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What happened to the Republican Party?

In ten days’ time, despite the best efforts of the Republicans, Joe Biden will be sworn in as America’s next President, and its political system will continue to operate unimpeded – again, despite the Republicans’ best efforts.  Yes, the events of Wednesday in Washington DC were shocking, and Donald Trump has been a chief executive like no other, having, over his four years in power, plumbed the depths somewhat as to what an American president could or should be allowed to get away with.  Given his Party’s recent history, though, was the January Putsch really that much of a surprise?

It has long puzzled me why red – a colour normally associated with socialism and/or organized labour – is the chosen hue of America’s Republican Party.  Often nicknamed the Grand Old Party, the Republicans are traditionally associated with proud conservatism, and they have been the main beneficiaries whenever there has been a Red Scare in US history.  Straight after World War I, amid panics about “Reds Under The Bed”, the Party won three straight presidential polls, and in the years after the next World War the Wisconsin Republican junior senator Joseph McCarthy did his best to make life a misery for anyone with opinions slightly to the left of conservatism, and contributed greatly to the GOP’s triumphant return to government under Dwight D Eisenhower (although McCarthy himself failed utterly, despite his promises, to find a single communist in any of America’s institutions).  Fast forward to the 2020s, and it seems that the States’ true Red Menace has little or nothing to do with communism or socialism.

Perhaps more amazing than the GOP’s choice of colour is the fact that the quality of leadership in the party has taken something of a dive in recent history, and this is not just about Trump.  There seems little point in rehashing what an incompetent and corrupt egomaniac and compulsive liar the outgoing 45th president is, given that a sizeable body of people reading this will reflexively mutter “Fake News!” at whatever evidence is put before their eyes – even in the wake of this week’s putsch by members of the Trump fan club.  The comedian Frankie Boyle was definitely on to something a few years back when he wondered out loud, during the Trump presidency, whether anyone else was already feeling nostalgic for the days when George W Bush was the worst the GOP could inflict on the world.  That observation, though, points to a problem for the Republicans that is altogether bigger than just one man.  A party that appears to learn nothing not just from McCarthy and his fake crusade but also from Nixon and Watergate, Reagan and Iran-Contra, Dubya and his wars and greed, and Trump and his obvious litany of liabilities, is surely a party in fundamental trouble.  At the very least, it’s a party that seems to think that there’s a direct correlation between charisma and talent (not to mention honesty). Whatever you think of Trump, he is less of a cause than a symptom of his party’s woes.

How did this happen, though?  How did a once-great political machine, founded in 1854 on the ruins of the discredited Whig Party – because that party wasn’t doing nearly enough to stop the spread of slavery in the country – degenerate into a bizarre cultish organization populated by anti-science, anti-intellectual, economically illiterate, firearms-obsessed, paranoid and in some cases bigoted conspiracy theorists?  Once upon a time, the Republican Party was the party of innovation, enterprise, trust-busting, and protecting American firms, and was genuine about its goal of extending freedom for all, regardless of race, colour or creed.  What went wrong?

I know that there are some out there who insist on employing the lazy cliche of ‘Oh, those politicians – they’re all as bad as each other,’ but there is considerable evidence that you can’t really compare like with like here, and that the Elephant In The Room is a far bigger (and messier) problem than the Donkey In The Room.  Since the 1970s the GOP have moved steadily farther to the right, while the Democrats have moved only slightly to the left (if at all).  The Republicans’ victory in the 1994 mid-terms, stewarded by Newt Gingrich, was something of a turning point, with fewer GOP Reps and Senators being inclined to do cross-party deals, and more of them being prepared to use obstructionism and filibustering when dealing with Democrat administrations.  Since then the Republican Congressional message has essentially been Our Way Or The Highway.  According to the conservative Minnesota political scientist Norman Ornstein, co-author of the 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, the GOP has become “an insurgent outlier”:

The Republican Party… has become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government.  The Democratic Party, while no paragon of civic virtue, is more ideologically centered and diverse, protective of the government’s role as it developed over the course of the last century, open to incremental changes in policy fashioned through bargaining with the Republicans, and less disposed to or adept at take-no-prisoners conflict between the parties.  This asymmetry between the parties, which journalists and scholars often brush aside or whitewash in a quest for “balance”, constitutes a huge obstacle to effective governance.

Although his party had conclusively lost both the presidential and congressional elections of 2008, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell nonetheless made it his party’s top political priority ‘to deny President Obama a second term‘, and it was no mere bluff.  In 2011 GOP Congress reps threatened to allow the country to default on its debt ceiling unless the Democrat administration agree to huge cuts in social security and Medicare.  Two years later the Republicans forced a government shutdown, aimed at forcing the president to defund Obamacare.  Then, in 2016 the Republicans rejected Barack Obama’s budget without even looking at it, and the GOP-controlled Senate also vetoed the centrist Merrick Garland, who had been Obama’s nomination for the Supreme Court, insisting that the spare seat should be filled after the next elections.  Of course, when the liberal Democrat SC judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last year, this precedent was conveniently forgotten by the Trump administration, and the seat was quickly filled by conservative Amy Coney Barrett before anyone could make their way to a polling station.

And let’s not forget two other factors that have skewed the Republican Party’s ethical compass somewhat over the last half-century or so.  Obviously it would be crass and unfair to say that the GOP has sanctioned racism as a way of winning elections, but they have certainly managed at the very least slyly to give a nudge and a wink here and there in subtle ways through their campaigns, through the use of carefully coded language.  It was a clever way of scooping up the votes of conservative-inclined white Democrats in the South who were alarmed at the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ civil-rights legislation.  There are those within and without the Republican Party who continue to insist that the Southern Strategy, as adopted by Nixon and his team from the 1960s onwards, is a myth, but one Georgia Republican strategist, Lee Atwater, actually spelled it out in what he thought was an off-the-record part of an interview he gave in 1981:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.”  By 1968 you can’t say “n*****” — that hurts you, it backfires, so you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.  You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites, and subconsciously maybe that is part of it.  I’m not saying that, but I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.  You follow me?  Because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.”

The “abstract language” would come about in Nixon’s campaigns as promises to “restore law and order” and “protect states’ rights”, while Reagan in 1980 vowed to get tough on “welfare queens on food stamps” who were supposedly abusing the generosity of good, honest American taxpayers.  More recently, in last year’s Republican National Convention a number of speakers protested against alleged Democratic proposals for “low-quality apartments”.

Hand-in-hand with the Southern Strategy have been successive efforts by Republican-controlled bodies at Voter Suppression.  A number of states, most of them in the South (a GOP stronghold since 1980), require voters to present valid ID before being allowed to participate in elections – even though the instances of electoral fraud have been so rare as to be inconsequential.  Statistically such restrictions have tended to exclude more African-American and Latino voters (who tend to vote Democrat) than white voters.  In other cases there have been restrictions on the number of hours when polling stations can open, and also a reduction in the number of polling stations (measures which, again, disproportionately affect voting by African-Americans and Democrats).  Not only that, but hundreds of thousands of voters have been removed in recent years from voter rolls by Republican-controlled authorities – another move that has impacted principally on African-American, Latino and young people.  Occasionally some Republican figures have been honest enough to admit baldly what they are playing at – such as the Wisconsin strategist Paul Weyrich in a speech that he gave in 1980:

I don’t want everybody to vote.  Elections are not won by a majority of the people.  They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now.  As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.

But even if the Southern Strategy and voter suppression don’t chime with the ‘They’re politicians – that’s what they’re all like‘ crowd, one chilling figure should make them pause for a thought or two.  Over the past sixty years Republican presidencies have tended, statistically, to be more criminally corrupt than Democratic ones.  Between 1961 and 2017 the Republicans and the Democrats produced five presidents each, with each party being in power for 28 years.  Over that time, the combined Democratic presidencies saw 7 indictments of members of the executive for various crimes and misdemeanours, 3 convictions and one prison sentence.  The combined GOP presidencies, on the other hand, saw an eye-watering 126 indictments, 113 convictions, and 39 prison sentences – and that was before the Trump presidency got underway… If nothing else, it somewhat undermines the Republican Party’s claim, trumpeted since the days of Nixon, to be the Party Of Law And Order…

I can sense the eye-rolling already, but rest assured: this is not an advert for the Democratic Party.  That organization have their fair share of clowns, and seem to make a virtue of disappointing everyone, even their core supporters, which may go some way to explaining why they have struggled to win elections since their New Deal heyday.

Nor is this a pop at the ideology of conservatism, either.  Trust me: I love conservatism – it’s a nice idea, in theory…  Seriously, though, I get many of its key tenets: who among us doesn’t believe the Family is the most important social unit there is?  Who among us doesn’t love it when taxes are low?  Who among us doesn’t want budgets to be balanced?  Who among us doesn’t believe that the rule of law is vitally important?  Then again, that’s another (and possibly most damning) problem for the GOP: contrary to their oft-trumpted claim, they are not true Conservatives at any rate – and you don’t need to take the word of a small-“L” English liberal like me for it, either.  A number of Conservative commentators in the States, such as the YouTuber Jesse Dollemore, Professor Tom Nichols of the US Naval War College, and talk radio host and ex-Republican Congressman Joe Walsh, have said much the same thing.  Though he is obviously not an unbiased observer, Barack Obama, in a speech that he gave at the University of Illinois in September 2018, hit home with this observation of his opponents’ behaviour:

This Congress has championed the unwinding of campaign finance laws to give billionaires outside influence over our politics, systematically attacked voting rights to make it harder for young people, and minorities and the poor to vote, handed out tax cuts without regard to deficits, slashed the safety net wherever it could, cast dozens of votes to take away health insurance from ordinary Americans, embraced wild conspiracy theories like those surrounding Benghazi (or my birth certificate!), rejected science, rejected facts on things like climate change, embraced a rising absolutism from a willingness to default on America’s debt by not paying our bills, to a refusal to even meet, much less consider, a qualified nominee for the Supreme Court because he happened to be nominated by a Democratic president. 

None of this is conservative!

I don’t mean to pretend I’m channeling Abraham Lincoln now, but that’s not what he had in mind, I think, when he formed the Republican Party.  It’s not conservative.  It sure isn’t normal.  It’s radical!  It’s a vision that says the protection of our power, and those who back us, is all that matters – even when it hurts the country.  It’s a vision that says the few who can afford high-price lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions set the agenda, and over the past two years this vision is now nearing its logical contribution.  So, with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, without any checks and balances whatsoever, they have provided another $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to people like me, who (I promise!) don’t need it!  And they don’t even pretend to pay for it!  This is supposed to be the party, supposedly, of fiscal conservatism!  Suddenly, deficits do not matter! – even though, just two years ago, when the Deficit was lower, they said I couldn’t afford to help working families or seniors on Medicare, because the Deficit was an “existential crisis”!  What changed?  What changed?

Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), the first Republican president

 

When it was founded in the 1850s the Republican Party had as its main brief the promise of extending freedom in America – and it was a promise that resonated with various high-ranking members of the Whig Party that it would replace.  These members included Benjamin Harrison, Chester Arthur, Rutherford Hayes, and of course Abraham Lincoln – all of whom would later become Republican presidents. So swiftly did this change in strength of the two parties occur that the phrase ‘Going the way of the Whigs‘ survives to this day as an idiomatic synonym for ‘disappearing completely.’  The GOP’s promise of extending freedom has been somewhat displaced in recent years, with its leadership preferring instead to pander to bigotry, make it harder for some Americans to vote, wallow in hypocrisy and ignorance, show an unusual level of tolerance of political corruption, and even forget to be anything like as conservative as it says it is. 

Donald Trump has deservedly come in for a huge chunk of criticism during his presidency – but honestly, given the direction in which the GOP has gone over the last fifty years, should we really be that surprised that the party even considered someone like him to be their best hope for the White House?  Today, if Lincoln, Arthur, or Eisenhower were around, the current crop of Republicans would label them “libtard snowflakes”.  As we approach the inauguration of another Democratic administration under Joe Biden, the questions need to be asked: is the GOP any longer fit for purpose, and is it time that it, too, Went the Way of the Whigs?

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.

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