This is the second of a two-part series. Click here to read Part I: How Democrats Can Become the National Majority Party.
At the moment, things are looking good for you. President Joe Biden’s approval rating has been hit by the bungled exit from Afghanistan, rising murder rates, the border crisis, mixed signals about the COVID pandemic, and Democratic infighting about not one but two massive and controversial spending bills. There is a good chance the GOP will take back control of the House and Senate in 2022 and the White House in 2024, though if Donald Trump, disgraced by his attempt to manipulate the last election results, is the nominee again, all bets are off.
Unfortunately for you, my pachydermic friends, a return to power in Washington is unlikely to be lasting. The most likely sequel to a new Republican trifecta is that the GOP will blow its chance to be the dominant governing party in the United States for the fourth time since Ronald Reagan left office in 1988.
The GOP had a great opportunity to consolidate a lasting national majority following Reagan’s two terms in the White House and the end of the Cold War. But George Herbert Walker Bush threw it away by doubling down on fiscal conservatism—“Read my lips: no new taxes!”—which played well with libertarian Republican donors but not the public. Although it was enacted under Bill Clinton, the first Bush administration negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement that helped corporations transfer production from well-paid workers in the United States to low-wage workers in Mexico.
A decade after sacrificing electoral success to donor priorities under the elder Bush, the Republican Party had another chance to become a popular, dominant national party when it controlled both houses of Congress in the 2000s under the younger Bush. Instead, convinced that post-9/11 war fever would work in their favor, Republicans threw away their opportunity by supporting George W. Bush’s unnecessary war in Iraq and his commitment of the United States in his Second Inaugural to the messianic project of “ending tyranny in our world.”
With regard to domestic policy, Republican priorities in the 2000s were cutting taxes on the rich and banning the federal government from negotiating discounts for drug prices for seniors under the new Medicare Part D drug act. Bush’s biggest domestic goal in his second term was putting Social Security, the most popular program in America, on the road to diminution and perhaps extinction, by means of partial privatization. In response to the failed Iraq War, the unpopular Republican domestic agenda, and the collapse of the economy in the financial crisis, the American electorate took the unsurprising step of throwing the Republicans out of Congress and then the White House in 2006 and 2008.
Yet another chance to build a lasting Republican majority was thrown away after Trump’s win in 2016 gave the Republicans a trifecta of the House, Senate, and White House. Trump won in part because he promised policies like infrastructure spending that were popular with independents and some Democrats, while forswearing unpopular cuts to Social Security and Medicare. True to form, congressional Republicans focused instead on Paul Ryan’s unpopular tax cut for the rich and corporations, which passed, and an unpopular effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, which failed. The party lost the House in 2018 and the Senate and the presidency in 2020. It is now in such a state of intellectual enervation and political collapse that for the first time since the inaugural Republican national convention in 1856 there was no Republican Party platform in 2020.
Do you see the pattern? The Republican Party is set to blow its chance at a national majority for a fourth time in four decades, unless party elites finally deal with the incompatibility between the agenda that is being set by the anti-statist libertarian ideology of the party’s donors, politicians, and policy wonks on the one hand, and, on the other, by the values and interests of the party’s nationalist, communitarian, and populist voters, who have no objection to government programs that hugely benefit them and their families.
The disconnect between Republican elites and voters goes back to 1955, when “movement conservatism” was founded with the launch of the flagship journal of the right, William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. So-called “fusionist conservatism” was a three-legged stool based on economic libertarianism, social traditionalism, and hawkish anti-communist foreign policy. (The right after the 1960s tried to forget the fourth leg of early movement conservatism: support for anti-Black racial segregation). Because public policy is largely domestic economic policy, the anti-statist libertarian strain of “fusionism” always dwarfed the social and foreign policy elements in importance.
Movement conservatives originally came together in the 1950s to fight the out-of-control leftism of … Dwight Eisenhower. In the 1960s the circle around Buckley reluctantly anathematized the John Birch Society, whose leaders had claimed that Ike was a secret communist. But they persisted in believing that the Modern Republicanism of Eisenhower and Richard Nixon was too far to the left.
In a letter to his brother Edgar on Nov. 8, 1954, President Eisenhower wrote:
Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this—in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it … Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
Eisenhower’s description was accurate. For example, the early issues of National Review were bankrolled by Buckley’s father, Will, a rich oil man from South Texas (around World War I, Will Buckley dated my aunt’s aunt, but that is a story for another time).
From the 1950s onward, there have been four strands in the Republican Party—two older groups, and two consisting of ex-Democratic converts. Liberal Republicans, based in Greater New England, were the philosophical and sometimes the familial heirs of the crusading Abolitionists, Mugwumps, and Progressives of earlier generations. By the 2020s most of these old fashioned Republicans had become Democrats, transforming the Democratic Party so that it reflected their favored causes of abortion rights, environmentalism, and civil rights, along with a broader, self-righteous, do-gooder culture.
The other old Republican faction, sometimes called the Stalwarts and rooted in the Northeast and the Midwest, was neither liberal nor reactionary. The Stalwarts were pro-business, but they were not necessarily opposed to all government social programs or civil rights, and some acknowledged a role for organized labor in the modern economy. They tended toward anti-interventionism in foreign policy and protectionism in trade.
Following the civil rights revolution and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, two groups of ex-Democrats fled the party of George McGovern for the GOP: neo-Confederate Dixiecrats, based in the Deep South, and so-called Nixon Democrats and Reagan Democrats.
The Dixiecrats were based among the old Southern Bourbon gentry elite and their deferential followers. They combined hostility to desegregation with shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later militarism, hostility to organized labor, and the support for free trade that was traditional in the commodity-exporting, nonindustrial South. Thanks to his “states’ rights” rhetoric and his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Barry Goldwater, the first Republican presidential candidate of the movement conservatives, won only five Deep South states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—in addition to his native state of Arizona, an electoral college loss of 486 to 52.
The Nixon-Reagan Democrats were distinct from the ex-Dixiecrats. They were based in the manufacturing communities of the Northeast and Midwest. Many were “white ethnic” Catholics—Irish, Italian, German, and Polish—at the bottom of the intrawhite social and economic hierarchy, which had white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) at the top. Like their Southern white partners in the old Jacksonian Democratic coalition, the Northern white working class often viewed Black Americans as competitors for jobs, housing, and public services. But they were typically pro-union if not union members themselves, and cared more about crime in their neighborhoods than about contraception, abortion, or gay rights. The Nixon and Reagan campaigns won over these voters with the “law and order” theme while downplaying anti-union rhetoric.
Although Nixon opportunistically engaged in coded race-baiting, he was a pragmatist like Eisenhower in his policy views and seems to have envisioned welding Midwestern and Northeastern industrial workers to the older Republican Stalwart business class base in the North, Midwest, and West Coast. But as “Republican” and “movement conservative” increasingly became synonyms, the rich libertarians who funded the movement preferred a marriage with Deep South fundamentalists over Rust Belt trade union members. While the libertarian elite of the right wanted to destroy Social Security and Medicare through privatization, Rust Belt workers needed and supported those programs. Libertarian donors and their mouthpieces in conservative think tanks and magazines supported free trade, offshoring U.S. manufacturing, and mass immigration of low-wage workers to keep wages and unionization rates down. The Rust Belt white working class was hostile to the offshoring of well-paid factory jobs.
The right’s wealthy libertarian elite, whose members, like the Koch brothers, are mostly social liberals, thus found the voters of the Southern Protestant evangelical right much more compatible as allies than Rust Belt union members. To be sure, polls in the 1980s and 1990s showed that Southern Baptists and other evangelicals were as hostile to big business and big finance as their populist, William Jennings Bryan-supporting ancestors had been. But their suspicion of big business didn’t matter, because evangelicals voted for the GOP on the basis of school prayer, abortion, pornography, and gay rights. Protestant religious-right leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were tolerated because, like Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak—the favorite Catholic theological thinkers of the right—they did not question free market economic policies. Novak went so far as to urge every large corporation to fund an “in-house study group for scholars-in-residence for defensive and purpose work.” Getting paid by a corporation to argue that its profit-seeking strategies are compatible with Church doctrine is nice work, if you can get it.
Spurned by the libertarian-funded conservative movement and the Republican Party, the mostly white Rust Belt working class found itself unwanted by either national party in the 1990s and 2000s. Many of its members rallied behind third-party candidate Ross Perot, whose criticism of NAFTA, defense of industrial nationalism, and moderation on social issues they shared.
Politically homeless and adrift once more following Perot’s two campaigns, Nixon and Reagan Democrats and their heirs found a new champion in 2016 in Trump, a Northern white ethnic (German- and Scots-American) from the unfashionable New York City borough of Queens who rejected foreign wars and free trade and promised realpolitik and economic nationalism. Like Perot and his fellow TV celebrity Jesse Ventura, with whom he tried and failed to take over Perot’s Reform Party around 2000, Trump was liberal on most social issues including gay rights and gay marriage, and indifferent to religion (remember the “Two Corinthians”).
Until Trump succeeded where Perot failed by winning the White House, the disconnect between libertarian “movement conservatives” and populist and nationalist voters in the Republican Party didn’t matter. Republicans ran against abortion and gay rights and then, once elected, voted for tax cuts for their rich donors and corporations, and more funding for foreign military quagmires. With Trump’s election, Republican Party elites and voters came into direct conflict with each other, as the remaining liberal Republican “gypsy moths” fluttered to the exits.
Now that most liberal Republicans have defected permanently to the Democrats, two major Republican camps have emerged to compete for control of the party. There are the Nixon-Perot-Trump voters—based in the industrial Midwest, realist in foreign policy, supportive of strategic trade and industrial policy, and latitudinarian on most social controversies. Then there is the Goldwater-Bush camp, rooted in the South and Southwest, representing the old movement conservative coalition of anti-statist free marketeers, Protestant evangelicals, and military hawks. Although identified with the movement conservatives, Reagan was a transitional figure who led an omnibus coalition.
Movement conservatives are unlikely to win a popularity contest among Republican voters or anyone else. At no point between 1955 and 2016 did most Republican voters, let alone most Americans, share the goals of movement conservatism and its libertarian bankrollers. The elections of Republican presidents and congressional majorities, including the two terms of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have never been the product of popular enthusiasm for the libertarian scheme to repeal the New Deal, the neocon scheme to wage wars of democratic regime change, or the religious right’s scheme to set America’s moral clock back to before Elvis went on the Ed Sullivan Show.
In contrast, the Modern Republicanism of the Eisenhower-Nixon coalition was genuinely popular. Reagan talked like the radical anti-government Barry Goldwater of 1964, but as president he governed like Nixon, avoiding large-scale foreign military interventions and negotiating with Gorbachev as Nixon had negotiated with Mao. Having denounced Medicare in the 1960s as a socialist plot, President Reagan was careful not to attack either Medicare or Social Security; indeed, he proposed federalizing Medicaid and backed a federal scheme for emergency health insurance, evocative of Nixon’s plan of 1974 for universal health coverage.
You have a choice, then, Republicans. You can follow the Nixonian path—realist in foreign policy, nationalist in trade and finance, accepting labor unions and social insurance entitlements with appropriate reforms, and backing law and order in the streets without policing between the sheets. Or you can follow the stealth libertarian path of movement conservatism, enacting the economic agenda of libertarian donors while distracting voters with performative patriotism and religiosity stage-managed by political consultants. To use the title of Reagan’s most famous speech, it’s a time for choosing. And only one of these choices can turn Republicans into America’s majority party.
Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a columnist for Tablet, and a fellow at New America. He has a master’s degree from Yale and has taught at Harvard. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.