One thing that gets lost in the 24-hr news cycle of political reporting is a longer view of political developments—not just for today, this week, or this election cycle, but over a span of decades.
One of the most significant political developments over the past half century has been the extreme rightward shift of the Republican Party. The GOP today would be barely recognizable to Republican presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, or Ford (much less Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt), and none of them would be welcome in the party that the GOP has become.
How did this happen? It helps to understand the long arc of historical developments that built what the GOP is today.
Let’s start with the 1960s, as it was this time of political and cultural upheaval that motivated much of the right-wing backlash that has been building in strength ever since.
The Sixties: The Times They Were A-Changin’
During the early ’60s, of course, the civil rights struggle loomed large, which gradually translated into policy within the Kennedy/Johnson administrations, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Johnson’s “War on Poverty/Great Society” programs, such as VISTA, Job Corps, and Head Start.
Liberal progress met with right-wing backlash. One manifestation was the candidacy of Barry Goldwater as Republican nominee for president in 1964. He was one of the most severely conservative presidential candidates in a long time, and he lost in a landslide to Johnson.
On the more extreme right-wing fringe was the rise of the John Birch Society, virulently anti-communist, anti-labor, and anti-civil rights (claiming the civil rights movement was part of a communist conspiracy). One of JBS’ founders later split off to form the National Alliance, a white supremacist, anti-semitic, neo-Nazi organization. Another founder was Texas oil tycoon Fred Koch, founder of Koch Industries. The JBS was viewed as the outer fringe of right-wing politics and was shunned by the Republican Party at the time.
By the mid-sixties, a baby-boom-fueled, broader counter-cultural movement was in full bloom, exploring new possibilities outside the confines of existing cultural and political norms.
By 1968, much of this upheaval had reached a boiling point. That year saw LBJ drop out of the presidential race for a second term, the assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, just to name a few. Things were shaking loose in a way unsettling to many Americans, which helped lead to the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. Nixon was seen as a law-and-order guy who would return stability and reason to the country and fend off the leftist radicals.
However, popular progressive movements had become strong enough that, as president, Nixon was forced to adopt many liberal reforms, such as the Endangered Species Act; the creation of OSHA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency; and eventually end the Vietnam War.
Counter-revolution from the Right
In response to the progressive popular movements of the ’60s and the influence they had on even a devout conservative like Richard Nixon, right-wing elites decided they needed to mobilize to press for their own counter-revolution, and develop a coherent conservative coalition of policy, strategy, and candidates who would be standard-bearers for a new right-wing agenda.
Leading the way was the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, Joseph Coors, et al. It became a leading right-wing political force over the next few years, publishing its “Mandate for Leadership” just in time for Reagan’s inauguration in Jan. 1981. Many foundation fellows took positions in Reagan’s administration, and by the end of his first year of office, 60% of the Mandate’s 2,000 proposals had been implemented or initiated. By 1986 Time magazine called Heritage Foundation “the foremost of the new breed of advocacy tanks.”
As right-wing think tanks grew in size, number, and influence, so did the influence of the emerging religious right, with organizations like the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, and the Christian Coalition gaining political prominence. Much of this was also in reaction to the political and cultural upheavals of the preceding decade.
Conservative evangelical leaders saw the questioning of established cultural norms as an attack on moral decency and decided to fight back, seeking to impose their own version of Christian values upon the nation. They engaged increasingly sophisticated fundraising campaigns, mobilizing a growing base of support, political strategizing, and grooming and electing their own kind to school boards, town councils, state legislatures, and judiciary positions. The “culture war” became an important new front in American politics.
A third trend emerged alongside the Christian right and right-wing think tanks: the explosion of political lobbying. In response to the passage of laws and regulations to protect workers, consumers, and the environment in the sixties and seventies, wealthy elites and big corporations discovered that investing in politics yielded one of their best returns on investment—lobbying to weaken those regulations, to create loopholes, and to get new laws passed more to their advantage and profit. The lobbying industry would increase by orders of magnitude in subsequent decades.
All three of these trends (the think-tankers, Christian crusaders, and K Street lobbyists) converged in the Reagan administration, busily rolling back the progress made in previous two decades and advancing new policies favoring those interests. Taxes, for example.
Republican President Dwight Eisenhower had presided over a tax system in which the top marginal tax rate was 90%, while the economy was booming in the 1950s; the top rate remained at 70% under Nixon. It was considered normal and patriotic that those who reaped the greatest benefits would give the greatest share back to their country.
Reagan reduced the top rate, first to 50% and later to 28%, while raising the rates for lower-income taxpayers. Consequently, wealth inequality, which had begun to grow in the late seventies, suddenly began to soar.
For three decades after World War II, the rising tide of economic growth did indeed lift all boats equally. Those at the bottom of the income scale benefited at roughly the same rate as those at the top. But Reagan changed that—ensuring that those at the top would rise dramatically while those at the bottom would fall, beginning a trend that would only grow worse over the next three decades.
Tax reform was just one element of the Reagan (Counter)Revolution. Other significant shifts included corporate deregulation, increased military spending and bellicosity in pursuit of “US (read: corporate) Interests,” diminishing the strength of labor unions, and intensifying the “War on Drugs.”
All these new conservative policies and the forces behind them created a “new normal” and pushed political debate dramatically to the right through the ’80s.
New Landscape in Politics and Media
It wasn’t just Republicans who moved to the right during that period—the Democrats followed after them with the creation of the Democratic Leadship Council, which eschewed New Left politics in favor of a centrist, “third way” approach. The DLC abandoned any kind of economic populism in favor of pursuing corporate donations and market-based solutions. The DLC was very pro-military as well. Bill Clinton became poster boy for the DLC as president in the ’90s, enacting policies like welfare reform, NAFTA, and the deadly sanctions in Iraq that would have made previous Democratic presidents blush.
One of the less heralded changes under Reagan was the elimination the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which had required broadcast media to present opposing views on controversial issues in a balanced manner. Once this requirement was lifted it opened the door for broadcasters presenting only a single viewpoint. One of the first people to take advantage of this new playing field was talk-radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh, whose show began airing nation-wide the year after the Fairness Doctrine had disappeared. Many other right-wing talk-radio personalities quickly followed suit, and finding scape goats for angry white males to blame for their problems became a major national industry.
After a few years of successful right-wing radio broadcasting, some saw an opportunity to bring this partisan media model to television. Rupert Murdoch hired Roger Ailes to launch Fox News in 1996 as a 24/7 propaganda machine to bring right-wing views and policy positions to a wide audience. Now all those right-wing think tanks and political strategists had a direct outlet to the masses.
Of course, Fox not only championed right-wing ideas, but viciously and relentlessly attacked all things Democrat and liberal. I think it’s fair to say that Fox News brought a meaner spirit and more partisan tone than anything seen on TV before, and encouraged a harsher, more partisan tone in American politics in general.
Bush and the Post-9/11 Era
After eight years of the mostly centrist presidency of Clinton, it became GW Bush’s turn to explore how far to the right the country could be taken. The big opportunity came, of course, in the wake of 9/11, when the country was in shock and could be persuaded to accept policies that would have been previously unacceptable, if not unthinkable. In domestic policy this translated into draconian abrogations of civil rights; in foreign policy it meant boom-times for the military-industrial complex. For all the militarists who dearly missed the bad old days of the Cold War, the “War on Terror” came just in time.
Many members of Bush’s foreign and military policy team had come from the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century. PNAC was founded in 1997 to promote an expanded military to exert American will upon the rest of the world. The attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror gave them the opportunity they’d been seeking, and they seized on it with a vengeance. American empire would be expanded, US (private) interests would be advanced by military means, and we’d adopt a policy of “invade first, ask questions later,” for which our country is still paying dearly.
Even more than Reagan, the Bush administration represented a merger between corporatist and Christian fundamentalist agendas. The War on Terror combined these elements in a dangerous and volatile mix—the Iraq invasion and occupation advanced corporate interests in the Middle East as well as giving end-times believers a holy war to fight.
Kevin Phillips has observed the long arc of the GOP’s rightward movement as closely as anyone. In 1968 he wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, which both forecast and offered strategy for the GOP to dominate national politics by using race and religion to retake southern states long allied with Democrats. In later years he became a leading critic of what this new Republican majority had created.
In his 2006 book, American Theocracy, Phillips describes three major pillars of the Republican Party of the 21st century—oil interests, radical religion, and Wall Street. He writes: “Over three decades … the Republican party has slowly become the vehicle of all three interests—a fusion of petroleum-defined national security; a crusading, simplistic Christianity; and a reckless credit-feeding financial complex. The three are increasingly allied in commitment to Republican politics, if not all in full agreement with one another.”
The religious element has led to the growth of faith-based politics on the right: Not just inserting religion into politics, but a politics where belief trumps empirical evidence. Phillips notes, “In a late-2004 speech, the retiring television journalist Bill Moyers, himself an ordained Baptist minister, broke with polite convention. He told an audience at the Harvard medical school that ‘one of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington.'”
Phillips continues, “These developments have warped the Republican party and its electoral coalition, muted Democratic voices, and become a gathering threat to America’s future. No leading power in modern memory has become captive, even a partial captive, of the sort of biblical inerrancy—backwater, not mainstream—that dismisses modern knowledge and science.”
This brings us to the last four years. Obama’s election raised great hopes among many. Some of us were less ebullient, seeing him as a cautious corporate centrist and standard-bearer for a Democratic Party that followed the GOP in its rightward march. But however you assess Obama himself and his accomplishments over the last four years, it’s important to acknowledge the political context he is trapped in.
After Democrats won the White House and both houses of Congress in 2008, many political pundits (including many conservatives) said that finally the GOP’s drift to the right had gone too far. Clearly it was time to adopt a more moderate, centrist approach moving forward.
As we know, that’s not what happened. The extreme right doubled down. The Tea Party arose, and was immediately given big financial backing by the Koch brothers, sons of Fred Koch, one of the founders of the John Birch Society. What was once an extremist fringe was becoming the new normal.
In Congress, Republicans closed ranks and agreed at the very beginning of Obama’s term to use whatever power they had to block all progress. On the very day Obama was inaugurated, GOP strategist Frank Luntz met with seven Republicans from the House (including Paul Ryan) and five Republican senators to agree to “show united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies.”
On Fox News and other right-wing media, Obama was relentlessly and viciously attacked—cast as a foreigner, a Muslim, a socialist, and an overall threat to America. Whereas just a few years earlier, criticism of the president (i.e., Bush) was considered treasonous, suddenly, criticism of the president had become a patriotic duty among “real Americans.”
Such criticism was in no way slowed by the reality that Obama was in fact acting as a cautious centrist who repeatedly sought bipartisan compromise and adopted conservative policy ideas in hopes of getting cooperation from the other side of the aisle. Which never came. Nope, anyone to the left of Karl Rove was now the enemy—even those moderate congressional Republicans left over from a previous era, who found themselves facing challenges from the right wing of their own party.
Amid such concerted criticism, obstructionism, and rise of the well-funded “grassroots” movement of the Tea Party, the GOP base was energized, progressives were dispirited, and Republicans made great gains in 2010, taking back the US House of Representatives and many state legislatures.
The latter was particularly important, as it was a US census year and year of legislative and congressional redistricting. Those who controlled state legislatures would control drawing new district lines (to their partisan advantage) as well as setting new voting rules for the 2012 election (a political opportunity that GOP-controlled states have used to full partisan advantage, seeking to disenfranchise millions with new voter ID laws).
Of course, the Supreme Court’s landmark, ironically named “Citizens United” decision played a major role in all of this. Remember, the GOP held the White House for 20 out of 28 years from 1981-2009, thus nominating a conservative majority of justices to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, right-wing economic and tax policies had been redistributing wealth to the those at the top during that same period, such that 80% of all economic gains had accrued to the top 1% over the past 30 years.
That has led to a degree of wealth inequality that is positively medieval, harkening back to a feudal society of lords and serfs. With the “Citizens United” ruling, the Supreme Court gave these newly minted plutocrats a gift that would keep on giving. “More money than you know what to do with? Invest in political campaigns and influence! Anonymously, in unlimited amounts!” A plutocrat’s wet dream.
This perfect storm of wealth concentrated at the top and unprecedented influence of money in politics had a huge impact on the 2010 elections, and will have an even bigger impact in 2012. When money is speech, those with all the money can outshout the rest of us, and persuade just enough voters to support their agenda to win. They’re betting on it. Heavily.
Meanwhile, the GOP has nominated a poster boy for the 1% as their presidential nominee, who has an agenda to redistribute even more money to him and his plutocratic friends, to dramatically “strengthen” an already bloated military to advance US corporate interests around the world, and to bring a conservative majority to the Supreme Court that could last for decades.
The party he is part of has parted ways with historical precedent. What was once politically unthinkable gradually became merely extreme, which then became acceptable, and now has become the new normal. Whether you want to call it a return to feudalism, or invoke that other f-word—”fascism” (see accompanying reprint)—there are clearly some powerful, dark forces at work here. They’ve been winning for more than three decades and seem to be gathering forces for a final victory in which they can change all the rules to their favor in perpetuity.
We are like the proverbial “frogs in the saucepan.” The water has been gradually heating up for more than three decades, approaching a boil, but we keep adjusting to it. Will we finally face reality and recognize our predicament as a nation, or will we be boiled?
The the results of the 2012 election will tell us whether the long arc of GOP think-tanking, wealth accumulating, political investing, religious mobilizing, media manipulating efforts will control our future, or whether we’ll finally unmask this extremist agenda for what it is and return to a common-sense, problem-solving approach to the many challenges that confront us.
(Note: An edited version of this article was published in Eat the State!)