Monday, December 01, 2008

The Real Heritage

Neil Gabler had a thought-provoking essay in yesterday's Los Angeles Times about the true lineage of the current Republican party. While conventional wisdom usually traces modern conservatism to Barry Goldwater, Mr. Gabler suggests that the true source was someone else:

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.

The basic problem with the Goldwater tale is that it focuses on ideology and movement building, which few voters have ever really cared about, while the McCarthy tale focuses on electoral strategy, which is where Republicans have excelled. ...

...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, a Catholic, 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.
[Emphasis added]

Mr. Gabler's theory certainly goes a long way towards explaining the Southern Strategy, Willie Horton, color-coded security alerts, and just about everything connected with the Bush administration. It also accounts for the fact that Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Tom Tancredo, and, yes, Sarah Palin have been able to wield such power in their party and to garner such attention from a stenographic press.

Do the Democratic successes of the past two elections mean the American people of finally had enough of that kind of demagoguery? That remains to be seen. It is just as likely that the sudden collapse of the economy and a sick-unto-death attitude toward two wars in which the treasury has been drained and thousands have been killed or maimed were responsible. Still, if the Democratic leaders can couple a strategy of appealing to the better parts of the American psyche with successful programs, we'll at least have some breathing space.

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Blogger Anna said...

I know you guys are more fond of running prettier pictures, but the one of Ann Coulter hugging Joe McCarthy's gravestone shouldn't be forgotten:

4:24 AM  

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