Saturday, October 27, 2007

The evolution (or creation?) of authoritarian Republicanism

Reagans and Nixons: the good old moderate pragmatic days of the Republican Party?

Former Republican - should I say "recovering Republican"? - Ariana Huffington writes in Midnight in America: the Mainstreaming of the GOP's Lunatic Fringe Huffington Post 10/22/07:

The most significant takeover of the past decade isn't to be found among the telecoms, the big oil companies, or in Silicon Valley. The reconfigured entity is headquartered in Washington, but we can see and hear the results everyday on your television, radio, and computer screen. And America is much the worse for it. I'm talking about the takeover of the Republican Party by its lunatic fringe.

Reagan's GOP has been replaced by the dark, moldering, putrefied party of Bush, Cheney, Rove, Limbaugh, Coulter, and Malkin. Morning in America has given way to Midnight in America.

Of course, there the Republican Party has always had it Jesse Helmses, Spiro Agnews, and Lee Atwaters. But they were the minority, far removed from the mainstream of the Party - Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, the first George Bush.
My first impression in reading something like this is to think, yeah, that's really what's happening.

But I feel like I need to restrain my enthusiasm in this case. Because Arianna, bless her heart, (that's what you say in the South when you about to criticize somebody) is using a polemical technique that been around for at least 40 years, and probably much longer. That's to go back 10 or 20 years and compare leading lights of the other party unfavorably to the degenerate specimens of today.

The political appeal of that is obvious. You're inviting people who used to support the other party to support yours without having to fully admit to themselves that they themselves have changed that significantly in their political outlook.

A classic usage of this technique is in historian Richard Hofstadter's famous essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Hofstadter was analyzing the Goldwater movement in the wake of Goldwater's landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Presidential election. He used isolationist Sen. Robert Taft of the early 1950s as an example of a pragmatic conservative, in contrast to the dogmatic Goldwater of 1965. There was more of polemics than analysis in that comparison, which was largely frivolous.

During the Carter administration of 1977-1981, liberals using the same polemical technique would point to Barry Goldwater as the pragmatic conservative model in contrast to the dogmatic conservatives of the Reagan movement. Now, Arianna points to St. Reagan as the pragmatic conservative in contrast to the Dick Cheneys and the Karl Roves of the present.

The latter two comparisons are also more frivolous than serious, though not totally without merit. Goldwater had a strong skepticism toward religious activists in politics, surely influenced by his bitter opposition to the civil rights movement, in which religious leaders and organizations were prominent. He was never on good terms with Religious Right leaders like Jerry Falwell. Falwell's Moral Majority newspaper even once suggested than Goldwater was a closet partisan of "unilateral disarmament", which was an insane charge. Goldwater was also enough of a libertarian to dissent from his Party's anti-gay orthodoxy, saying for instance of gays in the military that what was important for soldiers was not that they were straight, but that they could shoot straight.

Likewise, Reagan did have some substantial achievement that were liberal, or at least non-conservative. His genuinely bipartisan Social Security reform of 1983, his post-reelection tax reform which included many basic ideas of liberal tax reformers, and most important his agreement with the Soviet Union on the Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty were key achievements that were not in line with vision of the dogmatic conservatives of his party. In the 1988 Presidential race, the liberal Democrat Michael Dukakis supported Reagan's 1985 tax reform and the Republican Old Man Bush opposed it.

But it's simply ahistorical to imagine that each of these lurches into authoritarianism and dogmatic conservatism by the Republican Party were discrete departures from normality. The Goldwater movement of 1964 failed in that immediate election. But it determined the direction of their Party to this day. Richard Nixon had a more pragmatic foreign policy than Dick Cheney could even imagine. But his Vietnam War policy was driven by dogma and vague notions of Will. And no administration had gone so far in its embrace of police-state methods as Nixon's prior to the Cheney-Bush administration.

The continuities are more important than the breaks. What we have from the Goldwater takeover of 1964 is a long-term trend of the Republican Party becoming increasingly authoritarian and rightwing. That nice moderate Jerry Ford had Dick Cheney as his chief of staff and Rummy as first chief of staff and then Secretary of Defense. Ford is as responsible for the stab-in-the-back myth of the Vietnam War as any civilian politician, a myth which has become absolutely central to the authoritarian Republican Party worldview.

Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense for Old Man Bush during the 1991 Gulf War. Though that was a very different kind of war than the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there are still important connecting trends between the two.

And the fundamental style, disregard of legality, extreme secrecy and unilateral arrogance that defines the entire Cheney-Bush foreign policy were all there in Reagan's Central American policy and the closely related Iran-Contra affair. Cheney took it much further after he started running foreign policy in 2001. But St. Reagan's Central American and Iran policies were the template for today's disastrous foreign policy approach.

St. Reagan and Old Man Bush

And whether or not you are convinced by the circumstantial evidence of the "October Surprise" in the 1980 campaign as described by Gary Sick in October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (1991) and Kevin Phillips in American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (2004), the Bush Dynasty has been one of the most important connecting threads in the descent of the Republican Party into today's authoritarian state. The Bushes brought together the worlds of great wealth, the energy industry, the Republicans' Southern Strategy of appealing to white voters on a more-and-more explicitly racial basis, and covert intelligence operations in a way that has had a decisive effect on their Party and the country as a whole.

Walter LaFeber, in his The American Age (1989) that I've been quoting a lot lately, writes about other aspects of American foreign policy that will sound all too familiar to those who have followed the Iraq War fiasco:

William Clark served as NSC adviser during much of the president's first term, and while he was a close personal friend, Clark knew little about foreign policy and had even less experience in it. His one conviction was that the Soviet Union was "a bizarre and evil episode of history whose last pages are even now being written." Another powerful official, Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, had more sophisticated views, but they ended up at the same place: the Soviets could be handled through a major arms build-up; no serious talks should be held on arms control and little talk held on anything else except human rights inside Russia. Not one top Reagan official between 1981 and 1984 had significant experience dealing with the Soviet Union. (my emphasis)
Neocons like Richard Perle had a strong influence on Reagan's foreign policy, though they didn't prevail on policy toward the Soviet Union in the end. That last sentence in the quote also reminds us that foreign policy amateur hour, of making policy with grotesquely inadequate information and expertise about keys adversaries, didn't begin in the current Republican administration.

Speaking of Perle, if it had been up to him and like-minded policy advocates, the INF Treaty would never have been negotiated. Conservatives have their own favorite dogmas about what caused the Soviet Union to fall. But the relief in tensions that the INF Treaty in particular brought about surely pushed that process forward and allowed Gorbachev to pursue his reform policies. LaFeber explains:

As he began running for re-election in 1984, Reagan had not scored one important diplomatic success. During the previous year, his announced intention of building SDI (Star Wars) and, in September 1983. the Soviet shooting-down of South Korean Airliner 007, which killed 269 including a U.S. congressman, poisoned superpower relations. The Soviets claimed that the airliner, which was 350 miles off course, had intentionally strayed over some of their most sensitive military installations for the purposes of U.S. intelligence. The president countered that it was not an intelligence mission, and even if it had strayed off course, the Soviets should never have fired on a civilian airliner. U.S.-USSR relations reached their lowest point since the worst days of the cold war in the early 1950s.

Then, as both sides began to worry about rushing down a dead-end road that ended in a superpower confrontation, they searched for side exits. Reagan began softening his rhetoric. "The fact that neither of us likes the other system is no reason to refuse to talk," he noted in early 1984. which he then defined as "a year of opportunities for peace." Not wanting to frighten Americans during an election year, the president also declared that his military build-up had reached the point where negotiations could now be profitably held. (He doubtless, also realized that major budget problems prevented any such future arms build-up.) Shultz's State Department fought endless battles to check Perle and other in the Pentagon and White House who wanted to ignore the informal SALT II arms limits (signed in 1979) and to force the allies to get tough with Moscow. On at least two occasions, Shultz kept Reagan on the path to negotiations by threatening to resign if the president ditched efforts to cap the arms race. (my emphasis)
So, when tempted to recall the good old days of that moderate pragmatist St. Reagan, we should remember that the good old days often just aren't what the used to be.

Tags: , , , ,

| +Save/Share | |


"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


  • What is the Blue Voice?
  • Bruce Miller
  • Fdtate
  • Marcia Ellen (on hiatus)
  • Marigolds2
  • Neil
  • Tankwoman
  • Wonky Muse


  • Giuliani and torture
  • Islām and war
  • Bionic Woman: Episode 5/106
  • It Feels Like War
  • Bullshit Protector Redux
  • Street heat: nationwide antiwar actions this comin...
  • Compare and contrast
  • More on the Iraq/Afghanistan air wars
  • Surging to another victory after another after ano...
  • Rush Limbaugh's Mea Culpa



    [Tip: Point cursor to any comment to see title of post being discussed.]
    www TBV




    Environmental Links
    Gay/Lesbian Links
    News & Media Links
    Organization Links
    Political Links
    Religious Links
    Watchdog Links



    Atom/XML Feed
    Blogarama - Blog Directory
    Blogwise - blog directory



    hits since 06-13-2005

    site design: wonky muse