I have just finished reading Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin: the Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party: From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012). Its strongly worded - indeed polemical – title tells us where the author comes down in his evaluation of that history. It is, however, a very good history of the modern Republican Party and – by extension at least – of American party politics in the half-century plus since World War II, with particular emphasis on the earlier period. That, of course, is the era my Boomer generation so well remembers and – more than just remembers – the era so many of us were fundamentally formed in. Dividing time into decades is artificial, of course; but it works. So I would divide that period into the peaceful and prosperous decade of the 1950s, followed by the tumultuous and exciting but ultimately catastrophic 1960s, leading directly to the onset of national decline in the 1970s. (That decline would go into apparent remission somewhat in the 1980s and 1990s but then become almost inexorable in the first decade of the 21st century). From the way Kabaservice tells the story, Moderate Republicanism’s fate fairly parallels that larger trajectory of American political time.
The development of the Conservative Movement in the 1950s as a reaction against Eisenhower, its subsequent takeover of the Republican Party with Goldwater in 1964, and the movement’s various new waves in each of the subsequent decades is a familiar story and one which has been often told. However, I don’t know of any telling of it that has been so focused and in such detail on the corresponding collapse of what had previously been the moderate Republican mainstream. Given that, as recently as when I studied American Politics in graduate school in the 1970s, it was still taken for granted that American political parties were inevitably more or less broadly-based coalitions, the novelty of the current situation (in both parties) cannot be overstated.
In the past 60 years, the US has had three successful Republican Presidents – Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan. (By contrast, I would venture to say, there has been only one comparably successful Democrat – Bill Clinton). Eisenhower and Nixon – and even, but to a much lesser extent, Reagan – governed moderately. Kabaservice emphasizes that the merit of Moderate Republicanism wasn’t just facilitating compromise (which is what it sometimes tends to get reduced to when its absence is lamented today) but real programmatic political substance. in Indeed, one of the merits of this book is to highlight the important part played by Moderate Republicans in advancing much of what we retrospectively see as a progressive agenda – especially in the area of Civil Rights. In 1972, the New York Times acknowledged that Nixon’s centrist administration had “narrowed the gap between the two major parties.” At the same time, what Kabaservice calls “Nixon’s rhetorical conservatism, his willingness to polarize the country around controversial social issues” had a long-term contrary effect. The story, of course, is much more complicated than that and Kabaservice’s book deserves a full and careful reading.
One area where I think the author's analysis deserves further development, however, is precisely that of impact of our growing social-cultural-moral divide. Those “controversial social issues” of the late 1960s and early 1970s were serious and divisive, but not nearly so as the subsequent complete breakdown of any possibility of some kind of fundamental moral social consensus in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, after which political (and religious) polarization escalated to levels that are not only very high but from which it is hard to imagine either side ever retreating.