The Republican Right-Turn

How has the party of Lincoln veered so wildly off course?

In 2012, political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal found that the Republican Party platform was at its most conservative in nearly a century. With a mixture of free market policy and social conservatism, the Republican Party seemed unafraid to flex its Tea Party muscle and appeal to its evangelical, pro-business coalition. Four years later, the story is much the same, yet even more extreme. With an unflinching rejection of LGBT rights, immigration, and clean energy, the GOP’s 2016 platform is its most conservative in recent memory.

This is no isolated incident. The platform reflects an ongoing trend for the Republican Party, in which candidates and their policies have leaned increasingly rightward over time. For evidence, look to their past platforms, which since the 1970s have gradually drifted away from any position that might be considered liberal (or even centrist) in today’s political arena. But the change isn’t merely a matter of the party’s establishment — in fact, the party’s base has demonstrated in past polls that many either want a more conservative platform or are satisfied with the largely right-wing policies that the GOP endorses today. It begs the question: why has this shift taken place?

It’s no secret that America’s politics are polarized, and the gradual homogenization of the parties, in which coastal liberal Republicans moved Democratic, and southern social conservatives moved Republican, plays an obvious role. Platforms aren’t merely a reflection of ideology, but also a product of the coalitions that parties form between groups of society. Freed of their obligation to appease liberal internal factions, the party has considerable leeway to swing further and further away from the center. But it leaves open a sort of chicken-or-egg question: which came first, the liberal exodus, or the conservative rebuff?

The Southern Democratic Exodus

Historical evidence suggests that the answer has more to do with the former, and is found in the other side of the partisan divide: the Democratic Party. Keith T. Poole, a professor of political science at UC San Diego writes that, contrary to popular understanding, the United States actually followed what can be loosely defined as a three-party structure, in which the Democratic Party was split between Northern and Southern factions that independently built coalitions with Republicans on certain issues. Southern Democrats could work with conservative Republicans as a counter-balance to overt Northern liberalism; Northern and Southern Democrats worked together to sustain a continuous majority in Congress and thus maintain a marriage of power; and Northern Democrats worked with Republicans to pass civil rights legislation.

“…the GOP’s 2016 platform is turning out to be its most conservative in recent memory.”

The rift began when Lyndon B. Johnson pushed civil rights legislation through Congress, and then later secured a landslide victory against segregationist Barry Goldwater in 1964. Simultaneously, for the first time, Northern Democrats independently secured a majority in Congress. These legislators no longer needed the support of Southern Democrats to pass their legislative agenda, and as a result began to institute expansive federal programs with redistributive effects. The economic and class implications of social programs suddenly became intermingled with racial issues, which made economic populism a toxic proposition to Southern conservatives.

The result was an exodus of Southern Democrats to the Republican Party, at first blunted by the Watergate scandal but later renewed under the Reagan campaign. This fundamentally changed the dynamic upon which our politics were aligned. For decades, the partisan divide was primarily economic, with Democrats representing workers and the “common man,” and Republicans representing business interests and elites. At the same time, because both parties were national in scope, they catered to interests that cross-cut regions, which offered a second dimension to politics, represented primarily in race. Democrats and Republicans both disagreed internally on how to handle issues of race and social policy, but these were secondary to pragmatic considerations of power and overarching economic beliefs.

The turmoil of the civil rights era and the subsequent southern realignment changed this dynamic. No longer could parties find social common-ground across the aisle. Politics were now strictly one-dimensional, in which support of Democrats meant supporting both liberal economic policies and liberal social policies, and vice-versa for the Republicans. This hampered the ability of the parties to build coalitions, garner bipartisan support, and broker compromises.

But of course, this context only provides the conditions in which polarization began — it doesn’t fully explain why polarization has continued at the rate it has over the years. The answer is complicated and not fully understood; thus, narratives abound. In his analysis, Poole cites immigration and income inequality as possible aggravating factors, as each has shifted roughly in tandem with polarization, but provides little explanation as to why that might be true. At the same time, demographic and cultural shifts have occurred that have left conservatives, especially social conservatives, on the defensive. If their mission is to maintain the status quo, or even revert to older conditions, then that job is becoming increasingly difficult, given the breakneck pace of technological and social change taking place today.

The Loss of Cultural Power

This change has alienated members of the party’s socially-conservative wing, leaving many voters feeling disempowered and morally isolated as white dominance dwindles, mainstream media shifts leftward, and a new (and largely liberal) generation emerges from the post-recession era.

It’s a cherished pastime of older generations to raise the alarm about the decaying values of the young, but today’s changes take a step further: in the broader cultural and legal discussion, particularly on social issues, conservatives are losing. Court rulings on gay rights and abortion have handed solid victories to champions of LBGT and women’s issues. Social media has empowered renewed movements for social justice, peddling attitudes and policies that some may label ‘political correctness.’ The moral panic of the drug war, once a hallmark of domestic politics in the 80s and the 90s, has faded in most of America’s urban corridors, giving rise in many states to laws permitting the medical and recreational use of marijuana. And while Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out shocked America in the 90s, it is now homophobic sentiment that stokes shock and outrage in the mainstream discussion.

“No longer could parties find social common-ground across the aisle.”

None of these developments mean that liberals have gotten everything they’ve wanted. There’s a strong case to be made that more work must be done on all of the issues stated above. Regardless, these changes are big losses to social conservatives. In their view, a mainstream liberal order has emerged that largely pushes conservatives out of public favor, especially if they’re deemed offensive. Celebrities and businesses that espouse conservative values (think Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and Chick-fil-A) become martyrs in the base. Even morally-repulsive figures like George Zimmerman can become implicit idols as the specter of Liberal America descends upon them.

It hints to a long-term change in the nation’s cultural tendencies. Conservatives were once the moral establishment, and under this establishment traditional norms reigned. And in response, liberal youths rebelled against their teachers, their politicians, and most other symbols of authority. Today, those youths have grown up to become the teachers, politicians, and authority figures. Those who broke the rules to speak out for equality have now made rules that ban speaking against it, in form of speech codes, scandals, and general internet shaming. The rebels have become the establishment, and The Man is now the underdog. Little surprise, then, that after being pushed outward, conservatives have drawn inward, becoming even more insular and exclusive, securing an enclave in which they still have control. In their view, their value system, their families, and their country are all under siege.

No group feels more powerless in this demographic and political shift than those who support Donald Trump. Business interests and neoconservatives have Bushes, Romneys, and Rubios. Fundamentalists have Cruzes, Perrys, and Santorums. Yet left out of the equation, both in policy and in personality, are the white working class, the former Southern Democrats, who feel neither the religious fury of social conservatives, nor the wonkish free-market fervor of fiscal conservatives, nor the foreign-policy focus of neocons. From their point of view, libertarians send their jobs to China, neocons send their kids to Iraq, and evangelicals simply send them out of sight, ashamed of their perceived moral failings. It’s bad enough that Liberal America is winning, but it’s even worse that their own party refuses to help them, or even acknowledge their existence.

Since the 1970s, they’ve been treated more as a voting bloc than a constituency. By and large, the GOP still favors elites, especially on economic policy. The trade deals that free-market Republicans and neoliberal Democrats have pushed since the 1990s have left them with jobs disappearing, wages stagnating, and standard of living declining. Any hope of adjustment policy, which would at least help retrain displaced workers and cushion their transition, is frequently dashed by those same fiscal conservatives, and then spun to stoke white opposition by framing such a policy as exclusively useful to minorities, as they’ve done with most other welfare policy since the 80s.

“The rebels have become the establishment, and The Man is now the underdog.”

For the past three decades, the GOP has masterfully exploited the fears and anxieties of the party’s Trumpites, but only so much as to get them to the voting booth. After the election, they’re left to their own devices once again. It’s only now that the white working class is becoming aware of this fact. They’re tired of being lied to, tired of being ignored, and tired of being used as cannon fodder in the culture-war against liberals. Thus, in trying to regain control, they’ve rallied around an outsider candidate that kowtows to neither finger-waggling Democrats nor dismissive Republicans. His message is economic populism, social conservatism, and racial animosity, not all that different from the southern legislators of the old Democratic order.

In any case, whether they want to make America great again, turn on Cruz control, or stand with Rand, Republicans have been placed squarely on the defensive, which leaves the party and its base vulnerable to tribalism. This is especially true given the polarization so endemic to our politics: it’s no longer a matter of simply affirming Republican values, it’s contradicting Democratic ones. A stance in favor of abortion restrictions is a stance against pro-choice Democrats, and a stance in favor of traditional marriage is a stance against the LGBT rights movement. Events and policies are no longer viewed through the lens of right versus wrong, correct versus incorrect, or fact versus fiction — overriding all of these important distinctions is spite for those on the other side of the divide, with all of the connotations that their existence brings.

This helps explain why unsavory figures like George Zimmerman have the propensity to become martyrs in the party base: although other resentments may play a role — resentments which warrant their own discussion — an especially solidifying resentment (seen across party lines, mind) is that of those with which they disagree, the liberals. To concede that these men did wrong is to give a victory to the ‘other,’ an ‘other’ which (if GOP rhetoric is to be believed) is seeking to destroy conservatives and the country that they live in.

The Loss of Dissenting Voices

In time, resentment of liberals means that liberals leave the party, which insulates the base to conservative voices, building an echo-chamber that leaves misconceptions unchallenged and further radicalizes the party’s agenda. Hence, yet another reason for the party’s continuous rightward veer is one of positive feedback: the causes of polarization are also the effects, and they amplify each other in cycles.

The radicalizing nature of an echo-chamber is a well-observed phenomenon in social psychology, referred to as “group polarization.” David G. Myers and George D. Bishop conducted an illustrative study in 1970 in which individuals with a high and a low degree of racial prejudice were placed into respective groups based on their attitudes. In other words, racists were placed with racists, and vice versa. They were then asked to carry out a small-group discussion about racial issues. Before and after the discussion, researchers asked participants questions about their racial attitudes. Consistently, participants in the high-prejudice group left their discussion with even higher levels of prejudice, and participants in the low-prejudice group left theirs with even lower levels of prejudice.

“Events and policies are no longer viewed through the lens of right versus wrong, correct versus incorrect, or fact versus fiction…”

It’s obviously problematic to apply studies on small groups to entire political parties, but the same can’t be said for all the tiny interactions that political participation entails. An echo chamber may not occur across an entire national organization, but it certainly occurs in conversations, events, and social gatherings. As for our policymakers, the same could be said for meetings of all kinds, in caucuses, cabinets, and committees. We are all human, after all, and the collective of our society is the sum of its individuals, so it stands to reason that these phenomena, happening just below our conscious control, have implications for our nation when considered in aggregate. This is especially true considering the advent of social media, in which it’s easier than ever for partisans all over the country to come together to ignore alternative viewpoints.

The Fall of Machines and the Rise of Insurgents

Not yet touched in this discussion, however, is the extent to which the Democratic Party faces these same problems. It’s true that Democrats have shifted leftward in recent years, but the way that polarization has occurred is decidedly lopsided. As Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Orstein of the American Enterprise Institute explain, most of the polarization we’ve seen in recent years has been due to the Republican Party, characterized by the party’s continuous rightward veer. This isn’t a matter of partisan contention, it’s a simple statistical fact.

What gives? Liberal Republicans became blue voters, just the same as Southern Democrats became red ones. One would imagine that such a change would send the party of Jackson veering further and further leftward.

“Political machines, in which party members are rewarded for loyalty and are offered incentives to stick to the party line, may actually be a strong antidote to partisan gridlock, when enabled to do as they do.”

One obvious answer is that the Democrats are clearly winning the ‘culture war.’ As of right now, demographics are on their side. Increasing ethnic diversity and shrinking white dominance is likely going to make presidential elections easier for the Democrats in years to come. Meanwhile, the big losses faced by conservative Republicans are in most ways wins for liberal Democrats. Whereas the sphere of conservative influence has shrunken, the sphere of liberal influence has grown, and it’s possible that this development makes retrenchment into defensiveness and knee-jerk tribalism less likely. Another development is the rise of more conservative Democrats in the national eye. In response to the Reagan fervor and the subsequent H.W. Bush administration, Democrats adapted to a more centrist approach, embodied in the Bill Clinton presidency, which emphasized freer markets, more restrictive welfare, and tougher criminal justice. As Republicans became more conservative, so did Democrats, and so abandoning those neoliberal changes appears more radical than it truly is.

But another, less obvious answer lies in the way that the Democratic Party is structured, and how it conducts its business. Democrats have a long history of machine politics — it was the Democratic Party that built New York’s Tammany Hall, where Boss Tweed ran a massive system of patronage that dominated the city’s inner workings. Political machines, in which party members are rewarded for loyalty and are offered incentives to stick to the party line, may actually be a strong antidote to partisan gridlock, when enabled to do as they do.

This is the central thesis of a paper authored by Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Rauch’s essential argument is that political gridlock is less the result of polarization alone and more a result of the inability of parties to get lawmakers to the bargaining table. Political machines, which could provide earmarks and campaign funding to incentivize cooperation within the party, are essential to rallying that kind of support, which usually entails gaining enough votes to pass bipartisan legislation. And yet the influence and structure of machines has been continuously dismantled by well-intentioned anti-corruption efforts. Campaign finance regulation and new limits on earmarks have largely taken the teeth out of the party leadership. The result, as today’s politics shows, is a system that is still perceived as corrupt and is simultaneously less effective at implementing policy. Rauch argues that a little extra perceived corruption is a good trade-off if it means that the government can get back to governing, a task on which the legislature has fallen far behind.

The narrative of parties unable to quell insurgents is an all too familiar story to the modern Republican party. Under the Obama administration, the Bush-era establishment has been besieged and in some ways usurped by the populist Tea Party movement, only to be displaced again by the Donald Trump campaign in this past year. Under Rauch’s analysis, this would come as no surprise — the GOP lacks the Democratic Party’s chops on machine politics, and as a result have no way to keep a grip on the party’s legislators. This would help explain why Trump could overthrow Bush, Rubio, and Cruz, but Sanders couldn’t overthrow Clinton. It also provides yet another clear reason for the Republican rightward drift: our increasingly populist and decentralized politics have created the conditions for outsiders and extremists to flourish, who undoubtedly force party insiders to take extreme positions in order to gain their support.

“…a little extra perceived corruption is a good trade-off if it means that the government can get back to governing, a task on which the legislature has fallen far behind.”

Without the use of carrots and sticks by the party leadership, Republican legislators have few alternatives aside from co-opting the demands of radicals. To go against the Republican insurgency is to face political suicide. That, at least, is the argument posited by Jackie Calmes, a fellow with the Shorestein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Calmes cites the emergence of new right-wing media, concentrated in private groups (Americans for Prosperity), talk radio (Rush Limbaugh), and in the blogosphere (Breitbart), that place considerable pressure on Republican candidates to maintain ideological purity. The results of ignoring their calls are readily apparent in the story of former Republican congressman Eric Cantor. Cantor, a Representative from Virginia, was originally on track to replace John Boehner as Speaker of the House, and was seen by many to be the new face of a Republican Party in power. Yet in response to Cantor’s more lukewarm view on immigration, nationally-syndicated talk-show host Laura Ingraham launched a campaign to boost his dark-horse Tea Party rival, Dave Brat. In an unexpected turn, Brat won, unseating a darling of the Republican establishment and demonstrating the power that this conservative media had in setting the Republican agenda.

This sort of problem falls neatly in line with Rauch’s analysis. These extremist voices have always existed, but in the absence of party machines that moderate and mediate their influence, they end up dominating Republican politics. Consequently, these radicals, who have no interest in compromise (and thus no interest in governing), serve to only deepen the paralyzing division endemic to our government today.

The Future

Without the tools to quash insurrections and guide legislators, establishment Republicans have been robbed of the future that they’ve envisioned for their party. The narrative that the GOP will become more diverse, more inclusive, and more center-leaning is fundamentally disconnected from its conservative and populist base, which is now rife with insurgents that hijack the party’s policy agenda (and even its primaries) and veer them sharply to the right, thereby alienating the minority voices that Republicans need to seize the White House. The Republican Party’s 2016 platform is an inscription of that fact, filled with rhetoric and policy that in the view of many is the party’s most conservative policy statement yet.

The realignment that set American polarization in motion was, in some ways, a short-sighted mistake on part of the Democrats, who abandoned their Southern counterparts in pursuit of more liberal policies. Meanwhile, the anxieties of globalization and demographic and cultural change has left many conservatives afraid for the future of the United States. Although government policy may have played some role in these changes, they could also be viewed as mere reflections of larger forces operating in our country and in the world. The same can be said for the dismantling of political machines, which was viewed from both parties as necessary to combat corruption — a moral sentiment in which many were too caught up to recognize the practical harm. Thus, many of the problems that created the conditions for the GOP’s rightward shift are factors for which Republican leaders are blameless.

“Consequently, these radicals, who have no interest in compromise (and thus no interest in governing), serve to only deepen the paralyzing division endemic to our government today.”

Yet also critical was the role of the party establishment in fanning the flames of these worries, using alarmist rhetoric to convince the base that they and their country were in danger. Instead of challenging dangerous and counterfactual myths perpetuated by their supporters, GOP leaders allowed these myths to fester because they were convenient. And let’s not forget that a significant portion of the base — the former Southern Democrats — have largely had their economic concerns ignored, in favor of a careless devotion to free-market orthodoxy. It’s true that both Democrats and Republicans share the blame for having failed to help displaced workers re-adjust to globalization, but Democrats have scarcely argued (in modern times, anyway) that such policies were inherently bad. The same cannot be said for the Republican Party, which has for decades invoked racial and social tensions through narratives like the “welfare queen” to frame social safety nets in terms of identity, rather than economy.

Now that their carelessness has largely come back to haunt them, they wish to pump the brakes. But the brake lines were cut years ago, and even more reckless drivers have seized the wheel. They chose the path they’re on, and it’s a bumpy road ahead.