Reeling Republicans

In 2004, a pall of gloom fell over American liberalism. George W. Bush was re-elected the United States’ President against all odds: a quagmire in Iraq and a faltering economy were not sufficient to bury the Republican Party. In fact, the opposite, as conservative strategists plotted for a permanent Republican majority. The Republican Whip, Congressman Tom DeLay, whose nickname was the Hammer, spoke for his Republican troops: “If 1994 was the year we stopped thinking like a permanent minority, 2004 is the year we start thinking like a permanent majority: unified, aggressive, rightfully confident of victory.”

In Pennsylvania, the Republican ascent fuelled the campaign of former Congressman Pat Toomey, who ran in the primary election against the long-time Republican Senator Arlen Specter. Toomey cut his teeth in the world of finance, dealing in currency swaps and derivatives, and then became a Republican politician with a commitment to free markets and minimal taxes. People like him formed the Club of Growth in 1999, which heavily supported Toomey’s campaign for the Republican seat against Specter. To them, Specter was a RINO: Republican in Name Only. Specter prevailed, but only barely. The year 2004 seemed to sound the last post for the Democratic Party and for “moderates” (such as Specter) in the Republican Party. Conservative ascendancy was complete.

A few months before the citizenry went out to vote for Bush over Senator John Kerry, conservative icon and head of the Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist published an article called “The Democrats are Toast” in Washington Monthly. Norquist argued that the social basis of liberalism had vanished. As more Americans had their retirement in the stock market, and as fewer Americans belonged to unions, the language of class resentment or warfare had no appeal. The Democratic Party, without access to state largesse, was enfeebled. It would soon vanish, as the Whigs before it. The jubilation in the Republican camp was met by utter despondency among the liberals. If Bush, with the lodestone of Iraq around his neck, could not be defeated, then the game seemed over.

In the summer of 2004, as the country geared up for the election, cultural critic Thomas Frank published What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Frank’s thesis was elegant: conservatives have shifted the terrain of American politics away from “bread and butter” issues towards “moral” issues, such as abortion and gay marriage. When confronted with this “moral” agenda, the working class tends to vote for the conservatives, and therefore against its own class interests. The brilliance of the conservative strategy, Frank pointed out, is that it is fated to be a war without end, since on none of its issues can it actually win. There is too much resistance to the abolition of abortion and to the sanction against gay marriage.

Victory is not as important as the existence of the issues, for they are useful to divert attention away from the eviscerated economy and the collapse of the social security net. Frank’s analysis attempted to unmask this powerful but decadent thing called conservatism and to salvage a weakened but essential populism. The book was an instant bestseller, and it became a reference point after Senator Kerry’s defeat at the hands of what appeared to be a weakened Bush.

Signs of change were, however, in the very entrails of victory. DeLay won with 55 per cent of the vote in his own re-election in Texas, but his total was down 8 per cent, while the Democrat gained 6 per cent of the votes. Specter defeated Toomey in a highly partisan primary, and then walked away with the support of many Democrats in the general election. An enlivened Democratic Party turned to Vermont Governor Howard Dean to lead them out of the wilderness, and a young Senator Barack Obama offered a new vocabulary of post-partisanship around which many of the wizened elders gathered. But at that time all this was wishful thinking for the liberals.

It was only when the “men of stern morality” fell off their white steeds in 2005 that the conservative unravelling began. Corruption cases against the Republican leadership threw the party into disarray by the summer of 2005. The machinations of a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, brought down Majority Leader DeLay and many of his closest associates (including Republican operatives Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition, and Norquist). Governmental drift in Iraq was horrible enough but it appeared cognisable when matched with its paralysis after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

The Republican coalition was built on at least three parts: the theo-conservatives who had strong vows to “moral” issues (or at least to strong positions against homosexuality and abortion rights), the neoconservatives who pledged themselves to the exercise of U.S. military power overseas (with an especial fealty to Israel’s defence), and the economic conservatives (who were given over to a dogmatic laissez faire public policy).

These sections hardened over the Bush years, giving no quarter on their various grievances and commitments. They became petulant in their defence of their obligations, intolerant even when evidence showed them to be wrong or hypocritical. There was no apology for the pillage of the exchequer. American conservatism was remorseless, and heartless. President Bush’s approval ratings fell to about 40 per cent (it would be near 20 per cent when he left office four years later). In the mid-term election of 2006, the Democrats took control over the legislature. A Democrat won DeLay’s seat with 51 per cent of the vote, the first time a Democrat won this Texas seat since 1976 (he lost the seat two years later to a Republican).

Two years later, Obama handily defeated the Republican John McCain to take the White House. DeLay’s permanent majority dissolved. The excecated zealousness of the Republican base prevented the pragmatic Republicans from saving themselves.

It is this bullheadedness that led Senator Specter to switch political parties in April 2009. At a surprise press conference, Specter announced: “Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.” Despite the considerable opportunism in Specter’s decision, it was also governed by a truism, which is that the Republican Party is now a prisoner of its various special interests that eschew pragmatism.

A few days after Specter’s transformation, The New York Times’ columnist Bob Herbert wrote: “It’s not a party; it’s a cult…. This is the party of [radio talk show host] Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, [former Congressman] Newt Gingrich, and the dark force who can’t seem to exit the public stage or modify his medieval ways, Dick Cheney.”

Former New Jersey Governor and moderate Republican Christine Todd Whitman weighed in, asking for others of her persuasion not to abandon the Republican Party, for if more do, “we lose what ability we have left to affect policy, and that is going to be devastating to our nation…. We cannot simply be the party of no.” Things are at such a pass that the Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told the press: “I say to Republicans in America, take back your party.”

But that is what the Republicans have become: the curmudgeon relative at family occasions who needles everyone in the room, arrogant in his certainty and superiority. Just as the Democratic intelligentsia hustled to create new concepts for their party in the wake of 2004, Republican writers have now gathered together to make sense of the moment.

Most of them are unwilling to give up any of the shibboleths of their movement. Obsession with small government is at the centre of things, although this looks ridiculous besides the vast expansion of the U.S. government under Bush (particularly the military wing).

Talk of liberty is also shallow: the Republicans are quick to interfere with the private rights of citizens (through increased state surveillance, restrictions on health care, and prohibitions on various social interactions); and their version of economic liberty means less regulation for large corporations rather than more oxygen for small businesses. The petulance towards social welfare looks miserly when put beside the haemorrhaged national economy (5.7 million jobs lost since December 2007).

Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, went after the Obama spending plan, saying that the President is “the world’s best salesman of socialism”. This is not what the extended unemployment insurance payments and the mortgage supports seem to the average citizen. “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff,” said former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, but the fact is that it is the American population that seems to love it as much (Obama’s popularity is now at 63 per cent). A survey of the Republican base showed that more than half want the party to be led by someone like Sarah Palin, which means to be more intractably right-wing.
Grand New Party

Analysis of the Republican’s impasse goes in two directions. Party stalwarts believe that the problem of the party is tactical: a more effective fund-raising platform, a better message, and a more robust get-out-the-vote campaign are all that is needed for the Republicans to recapture power. Others believe that the problem is far graver, that American conservatism has lost its footing.

In 2005, two young Republican intellectuals, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (whose parents migrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh), published an article called “The Party of Sam’s Club” in the right-wing Weekly Standard. Drawing the phrase from Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlentry’s comment that the Republicans have lost the “Sam’s Club Republicans”, Douthat and Salam argued that the conservatives should renew their relationship with the working class: not enough to throw them the red meat of social issues, but to proffer a more generous bargain with them on social and economic issues.

Three years later, Douthat and Salam extended their argument into a well-received book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. Here they reproduced their critique of the increased narrowness of the Republican vision, and returned to conservative themes from the 1950s.

In many ways, Grand New Party has all the same ambiguities of Up from Liberalism, the 1959 screed from conservatism’s enfant terrible, William F. Buckley Jr. (who exited the world stage in February 2008, as his movement began to fall apart). Buckley argued for a strict conservatism, but not one that was utterly heartless. “Conservatism cannot be blind, or give the appearance of being blind, to the dismaying spectacle of unemployment, or any other kind of suffering,” he wrote, although he would prefer that conservatives champion voluntary donations rather than state plunder. Douthat and Salam too promote elements of social welfare (“the working class wants, and needs, more from public policy than simply to be left alone”).

Douthat and Salam are at their best when they go after Thomas Frank’s binary between the cultural and the economic. Can there be an economic policy that is not itself cultural? Divorce is one of the cornerstones of the rights movement, but it is not equally applied across the classes. “Working-class voters are less likely to benefit from sexual freedom and more likely to suffer from its side effects,” they point out, meaning that the working class has a harder time than the elite managing two households on their meagre wages. The conservatives generally go after divorce with an unreasonable, antiquated morality, attacking the individuals for breaking up the family.

Douthat and Salam point out that globalization has made the family an unsustainable institution for the working class; they might just as well have said that the wrecking ball is wielded by capitalism in general, and not just globalization.

The heart of American conservatism, the family and the community, is on its knees because of globalization, which must be reconstructed in the interests of ordinary people and not just the bankers.

This anti-globalization position is far removed from the citadel of the Republican Party, as it is from the ideological core of liberalism (which is equally given over to globalization). It is unlikely to gain any traction in the mainstream, although it is a welcome mat for populists who might wish to forge an alternative to the two dominant parties.

The Republican Party is not going to disappear overnight. It is not just a congeries of ideas or a group of elected officials. It commands a large section of the electorate, and it is a vast apparatus of organisations and chapters. It would be senseless to write the obituary of American conservatism, particularly given the continued feebleness of American liberalism and the virtual absence of American radicalism.
Both the Republicans and the Democrats are laid waste by financial power, which lays waste the fabric of American democracy. But the Republicans are nonetheless dented, aware that their orthodoxy is undesirable to the citizenry.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).