President Carter, besieged by an energy crisis and rising domestic inflation and perceived as a failure in the handling of the Iran hostage situation breathed new life into the Republican Party that was still floundering after the Watergate debacle of the Nixon/Ford administrations. It allowed Reagan to define and idealize the conservative mantra of:
• less government
• less undue federal taxation
• strong military
• State rights
There is no revisionism here in stating that Reagan swept into power carrying 44 states in 1980 and an incredible 49 states in 1984 which is less a landslide and more an avalanche. The more modern consensus on his presidency now is that “Reagan rehabilitated conservatism, turned the nation to the right, practiced a pragmatic conservatism that balanced ideology and the constraints of politics, revived faith in the presidency and in American self respect, and contributed to victory in the Cold War. – .J. Heale in Cheryl Hudson and Gareth Davies, eds. Ronald Reagan and the 1980s: Perceptions, Policies, Legacies (2008) p. 250
Interestingly Reagan was initially a Democrat but he formally switched to the Republican Party in 1962. His reason cited: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me." Steven F. Hayward, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989 (2009) p. 635. History has a way of repeating itself and this time it’s with the Republican Party or is it the Republican Party anymore?
Reagan conservatism resonated with the rising social conservatives especially fundamentalist Christians, who were particularly concerned about the legalization of abortion, the rise in sexual immorality and an increase in crime. The Moral Majority, which was led by a Baptist minister and televangelist Jerry Falwell, became one of the most politically effective groups in the early 1980s along with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and in the 90’s televangelist Pat Robertson built the Christian Coalition into a potent force in the Republican Party and allowed the right-wing political agenda to be advocated through the powerful electronic media as well as from the pulpit. Since this alignment, Republicans have won five out of the last eight presidential races, have controlled the Senate for seven out of 12 sessions, and the House of Representatives for a decade. Those who identify with the religious right now also tend to vote more than the average American and are more inclined to be politically active than prior to the alignment.. But many view the association with the religious right as no longer as an ‘alignment’ but now as a ‘hijacking’ of the GOP which in turn resulted in the backlash of 2008 that brought the Democrats back into power. Is this a fair assessment or an over-simplistic band-aid?
The religious right has failed to understand the distinction that Congress can enact laws but it cannot legislate morality; that has to come from within under the guidance of conscience and formation by one’s religious affiliations. By choosing to present itself as a champion of moral values the Republican Party has set itself up as an easy target for critics due to the all-too-human failings of its leaders. Reagan himself was the only President that divorced and had less than perfect relationships with his children, George W. Bush’s struggles with alcoholicism and those of his children are well documented, Cheney had to defend his lesbian daughter from the religious right, Sarah Palin had to ‘spin’ her daughter’s unwed pregnancy and more recently the extra marital affairs of Republicans Mark Sanford (former Gov. SC) and Senator John Ensign of Nevada make moral values a weak and shaky leg to stand on. And despite all the vocalization and campaign rhetoric there has been a repeated failure by Republican administrations to reverse abortion laws, reinstate prayer in schools, have creationism taught alongside evolution theory in schools, and stem the rise in the gay movement despite being in power almost twice as long as the Democrats from Reagan through present.
Secondly, is it coincidental that Republicans lost the last two elections after war? The religious right was President Bush’s biggest supporters of the Iraq War because it dovetailed into their interpretation of the biblical end times which ushers in the dominion of Christ. Since communists were no longer the threat Islam became the ‘evil-du-jour’ not just radical Muslim extremism but all Islam. But wars have a tremendous impact on the fiscal budget and both war presidents left the country in an economic tailspin or even nosedive. G.W. Bush lost the groundswell of sympathy both domestic and international by adopting the crusade mentality of the religious right “But our responsibility to history is clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” Who defines evil? The religious right would answer ‘God’ but I would borrow from Forrest Gump and say “Evil is as evil does”, not even the cloak of patriotism can hide the stink of non-warranted wire-tapping, detention without access to representation or right to trial and torture. Consequently we have lost the moral right to criticize, Kim, Castro, Chavez or any other ‘evil’ dictator of the day.
Thirdly, as the largest spender in the U.S.A, the federal government ultimately renders pure ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism null and void in favor of Keynesian economics which holds essentially that insufficient demand causes unemployment and that excessive demand results in inflation; government should therefore manipulate the level of aggregate demand by adjusting levels of government expenditure and taxation. The Republican Party pro-business policies of the 1920s under presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover seemed to produce an unprecedented prosperity until the Wall Street Crash of 1929 heralded the Great Depression. To avoid depression Keynes advocated increased government spending, resulting in more investment, higher employment, and increased consumer spending which is the economic crisis we experience today and which lies at the heart of Stimulus spending by both the Bush and Obama Administrations. The ‘reaganomics’ of the 1980’s also seemed to lead to boom years with into a sustained period of higher growth and lower inflation but also resulted in tripling the public debt and creating federal budget deficits which forced successor George H. Bush to raise taxes; something which is anathema to republican ideology. George W. Bush who succeeded Clinton increased the role of Government though the creation of Homeland Security and the expansions in the Department of Defense another anathema to republican ideology but again supported by right wing proponents. The recent flap over unbridled spending of donor money by the RNC at sex-clubs, expensive hotel and for personal items again highlights the dangers of presenting itself as a party of ‘moral values’, which is not to say there should be no accountability or transparency but the political arena is no place for such posturing especially, in a world where nothing can be kept hidden for very long anymore.
Even in the face of electoral defeats in 2006 and 2008 the GOP continues to fall under the shadow of the far right instead of casting its shadow on all its constituents. Even today to be ‘republican’ has to mean ‘conservative’ or else be branded by the offensive label ‘RINO’ and publicly castigated by the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck. To be a true ‘republican’ and ‘real American’ now means having to embrace ‘Tea-Party’ subculture and its mythical revisionism of the Founding Fathers and worse to view bi-partisanships as traitorous. Yet this was not the vision of the Founding Fathers either. Adams and Jefferson could co-exist with Washington and Hamilton despite their well documented differences because of a forward looking vision of a great and united America.
I cannot and will not advocate the Republican Party’s demise simply because its role is too important in our political arena but the party has to once again re-define itself to an ever changing America. It is not even the same as the Reagan years in the 1980s; the world is not the same either, we are living in an era of instant global communication where everything can be seen, heard and consequently felt. The party must adapt and shed its image (false or not) of being racist, for the rich, exclusionary, homophobic. It has to recognize that there is a time for tax increases as well as tax cuts. It has to recognize and co-exist with a world view while still upholding the American view.
The danger of standing far right is that everything else appears left. We don’t live in a world of black and white but one in which there exists many shades of grey too and in which most people find themselves. Thus, due to its failure to recognize this I once again paraphrase Reagan: only this time “I did not leave the Republican Party, the party left me”.
Or perhaps it is time for the real Republican Party to stand up.