Extremely Motivated: The Republican Party's March to the Right

Article excerpt

I. STILL A ROCK PARTY

In the 2000 film The Contender, Senator Lane Hanson, portrayed by Joan Allen, explains what catalyzed her switch from the Grand Old Party ("GOP") to the Democratic side of the aisle. During her dramatic Senate confirmation hearing for vice-president, she laments that "The Republican Party had shifted from the ideals I cherished in my youth."

She lists those cherished ideals as "a woman's right to choose, taking guns out of every home, campaign finance reform, and the separation of church and state." Although this statement reflects Hollywood's usual penchant for oversimplification, her point concerning the recession of moderation in Republican ranks is still apropos. The Republican Party of the 1970s was at best ambiguous on abortion, gun control, and the separation of church and state. In striking contrast, the current incarnation of the GOP, minus a few Senator Hanson-esque moderates, is strongly opposed to all three.

The Republicans of Senator Hanson's youth would have included members of the Rockefeller Wing: moderates who, while conservative fiscally and in foreign affairs, favored a larger government role in protecting civil rights for African-Americans, the environment, and women's rights, and who were generally more secular in their view of religion in society. Those ideologically aligned with this coalition included party stalwarts such as Governor of New York and Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, future presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, Governor of Michigan George Romney, and House Minority Leader Bob Michel.

To the surprise and consternation of many conservatives, the list would even include President Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and instituted the first federal affirmative action program.

Another member of the Republican Party of the 1970s was Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, whose allegiance was to the strong progressive tradition of northeastern Republicanism, a tradition responsible for some of society's greatest achievements in civil rights, worker protection, and conservation.

This more centrist COP had an ideological anchor in the East Coast business establishment of Alexander Hamilton and J.P. Morgan; the northern and more progressive Midwest of Abraham Lincoln and Bob La Follette; and the West Coast social liberalism of California Governor Earl Warren. Yet, reflecting remarkable realignments in party concept and geography, today's Republicans are more likely to hail from the populist South and libertarian West. They are ideological stepchildren of a very different, more radical conservatism that traces its roots back to the anti-government stance of Andrew Jackson.

Today, the Republican Party, founded on an antislavery platform 147 years ago, seems, at times, more at home with former segregationists than civil rights crusaders, more comfortable with Bob Jones University (1) than Brown vs. Board of Education. (2)

How did the party that birthed abolition and the Progressive Movement in the nineteenth century and moderate Rockefeller Republicanism (3) in the twentieth century, embrace this more radical conservatism?

Some date the beginning of this ideological shift to Democrat Harry Truman's embrace of civil rights for African Americans. In 1948, Truman issued two momentous executive orders, one desegregating the armed forces (4) and the other instituting fair employment practices in the civilian agencies of the federal government. (5) These actions outraged southern Democrats and climaxed with these "Dixiecrats'" walking out of the Democratic Party. (6) They were led by a young segregationist named Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, who, with his minions, brought his conservative southern populism with him to the Republican Party. (7)

This trend toward conservatism swelled into a tidal wave in 1964 when Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona gained the Republican Party's presidential nomination by positioning himself as a stark alternative to the New Deal consensus accepted by Eisenhower, Rockefeller, and other Republicans of the day. …