There are certain moments in history where many different and amorphous threads coalesce into a hitherto unanticipated shape. The accession of Augustus Caesar in 27 BC ended the 482-year-old Roman Republic and ushered in the Empire. A similarly historic metamorphosis seems to be taking shape in the United States, though it marks the decline of an empire rather than its inauguration. One symptom of that transition, both as outcome and mover, is the disturbing evolution of the Republican Party into an engine of obstruction within the American government as well as an increasingly extreme and belligerent theocratic combatant on sexual mores.
This marks a sharp reversal of the widely shared communitarian attitudes that shaped American politics in the first half of the twentieth century. The dominant ethos was the Progressive movement. It campaigned for women's suffrage, instituted the ill-considered Prohibition, sought to curb the power of the large corporations, regulate banking, prohibit child labor, promote the right of workers to unionize, impose government-backed workplace health and safety standards, and institute a social safety net through unemployment insurance, minimum wages laws, and a government-run pension system. Republicans, though generally anti-union (not nearly so strongly as they are today), were almost as likely as Democrats to share the rest of these goals. Insofar as religion was part of the motivation it was the social service ideals of the mainstream Christian churches, drawing on the Sermon on the Mount rather than the gospel of self-enrichment preached by the televangelists.
Contrast today's Republicans with their ancestors in the 1950s. Back then the party's leaders were eminently conventional Northern industrialists, not casino and hedge fund managers or talk radio and cable TV shock jocks. Party ranks were filled with the respectable middle class, especially in small towns: stodgy neighborhood bankers, real estate promoters, farmers, small business owners, members of the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. They were fiscal conservatives who dutifully went on Sundays to hear soporific sermons at conventional churches - Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics. Babbitts and boosters.
When Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense, Charles E. Wilson, the former head of General Motors, was widely misquoted as saying "What's good for General Motors is good for the country," though the left saw this as corporate arrogance, most people shrugged and probably agreed with the sentiment. Asked to imagine a Republican woman would most likely elicit a picture of Betty Crocker, not a harridan like Ann Coulter. If anything could excite them it was the fight against Communism, and Communism, while the crusade against it in the United States went overboard and birthed its own evils, was an evil system.
Bipartisanship was central to the functioning of the American Congress. This was possible because the country by the 1950s faced no serious economic or social threat other than its low key Cold War. The two ruling parties had more in common than the issues that divided them. Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 was offered the presidential nomination by both parties. The Republicans had a strong Progressive tradition. This went back to the Radical Republicans who carried out Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War, and the trust busting of Teddy Roosevelt. In 1960, Nelson Rockefeller, a very moderate Republican who had served under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, was governor of New York. Prescott Bush, George W.'s grandfather, was the Republican U.S. senator from Connecticut. He was a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood, backed civil rights, donated to the United Negro College Fund, and attended the Episcopal Church. Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., former Republican U.S. senator from Massachusetts, was American ambassador to the United Nations, of which he was a strong supporter. Nixon's VP running mate in 1960, Lodge was shunned by Southerners for pledging, without Nixon's approval, that if his party won the presidency they would appoint an African American to the cabinet. In 1963 George Romney, Mitt's father, was elected governor of Michigan. He strongly backed the civil rights movement, resisting sharp criticism from the Mormon hierarchy, and refused to endorse Barry Goldwater in 1964 because of Goldwater's outreach to Southern segregationists. He had excellent relations with the state's powerful union movement.
The Democrats, in contrast, were a more mixed bag. The party had emerged from the Civil War as an unholy coalition between Northern big city governments with their working class constituencies and the defeated slaveholders, who held millions of poor whites in thrall and fostered a segregationist system that disfranchised blacks from voting and excluded them from public schools, with white-only restrictions pervasive throughout society. The pro-segregationist Southern Democrats put a brake on the progressive and labor forces in the party and shifted it to the right. The Democratic Party contained within it forces considerably both to the right and to the left of the more homogeneous Republicans. As these canceled each other out, the Democrats came to rest only slightly left of center, under the impetus of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal reforms, instituted to use governmental power to lift the country out of the Depression of the 1930s.
Of course, for both parties this was a virtually all white political system, and patriarchal to boot. The 1960s and demographics changed that.
The sixties, more accurately the decade between 1965 and 1975, shattered this, in retrospect, almost bucolic pattern. As a precursor, the civil rights movement began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56, expanding in the Freedom Rides in 1961, winning a layer of white as well as black youth who were radicalized in the fight for school integration and voting rights in the South. President Johnson's huge escalation of American troops in Vietnam in 1965 provoked a wave of revulsion at home, magnified by the military draft that touched millions of young men. The veterans of the civil rights movement waded into the antiwar struggle, over the next seven or eight years winning the approval of a large majority of the country's population.
The black civil rights movement in the South faced a more openly hostile white population than in Northern cities, but its goals involved fairly simple legal changes: to prohibit segregation of schools, restaurants, and movie theaters, and win the right to vote. There were no comparable legal solutions for the low wages, substandard housing, and job discrimination in the minority ghettos of the Northern metropolises. When protest erupted there it was volcanic and indiscriminate. The Watts riot in Los Angeles in 1965 was the first, in which 34 people were killed. The assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968 sparked uprisings in 110 cities. Crowds of up to 20,000 burned large sections of Washington, DC, where the government responded with the most massive mobilization of federal troops in any American city since the Civil War.
Not finished, the radical decade plowed on with the women's movement, challenging male supremacy in the home and the work place, then came the Stonewall Riots, heralding the emergence of the gay liberation movement.
This social turmoil was capped by ominous international signs of U.S. decline. The Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 quadrupled the price of oil to the then devastating but now laughable $12 a barrel, boosting gas prices to an unheard of 55 cents a gallon. Thousands of gas stations closed and those that remained mostly shut on weekends. There were block-long lines and three-hour waits. Many stations would sell only 5 or 10 gallons per customer. The event revealed American vulnerability and dependence on foreign governments it could not control.
Then in 1975 came the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, vindicating the millions who had opposed the war, but deeply wounding its supporters. A small Asian nation had beaten the colossus, an unprecedented sign of American weakness.
The end of the sixties revealed a different populace from the one that had existed in 1964. The institutions of government never recovered the level of respect and trust they had enjoyed in the 1950s. On the left there now existed an amorphous but quite large layer of people who had come to look on the federal government as an evil empire, large corporations as a sinister force in American politics, and all U.S. influence in other countries - diplomatic, commercial, or military - as predatory. These veterans of the sixties radicalization shared with a still larger group a constellation of progressive social views, starting with those inherited from traditional American liberalism: for progressive taxation to fund a strong social safety net, for universal healthcare, these now expanded to add support to feminism and gay rights, antiracism, for the right of abortion. Never much attracted to socialism, whatever sympathy there was in that direction evaporated with the collapse of Communism in 1990, Tea Party claims to the contrary notwithstanding. What remained was a very moderate leftism similar to European liberals and social democrats.
The mirror evolution on the right was in some ways more complex. In 1968 Richard Nixon institutionalized the Southern Strategy, appealing to segregationist whites, terrified by the black uprisings earlier that year and angry at the young radicals who had undermined the U.S. war in Asia. The shift of the white South from Democrats to Republicans was prolonged, beginning with the conservative upper class and encompassing the majority of white workers only in the 1990s, but essentially consolidated with Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980. Two Democratic presidents were elected in the last half of the century, both Southerners - Jimmy Carter, on the wave of anti-Republican sentiment after Watergate, and Bill Clinton, on bad economic news that disenchanted voters with George H. W. Bush. But since 2000 the white South has been militantly Republican. Obama in 2008 lost the white Southern working class vote by 18 percent.
The fraught consequence of the realignment in the South was to give the political map a clear territorial division that had not been present since the Civil War. The much circulated maps of red and blue states overlay with chilling precision the country's division on the eve of the firing on Fort Sumter. Today's Republicans command the whole of the Confederacy plus the Midwest, which in 1864 were territories contested between free and slave states. The Republican hostility to the federal government echoes the secessionist sentiments of the Old South, occasionally voiced openly today, as in a speech by failed Republican presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry in April 2009 to a Tea Party crowd, where he threatened his state's withdrawal from the Union.
Not only the geography but the demographics tell us we are looking at differences that have festered and metastasized since the nineteenth century. The Republican base is overwhelmingly older whites, heavily rural or Southern. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050 non-Hispanic whites will decline to 46.3% of the population. This, along with many symptoms of national decline, domestic and foreign, stoke existential fears in much of this aging white population.
The result of the sixties was that both left and right came to distrust their government. Survey data from the Pew Research Center shows that in the period since 1958, public trust in the U.S. government peaked at about 77% in 1965, with a surge of patriotism at the first large-scale escalation of the Vietnam War. It plummeted almost immediately, crashing to about 26% after Jimmy Carter's failed effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran. There was a slight revival under Reagan and the first Bush administration, but it never reached 50%. 9/11 fostered a brief spark and then tobogganed steadily downward to a historic low in 2010 of 18% who would say they trusted the government.
These numbers are for both parties. They are not remarkably different between them, Republicans going up a bit when their party holds the presidency, Democrats for their side. The polarization is somewhat greater for the Obama government. But while all sectors of the population have radically lost their faith in Washington, Republicans uniquely in the same period also changed their religion, abandoning the mainstream Protestant churches in droves and flocking to the hitherto fringe fundamentalist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Charismatic sects. These are spread among innumerable individual churches and vary among themselves in their specific set of beliefs, but most tend to expect the imminent second coming of Christ, stress Bible literalism, often including young earth Creationism, reject biological evolution and global warming, and look forward to the Rapture. This is a belief invented in 1827 by English clergyman John Nelson Darby, based on a rather strained interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:16, claiming that Jesus will come back not once but twice, the first time to whisk the true believers to heaven while leaving the majority of the human race behind to suffer under the lash of the Anti-Christ until Jesus comes back again to carry out the last judgment. Catholics and mainstream Protestants do not accept this idea. It is hard not to see the Rapture as a narcissistic invention of people who imagine they are vastly superior to the rest of humanity and even to the great majority of Christians.
This trend fostered a rise in magical thinking. If these vast supernatural events are at hand, the normal rules of nature and fact are to be overwritten by the miraculous. Such an outlook depreciates the significance of facts, and of science, a method that fails to acknowledge the most important fact of all, the imminence of Armageddon, proclaimed by prophecy in thousands of church sanctuaries every Sunday. As a sign of the times, the sixteen Christian apocalyptic novels of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins - which began publication in 1998, in which the true Christians are Raptured to heaven and the Anti-Christ takes over the world in preparation for the final battle with Christ and his Angelic legions - sold upwards of 65 million copies.
The point here is that for the Republican Right, in large part under the influence of its new-found Southern branch, the response to social turmoil and international decline shattered faith in government and replaced it with an embrace of apocalyptic supernaturalism, churches that look to the imminent end times rather than to the conventional homilies and modest reform efforts of the previously dominant Protestant denominations. These churches generally reject the mainstream Christian commitment to charity and aid to the poor, seeing salvation as a plan for their own members to jump into the Jesus lifeboat and escape the sinking ship, leaving the majority, who have somewhat different views, to drown. This prioritizing of saving one's own skin and letting the rest hang permeates the contemporary Republican attitude toward the poor in the here and now - particularly if they happen to be black or Latino, a rather traditional attitude of white Southern churches. Government intervention, apart from a strong military and expansive prison system, is to be focused on enforcing religious sexual mores, not on such irrelevancies as healthcare, food stamps, or unemployment insurance for the undeserving. Of course these are sociological generalizations, not descriptions of individuals. Every mass movement sweeps up its share of innocents. In 1976 it looked as though the whole of China contained nothing but fanatics. Polls show that a fair portion of the Republican voting bloc are more moderate than their leaders in Congress and in state houses, particularly younger voters. But it is the leadership and the more militant that set the agenda.
Mainline Protestants were the large majority of American believers until the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. These churches were socially liberal, committed to public service, support to government, and proponents of a strong social safety net for the poor. Fundamentalists rejected all of these views, but throughout much of the last century largely withdrew from the world. The conservative Evangelical churches that boomed after 1975 shared most of the Fundamentalists' attitudes but sought to energetically proselytize their views and to contest with other currents in the political arena. They grew rapidly as trust in government waned, becoming the new focus of self-identification for millions. In 1979 Jerry Fallwell founded the Moral Majority, the genesis of the Christian Right, that aimed at capturing the Republican Party and ultimately imposing a conservative Christian regime on the country.
The mainstream Protestant denominations were revealed by the Pew 2010 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey to have fallen to only 18.1% of the population. The conservative Evangelical churches in contrast have grown to 26.3%. Even these figures don't tell the whole story. Catholics are 23.9% and in recent years there has emerged a substantial current within American Catholicism similar to the Evangelicals. The membership in the militant Evangelical churches are far more active, somewhat younger, and have more children than their liberal rivals. The congregations of the Evangelical churches are heavily invested in the Republican Party, where they champion opposition to abortion, rejection of gay rights, disbelief in evolution, advocacy of school prayer, and, less obviously derived from any Christian religious grounds, rolling back government provision of old age pensions, medical care, or aid to the poor, the disabled, and the elderly - as well as lower taxes for the rich.
The Evangelical churches, of which the Southern Baptists are the largest single example, are largely an export of the Deep South, which, once persuaded to switch to the Republican Party, has since captured that organization and driven it far to the right of mainstream American politics.
Colin Woodard writes in the July 5, 2012, Washington Monthly, "The radicalization of the Republican Party in recent years has a lot to do with it having been taken over by Deep Southerners like Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and George W. Bush, Haley Barbour and Jim DeMint. The central policy goals of Tea Party Republicanism mirror those of the Deep Southern elite: rollback federal power, environmental, labor, and consumer protection laws, and taxes on capital and the wealthy. It's a program one never would have seen in the days when the GOP was run by Yankee - read 'Greater New Englander' - figures like Teddy Roosevelt or George Bush the senior." We could add to the Southern coterie Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. This conservative magnet has drawn to it a few Northern ideologues such as Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota and budget slasher Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. John Boehner of Ohio as House Speaker has tried to toe the Tea Party line but has been humiliated several times by his own caucus when he supported some minor compromise with Obama.
As could be surmised, the Deep South takeover of the Republicans was possible only because the party was essentially all white. The Pew Trends in American Values 1987-2012 surveys, released June 5, 2012, show that the Republican Party is 87% white, 2% Black, and 6% Hispanic, this last heavily composed of Cubans, whose history of exile from the Castro government and automatic legalization on arriving in the United States place them far to the right of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. In contrast the Democratic Party is 55% white, 24% black, and 13% Hispanic. The most dramatic findings in these extensive surveys are the fall in Republican agreement that the government should take care of those unable to take care of themselves, from 62% in 1987 to only 40% in 2012, and the collapse of its agreement that the environment must be protected. In 1987 the two parties differed by only 5% in support to environment protection. In 2012 the gap was 39 percentage points, due to the Republican reversal. There is nearly as great a change in the Republican attitude toward unions. Never very favorable, there was a 20% difference between the parties in 1987; this has grown to 37 percentage points in 2012.
As the country has polarized into gridlock along sharp geographical as well as political lines there is the impression that the problem is simply the stubborn irreconcilability of counterposed ideologies. That is not so. Virtually all studies show that the Democrats have moved only marginally leftward, essentially being slightly center left on social issues and centrist or center right on economic ones. In contrast the Republicans have moved from center and center right to far right across the board. Worse, they have for years adopted a policy of delegitimizing the American government, using the many available procedural rules of the House and Senate to paralyze and discredit the institution. This is well documented in Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein's recent book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism .
Mann and Ornstein have been involved in the professional study of Washington politics since 1969, Mann as a resident scholar at the Brookings Institution, Ornstein at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. In 1978 the two founded the Congress Project, affiliated to the American Enterprise Institute. Its purpose was to closely track changes in the American Congress. Their first program at AEI was to meet with a group of incoming freshmen representatives. These included first-term Newt Gingrich from Georgia's 6th Congressional District.
Democrats had long held majorities in the House and Senate. At Mann and Ornstein's 1978 dinners with newly elected House members Gingrich presented his radical plan to discredit the Democrats and bring the Republicans to power:
"The core strategy was to destroy the institution in order to save it, to so intensify public hatred of Congress that voters would buy into the notion of the need for sweeping change and throw the majority bums out. His method? To unite his Republicans in refusing to cooperate with Democrats in committee and on the floor, while publicly attacking them as a permanent majority presiding over and benefiting from a thoroughly corrupt institution."
Republicans as well as Democrats present were shocked. Of those around the dinner table there was one man who agreed with Gingrich. His name was Dick Cheney. One of Gingrich's first tactics was to reserve time for Republican speakers on the House floor in the evenings. C-SPAN cameras were fixed on the podium. Gingrich and some of his colleagues "attacked Democrats for opposing school prayer, being soft on Communism, and being corrupt. . . . In the favored technique, the lawmaker speaking turned as if he were addressing Democrats in the chamber, and the lack of response made it appear as if those in the audience either accepted the charges or were unwilling or unable to counter them." In fact there was nobody in the audience.
The Gingrich strategy of delegitimizing the American government was adopted wholesale by the Republicans following their 1994 capture of the House of Representatives in their stunning 54-seat victory, ending forty years of Democratic control. In November and December 1995 Republican intransigence in demanding budget cuts shut down the government for 28 days. Tens of thousands of federal workers were sent home. According to a 2010 Congressional Research service report, health services for military veterans were cut, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention virtually shut down, and toxic waste clean-up was stopped at 609 sites.
This was a pale preview of Republican tactics against the Obama presidency. Mann and Ornstein write:
"Republicans greeted the new president with a unified strategy of opposing, obstructing, discrediting, and nullifying every one of his important initiatives." This has gone to such extremes that on January 26, 2010, six Republican senators voted against a bill of which they were themselves cosponsors - a measure to create a deficit reduction task force - when President Obama endorsed it. This kind of obstruction increased tenfold when Republicans won control of the House in 2010. "What followed was an appalling spectacle of hostage taking - most importantly, the debt ceiling crisis - that threatened a government shutdown and public default, led to a downgrading of the country's credit, and blocked constructive action to nurture an economic recovery or deal with looming problems of deficits and debt." By October 2011 the Republican strategy of gridlock and delegitimization had plunged public approval of the institution of Congress to a historic low of 9 percent. This was a party that seems never to have heard the maxim, Don't spit in the well from which we all must drink.
Mann and Ornstein, the latter with impeccable conservative credentials, place the blame squarely on the Republicans, declaring that "the Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier - ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policy responsive to the country's most pressing challenges."
Mann and Ornstein are particularly upset by the Republican threat to have the government default on its debts that was the centerpiece of the spurious debate in the fall of 2011 over the normally routine vote to raise the federal debt limit. The debt limit was raised seventy-eight times between 1960 and 2011. These actions are taken not to authorize new spending but to cover outlays that have already taken place. To vote not to raise the limit to cover such obligations has nothing to do with preventing new government spending but is like deciding not to pay your credit card bill. Mann and Ornstein object that the Republicans "frequently mischaracterized a vote to lift the debt ceiling as a vote to add more debt."
It has been Republican presidents who have driven the country into the deep debt it faces today. According to FactCheck.org, the national debt rose 190% under Ronald Reagan, 52% under George H. W. Bush, 37% under Bill Clinton, and 86% under George W. Bush. Obama, inheriting an economy that fell into a depression almost as deep as the Great Depression from Bush Jr.'s unfunded wars and extravagant tax cuts, married to a rampant and unregulated financial sector that promoted the housing bubble with billions in subprime mortgages, raised the debt by a surprisingly low 45%, much of which went to recovery efforts. With revenue desperately needed to keep people working and stoke demand to restore businesses, total Republican intransigence in refusing even the tiniest tax increase - while taxes are at historic lows not seen since the 1950s - is a form of sabotage. They often candidly admit this with their slogan "Starve the beast." Anti-tax guru Grover Norquist, whose pledge never to raise taxes under any circumstances has been signed by virtually every Republican in Congress, famously laid out his envisioned endgame for the American government: "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." The Republicans have harped on the notion that the Democrats "tax and spend." The record shows that the Republicans spend far more - on credit.
Much has been written about the Imperial Presidency, largely because the Congress, since U.S. entry into the Korean War in 1950, has abdicated to the executive branch its authority to declare war, leaving the president with exceptional control over military and federal police powers. This was notably expanded under the George W. Bush administration in pursuit of the so-called War on Terrorism. The American government nevertheless remains a tripartite system of checks and balances, which depends for its functionality on mutual respect between branches. The Congress operates under rules in which a determined minority can veto the decisions of the majority and bring government to a standstill.
Two of the most powerful tools of a hostile minority party are the Senate hold and the filibuster. Senate rules peculiarly require unanimous consent to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. Any senator can anonymously place a hold on any piece of legislation, preventing it from coming to a vote. Intended to allow a senator to ask for time to study a bill strongly affecting his home state or committee, the hold was rarely used until the 1970s. Today it is routinely and repeatedly used by Republicans to block almost all legislation supported by the Obama administration.
Mann and Ornstein recount how Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, best remembered for being arrested for indecent conduct in 2007 while playing footsie under a restroom partition in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, used anonymous holds in 2003 to block all Air Force promotions for months, trying to blackmail the Air Force into stationing some cargo planes in his state. Richard Shelby, Republican senator from Alabama and chair of the Senate Committee on Housing, Banking, and Urban Affairs, in February 2010 put a blanket hold on all White House nominations for executive positions - more than seventy then pending - to get two earmarks for his state. They conclude: "[T]he minority party's sharply expanded use of the hold as a political tactic to delay and block action by the majority has transformed the Senate, especially over the past four years."
Twenty-eight-year congressional Republican staffer Mike Lofgren offers a devastating survey of the Republican evolution in a widely circulated September 3, 2011, article, "Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult." Commenting on the debt ceiling standoff then still in progress he wrote:
"Everyone knows that in a hostage situation, the reckless and amoral actor has the negotiating upper hand over the cautious and responsible actor because the latter is actually concerned about the life of the hostage, while the former does not care. This fact, which ought to be obvious, has nevertheless caused confusion among the professional pundit class, which is mostly still stuck in the Bob Dole era in terms of its orientation. . . . It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe."
He excoriates the deliberate Republican misuse of congressional procedural rules to hamstring the government: