Barry Goldwater shocked the nation’s political class, and is said to have thrown away his chances at winning the 1964 election, with his infamous line that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the defense of justice is no virtue.” Today a growing chorus of analysts are saying the Republican Party has become a wholly “extremist” party dedicated to the obstruction of all compromise, a shift that became most pronounced starting with the insurgent mentality of Newt Gingrich in the 1980s and 1990s, and accelerating under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Funny thing about this supposed turn to “extremism.” There’s another term that can be used for today’s Republican Party: majority.
Behind the teeth-grinding about the demise of moderate Republicanism and the rise of tea party fervor is the tacit premise that the Republican Party ought to serve as an adjunct to Democratic Party liberalism, tempering its excesses but more or less going along with liberalism’s long and unending march to greater social equality. In other words, the GOP should be the Washington Generals, content to lose always to the Democrats’ Harlem Globetrotters. Hence Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party, writes of the good old days when “Moderate Republicans helped shape many of what are typically thought of as Democratic achievements, from certain Progressive and New Deal reforms to the architecture of the post-World War II global order and civil rights legislation.” Heaven forbid that Republicans would grow a spine and say “stop” to the endless expansion of the state. Yet that is the real complaint of my AEI colleague Norm Ornstein and his collaborator Thomas Mann in their new attack on Republicans: “On financial stabilization and economic recovery, on deficits and debt, on climate change and health-care reform, Republicans have been the force behind the widening ideological gaps and the strategic use of partisanship.” To which the late Barry Goldwater would say, “Precisely.”
The argument against the form of conservative politics today masks a liberalism that has grown too lazy or indifferent to argue the substantive premises of its ideology. So deep is liberalism’s presumption of its own correctness that it is easier to call names, brand your opponents extremists, and even traffic in the nostrums of social psychology that conservatism is a pathology, rather than debate the issues openly. Democrats and their intellectual praetorian guard are hoping that reviving the anti-Goldwater strategy of calling Republicans “extremists” will work today as it did in 1964. Yet it is destined to fail.
The view that Republicans are an out-of-the-mainstream party would make sense if we still lived in the world of 1950 described in the classic Samuel Lubell book The Future of American Politics, which offered the analogy of the “sun party” (Democrats) and the “moon party” (Republicans), that is, a majority party that held the initiative because it could win durable electoral majorities, and requiring the minority “moon party,” if it is to survive, to accommodate the sun party. A correlate of the Lubell hypothesis, though, is that the parties would switch places over long epicycles — a process known in political science literature as “realignment,” such as we saw with the coming of the New Deal in 1932.
Democrats assume that their New Deal realignment was eternal, and have never gotten over the fact that their status as the “sun party” ended sometime around the arrival of Ronald Reagan. At best for Democrats, the closely contested elections and large swings of the last three House elections suggest that today we have two moon parties vying to become the sun party (my pal Ornstein might say “two full moon parties” — hah, hah, we get it). But with a stack of surveys showing that conservatives and conservative opinion outnumbering liberals and liberal opinion by a margin of about two to one, you can’t make the argument that Republicans are extremists without confronting its implication that the real problem is the American people, who, after all, voted for the GOP House majority, and have installed the highest number of Republicans in state legislatures around the nation in 75 years. Who among the critics will step up and say openly that the American people are the extremists? Any takers?
The liberal critics of Republicans want the GOP to behave itself and go back to the good old days best described by Eugene McCarthy’s quip that the chief purpose of moderate Republicans is to shoot the wounded after the battle is over. No thanks.
Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989.