Rule and Ruin
When and why did the Republican Party tip so far to the right?
Radio personality Rush Limbaugh would have found himself marginalized in the 1950s Republican Party. Now he is the de facto leader of the GOP. Any politician hoping to rise in the party must appear on Limbaugh’s show and pay respects to the great arsonist of the airwaves.Skip to next paragraph
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It was not always this way. As Geoffrey Kabaservice writes in his marvelous new book Rule and Ruin, moderates and liberals were once far more powerful in Republican ranks than were conservatives. “It is the only in the last decade or so that movement conservatism finally succeeded in silencing, co-opting, repelling, or expelling nearly every competing strain of Republicanism from the party, to the extent that the terms ‘liberal Republican’ or ‘moderate’ Republican’ have practically become oxymorons,” Kabaservice writes. Now, cooperating with Democrats and deviating from conservative orthodoxy is electoral suicide for a Republican leader. Witness the failure of former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign or the many right-wing primary challenges to Maine Senator Olympia Snowe.
Moderate and liberal Republicans are now derogatorily nicknamed RINOS – Republicans In Name Only. How did they become as rare in Washington as those other rhinos – rhinoceroses? According to Kabaservice, the answer lies partly in the failures of the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations. With the personal discrediting of Nixon came the political discrediting of the centrist branches of the Republican Party in which Nixon had roots as Eisenhower’s vice-president. Similarly, Ford’s loss in 1976 to moderate Democratic governor Jimmy Carter in the quest for the presidency left open the door to right-wing icon Ronald Reagan’s ascension.
Many other factors interceded, of course, and some of have been exhaustively detailed in other works. The rise of the neoconservative and Christianist movements, a backlash against the civil rights movement and the welfare state, and a suburban middle class terrified of crime and disorder are among them. Kabaservice unwisely downplays the role race played in segregating the two parties; when Southern Democrats defected to the Republicans in response to their old party’s embrace of black equality, each party essentially became ideologically monolithic. Democrats were liberals, and Republicans were conservatives. Moderates had nowhere to go.