American reactionaries are more powerful today than they ever have been before. But the true history of their rise also points to their undoing.
Is the Tea Party uniquely radical, or have conservatives always been like this? In a fascinating essay in newest Nation, Rick Perlstein argues it’s the latter. There have always been reactionary nuts, he says, but now they’re powerfulreactionary nuts:
The reactionary percentage of the electorate in these United States has been relatively constant since McCarthy’s day; I’d estimate it as hovering around 30 percent. A minority, but one never all that enamored of the niceties of democracy—they see themselves as fighting for the survival of civilization, after all. So, generation after generation, they’ve ruthlessly exploited the many points of structural vulnerability in the not-very-democratic American political system to get their way. For McCarthy, that meant using the rules of Senate investigations — in which the accused enjoy few of the procedural protections of the courtroom –to shape the direction of the government through the sheer power of intimidation. For the Goldwaterites, that meant flooding low-turnout party caucuses at the precinct and county level to win control of the Republican nomination process. In the past, such minoritarian ploys were stymied in the end by bottlenecks. For McCarthy, it was the canons of senatorial courtesy. For the Goldwaterites, it was the necessity of actually winning general elections. Now, however, the bottlenecks against right-wing minoritarian power are weaker than ever; America’s structural democracy deficit has never been greater. And that’s the biggest difference of all.
Perlstein is correct that there has always been a hardline reactionaryism in American political life. He digs up a particularly prescient memo from an awed Gerald Ford aide about Reagan conservatives’ “rule or ruin” attitude towards the GOP that’ll lodge itself in your brain. But a key element of Perlstein’s argument — that there’s nothing really new about the Tea Party — isn’t quite true. The modern right really is importantly different than previous generations of conservatives. And understanding why is critical to understanding how to respond to it.
Perlstein’s basic analysis presents an obvious puzzle. If reactionaries make up a constant 30 percent of the electorate throughout modern history, why have they only taken over the Republican Party now? His explanation is that weaker restrictions on individual donations post-Citizens United, joined with gerrymandering and a significantly more well endowed conservative activist infrastructure, has given unprecedented power to the crazies.
There’s an element of truth to this argument. The Sunlight Foundation put together data on donations from the one percent of the one percent, America’s very wealthiest, and its effect on the ideological makeup of the Republican and Democratic congressional delegations. They found that Republicans who get direct donations and PAC money from the super-duper-rich tend to be more conservative than Republicans that don’t.
But the correlations the Sunlight Foundation put together, while interesting, are too weak explain the long-running shift in the Republican Party’s positions. If big money explained the GOP’s conservative turn, you would expect to see a close correlation between between Republican legislators’ donations from the mega-rich and their political ideology. On this chart, that would show the red dots (Republican legislators) falling on or near the dotted or solid lines:
CREDIT: SUNLIGHT FOUNDATION
But they don’t. That means, while donations from the wealthiest do in general seem to go to more conservative Republicans (that’s why the lines slant upwards), donations don’t predict individual legislators’ conservatism all that well. That means there are likely a lot of other factors driving the GOP’s rightward moves.
That makes sense in historical context: campaign finance laws are actually stronger now than they were for the vast majority of American history. Perlstein makes much of the radicalism of McCarthy era conservatives, but before Watergate, there were only the weakest of restrictions on political contributions. In 1956, donations from two oil tycoons (not two companies, two people) helped in Eisenhower thrashing Adlai Stevenson in the presidential fundraising race. The Supreme Court’s destruction of the 2002 McCain-Feingold act wasn’t helpful, to be sure, but the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Actmeans that we’ve still got more regulation in place than we did before Tricky Dick.
That brings us to the biggest problem with Perlstein’s explanation: the GOP started becoming more uniformly conservative in the 70s, and kept going at a pretty steady clip. This chart of the mean political views of Republican House members (higher numbers mean more conservative) makes the point fairly clearly:
So after the strongest restrictions on campaign finance in American history were imposed in 1974, the GOP got rapidly more conservative. Citizens Unitedbarely registers as a blip in this long-running trend, suggesting that rich people’s money is not the cause of the Republican Party’s growing radicalism.
There’s a plausible alternative explanation, but it involves acknowledging a genuine shift in American public opinion. Perlstein likes playing up the radicalism of McCarthy and Goldwater, but up until the 60s, moderate and even liberal Republicans played a crucial role in internal party politics. That’s because the Republican base was much more diverse than it was today, and the Democrats tenuously held on to one naturally conservative coalition — Southern whites who resented federal intrusion into their affairs — by virtue oflingering anger over the Civil War.
After the contradictions in the Democratic coalition became unsustainable, Southern whites began bolting from the Democratic Party. That’s right around the time you see that big uptick in House Republican conservatism (the trend looks the same in the Senate). Southern Democrats, who as recently as the 40s voted like economic liberals, converted to hardcore, across-the-board conservatism. This Southern conservatism then took over the rest of the GOP, creating a cycle wherein moderates left the party, leading to more conservative primary electorates electing more conservative legislators who in turn drove out more moderates. The South’s conversion to reactionary conservatism birthed the Tea Party, not big money.
The organized conservative movement played a role in this transformation, but not quite in the way that Perlstein suggests. By electing Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, conservatives sent an important signal to Southern racists that the GOP would welcome their opposition to federal civil rights legislation, albeit on states’ rights and small government grounds. While Goldwater’s victory and the subsequent wholesale conservative takeover of the GOP owes a great deal to the type of organizing Perlstein documents, that allhappened several decades ago. The strength of conservative organizations now owes more to the structural changes in the electorate their predecessors shepherded than the unique strength of conservative activist groups today.
The point of all this is a dispute over what to do about Republican radicalism. Perlstein’s analysis suggests we need to pass better campaign finance laws and push back against gerrymandering. I think reforming the electoral system in those ways are important for all sorts of reasons, but they won’t un-polarize a Republican Party that’s been pushed right by much deeper structural trends on their own.
My demographic explanation suggests, on the other hand, a somewhat happier conclusion. While Perlstein hangs his hopes on unlikely-to-pass laws, I think that the Republican Party’s condensation to Southern, older white voters will inevitably push the GOP to a breaking point. Either it will collapse as a party or moderate to appeal to an increasingly young and multicultural electorate. Paradoxically, the reactionary forces Perlstein eloquently traces through American history are both stronger and weaker today than we might believe.