For most of its existence since the end of Reconstruction following the election of 1876, the Republican Party has been the party of reaction in the United States. In fact, the only reason that Rutherford B. Hayes, the GOP candidate in that disputed election, won was that he agreed to end Reconstruction, essentially turning over the Southern states to the former slaveholders and the Ku Klux Klan. There was one bright exception to this rule, Theodore Roosevelt. There were two other exceptions, although not on the scale of the great reformer (and imperialist too). One was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, at the end of World War II did not know to which party he belonged. In fact, Harry S. Truman tried to recruit him to be the Democratic nominee in 1952. “Ike” chose the Republicans and defeated Robert Taft for the nomination.
As Wikipedia summarizes it: ” The fight for the 1952 Republican nomination was largely between General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who became the candidate of the party’s liberal eastern establishment, and Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, the longtime leader of the GOP’s conservative wing. . . . The moderates tended to be interventionists who felt that America needed to fight the Cold War overseas and resist Soviet aggression in Europe and Asia; they were also willing to accept most aspects of the social welfare state created by the New Deal in the 1930s. . . . [Yes indeed, those were the days.] The conservative Republicans led by Senator Taft were based in the Midwest and parts of the South [sound familiar?]. The conservatives wanted to abolish many of the New Deal welfare programs [sound familiar?]; in foreign policy they were often non-interventionists, who believed that America should avoid alliances with foreign powers [Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, far to the Right on just about every other issue, being the last of that sort of Republican].”
Eisenhower of course won, and made no efforts to go after the central elements of the New Deal. In fact, he supported high marginal tax rates on the wealthy which partly fueled the greatest growth that the US economy has ever had. He also created one of the largest public works programs the US has had, the Interstate Highway System. Eisenhower also famously warned of the military-industrial complex, and not-so-famously warned of a “small group of Texas oilmen” who, if they took over would do great harm to the country and also said in no uncertain terms that the atomic bomb should never have been used on Japan. Then came that bundle of contradictions, Richard Nixon. He was an avatar of Joseph McCarthy, a virulent anti-communist abroad (who nevertheless opened the door to China) as well as an expander of the war on Viet Nam. But he was also the promoter of massive environmental protection and, if it hadn’t been for Watergate would have ushered in a true National Health Insurance program in his second term.
But the Taftites never gave up. They did manage to nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964 and in the 1970’s began the “clean-out” of the (relatively) liberal wing of their party, beginning with the last major “big-government” voice in it, Nelson Rockefeller. And so, Ronald Reagan initiated the historical stream of GOP-led right-wing reaction which we now see in front of us, every day. But why did this happen and why has the Party been moving inexorably rightward since the Reaganite takeover? Why are they now a party that runs on racism, homophobia, religious bigotry (on the matter, for example of religious belief in when life begins), creationism, sexual repression (abstinence only) etc.? Don’t they have real policies concerning the economy (other than cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes and deregulate), the health care system and education?
Yes, of course they do have real policies on the latter subjects. The problem for them is that they can hardly run on them. The GOP represents major sectors of the US economy: the extractive industries, the military industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, corporate agriculture, the “health” insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and so on. But they could and can hardly run on a platform of “let the oil and coal companies do whatever they want to,” “we want the rich to get richer, donchaknow,” “we want to export as much American capital overseas where it can make larger profits than it can here, so we really want to de-industrialize our country,” “we don’t care about the health of the American people but we do care about the profits of the health care industry,” “we would like to have permanent war if we can get it,” “we want to convert the US economy from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism,” and so forth.
If any reader thinks that I am exaggerating here, just look at the record of the Bush years, for that’s what they were doing, with the help along the way from the Democrats of the Democratic Leadership Council, lead by Bill Clinton. As far as their being the Party of No in the Congress, they cannot say that they are simply making sure that Limbaugh’s famous four word pre-inauguration wish, “I hope he fails,” comes true, by blocking or significantly watering down every Obama initiative that might have made his Presidency a successful one.
And so, the Rightward Imperative. If you cannot run on what you are really about and win, you’ve got to run on something else. For years, “anti-communism” was the old stand-by. They still try to use it, of course, but with no Soviet Union and with China both decidedly a mixture of socialist forms and an increasingly private and state capitalist economy as well as our largest creditor, that one can get them only just so far. So they have to rally their people with something else, and indeed as is well known, they have a whole bunch of something elses, as in the list two paragraphs ago (to say nothing of guns and God). But I use the term “Imperative” in the title of this column. Is the continually rightward movement really imperative for them? Well yes it is, for the list of what their real policies are, in the preceding paragraph.
They have to attract voters and they have become past masters of mastering the use of the “gut” issues that their potential voters will respond to. But to keep them focused and to keep them coming, they have now resorted to their wholly owned subsidiary, the “Tea Parties” and ideas that were only a while ago considered just not “main-stream.” Like the Tea Party poster girl Sharon Angell proposing to abolish Social Security and the “libertarian” Rand Paul proclaiming that the federal government should actually not do much of anything except ban abortion and gay marriage. Since they cannot possibly put their real interests front and center, and since the emotional/appeal-to-prejudice ones that they use do have a certain half-life (other than racism, which will never go out of style, and they know it), they keep having to reach further out there, to the Right.
And so it goes, with the GOP Congressional leadership now proposing the “hold hearings” on the Fourteenth Amendment and some of them proposing repeal of it.
Well doing that would make all of those undocumented aliens’ kids non-citizens and would also remove the constitutional basis for upholding the right of same-sex marriage. There of course could never be a two-thirds vote in both Houses of Congress for repeal, nor would three-quarters of the states ratify such a move. But it does make wonderful politics for the GOP. (Funny, but they haven’t proposed having hearings on the “probable cause” provision of the Fourth Amendment and the Arizona “show me your papers” law nor on Article Six, which incorporates all treaties of the United States, like the UN Convention Against Torture into the supreme law of the land, but no one has ever accused the contemporary GOP of consistency or total sincerity rather than total hypocrisy). In a sentence, they are trapped in the Rightward Imperative, because they don’t have anything else they can win with.
What is the answer to this? Well, for one thing a Democratic Party that would go on the attack, using, at least in part, these arguments. Of course, the Obama/Emmanuel/Reid/DLC wing of the Party never will. How about Congressmen Grayson and Weiner and Senator Feingold? Well, hey you never know. Right now, we can just hope.
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; a Contributor to The Planetary Movement; and a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC.