Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party
by Geoffrey Kabaservice
Oxford University Press, 502 pages, $29.95
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, the founding manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society, a legendary document of the 1960s that expressed frustration with a post-war America ruled by what its youthful authors believed was a complacent and compromising status quo. Setting itself against the establishment—“program without vision”—the New Left called for a new, ambitious, and transformative politics. Within a decade it would transform the Democratic Party.
Today, however, few appreciate that the New Left’s fierce refusals of ideological compromise, its arguments for singularly dogmatic positions, and its demands for “a real two-party system” with reliably left and right wing parties each adhering to strict internal homogeneity weren’t entirely unprecedented calls to radical change. They echoed ideas, sentiments, and calls to action already seen in the new, insurgent conservatism that would transform the Republican party.
We’ve been told the story of the New Left many times, and it has become part of the myth of the 1960s. What has remained largely untold is the story of movement conservatism. Strongly sympathetic to the Republican moderates who vied for control of the party, initially with success but eventually for naught, historian Geoffrey Kabaservice charts the rise of movement conservatism in this extensively, exhaustingly detailed book. He chronicles party politics from the end of Eisenhower’s presidency to the emergence of the Tea Party, but the main focus falls on the tumultuous 1960s.
On one side Kabaservice describes the modernization of establishment Republicanism, epitomized by the youthful efforts of Bruce Chapman and George Gilder, who as Harvard undergraduates founded Advance magazine to argue for a “progressive conservatism” that promised to move the Republican Party from a politics of “sound men” to one of good policies.
On the other side were a series of movements on the right, some of which were populist and all of which had a strong anti-establishment streak. The most famous, indeed infamous, was the John Birch Society. More enduring was the contribution of William F. Buckley’s National Review, the organ for an ideologically pure conservatism that often assailed what were judged to be fatal compromises of principle by the Republican establishment.
No one and nothing seems more significant to the postwar Republican party’s structural, demographic, and cultural changes than Barry Goldwater and his 1964 run for president. Supported by members of the Young Americans for Freedom and others who didn’t come to politics through the Republican party establishment, Goldwater ran for the GOP nomination against East Coast moderates Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., Nelson Rockefeller, and William Scranton, who were themselves supported by an aging, clubbish party infrastructure.
To his supporters, according to Kabaservice, Goldwater was a “counter-cultural hero” who commanded their loyalty because of his “moral and existential authenticity,” a few years before this very same dynamic became more exclusively associated with the New Left. The Republican establishment, though, regarded him as an extremist unable to responsibly govern. They assailed him for voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which they rightly regarded as a betrayal of the GOP’s heritage as an anti-slavery party, and framed him as a dangerous reactionary, citing his “calls to make Social Security voluntary, drop atomic bombs in Asia, break diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and repeal the income tax laws.” Typically, they didn’t offer their own proposals.
In a pattern that would hold and intensify within the party in the ensuing years, the moderates were out-maneuvered, out-manned, and quite literally shouted down by the conservatives at the rancorous 1964 national convention. Goldwater operatives secured control of the convention platform committee and then voted against every moderate Republican platform plank.
The eastern establishment icon Nelson Rockefeller was booed, hissed, and howled at when he tried to speak against the GOP’s falling prey to unseemly tactics associated with the John Birch Society. “The crudity of Rockefeller’s hecklers,” writes Kabaservice, “was a rebellion against the prim and proper mores of the East,” that conservatives associated with the GOP’s longstanding control by progressive-minded elites like Rockefeller and Lodge, and likewise with the party’s foundations in New England—which, in the early twentieth century, had been the most solidly Republican section of the country.
In fact, Kabaservice continues, “the convention revealed to the public,” if not yet to the party’s elders, “that the once-masterful Eastern elites of the earlier era had passed from the political scene.” Journalist Murray Kempton put it more provocatively: “This convention is historic because it is the emancipation of the serfs . . . the serfs have seized the estate of the masters.”
Goldwater handily won the nomination only to lose the general election in spectacular fashion. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign picked up where the Republican moderates left off, describing Goldwater “as a dangerous radical” who was “threatening America’s domestic and foreign security.” Many moderate Republicans seemed to have shared this view, so much so that the Goldwater-controlled RNC began to withhold funding for congressional candidates perceived to be distancing themselves from his campaign.
Goldwater’s campaign, Kabaservice argues, “was every bit the catastrophe it seemed, and one that echoed across the American political scene for decades.” The Republican party regrouped, and the hand of the moderates was strengthened, but movement conservatism did not go away.
The New Right thrived, in no small part because by the 1960s conservatives accepted that calling for the repeal of the New Deal’s entitlement programs had become a non-starter with broad parts of the electorate, and so too the hysterical, jingoistic anti-Communism of the sort lampooned in the figure of the missile-riding general from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. At the same time, increasing parts of this same electorate were becoming troubled by the decadence, violence, and liberationist politics associated with the New Left protest movements, by the expansiveness and inefficiencies of the Great Society-era federal government, by a seemingly intractable situation in Vietnam, and by the social and structural breakdowns impairing many American cities.
The country needed a viable alternative to Left-Democrat rule, and the old moderate Republican elites failed to provide one. Kabaservice details the decline of Advance magazine, too often ignored and underfunded by establishment powerbrokers who were unable to recognize the creativity of a new generation of moderate but conservative intellectuals. Meanwhile, cause-driven outsiders who came of age in the sixties and were building both grassroots and intellectual networks of like-minded allies had more people, more energy, and more ideas. As he persuasively argues, the period from the late sixties into the eighties was a “long recessional” for moderate Republicanism.
Kabaservice criticizes moderates for a failure of nerve and energy in their battles with the conservatives. Nelson Rockefeller comes in for particular censure as a man so convinced of his right to rule that he had little time for building the intellectual basis necessary for what was becoming an increasingly ideologically driven political environment. Rockefeller also put too much trust in his vast fortune, neglecting to build grassroots party structures, which meant that movement conservatives were able to retain a great deal of control of the Republican party apparatus, allowing them to resist his many attempts to secure the party’s nomination to run for president.
Perhaps this failure is owed to an outmoded sensibility and outdated presumption. Moderation itself, particularly by comparison to the movement conservatism that took off in the 1960s, “did appear to be a more elastic and relativistic outlook,” Kabaservice acknowledges, “which made it seem less of a faith worth fighting and dying for.” This failure exposes the longstanding, tacitly governing assumption of the most prominent moderate Republicans and their supporters: that well-born men are the men best-suited to lead the country, because they have “sound views” and “good judgment.”
Beginning in the early 1960s, more and more Americans disagreed with this crypto-aristocratic approach to republican democracy. With Rule and Ruin, Kabaservice helps us see just what they did about it, and how these efforts affected the larger social transformation of the 1960s. In so doing, he has provided a welcome correction to the dominant, distorting mythology that all the energy for change came from the New Left. He has also explained why so little of that needed energy came from the moderate Republican establishment and, consequently, why that moderate Republican establishment has so little presence in national life today.
Randy Boyagoda, a novelist and chairman of the English department at Ryerson University, is writing a biography of Richard John Neuhaus.