Although there are many possible explanations for the current political dysfunction in the U.S., a leading suspect is the conservative transformation of the Republican Party over the past half-century.
The conversion of the party into an ideological vehicle, against the preferences of many of its voters, is a phenomenon without precedent in American history. At the center of this story is the collapse of the moderate wing of the Republican Party.
Within the party today the word “moderate” is a term of abuse. Mitt Romney, who built his reputation as a moderate governor of Massachusetts, must run as far to the right as possible to have any chance of succeeding in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. Romney has thereby turned his back not only on his own accomplishments, but also on the moderate Republican tradition of which his father, Governor George Romney of Michigan, had been a shining example.
Much of the current conservative movement is characterized by this sort of historical amnesia, which seeks to undo critical aspects of the Republican legacy such as Ronald Reagan’s elimination of corporate tax loopholes, Richard Nixon’s environmental and labor safety programs, and a variety of Republican achievements in civil rights, civil liberties and good-government reforms.
Just as this moderate Republican heritage has faded from the public memory, so has moderate Republicanism crumbled as a political force in Congress. According to Congressional Quarterly, which uses votes to calculate the relative political standing of members, by 1984, the final year of Ronald Reagan’s first term in office, the ranks of Republican moderates and progressives were already thinning. House Republicans who qualified as such shrank from half of the delegation in 1982 to one-third in 1984. After the 2010 elections, only a handful of moderate Republicans remained in all of Congress.
To some extent, the moderates’ downfall was caused by forces beyond their control -- population shifts, cultural change, the civil rights movement, along with fading memories of the Depression and World War II. But there are other factors. Moderates have, historically, seen their lack of a rigid ideology as an advantage, leaving them free to examine each issue according to merits. But they have never lived down the conservative claim that their lack of fixed ideology implies absence of principle or a finger-in-the-wind approach that merely splits the difference between the two parties.
There were also tactical miscues. Because they were unable to commit to one presidential candidate in 1964, moderates were ultimately powerless to block Barry Goldwater from gaining the nomination. Although moderates had potentially dominant forces in the Senate and the ranks of Republican governors during the 1960s and ‘70s, they were again unable to coordinate their efforts, failing to mobilize themselves as conservatives did.
With all of its flaws and failures, why should anyone lament the passing of moderate Republicanism? The most important reason is that the moderates upheld values and positions no longer adequately represented in American politics. Although it may be fitting to equate moderation with a bygone culture of compromise, no one should take at face value the judgment of Rush Limbaugh: “By definition, moderates can’t be brave -- they don’t have opinions! … Brave moderates? ‘Great Moderates in American History’? Show me that book.”
Force for Change
In fact, moderate Republicanism has long been a distinctive political philosophy, different from both Democratic liberalism and Republican conservatism. Moderate Republicans helped shape many of what are typically thought of as Democratic achievements, from Progressive Era and New Deal reforms to the architecture of the post-World War II global order and civil rights legislation. Particularly during the critical decade of the 1960s, moderates defended civil rights and civil liberties, often in the face of Democratic and Republican opposition.
Historically, the moderates were the strongest advocates of good government. Although they were skeptical of the Democrats’ impulse toward centralization and bureaucratization, they didn’t pretend to hate government as many conservatives did. As a result, the moderates were better than either liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans at exercising fiscal responsibility and seeking effectiveness and efficiency in government. Because they believed in the disinterested consideration of the issues, they were able to work with Democrats to solve problems, and to maintain a level of balance and civility in politics that has long since vanished.
If, as many observers believe, the American political system proves unable to make necessary reforms to meet the long-term challenges posed by energy dependence, environmental degradation, and the rising tide of government deficits and pension liabilities, the absence of the moderate Republicans may be the single greatest reason. If American politics can be compared to an ecosystem, then the disappearance of the moderate Republicans represents a catastrophic loss of species diversity.
The moderate die-off has also harmed the Republican Party. Many of the party’s proudest achievements were typically the result of negotiations among Republican factions. Internal dispute, for the Republican Party, was often an indication of vitality. Some critical moderate assumptions came to permeate the party, and moderates paradoxically helped reshape and strengthen conservatism as well.
Welcome in Tent
Moderates engaged in productive dialogue and debate with thoughtful conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr., and worked with Reagan, who restrained the furies of movement conservatism while offering enough leeway to moderates to keep them in the party’s tent. The most successful Republican presidents of modern times tended to be those like Nixon and Reagan, who understood that they had to mediate between a conservative party base and a moderate public, and who reserved a role within the party for moderates rather than expelling them for ideological heresy.
Moderate Republicans allied themselves with the first generation of neoconservatives and shaped the domestic policy approaches and interpretations that still determine many of the party’s positions. Moderates such as William Steiger, George Gilder and Jack Kemp were among the original champions of supply-side economics. Moderates supplied not only the ideas but also many of the individuals who later became prominent leaders of the conservative movement, including Bruce Chapman, Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Mitch McConnell.
In this respect, the moderate wing of the Republican Party performed much the same role in the last half of the 20th century that the Liberal Party played in the U.K. in the first half: In 1926, John Maynard Keynes observed, “The brains and character of the Conservative Party have always been recruited from the Liberals, and we must not grudge them the excellent material with which ... we are now preserving them from intellectual starvation.”
(Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of “The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment.” This is the second of two excerpts from his forthcoming book, “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party,” to be published Jan. 4 by Oxford University Press. The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 1.)
To contact the writer on this article: Geoffrey Kabaservice at Geoffrey.Kabaservice@gmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at firstname.lastname@example.org.