In 2014 we should be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the far right’s political demise at the national level. Instead, we will probably be watching a repeat of the Republican self-immolation of 1964, especially if Republicans shut down the federal government this fall.
Sure, Republicans made a good effort at reviving the pseudo-conservative agenda when they nominated Ronald Reagan in 1980 but the Goldwater coalition is surely now coming to an end.
So, how did we get here? Well, let’s start with a little history.
From 1948 to 1964 the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party inveighed against the welfare state established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and some [the John Birch Society] even claimed that Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a closet Communist. The Cold War and McCarthyism, along with renewed spiritual life in the form of revivals held by Billy Graham and others, were all intersecting with dramatic social and legal changes in society: desegregation, freedom marches, and the landmark Civil Rights Act signed into law in July 1964. Is it any surprise then that the Republican Party finally morphed into a coalition of virulent anti-Communists, international interventionists, white Evangelical Christians, and plutocrats?
Every member of this coalition was hell bent on destroying some aspect of FDR’s legacy, which had only experienced a resurgence with the election of John F. Kennedy. So, the nomination of Barry Goldwater as the Republican standard bearer in 1964 represented the animus of many to the changes that were taking place in society, and their fear of more changes to come under Lyndon B. Johnson.
It is impossible to ignore the role of racism here, but this would not become obvious until the Republicans adopted the so-called “southern strategy” in 1968.
Richard Nixon would win election in 1968, and he would win a second term in 1972 by still promising to get the U.S. out of Vietnam with “honor.” However, Richard Nixon did not fundamentally represent the coalition that had developed around Barry Goldwater in 1964. Nixon had no problem using the tactics of those Richard Hofstadter dubbed “pseudo-conservatives” but strategically he was more like his old boss, Eisenhower. In fact, Richard Nixon did things that would be anathema to today’s Republican/Goldwater coalition. He instituted national price controls, created the EPA, and established a diplomatic dialogue with totalitarian Communist China. The libertarian wing of today’s Republican coalition would likely have also stood opposed to Nixon’s “war on drugs;” however, this policy was part of a general response to what many Americans saw as a fundamental breakdown of law and order in the late 60s and early 70s, so it was generally popular.
American prosperity began to decline in the early 1970s as a result of global economic changes, and this combined with major federal scandals involving the White House, the CIA, and the FBI, led to the brief administration of Jimmy Carter from 1977 through 1981. Carter was unfairly blamed for economic circumstances beyond his control, as are most presidents, and it was these economic conditions that allowed the Goldwater coalition to make a dramatic comeback in 1980 with the help of the “Reagan Democrats.”
The Reagan Democrats were white working class and middle class folk alienated by things like affirmative action, school integration, corrupt unions, stagnating wages, global economic competition, and high taxes supporting both the welfare state and the military-industrial complex. The irony here is that these folks often voted against their own interests in the belief that Republicans could restore national prosperity by lowering taxes, curbing unionization, and getting rid of business regulation–all policies that have ultimately led to overwhelming levels of public debt, the inability to bargain for a living wage, a less safe and more punishing workplace, and the greatest shift of national income to the top since the 1920s.
Reagan’s two-terms in office were only a brief respite from the economic malaise of the 1970s, mostly eliminated by “military Keynesiansim” started in the last year of Carter’s administration and continued under Reagan. Lower taxes proved ineffective at priming the pump or increasing tax revenues–as Art Laffer had predicted, which is why Reagan had to raise taxes in 1986. George H.W. Bush also raised taxes and paid the price at the polls in 1992. Although Reagan is still considered a paragon of ultra-conservative virtue, George H.W. Bush is seen as someone who ultimately abandoned the Goldwater coalition.
What has changed since 1992 and the election of Bill Clinton? In short, the Goldwater coalition has grown smaller and can no longer effectively exploit its tactic of scapegoating blacks, illegal immigrants, homosexuals, or Communists. The Democrat Party of Bill Clinton shifted to the right in the 1990s, largely muzzling the progressive wing of the party and “triangulating” on the issues where Republicans had a traditionally clear advantage. For example, even the allegedly progressive Barack Obama is not universally vilified by the Republican Party when it comes to national security, although he is heavily critiqued. In fact, the only people roundly condemning Democrats on foreign policy are those who make up the libertarian-wing of the Republican Party, and they also criticize their neo-con brethren.
For those who would argue that George W. Bush’s two-term presidency is an anomaly that disproves this present analysis, I would remind them that Bush won a very narrow electoral victory in 2000 while losing the popular vote, and Bush was being pilloried by elements of his own party long before he left office because of his spending habits. George W. Bush may have represented the last national hurrah of the Goldwater coalition in 2004, and without the “war on terrorism” he might not have had that second term. (Bush won with only 2.4 % more of the popular vote and only 35 more electoral votes against a very lackluster Democrat candidate, John Kerry.)
What does all this mean for the election cycle of 2014? It means that Republicans can no longer depend nationally on the “southern strategy,” that the electorate has grown too diverse for this strategy to work in any but the most gerrymandered districts.
It also means that they cannot rely on the white Evangelical vote. These voters are heavily clustered and their numbers, in the aggregate, are diminishing.
Republicans also have an issue with women voters, primarily because of the excessive influence that white Evangelical men have on the Republican agenda.
The recent defeat of Mitt Romney indicates another weakness in the Republican Party and its Goldwater coalition. Their naked defense of corporations as “people too” does not have widespread appeal. This plutocratic message dominates, creating too much dissonance and drowning out the few voices of libertarian populism within the Republican Party.
The truth is that libertarianism, in its populist form, is very appealing to many people, mostly because of its social views, not so much its economic views. There is very little interest in establishing a libertarian economic free-for-all in this country, especially if it means eliminating–or gutting–popular federal programs like Social Security, Medicare, and the student loan program.
In the end, we must ask ourselves what happens to the Republican Party if they take their shrinking coalition and combine it with a shutdown of the federal government this fall? I propose that the damage would be equal to or worse than that of 1964. It would mean a temporary halt to implementing Obamacare, a downgrade of U.S. credit, increased borrowing costs, greater deficits and debt, and most likely a huge shock to an already fragile U.S. economy. In short, it would mean the political demise of the Republican Party at the national level for a decade or more. It might also mean losing the House of Representatives in 2014.
In a recent party meeting in Boston, some Republicans suggested that they could no longer afford to be just the “No! Party.” These Republicans suggested that they come up with some positive policies for which they could advocate. However, it is doubtful this will happen since the far right of the Republican Party seems intent on forcing a confrontation between Barack Obama and the House this fall.
This shows the tenuousness of the Republican position because the only major piece of legislation that could possibly redeem them nationally is immigration reform. Unfortunately, that reform may actually hurt them politically because it would alienate their base and create more Democratic voters in the short term. Yet, if Republicans took the longer view they would see a natural constituency in hard working and predominantly Catholic Latinos. Aye, but the rub of short-term political loss means less power to rollback or curtail the implementation of Obamacare, one of their chief economic and political concerns at the moment.
So, Republicans are faced with the following conundrums:
1. Don’t pass any immigration reform and be punished next year in districts not effectively gerrymandered, or pass immigration reform and be punished by the base of the Party in primary races, which ironically might hurt Republican chances against more conservative Democrat candidates.
2. Shut down the federal government and get blamed for any negative impact it has on both government services and the general economy, or don’t shut down the government and get blamed by the base of the Party for not stopping the implementation of Obamacare–which Republicans cannot really do anyway without taking both the Senate and the Whitehouse, and 2016 will be too late.
The Republicans have truly worked themselves into a corner and have only two options: live with the bad consequences of reasonable political decisions or live with the worse consequences of silly far-right decision-making.
My personal hope is that Republicans follow the fringe of their Party into temporary political destruction at the national level. Only then will they be forced to create a new coalition that can viably contribute to the national political process, maybe in 2024 or 2028? Maybe then we will see a fiscally conservative party that is more friendly to women, more accepting of all races and creeds, less freaked out by alternate lifestyles, less beholden to large corporate interests, and generally accepting of the notion that the welfare state, in one form or another, is here to stay.