Only a few years ago there was a lot of talk about a permanent Republican majority. Through the workings of demographic, economic, cultural and religious forces, the GOP was to become the controlling institution in Washington, D.C., and most states. While it was assumed that a few “progressive” archipelagos would persist in the Northeast and on the West Coast, America would become ever more Republican. Among many Republican strategists, an overweening arrogance was now the norm.
Now, suddenly, there is talk of the party’s demise. What happened? The Republican Party’s problem is largely due to a confluence of destructive patterns.
First, our economy slumped even as the top 1 percent gained mighty returns from an economy that favored them. Many of the rich flaunted their wealth, advertising the disparities with private planes, massive houses in gated communities and other badges and bangles of financial success. The GOP was portrayed as the handmaiden of this small but powerful class. Further, the prospect of attaining power seduced and despoiled many high-profile Republican leaders, trumping morality, propriety and principle.
Consider these people: Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, California Rep. Duke Cunningham, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, Florida Rep. Mark Foley -- prominent Republicans all. They and a host of fellow travelers went down the road to political ruin, and along the way they besmirched their party’s name. All of them used their political positions and access to get rich through taking bribes, evading taxes or advancing private obsessions, always violating purported GOP standards.
Here’s a generalization that helps explain the public reaction to this litany of failures and felonies: No one of substance and character respects hypocrites and liars. And those named above were exactly that -- cowardly hypocrites who lied about their transgressions in an attempt to hide them.
All exploited their positions for personal and often petty reasons. They violated supposed GOP ideals of a modest-sized and honest government at home, personal morality, and trusting the market rather than politics to coordinate and allocate resources. They discounted these principles in exchange for financial gain or sexual favor. The entire Republican Party was tainted by their hypocrisy.
Finally, the GOP jettisoned intellectual and ethical ballast. The party lost opinion and community leaders when their candidates began to celebrate anti-intellectual positions. Party leaders dismissed conservative and classical liberals (today’s libertarians) who had become critics of Republican policies and candidates. Party operatives failed to understand that honorable individuals are allies only when the Republican Party honors and adheres to its announced principles.
Here’s what the GOP lost: Beginning in the 1970s, those conservatives that had the money to back up their principles engaged in the public policy debate. Believing they had logic and data on their side, they set out to fund the development of an intellectual movement. In addition to major investments at universities, they created and supported think tanks such as American Enterprise, CATO, the Heritage Foundation, Heartland, Hoover Institution, Manhattan Institute, National Center for Policy Analysis, Reason Foundation and many smaller, more specialized organizations.
The leaders of these organizations were emphatically not GOP groupies. Many are scholars from the best schools, including universities at Berkeley and Chicago as well as Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. All espoused positions consistent with America’s founding ideals. Their work continues to provide excellent feedstock for America’s opinion leaders, including writers for the Economist, Wall Street Journal and yes, even The New York Times. For over 30 years this movement offered constructive alternatives to the policies of the politically correct but often ineffective redistributive left.
The high-water mark of this movement was 1984, when Reagan won all but one state. But since Reagan, the Republican Party has become more concerned with power and privilege than principle. The party repelled educated people as GOP tacticians mobilized voters by descending to cultural and class warfare. Losing opinion leaders such as David Brooks, Peggy Noonan and George Will is serious testimony to the failure of this approach.
Brooks recently observed: “...Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it’s 2-to-1. With tech executives, it’s 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it’s 2-to-1. It took talent for Republicans to lose the banking community.”
Explaining the downfall of the USSR, Dan Chirot wrote that when a party loses moral legitimacy and also breaks its economic promises, support collapses. That’s what happened Nov. 4.
John Baden is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE) and founder of Gallatin Writers, both based in Bozeman, Montana.