The Post-Rove GOP

Pulling the nation back from the extreme Right ought to accomplish another goal we lefties don’t talk about much, but which the nation needs. That goal is restoring the Republican Party to something resembling sanity.

Short-term we’re all focused on defeating Republicans and DINOs in 2008, returning the White House to the Dems and increasing the number of progressive Dems in Congress. But so far I haven’t heard any lefties crow about a “permanent Democratic majority,” and I hope I don’t. First, as the Buddha said, everything is impermanent. Second, one-party rule is not healthy for a democracy. Power corrupts, and all that.

The long-term goal, IMO, is to establish a healthier and more balanced political climate in America. By this I mean a political climate in which diverse opinions can get a fair hearing, and we as a people can have fact-based, rational discussions about our problems. In other words, we’ve got to end the stranglehold the Right has had on the nation’s political discourse. We’ve got to end the political culture in which any opinion that deviates from right-wing orthodoxy is buried under relentless propaganda and ridicule.

And most of us don’t want to replace that with a culture in which any opinion that deviates from left-wing orthodoxy is buried under relentless propaganda and ridicule.

At the moment, what’s left of the Republican base remains stuck in propaganda and ridicule mode. And it’s breaking the GOP apart. Ron Brownstein has an op ed in the Los Angeles Times about the Republican “double whammy.” The dwindling number of Republican moderates in blue and purple states are being hurt by association with the Republican brand and the rising blue tide. And red state voters are increasingly intolerant of Republican moderates and mavericks. As a result, the party is losing any pretense of diversity.

Fewer than half a dozen Republican senators (such as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine) still qualify as moderates. Their numbers are so attenuated that they now exert influence almost solely when they align with maverick conservatives (such as Graham, Hagel or Virginia’s John Warner), whose numbers now top those of true moderates. But even combined, the two groups’ size in both congressional chambers remains modest. In the House, for instance, only 20 Republicans (out of more than 230) voted against a majority of their caucus even as much as 15% of the time during the last Congress.

The upcoming election may further deplete the ranks of both the mavericks and moderates. Bush’s focus on mobilizing the conservative base, while generally helping Republicans in conservative areas, has alienated independent and moderate voters in the suburban districts many moderates GOP officeholders represent….

…The question for Republicans, as they try to dig out from the collapse of Bush’s second term, is whether they can rebuild a majority coalition without tolerating more dissent and diversity as well.

I don’t think they can, but I think it’s going to take an even bigger humiliation than the 2006 midterms before the party wakes up and gets serious about reforming itself. It may be that the best thing that could happen to the GOP is a thorough pounding in 2008.

Republicans weren’t always nuts, you know. Those of us old enough to remember the Eisenhower Administration know this. Ike wasn’t always right, but at least he was rational. He stood up to the lunatic wing of the party that wanted nuclear war with China. He had a behind-the-scenes hand in arranging the televised Army-McCarthy Hearings that put an end to Joe McCarthy. He famously foresaw the dangers of the military-industrial complex. And if he came back today there’d be no place for him in the GOP.

So what happened? For one thing, the party was taken over by pseudo-conservatives. I’ve written about Richard Hofstadter’s essays on pseudo-conservatism from the 1950s and 1960s before, such as here. And I say again that Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays is essential reading for anyone who wants to know How America Got So Screwed Up. Some of these essays are available online in abridged form, but the abridged versions leave out too much good stuff. (There is, however, a reasonably good explanation of the difference between conservatism and pseudo-conservatism here.)

Hofstatder takes his definition of pseudo-conservatism from Theodore W. Adorno:

The pseudo-conservative, Adorno writes, shows “conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness” in his conscious thinking and “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere… The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

This is from one of the essays, “Goldwater and the Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” which Hofstadter wrote in the mid-1960s:

Writing in 1954, at the peak of the McCarthyist period, I suggested that the American right wing could best be understood not as a neo-fascist movement girding itself for the conquest of power but as a persistent and effective minority whose main threat was in its power to create “a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.” This still seems to be the true potential of the pseud0-conservative right; it is a potential that can be realized without winning the White House, even without winning the Republican nomination.

And he was right. Creating “a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible” is precisely what they did. And once that was accomplished, they were able to actually win national elections.

Goldwater was not a pure pseudo-conservative, but he attracted the loyalty of some real doozies. Here’s more from the “Goldwater” essay, which looked at the 1964 presidential election.

Goldwater’s zealots were moved more by the desire to dominate the party than to win the country, concerned more to express resentments and punish “traitors,” to justify a set of values and assert grandiose, militant visions, than to solve actual problems of state. More important, they were immune from the pressure to move over from an extreme position toward the center of the political spectrum which is generally exerted by the professional’s desire to win. Their true victory lay not in winning the election but in capturing the party — in itself no mean achievement — which gave them an unprecedented platform from which to propagandize for a sound view of the world.

Note this next bit:

The art of consensus politics, in our system, has to be practiced not only in coping with the opposition party but internally, in dealing with one’s partisans and allies. The life of an American major party is a constant struggle, in the face of serious internal differences, to achieve enough unity to win elections and to maintain it long enough to develop a program for government. Our politics has thus put a strong premium on the practical rather than the ideological bent of mind, on techniques of negotiation and compromise rather than the assertion of divisive ideas and passions, and on the necessity of winning rather than the unqualified affirmation of principles, which is left to the minor parties.

From here, Hofstadter goes on to discuss how various presidential nominees handled consensus building in the past. The Goldwater zealots, however, clearly were not into consensus politics. They were True Believers; they had all the answers and thought anyone who disagreed with them was a traitor. They wrote anything remotely moderate out of the platform and hectored Nelson Rockefeller mercilessly. When Goldwater lost, they blamed moderates and liberals from within the Republican Party, and they vowed to get revenge. It was Goldwater’s campaign, says Hofstadter, that “broke the back of postwar practical conservatism.”

But, above all, the far right has become a permanent force in the political order because the things upon which it feeds are also permanent: the chronic and ineluctable frustrations of our foreign policy, the opposition to the movement for racial equality, the discontents that come with affluence, the fevers of the culturally alienated who practice what Fritz Stern has called in another connection “the politics of cultural despair.” As a movement, ironically enough, the far right flourishes to a striking degree on what it has learned from the radicals. Their forces, as men like Fred C. Schwarz and Stephen Shadegg have urged, have been bolshevized — staffed with small, quietly efficient cadres of zealots who on short notice can whip up a show of political strength greatly disproportionate to their numbers. The movement now uses the techniques it has taken from the radicals while it spends the money it gets from the conservatives. Finally, it moves in the uninhibited mental world of those who neither have nor expect to win responsibility. Its opponents, as men who carry the burdens of government, are always vulnerable to the discontents aroused by the manifold failures of our society. But the right-wingers, who are willing to gamble with the future, enjoy the wide-ranging freedom of the agitational mind, with its paranoid suspicions, its impossible demands, and its millennial dreams of total victory.

I believe this essay was first published in 1964. Vietnam, the counterculture, Affirmative Action, and Roe v. Wade hadn’t happened yet. With the help of mass media, the Right exploited these issues to gain more strength and more control of the Republican Party. As I mentioned yesterday, Nixon actively went after the votes of white racists who left the Dems because of Dem support for civil rights. Thus racism and xenophobia became the cornerstones of today’s GOP. We’ve seen this on display recently in the hysteria over immigration reform. Then Goldwater’s followers switched their allegiance to Reagan, and would join forces with the radical Christian Right, as I also discussed yesterday.

I called this post “The Post-Rove GOP,” and so far I’ve been writing about the “Pre-Rove GOP.” I think to understand the future you need to look at the trajectory of the past. And the trajectory the GOP has been on is, um, out there.

I have a Taoist view that all successful things carry within them the seeds of their own self-destruction. No sooner is the zenith reached than the descent begins. I think, for pseudo conservatism, the zenith has been reached.

Through most of our lives we’ve witnessed a right-wing faction take over the Republican Party and, eventually, the government. But if you think of pseudo conservatism as a philosophy — I personally think it’s more of a pathology, but let’s pretend — it’s important to understand that it was never a true governing philosophy. It is better understood as an agitating philosophy. Pseudo conservatives are no more capable of responsible governance or building democratic consensus than they can fly. (Or tell jokes.) They smear, they hector, they ridicule, they propagandize, they kick all rules of ethics out of their way to gain power. But govern? Please.

When they finally got their hands on both houses of Congress and the White House, they had no idea how to actually run the country. That’s the plain, observable truth.

So instead of governing, they looked for more power. It’s all they know how to do. They became obsessed with politicizing and dominating the judicial branch, for example. And their pseudo-conservative chief executive, who is too incompetent to use the power the constitution gives him, usurped power the constitution doesn’t give him.

There’s been no end of whining from the Right that the Bush Administration and late Republican Congress failed because they weren’t conservative enough. But the truth is that they failed because the pseudo conservatives, finally, had the unrestrained power to extend pseudo conservatism to its illogical conclusions — senseless war abroad, decay at home, dysfunction all around.

So where does the GOP go from here?

The pseudos are not going to go away quietly. Like their cousins the neocons, no matter how badly they screw up they will never admit personal failure. Scapegoats will be found. It wouldn’t surprise me if Rove, Bush, and Cheney end up in the scapegoat pile. If so, the righties will become even bigger Bush haters than we are.

Rove himself might fantasize that he has a future as a Republican political consultant, but I’m hearing that much of the Washington GOP genuinely hates him and blame him for ruining their careers. I don’t doubt he has a bright future as a think tank fellow and Fox News analyst, however, if he stays out of jail.

Eventually — it may take a few election cycles — I think the GOP will find some way to re-invent itself as a more moderate and diverse party that is genuinely interested in real-world solutions for real-world problems, and these new Republicans will paint the Bush Administration as an unfortunate aberration. And if they do that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pseudo conservative bitter enders leave the GOP and form a new minor party. If history is our guide, in twenty years or so they may start to make a comeback, so watch out for that.

If the GOP can’t reform, we may witness a more massive and radical political re-alignment involving a new party. This would be a long shot, but not impossible.

24 thoughts on “The Post-Rove GOP

  1. Bottomline: we want politicians (D or R) who, when push comes to shove, do what is right for the country–not what is right for the party.

  2. I know it Brownstein that said it, but Collins is not a moderate. She tries to talk like one here in Maine, but she campaigned for Santorum.

    I like your point about “agitating philosophy”. I’ve been trying to convince some people who look kindly on Ron Paul that “smaller gov’t” is a position only taken while in opposition. If it were a true aim, wouldn’t they have all moved to Somalia during the Clinton admin?

  3. This sane GOP would have to be built institutionally and demographically — out of who knows what. The people in control of the party infrastructure appear to be true believers, or at least their followers. They need a pragmatic shadow party like the right-wing one that slowly grew into substance and ate them up. They could really use some Soros cash, in fact. Something like that anyway. I kind of think we’ll all be living in our favorite post-apocalypses before enough of them figure this out.

  4. If the GOP can’t re-invent itself, eventually something will happen to re-establish a two-party system. For example, the Dems might split into two parties, one moderately corporatist and conservative and the other more populist and progressive. I don’t expect anything to happen quickly, however. It’ll take a few years to play out.

  5. I’m wondering if a splintered GOP might reform into a kinder, gentler, saner Republican party and a third party not unlike some of the third parties in the 19th Century — the Know-Nothings, for instance. Maybe they get a few Congressional seats and have some affect on the national discourse, keep us talking about their pet issues long after we could have found viable solutions, but ultimately fade into obscurity. Maybe 50 years from now our grandchildren will look back and laugh at how zany politics was in the early 21st century. Here’s hoping.

  6. I think the GOP will find some way to re-invent itself as a more moderate and diverse party that is genuinely interested in real-world solutions for real-world problems, and these new Republicans will paint the Bush Administration as an unfortunate aberration. And if they do that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pseudo conservative bitter enders leave the GOP and form a new minor party.

    Or, more worryingly, the sorts of scenarios that Dave and Sara at Orcinus are contemplating could go down, in which they take their grievances outside the mainstream political system and into society at large. Lots of real and dangerous nastiness and hate has been mainstreamed this past 10-15 years, and that combined with current and likely future economic conditions for the non-rich is not a pretty picture. I thought a lot of it was just rhetoric and button-pushing, and I think the leaders of the GOP did too, to their current (electoral if not moral) regret, but this rising new nativist element combined with all of the fury and hatred the Wurlitzer has whipped up since the Clinton era could get awfully scary if the GOP ceases to be at least a somewhat mollifying mainstream outlet. It was terrible that they helped to mainstream any of this to begin with, but it could get even worse if they aren’t willing or able to keep it in some sort of check anymore. They have unleashed forces that they didn’t fully understand, as their total obliviousness about how their base would react on immigration demonstrates, and I’m not sure how that all gets put back into the box at this point. Hopefully it will just die out like the militia business in the 90’s did, but this seems like it has a broader base and more potential to appeal to non-initiates, which is worrisome.

  7. Great analysis as usual, Maha. The question is, should we accept these periodic plagues of extreme-right rampaging as an inevitable byproduct of our system and wait them out when they happen, hoping they don’t destroy the country too badly, or should we try to change the system? I see a number of changes that could be made to reduce the chances of extremists coming to power.

    #1: Abolish the electoral college. There is nothing sacred about it. Let’s face it, the damn thing was invented to perpetuate slavery, and it remains a potent anti-democratic force that gives undue power to rural, sparesly populated and backward states. Nine states have over 50% of the population but only 18% of the Senate seats, and their vote in electing the president is similarly diluted.

    #2: We have to stop letting the mega-corporations buy and sell our politicians like pork bellies. Pass a constitutional amendment saying that corporations are not persons and are not protected by the constitution, and that they are forbidden from trying to influence elections or public policy in any way. And then enforce it.

    #3: The system is built around the existence of two parties, and there are innumerable ways in which third parties are shut out. This means that if a fringe group hijacks a party, the rank and file will keep voting for the party because they have nowhere else to go. In Europe, where small parties proliferate, coalition governments are the norm and they are often quite stable, and the need to hold the coalition together forces compromise and discourages extremism.

    #4: Winner-takes-all systems like in the US and Britain are inherently undemocratic. A party which takes 50% plus 1 vote in 50% plus one district, i.e. 25% overall, can hold power and shut out all other viewpoints!

    I know it would be a pipe dream to implement any one of these proposals, but we have to face the fact that our democracy has been broken by the extreme right, and the checks and balances and “gentlemen’s agreements” are worthless when the country is hijacked by corrupt criminal thugs who are anything but gentlemen.

  8. i don’t think it’s a post-Rove party yet. there are candidates waiting in the wings who might not like him in the WH but will want him masterminding their campaign.

    those who predict the death of the GOP may be counting their chickens before they hatch…(which would be carelessness on our part)

    as soon as dems walk into the WH, secure both houses in Congress and make their first big mistake, the GOP will be resuscitated. someone needs to read their Taoism.

  9. I don’t think it’s really accurate to make that distinction between “true conservative” and “pseudo-conservative”.

    Conservatives are conservatives. They like hierarchy. They like dominance. They like aristocracy and privilege. They like zero-sum games. They like violence. They’re frightened of equality and ambiguity. They want either to control or to be controlled, and they want the rest of us to be controlled too.

    Conservatives liked it when black people were slaves, they liked it when women couldn’t vote, they liked it when children worked in mines, they liked it when schools were segregated, they liked it when gays were ashamed to show their faces. The conservative impulse is deep in the human soul and it goes back to the very beginnings of anything that could be called “politics”.

    People like to depict Eisenhower as the template for a “true” conservative because he wasn’t that bad a guy. But it’s a mistake. He was a good guy when he deviated from conservatism, not when he exemplified it. He should no more be held up as a model of the “true conservative” than Bill Clinton should be held up as a model of the “true liberal”.

  10. One thing I find interesting is the dramatic difference between the GOP and the Democrats in the number of their members who have left office in recent years from self-inflicted wounds.

    Now this isn’t scientific by any means, but it seems to me that relatively few Democrats have been sent or are heading into early retirement for sex scandals, corruption, or foot-in-mouth problems.

    Even counting Bill Clinton and members of his administration, I can only think of a few Dems. But on the GOP side, the list is long and getting longer almost every day.

    But the GOP still claims to be the morality party. That’s either massive denial or incredible chutzpah

  11. Rove helped the vilest of the GOP to peak their influence [I mean this in the sense of a skin boil erupting], but as Evan says, the underlying proclivities of conservatives will draw themselves like metal shavings to a magnet toward what feels like ‘home’ as they regroup.

  12. “…those who predict the death of the GOP may be counting their chickens before they hatch…”

    Gets my vote for “Mixed Metaphor of the Week”…

  13. Evan,
    Then you may be one of those “true-believers’ of the Left Maha was referring to. Remember, the eagle needs TWO WINGS to fly.
    “The mote that is in the eye of your brother you see; but the beam that is in your own eye, you see not!”

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  16. Mike the Mad Biologist,
    What is a “conservative as conservatives themselves understand conservatism”? How do they understand it?
    Personally, I think conservatism is defined by fear. Greed and xenophobia are about fear. Maybe it’s a spectrum. Maybe the less paranoid folks, but who are still nervous about change, are merely conservative. The career chickenhawks are scared shitless.

  17. Maha (after Hofstadter) calls them pseudo conservatives, but the more common term for these people is that they’re authoritarians. This name originates from around the same period as Hofstadter’s ground breaking work, when psychologists were trying to find out, after World War 2, how Naziism and the Holocaust could’ve occurred. The Milgram Experiment is the most famous of these studies.

    John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience is an attempt to popularize this research, to disseminate understanding of how authoritarians think, and what can be done about them.

    Dean is a self-avowed conservative, and he (and his mentor Barry Goldwater) were alarmed at how right wing authoritarianism displaced their style of conservativism in the Republican party. The book’s title is a take-off on Goldwater’s 1960 manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative.

    And so it’s important to distinguish between these types of people. You can reason with a John Dean style conservative, you cannot reason with an authoritarian. The John Dean style of conservatives are fleeing to the Democratic party, which has become like a swamped lifeboat, for people repulsed by the extremist Republican freak show.

    I fear that this, and other factors are going to render the Democratic party, for now, to be merely a party of moderation, one that will offer mostly incremental change, but one that won’t have the ability to make the sweeping reforms necessary to correct our country’s disastrous slide. Recall that the party’s forerunner, Hillary Clinton, started out in life as a Republican, back when they were more moderate. That’s essentially how she seems to pitching herself today.

    I also agree with the commenter upstream who referenced Dave and Sara’s work at Orcinus – given the seeds of disaster deliberately sown by the far right over these last few decades, I think our country’s prospects of returning to its usual balancing act between two opposition parties isn’t guaranteed nor is likely IMO. It would take awesome leadership from the moderate and progressive factions of this country to restore this healthy dichotomy, and I don’t see this caliber of leadership in the wings, plus they face enormous entrenched opposition from the right wing machine. This machine works best when it’s in opposition, which is one reason why they don’t mind the Democrats taking over for now, to catch the blame from the last seven years of disaster.

    What’s needed above all is Respect – same as what Aretha Franklin sang about years ago. Respect for each other, Respect for the rule of law, Respect for the Truth. Until these things can be restored, and until all of us can realize this is what we’ve lost, and how we came to lose it – our country is on the edge of disaster. So much of our public mental space has been deliberately poisoned, to the point where critical thining skills are a rare thing in this country these days. We’ve created plenty of enemies who are now living for the day to give us that final push over the edge.

  18. Remember, the eagle needs TWO WINGS to fly.

    Gag me.

    For the entire history of this nation (and every other nation before it) there have been two human impulses: The desire for everyone to control or be controlled in a hierarchy of dominance (whether it be based on wealth, race, religion, military force, or good old-fashioned hereditary aristocracy), competing with the desire for everyone to have an equal voice and an equal opportunity to fulfill his or her potential.

    The former impulse is what we call “conservatism”, and the latter is what we call “liberalism”. You can pick any political controversy you like; there’s always one side that will tend to reinforce or increase the differences in privilege between one group and another, and another side that will tend to break down the existing patterns of privilege and put everyone on a more equal footing, and the first is the “conservative” side and the second is the “liberal” side. Always.

    The reason the people Maha calls “pseudo-conservatives” are opposed to some of the basic founding principles of America isn’t that they’re not conservative, it’s that conservatives opposed those founding principles back in the 1700s and some still oppose them today.

    Eisenhower was a guy who struck a balance between liberal and conservative. To call him a “real conservative” because he sometimes agreed with liberals, and characterize people who firmly and consistently oppose liberalism as “pseudo-conservatives,” is to badly blur the meaning of “conservative,” if you ask me.

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  20. re The Eagle Needs Two Wings to Fly –

    Adjust your tin foil hats, boys and girls, we’re about to enter a dimension beyond space and time…

    Shortly after the space shuttle Columbia disaster (it blew up while trying to land, in 2003), I heard Carolyn Myss explain this event as an example of an omen:

    After the disaster, it was found that Columbia’s left wing was damaged on take-off, and so the spaceship was trying to land using only its right wing. Myss argued that it’s no accident that Columbia blew up right over W’s home state of Texas.

    My fear (articulated in #18) is that our country has been badly damaged by the dominance of the right + weakness of the left – and there are plenty of examples in history where this has been catastrophic to other countries. And so Myss’ interpretation of these events isn’t as far fetched as it might seem.

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  22. Heh, no idea how to govern right? Sounds like the Nazis…. remember Fatherland?

    Also, Nixon recognized that these people were crazy and that he had to cross them sometimes. Unlike the current crop he knew he was holding something that could blow up in his hand.

  23. “Goldwater was not a pure pesudo conservative.”

    That’s the funny part. The guy cofounded the Arizona NAACP. He spoke passionately about the plight of Native Americans. Goldwater voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 but opposed the ’60 version. No doubt by that time the doozies had totally permeated Barry’s inner circle. Wha happen? He must have known these people were nuts.

    Same goes for Reagan. The former New Dealer was advocating troops to enforce school desgregation well into the early sixties before he found himself on the Bircher’s double opt in mailing list.

    I agree with you that the best thing for the Repub party would be lose badly in 2008. The problem is where do they find enough moderates, mavericks and true conservatives who are going to be willing to go to war with the current GOP base and infrastructure ? As Brownstein’s piece demonstrated these folks give no ground on anything.

    You have to build a broad powerful coalition that moves the party back towards the center. For instance, what Mike Huckabee said recently about the Clintons. That’s a good start but you need it from more than a guy who has no chance of winning.

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