How We Got the Crazy Republican Party

Robert KaiserFormer Washington Post managing editor Robert Kaiser is tired. After leaving the Post last month, he wrote an article explaining why he wasn’t too sad to leave Washington, How Republicans Lost Their Minds, Democrats Lost Their Souls and Washington Lost its Appeal. At first I thought that it was just more Washington insider false equivalence. But I was pleasantly surprised.

Kaiser is very concerned about the rightward trend of both parties. He’s clearly a liberal. But he still has an old-fashioned notion that both sides ought to make sense, even if you doesn’t agree with one or both parties. And when it comes to the Democrats, it is pretty clear. He talks about the primary motivation of the Democrats in the 1980s to court the rich for campaign donations. He doesn’t go into it (probably because it is obvious to him), but this is how the Democratic Party turned from primarily an economically liberal party to a socially liberal party. This is the defining issue in American politics today.

The biggest issue in his article is that the Republicans have lost their minds. My belief is that this is not something that the Republicans did on their own, however. It was a joint venture with the Democrats. As the Democrats gave up on economic liberalism, the Republicans had no real choice but to move toward their current radicalized economic policies. If the Democrats are for low corporate taxes, then the Republicans are for no corporate taxes. And on and on. (See Real Corporate Tax Reform for a very interesting idea on that issue.)

But the article does suffer from the fact that it is an older man looking back on days when he was less cynical and mistaking that for better times. For example, he notes that in the 1960s, the Senate had Republicans ranging from the anti-government zealot Barry Goldwater to the very liberal Jacob Javits. As it was, Javits was considered an outsider in the Republican Party even at that time. And he only became more so throughout the 1970s.

The 1960s were a period of transition for both the Democrats and the Republicans. For some reason, Kaiser isn’t willing to say what was really going on. But he knows the history. Basically, the southern Democrats switched to the Republican Party. And Republicans like Javits switched to the Democratic Party. And that is all about one thing: white racial resentment. That’s what got Nixon elected and that’s what got Reagan elected.

So I think it is wrong to say that those days were better just because the parties were more ideologically diverse. The real problem we have is that the two parties together are not as ideologically diverse. Most people who voted for Obama in 2008 thought they were voting for someone who was more than just another New Democrat who would have fit nicely in the Republican Party of the 1970s. That’s the critical shift that has happened during Kaiser’s career.

But the overall narrative is correct. The only problem I have with what Kaiser wrote is that he leaves too much implicit. And the paths of the two parties are intimately linked. In the 1970s, the Democratic Party started moving to the right on economic issues. Part of this was policy based—looking for better ways to do things. In the 1980s, it was made worse by the embrace of big money donors. And from the 1990s onward, it was made worse still by false lessons about electoral losses in the 1980s. In this history, I really do think that the Democrats are the the ones to caused the changes.

The Republican Party just reacted. As the Democratic Party moved more to right, the Republicans shifted to the right as well. What has happened in the last decade or two is that the intellectual hollowness of Republican economic policy has become clear. It was fine in 1980 to believe in supply side economics. The truth is that no one knew for sure if it was valid. But over time, we’ve seen that all those policies did was enrich further the already wealthy and cause the incomes of the rest of society to stagnate or worse. In an effort to support this policy, the right has turned to Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek. And that’s what leaves us today with a Republican Party that is intellectually vacuous.

I don’t doubt that Robert Kaiser would agree with this narrative, at least in the broad sense. But his article is not really concerned with why things have gotten to the current state, but rather just that they have. He ends the article in a very disturbing way, however. He predicts that we are headed for a discontinuity, although he doesn’t say what he means. It could be something as simple as the young and poor starting to vote in greater numbers. Or it could be something as bad as revolution. I agree with him that we need something “to happen to change this awful game we are playing.” But I’m not certain that something will happen. Humans have an amazing ability to accept bad situations as long as they don’t get too bad. But it is hopeful that a war weary journalist in his 70s like Kaiser still thinks positive change can occur.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “How We Got the Crazy Republican Party

  1. It’s almost as if the great debate among perceptive liberals (MSNBC need not apply) is Thomas Frank vs. everyone else. Are Republicans batshit (I do love that word) because they buy into this crazy fundamentalist nonsense, or is that just a smokescreen they use to further the interests of their wealthy patrons?

    Does it have to be either/or? Another viewpoint might be that, yep, their policies favor the super-rich, and — handily — fundamentalism took a turn post civil rights that happily married with the doctrines of laissez-faire and Rand. (Although Rand is staunchly anti-religion, it’s probably her strongest selling point to teenagers with strict parents.)

    Now, Frank was writing (in "Kansas"; he’s written about other stuff since) about voters, not politicians. But there is a connection. Minus fundamentalism, today’s Republican party does not exist. Or it would have the same following David Duke has. Its blatant appeals to racism only work because they can be framed as non-racist religious statements of principle. We’re under attack by gays, secular humanists, etc., the persecution complex. As Frank notes, the main cultural trends that offend fundamentalists, such as the sexualization of children and deification of instant gratification, don’t come from Harvard or Berkeley liberals, but from the free market. Yet fundamentalist preachers depend on these memes to sell their wares; and I suspect that your average fundamentalist preacher is far more corrupt and far more cynical then your average Republican politician. They’re brighter, for one thing — James Dobson is certainly a much sharper tack than Ted Cruz.

    I’m reading Max Blumenthal’s "Republican Gomorrah," and a theme that permeates the book is how acolytes of cruelty, politicians and preachers alike, were often horribly abused as children. This does not surprise me. Very much of what passes for American political discourse has long struck me as a cycle of abuse. The reaction to, say, anti-bullying measures is rabid in how it defends bullying as some kind of character builder. The same with any public policy trying to defang racism or sexism. It’s not that the reactionaries are in favor of beating up gays, or blacks, or women, per se. They’re just in favor of beating up, period. In favor of power. Because otherwise they’d have a hell of a lot of mental baggage they’d need to re-examine.

    I’ve long thought that the American politics of cruelty are merely the cycle of abuse. It’s a great self perpetuating scam. Shit rolls downhill; every older immigrant group hates the more recent arrivals, kids hate parents, the barely rich hate the barely poor, etc. A very difficult cycle to overcome.

    Anyway, links. The great Tom Lehrer:

    And a cheesy one that made me cry about the NFL’s racism (not sure why I include it here, but I wanna):

  2. @JMF – It is strange. The whole idea of turning the other cheek, is an appeal to civilized behavior. "Let [i]them[/i] act as savages, we will follow a higher power." But as is discussed in [i]C Street[/i] and the other book (I don’t want to look it up), this form of Christianity see Jesus as a Rambo kind of character who is going to come back and kick butt.

    It used to be that atheists would use that Matthew 10:34 ("I came not to send peace, but a sword.") as a way to attack Christianity. More and more I see Christians using it to justify their support for conservative beliefs like gun ownership and support for every war that comes along. This all shows that the cultural conservatism comes first and the Christianity comes afterward.

    Thanks for the links. I’ve seen them both before, but they are worth re-watching.

    You know you could embed them by using the code below the "Add Comment" button. Or check out [url=]my article[/url] that explains how to do it.

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