December 1st, 2008at 10:45pm Posted by Eli

I think Neal Gabler is onto something here:

But there is another rendition of the story of modern conservatism, one that doesn’t begin with Goldwater and doesn’t celebrate his libertarian orientation. It is a less heroic story, and one that may go a much longer way toward really explaining the Republican Party’s past electoral fortunes and its future. In this tale, the real father of modern Republicanism is Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the line doesn’t run from Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush; it runs from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin. It centralizes what one might call the McCarthy gene, something deep in the DNA of the Republican Party that determines how Republicans run for office, and because it is genetic, it isn’t likely to be expunged any time soon.


What [McCarthy] lacked in ideology — and he was no ideologue at all — he made up for in aggression. Establishment Republicans, even conservatives, were disdainful of his tactics, but when those same conservatives saw the support he elicited from the grass-roots and the press attention he got, many of them were impressed…. Henceforth, conservatism would be as much about electoral slash-and-burn as it would be about a policy agenda.

For the polite conservatives, McCarthy was useful. That’s because he wasn’t only attacking alleged communists and the Democrats whom he accused of shielding them. He was also attacking the entire centrist American establishment, the Eastern intellectuals and the power class, many of whom were Republicans themselves, albeit moderate ones. When he began his investigation of the Army, he even set himself against his own Republican president, who had once commanded that service. In the end, he was censured in 1954, not for his recklessness about alleged communists but for his recklessness toward his fellow senators….

But if McCarthy had been vanquished — he died three years later of cirrhosis from drinking — McCarthyism was only just beginning. McCarthyism is usually considered a virulent form of Red-baiting and character assassination. But it is much more than that. As historian Richard Hofstadter described it in his famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” McCarthyism is a way to build support by playing on the anxieties of Americans, actively convincing them of danger and conspiracy even where these don’t exist.

McCarthy… was especially adept at nursing national resentments among the sorts of people that typically did not vote Republican. He stumbled onto the fact that many of these people in postwar America were frightened and looking for scapegoats. He provided them, and in doing so not only won millions of adherents but also bequeathed to his party a powerful electoral bludgeon that would eventually drive out the moderates from the GOP (posthumous payback) before it drove the Democrats from the White House.

…McCarthy’s real heir was Nixon, who mainstreamed McCarthyism in 1968 by substituting liberals, youth and minorities for communists and intellectuals, and fueling resentments as McCarthy had. In his 1972 reelection, playing relentlessly on those resentments, Nixon effectively disassembled the old Roosevelt coalition, peeling off Catholics, evangelicals and working-class Democrats, and changed American politics far more than Goldwater ever would.

Today, these former liberals are known as Reagan Democrats, but they were Nixon voters before they were Reagan voters, and they were McCarthy supporters before they were either. A good deal of McCarthy’s support came from Catholics and evangelical Protestants who, along with Southerners, would form the basis of the new conservative coalition. Nixon simply mastered what McCarthy had authored. You demonize the opposition and polarize the electorate to win.

McCarthyism was how Republicans won. George H.W. Bush used it to get himself elected, terrifying voters with Willie Horton. And his son, under the tutelage of strategist Karl Rove, not only got himself reelected by convincing voters that John Kerry was a coward and a liar and would hand the nation over to terrorists, which was pure McCarthyism, he governed by rousing McCarthyite resentments among his base.

Republicans continue to push the idea that this is a center-right country and that Americans have swooned for GOP anti-government posturing all these years, but the real electoral bait has been anger, recrimination and scapegoating. That’s why John McCain kept describing Barack Obama as some sort of alien and why Palin, taking a page right out of the McCarthy playbook, kept pushing Obama’s relationship with onetime radical William Ayers.

And that is also why the Republican Party, despite the recent failure of McCarthyism, is likely to keep moving rightward, appeasing its more extreme elements and stoking their grievances for some time to come. There may be assorted intellectuals and ideologues in the party, maybe even a few centrists, but there is no longer an intellectual or even ideological wing. The party belongs to McCarthy and his heirs — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Palin. It’s in the genes.

This rings very, very true: Demonization is the Republican specialty.  Lacking any constructive vision at all (after all, one of their supposed core beliefs is that government is the problem), they offer only hate and fear and illusory free lunch scams (Trickle-down!  War and tax cuts and an unfettered free market will fix everything!).

What gives me hope is that their message was finally rejected by a majority of Americans.  It remains to be seen whether that was a one-time fluke or the start of a longtime trend – did the GOP lose because Obama was an extraordinarily appealing and charismatic candidate, or did they lose despite the fact that he’s a black man with a funny name, an exotic background, and tenuous connections to some dodgy people?  Hell, perhaps they even lost because of Obama’s race and background, which tempted them into overplaying their hand.

Bear in mind, though: Both the 18-29 millenial cohort and the Latino population voted for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin.  Those are two groups that are growing and becoming more powerful, and the Republican message of intolerance is a turnoff to them, although not necessarily for the same reasons.

If the Republicans want to keep spewing hate and hurtling to the right as the electorate grows more tolerant and moves to the left, then let them.  After all, it’s a free country.

(h/t OCPatriot)

Entry Filed under: Palin,Politics,Republicans,Rove

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