Michael Wolraich's picture

    Before the Tea Party: the Ghost of Republican Past

    In light of Tea Party favorite Rand Paul's overwhelming victory over the Republican establishment candidate Trey Grayson in Kentucky yesterday, it's worth taking a brief trip with the Ghost of Republican Past back to the first of many conservative purges in the modern era.


    Once upon a time, rare and exotic creatures lurked in the fetid swamps of the District of Columbia and urban jungles of the northeastern seaboard. The scientific name for the species is Republicanus Liberalus, but most people called them "Rockefeller Republicans" after Nelson Rockefeller, a prominent Republican governor from New York who expanded his state's universities, parks, welfare programs, and subsidized housing. Rockefeller Republicans were pro-business capitalists who often espoused liberal principles on gun control, welfare, women's rights, affirmative action, abortion, education, and environmentalism. According to legend, these strange Republicans were known for civility, pragmatism, and human decency, though some cynics dismiss the possibility that such wondrous beasts ever existed.

    The species was relatively plentiful in the 1960s but went into steep decline in the late 1970s and was all but extinct by the end of the 1980s. The last liberal Republican in the Senate, Jim Jeffords, mutated into an independent in 2001, after his Republican colleagues undermined the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which he had helped pass back in 1975.

    Political analysts offer many explanations for the extinction of liberal Republicans. Some point to national disenchantment with large public social programs, some to a backlash against the cultural shifts of the 1960s, and some to the increasing conservativism of aging baby boomers. Most of these explanations place the impetus on the mood of the American electorate, suggesting that liberal Republicans died out because they failed to adapt to the changing political climate. I submit an alternative hypothesis: the liberal Republicans were hunted into extinction by an invasive right-wing cousin.

    It was no accident that the Rockefeller Republicans began to disappear in the late 1970s. President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, and Gerald Ford, a moderate Republican, assumed the presidency. When Ford selected Nelson Rockefeller as his vice-president, conservative Republicans went apoplectic. Richard Viguerie, an ambitious, talented, and extremely conservative political fundraiser, wrote,

    Nelson Rockefeller--the high-flying, wild-spending leader of the Eastern Liberal Establishment. As a conservative Republican, I could hardly have been more upset if Ford had selected Teddy Kennedy.

    The day after Ford's announcement, Viguerie organized a meeting with some fifteen conservative friends to discuss strategies for stopping Rockefeller from becoming vice-president. One of the participants was Paul Weyrich, founder of the Heritage Foundation and the architect of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. While Viguerie ultimately concluded that they couldn't stop the appointment, the meeting spurred him to launch an initiative to challenge Republican leadership and empower the right wing. The movement that he and Weyrich subsequently spawned became known as the New Right.

    The New Right bore much in common with today's Tea Party. Its adherents were extremely hostile to liberals and intolerant of any dissent from conservative principles. They were suspicious of government and emphasized social issues, like abortion and school prayer. And they were full of hate. Weyrich described the conflict between conservative Christians and liberal "secular humanists" as "the most significant battle of the age-old conflict between good and evil, between the forces of God and the forces against God, that we have seen in our country."  Viguerie deliberately exploited anger and fear in his direct mail campaigns to white Christian voters. "People are motivated by anger and fear much more so than positive emotions," he explained in a 2005 interview, "You get people's attention stronger than you would if you speak in a more positive way." (In the same interview, Viguerie sought to defend his negative marketing campaigns by alluding to slavery and civil rights. "It's sometimes very good to have anger," he explained, "Abraham Lincoln was very angry about slavery. Martin Luther King was very angry about how minorities and African-Americans were treated back in the 50s and 60s." Viguerie would know. He raised millions of dollars for George Wallace's racist, anti-civil rights presidential campaign.)

    Like the Tea Party, the New Right also sought to harness grassroots activism to challenge the Republican establishment and purge legislators that they deemed insufficiently conservative. For instance, in 1978 the New Right supported primary challenges to Clifford Case, a four-term Republican senator from New Jersey, and Edward Brooke, a two-term black Republican senator from Massachusetts. Case lost in primary, Brooke won, but both seats went to Democrats in the general election--two fewer Rockefeller Republicans in the Senate.

    In one of his most brazen undertakings, Viguerie also targeted the House Republican Caucus chair, John B. Anderson (R-IL), the number three ranking Republican in the House. Don Lyon, a fundamentalist minister, challenged Anderson in the Republican primary, denouncing him as a turncoat conservative who now "comes back talking like some god of the East. Viguerie supported the challenge with fundraising letters that called Anderson "part of the liberal establishment clique."  Anderson complained to the press of a deliberate right-wing crusade against him,

    I'm the test case for this whole effort to purge the Republican Party of any progressive element. Mine is an early primary, and if they can defeat the chairman of the House Republican Conference, they can put the fear of God into a lot of other Republicans.

    Much as today's right-wing Tea Party has captured the attention and interest of the media, the political pundits of 1978 obsessed over the challenge from the New Right. One popular columnist, commenting on the Anderson race, wrote,

    The Republican 'left' has been shrinking even faster than the party itself has been. Today, the GOP is a conservative party, with less diversity than exists within Britain's Labor and Conservative parties, and more ideological uniformity than any major American party has had in this century.

    The journalist who wrote these words back in 1978 was George Will, the Pulitzer-winning conservative columnist for The Washington Post. (Republican Party circa 1978 to George Will: "You ain't seen nothin' yet.")


    I've spoken to many liberals who are complacent about the Tea Party challenges, figuring that American voter will ultimately reject extremists. In some elections, that will happen. For instance, in congressional district NY-23 last year, Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman knocked out Republican Dede Scozzafava, which resulted in the seat going to Democrat Bill Owen. But our journey with the Ghost of Republican Past suggests that this game is not about a single election. The Republicans lost seats to purges in 1978, but sixteen years later, they swept the elections took control of both Houses for the first time since 1954. By then, there were scarcely any liberal Republicans left, and the moderates too had begun to decline, resulting in a conservative-dominated government that would have shocked Americans of the 1960s.

    The Ghost of Republican Future might show us a G.O.P. that is even more extreme and less diverse than today's conservative-dominated party. And it might show us a government controlled by this same party. To assume otherwise is to ignore the Ghost of Republican Past.


    I'm currently writing a book about right-wing paranoia, How Bill O'Reilly Saved Christmas, and Other Right-Wing Persecution Fantasies, to be published in October. For details and updates, please become a fan on Facebook.



    I see your concern., Genghis. And I hear your anxiety that the hard-right's "Purge our way to power" strategy will eventually bear fruit for them, even if it's a destructive short-term strategy. The real danger isn't that becoming crazier will help them win (as they think it will), it's that we have a tradition of alternating power, so eventually whoever's been in opposition gets a chance, even if their crazier than fruit bats. I see what worries you.

    I'll admit that I'm in the less worried camp. I count on parties to eventually realize their self-interest, and move to where the median voters happen to be, although I admit that does not always happen in practice. I also think parties can't hold on to power for more than a couple of years unless they have policies that voters actually want, or are okay with. When things go badly, voters want them fixed. But I see your point: a party can refuse to accept reality, and just wait for their turn to come around again.

    Let me point to a silver lining from across the Atlantic: the recent fortunes of the Conservative Party. They've taken the strategy that corresponds with your nightmare in some ways: when they were discredited and out of power, they didn't change their policies. (Granted, they didn't go further to the right, but they didn't moderate either.) They just got a more media-friendly leader, tweaked their PR strategies, and waited for the party in power to run out of steam, excpecting to get it back. And that strategy did work for them, kinda, almost. But they didn't get a majority, because they didn't make a policy sale to the voters. They basically ran as "not the incumbents," which was better this year than running as the incumbent, but not enough to win outright. So the Conservatives are going to adopt new policies after all: the Liberal Democrats' policies.

    I'm not claiming that the recent British election will be repeated here. I'm simply pointing out that the Wait-for-the-Robes strategy tends to be disrupted by unexpected events, because voters aren't content with you just being Not the Other Guys. You've got to bring something to the table. The "Tea Party" incarnation of the New Right is wrong if they think that they will eventually be swept to power by an overlooked majority that yearns for the gold standard. But they're also wrong to think that simply waiting and opposing will bring them all the way back to power.

    Doc, my concern isn't simply that Republicans will be cyclically swept into power like a phase of the moon. They spent 40 years out of power, and it can happen again. But it was the moderate-controlled GOP that spent 40 years out of power. The GOP finally regained control of both houses in the Gingrich-led conservative sweep of '94. They spent 8 years running the Federal government under people like Bush, Cheney, DeLay, and Lott. The strategies that they've been using are working--in contrast with what the Tories had been doing in the U.K. and what the moderate and liberal Republicans had been doing in the 60s.

    If the electoral center of the country drifts to-and-fro of its own accord, then you're probably correct that it won't drift too far to the extreme. But I contend that conservatives have been deliberately and very effectively pulling the needle to the right for the past 40 years and they're still pulling. Every decade, people seem to conclude that the GOP is on the verge of becoming unelectable, and when conservatives continue to get elected, people conclude that the center has shifted right. I conclude that the "center" is more or less a reflection of the number of conservatives in power vs. the number of liberals and that we have no reason to think that conservatives power will stop growing other than optimistic faith.

    Here's a pertinent quote from Monta Huber, former state secretary for the moderate California Republican League: "I do have a lot of friends who are leaving the party or who have left. It's a little scary and very sad. But I am an optimist. I think eventually people will start to understand more. It will become more and more evident what is going on. Eventually the good always wins out. They may win the battle, but we will win the war."

    That was from 1996.

    The psychedelic flashbacks were fun, though. Ever looked at your hand, Genghis? I mean really, really looked at your hand?

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