There was a period a few years ago, perhaps felt most potently in the days and weeks following the 2004 presidential election, when Karl Rove’s fantasy of a permanent Republican majority seemed less like a pipedream and more like modern political reality—and for many, even a nightmare. That nightmare, of course, began on December 12th, 2000, 19 days before the start of the so-called New American Century, when the Supreme Court effectively handed the presidency to George W. Bush. In an interview during the Democratic primary, Barack Obama declared that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory of America,” and, with the guidance of Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfield, Paul Wolfowitz and others, the same could be said of Bush, who is to neoconservatism what Reagan was to the New Right.
Ronald Reagan has been hailed as a hero by almost every subsection of the conservative movement—isolationists, neocons, libertarians, Christians, Arnold Schwarzenegger—but he was filled with contradictions. He saw government as the enemy but raised taxes to save one of its biggest socialized institutions. He took nationalism to the extreme, likening the United States to something out of Disney or the Bible and its biggest adversary to something out of Star Wars, but somehow did it in a way that united the country even as his traditionally conservative preference for liberty over equality inherently divided it. He was an actor. His greatest gift was convincing people that he spoke to them and represented their interests, that he was a populist instead of an elitist, that he was a libertarian rather than a xenophobe. In many ways, this is what made him a unifier; it’s what helped the 1984 electoral map look like the end of days for the left.
Creating a majority isn’t difficult. If Reagan was a transformative figure in the 1980s, as Obama has said, it was because he had big ideas that, even if you disagreed with them, inspired people. Reagan and Bush’s approaches, however, were quite different. When they weren’t flag-waving and fear-mongering in tandem with fundamental Islamic terrorism, Bush and his party’s winning formula was to demonize and divide, with a vast, cynically engineered culture war designed to split the country into red and blue, good and evil, moral and immoral, patriotic and unpatriotic, American and un-American, and the two-pronged formula worked wonderfully. The mantra was divide and conquer, and conquer they did. And neither Bush nor Reagan could do it without the religious right.
One of the basic tenets of neoconservatism is the rejection of the belief that moral or ethical truths are not absolute, and the idea that one group or political party could own a monopoly on morality, that God is on its side, is, I think, the most dangerous kind of politics, the kind that pits one group of people against another in its quest for power. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority helped get Reagan elected, and through the 1990s these groups continued to oppose equal rights for women and gays as well as first-amendment rights in the media. These people, and the politicians who court them, aren’t moral at all; they are moralistic. What they believe in is beyond examination, and this is the basic ideology of social conservatism, what pushes a traditional conservative who believes in limited government to seek to legislate what Americans can see, read and hear, what they do with their bodies and who they do it with.
Sustaining a majority is, evidently, a more challenging enterprise than creating one. In its attempt to exploit the religious right during the last decade, the Republican Party became enslaved by it. In its attempt to shield the corporate fat cats who lined its pockets and filled its voting booths, the party sold its soul and watched its stock tumble. And in its attempt to create American hegemony abroad, it weakened the country’s standing all over the globe. The Bush administration’s ideological stance on taxes (and especially taxes during wartime), its constant assault on civil liberties and the Constitution, and its complete disregard of the justice system are patently un-American. The hypocrisies of today’s social conservatism as a whole make Reagan’s contradictions look quaint. “Reagan Democrat” is a term we’ve heard in spades this election cycle, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever hear “Bush Liberal.”
The incompetence with which the Bush administration presided over terror, war and weather was astounding, but still party loyalists remained loyal and the left remained impotent. But the tides have turned: Republicans are now being forced to apologize for, or back-peddle on, their unpatriotic accusations of anti-Americanism. And minds are opening. It’s tempting to say it’s too little, too late, that the damage—to our markets, to our civil liberties, to our reputation, to the environment—is done, but true patriotism, true Americanism is both the ability to acknowledge America’s flaws and the willingness to address them.
My father is a Reaganite. He came from very little, worked hard for what he had, wanted to keep what he earned, never got any handouts and didn’t think anyone else should either. He did well enough to eventually buy two homes, send his children to college and live comfortably with my mother through retirement. He believed in limited government, the free market, a strong military and war as a final option. He twice voted for both Reagan and George W. Bush. My parents did everything “right,” but now, as they approach their twilight years, their government has failed them. They’ve watched their retirement savings dwindle and their government attempt to flaunt its power with its military muscle rather than with quiet might. My father is disappointed and embarrassed. And for every voter John McCain gained by pandering to the extreme right, he lost a devoted, lifelong Republican like my dad.
It’s unclear if it’s because there are simply more pressing issues than partisanship, or because, as a wise Republican once said, “you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time,” but the tried and true tactics of neoconservatism are no longer working the way they once did. The 2006 election wasn’t a fluke or simply a one-time repudiation of Bush’s war; the last two elections have been a referendum on the modern conservative movement, the Republican brand as a whole, and the party’s failure to protect, enrich, strengthen and unify the country. It’s a sea change, and while war fatigue and belated semi-consciousness may have turned the people against the president, it took a financial collapse to turn his most ardent supporters against him in the last 45 days like so many rats jumping ship just as the hull sinks beneath the surface. Whether due to an innate compulsion to be on the side of victory or permission to express one’s true feelings granted by the opposition’s said victory, right-wingers joined Team Obama in near droves during the final weeks of the campaign. They smelled defeat.
Republicans lustfully watched what they thought was the Democratic Party devouring itself during the primary season. In retrospect, though, Barack Obama was waging his biggest, most important battle: As the late Tim Russert observed, he went toe-to-toe with the Clinton machine, with a former First Lady, with Bill Clinton himself, and emerged victorious. And he handily proved the theory of survival of the fittest in the general election by manning a campaign that, even when it made mistakes, displayed enormous levels of grace and organization. The Democratic Party unified quickly, thanks in no small part to Hillary Clinton herself but more so because the two candidates’ platforms were never all that dissimilar: Democrats mobilized to finally eradicate Washington of neoconservative ideology.
So what now? Liberals and many conservatives, like my father, may hope that Sarah Palin will fade into obscurity as quickly as she appeared on the political stage, that her future will consist solely of late-night punchlines and Geraldine Ferraro-esque appearances on Hannity & Colmes, but Dan Quayle never mobilized people the way Palin has, and he certainly couldn’t fill an arena. Is it possible that John McCain’s legacy will have been that, in the final throes of desperation and political ambition, he helped resurrect the near-dead neoconservative movement by anointing its new patron saint and thrusting upon us a demigod for the religious right—a group he never really supported and who never really supported him? When asked recently if he thinks Palin is the future of the Republican Party, McCain said, “To a large degree, as vice president or, or—,” and then stopped himself, for it may have been too horrifying an admission for a man who earned his maverick image by bucking his own party and taking independent, principled stances on the major issues of our time, by standing up to the right-wing “agents of intolerance” that Palin represents.
The depth and breadth of the religious right’s chokehold on the Republican Party was evident during the primary, when former frontrunners like the socially moderate Rudy Guiliani and Mitt Romney were drummed out of the race and, for a brief time, it seemed like Arkansas Governor and former Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee had invigorated the conservative base in ways none of the other candidates, including McCain, had. Huckabee talked openly about Jesus Christ and boasted of his Christian faith in his campaign ads. And when it was clear he had no path to the nomination aside from, say, divine intervention (he credited his first victory, in Iowa, to God’s will), he claimed he would remain in the race to give voice to cultural conservatives across the country, all the while splitting the religious vote with Romney, a Mormon, and effectively handing the election to McCain.
Huckabee, who some in the media speculated could be the future of the Republican Party, moved on to FOX News, but Sarah Palin has picked up the baton. A more moderate voice like Romney might be able to move the party in a more fiscally responsible direction, but his religious background has proven to be an albatross, limiting his reach among Evangelicals and others in the Christian majority. Aside from being suspicious of any politician whose beliefs do not coincide with their faith, this segment of the Republican Party is largely contemptuous of critical thought, nuance, and moral, cultural and intellectual relativism. This rift, between activist conservatives—whose primary objective is not the size of government or national security but legislating morality—and more libertarian, fiscally conservative, small-government Republicans threatens to split the party right down the middle, an improbable but not entirely impossible outcome of the right’s very own culture war.
The Republican Party is fracturing and it needs to find a new identity. Following weeks of Rove-esque attacks, the kind that lost him his party’s nomination in 2000 at the hands of George W. Bush and which, in a particularly maverick-y move, led him to consider switching parties, McCain attempted to focus on taxes during the final days of his 2008 campaign. Granted, he was handed a gift with Obama’s “spread the wealth” comment and he and Palin disseminated their new message with the cynical, boogeyman flair consistent with modern neoconservatism, but cooler heads might view the move as McCain’s attempt at preserving the party’s traditional platform in the wake of what was clearly going to be a devastating and symbolic defeat for Republicans. Or maybe they had just run out of ideas.
In order to win in recent years, Democrats have had to move to the center, something that Republicans rarely do, so sure they are that the country is center-right. But the demographics are changing, and with Barack Obama as President, America has a new face. Simply finding minority candidates who have conservative values will not diversify and expand the Republican Party any more than picking a vice presidential candidate in a skirt will score them women voters. The ascension of Palin as a national figure and potential leader of the party continues to chip away at the fissures begun by Bush. The challenge for the party is to find Republican solutions for American problems, including health care, energy and the economy, and then hope that in the process a leader who can speak to the entire nation, both red and blue, will emerge. The Republican Party’s future requires the expansion and unification of their tent, something that will be nearly impossible for a political group that has built its entire platform on divisiveness rather than inclusiveness.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.