Almost four years ago, after returning from my educational sojourn in the Eternal City, I posted my review of Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin: the Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party: From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012). The current presidential campaign has inspired me to reread it, for it is a very good history of the modern Republican Party and – by extension at least – of American party politics in the half-century plus since World War II, with particular emphasis on the earlier period. (In a response to my initial review of the book, the author explained his greater emphasis on the 1950s and 1960s, because in his view the moderate Republican movement effectively ended around 1970, after which there were fewer moderates and less of the programmatic content that distinguished them.) From the way Kabaservice tells the story, Moderate Republicanism’s decline fairly parallels the larger trajectory of American politics through this period - and, I would suggest - its postscript into the present
Kabaservice emphasized that the merit of Moderate Republicanism wasn’t just facilitating compromise (which is what it sometimes tends to get reduced to when its absence is lamented today) but real programmatic political substance. Indeed, one of the merits of this book is to highlight the important part played by Moderate Republicans in advancing much of what we retrospectively see as a progressive agenda – especially in the area of Civil Rights. In 1972, for example, The New York Times acknowledged that Nixon’s centrist administration had “narrowed the gap between the two major parties.” At the same time, what Kabaservice called “Nixon’s rhetorical conservatism, his willingness to polarize the country around controversial social issues” had a long-term contrary effect. It was that "contrary effect." which in the long term has been so decisive and resulted in our present predicament, in which (as Elizabeth Drew lamented this week in NYR Daily), "Our problem now is that the political parties - and their followers - seem to have forgotten that the role of politics is to resolve differences."
When I first read the book four years ago, I noted that one area where I thought that the author's analysis deserved further development was precisely the impact of our growing social, cultural, and moral divide. The “controversial social issues” of the late 1960s and early 1970s were serious and divisive and foreshadowed the future in which we now have experienced (thanks to extremism on both sides of the aisle) a complete breakdown of any possibility of some kind of fundamental socio-cultural consensus, a situation in which cultural and political polarization has so escalated that it is hard to imagine how either side will ever find its way back to a consensus politics of deliberation and debate.
While the Democrats are also dealing with their own anti-establishment revolt, the last word on which is yet to be said, an apocalyptic crack-up is taking place among the Republicans. Here again, I'll quote Elizabeth Drew who has summarized so succinctly the Republican leadership's "detachment from reality" and their "failure to understand today's Republican base" (a base, I might add, which that leadership has been so cynically creating and manipulating for decades now) That leadership "proceeded on a number of illusions: that the base could be mollified by making unfulfillable promises - to repeal Obamacare and balance the budget - while their own emphasis was on cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations, paring entitlements, expanding trade, and helping out businesses that want cheap immigrant labor. they thought that they could toy with racism - a strategy that began with Richard Nixon - without it capturing the party."
In light of that, it seems somewhat absurdly comical to watch Republican elites strategize about how to deny Donald Trump the party's nomination - a strategy that seems increasingly to concede trump a plurality of votes at the convention but not the majority needed to prevent some other candidate emerging like Wendell Wilkie in 1940. Why Trump's supporters would stand for that remains far from obvious to this observer.
After Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives blew up the Republican party in 1912, the rump Republican party organization that the conservative establishment was left with lost abysmally (thus electing one of the only two Democratic presidents between the Civil War and the New Deal). But the party pulled itself together and reasserted itself eight years later. It does not follow, therefore, that if Trump. like TR before him, blows up the party this year, the conservative establishment would be unable to recover in due time. But the Republican party was gravely wounded by 1912, a wound reopened by the conservative vs. moderate conflicts of the post-World War II era. A comparable crackup this year would certainly leave the Sad Old Party severely wounded again. and, in the present changed environment, who knows whether the wound might prove mortal, after all? The institutional obstacles to the effective creation of new parties are such that it is likely that the Republican party will surviver Trump, but that it will be as unlike the post-Reagan Republican party as that party was unlike the Republican party of Lincoln, or of Theodore Roosevelt, or of Eisenhower.