Smith (fact-check: the average temperature on Mars is -81 degrees).
"Although Islam had a religious component, it is much more than a simple religious ideology. It is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protections." —Georgia congressional candidate Jody Hice.
"Slavery and abortion are the two most horrendous things this country has done, but when you think about the immorality of wild, lavish spending on our generation and forcing future generations to do without essentials just so we can live lavishly now, it's pretty immoral." —Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas.
"God's word is true. I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big-bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior." —Representative (and M.D.) Paul Broun of Georgia.
"Now I don't assert where he [Obama] was born, I will just tell you that we are all certain that he was not raised with an American experience. So these things that beat in our hearts when we hear the National Anthem and when we say the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't beat the same for him." —Representative Steve King of Iowa.
As for the party leaders, consider some of the things that are now part of the official Texas Republican Party platform, as highlighted byThe New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg:
- That the Texas Legislature should "ignore, oppose, refuse, and nullify" federal laws it doesn't like.
- That when it comes to "unelected bureaucrats" (meaning, Hertzberg notes, almost the entire federal workforce), Congress should "defund and abolish these positions."
- That all federal "enforcement activities" in Texas "must be conducted under the auspices of the county sheriff with jurisdiction in that county." (That would leave the FBI, air marshals, immigration officials, DEA personnel, and so on subordinate to the Texas versions of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.)
- That "the Voting Rights Act of 1965, codified and updated in 1973, be repealed and not reauthorized."
- That the U.S. withdraw from the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank.
- That governments at all levels should "ignore any plea for money to fund global climate change or 'climate justice' initiatives."
- That "all adult citizens should have the legal right to conscientiously choose which vaccines are administered to themselves, or their minor children, without penalty for refusing a vaccine.
- That "no level of government shall regulate either the ownership or possession of firearms." (Period, no exceptions.)
Texas, of course, may be an outlier. But the Maine Republican Party adopted a platform that called for the abolition of the Federal Reserve, called global warming a myth, and demanded an investigation of "collusion between government and industry" in perpetrating that myth. It also called for resistance to "efforts to create a one world government." And the Benton County, Arkansas, Republican Party said in its newsletter, "The 2nd Amendment means nothing unless those in power believe you would have no problem simply walking up and shooting them if they got too far out of line and stopped responding as representatives."
One might argue that these quotes are highly selective—but they are only a tiny sampling (not a single one from Michele Bachmann, only one from Gohmert!). Importantly, almost none were countered by party officials or legislative leaders, nor were the individuals quoted reprimanded in any way. What used to be widely seen as loony is now broadly accepted or tolerated.
I am not suggesting that the lunatics or extremists have won. Most Republicans in the Senate are not, to use John McCain's term, "wacko birds," and most Republicans in office would at least privately cringe at some of the wild ideas and extreme views. At the same time, the "establishment" is fighting back, pouring resources into primaries to protect their preferred candidates, and we are seeing the rise of a new and encouraging movement among conservative intellectuals—dubbed "Reformicons" by E.J. Dionne—to come up with a new set of ideas and policy prescriptions to redefine the ideology and the party in a positive way.
But there is a darker reality. Many of the "preferred" candidates—including Ernst as well as James Lankford in Oklahoma and Jack Kingston in Georgia—are anything but pragmatic.
A few years ago, they would have been labeled hard-liners. (Kingston, a favorite of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was beaten in the Senate primary Tuesday by businessman David Perdue, who has said he would not vote for Mitch McConnell as party leader in the Senate.) It is a measure of the nature of this intra-party struggle that the mainstream is now on the hard right, and that it is close to apostasy to say that Obama is legitimate, that climate change is real, that background checks on guns are desirable, or even that the Common Core is a good idea. When we see presumably sane figures like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal shamelessly pander to the extremists, it tells us where the center of gravity in the GOP primary base, at least, is set. Of course, there are still courageous mainstream figures like Jeb Bush who are willing to deviate from the new orthodoxy, and it is possible that he can run and get the Republican presidential nomination, win the White House, and begin the process of recalibration.
But when one looks at the state of Republican public opinion (especially among the likely caucus and primary voters), at the consistent and persistent messages coming from the information sources they follow, and at the supine nature of congressional leaders and business leaders in countering extremism, it is not at all likely that what passes for mainstream, problem-solving conservatism will dominate the Republican Party anytime soon.