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Trapped in the Palace of Cows (8:02)
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All eyes are on California. The Republican establishment struggles to keep the Presidential nomination from the most extreme candidate in a generation. A win on the west coast will put him over the top, but he can’t quite put a majority together in that state. For most of the primary season a cadre of moderate candidates has divided the opposition. But now there is only one left, and California looks like it will go for establishment moderation.
That is, until voters are reminded of the long simmering scandal about sex, marriage, and adultery.
The nomination will be decided before the opening of the Republican convention at the famous San Francisco Cow Palace.
It was 1964 and the primary campaign was a little meaner than most of us, even those of us who had been born in time to remember anything, remember about those days. Analogies with that campaign may be easier for some in my generation. Most of today’s voters think of Henry Cabot Lodge as a motel chain.
By June of 1964, everyone had known for a long time that Happy and Nelson Rockefeller had divorced in order to marry each other. But scandals sometimes dim with time. The announcement that Happy was now pregnant was a vivid reminder, and it all came back. Barry Goldwater did not need to press the issue. He went from substantially behind among California Republicans to a resounding victory.
The most conservative of conservatives loved the Senator from Arizona. Voters not in that camp had a different view.
The harsh judgement most Americans formed about Senator Goldwater and his supporters has mellowed since those days. He is now viewed as a principled conservative with moral objections as Soviet hegemony went to brutal dominance. His leadership against civil rights laws is now seen as libertarian opposition to federal statism, not as anything approaching race hatred.
But in those days, he was seen as simply extremist. His opponents were moderates. Extremists are thought of as irrational, moderates are reasonable.
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
– Senator Barry Goldwater, July 16, 1964
His intemperant statements about nuclear weapons were scary just two years following the Cuban Missile Crisis. Americans were mindful of how close the world had come to thermal nuclear destruction. Goldwater campaigned against American tolerance of Iron Curtain tyranny. The nuclear threat had clouded American morality. Americans, he felt, had an unhealthy fear of death, when the freedom of others was at stake.
It wasn’t just about war and peace. The Republican candidate did not seem to mind the excesses of his supporters.
1964 was the year black Republicans were forced out of the party of Lincoln in Georgia and Tennessee. It had been less than a century since President Lincoln had been killed. For the last half of that century, Tennessee had included black members in every delegation to every national convention. There were no exceptions until the anti-black purge of 1964. The convention accepted an all white delegation from Tennessee.
After the Goldwater defeat in 1964, Republicans underwent a painful reassessment. How could they maintain a principled conservatism without scaring the hell out of Americans, without appearing to be the willing accomplices of the worst parts of the white hooded underside of American history?
Richard Nixon was the unfortunate choice to carry the new banner of reason. Watergate has pretty much overcome any other role Republicans imagined for him. But Nixon’s Southern strategy, his alliance with Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, began a muted sort of racial politics. An international policy of death squads and overthrow became a semi-open secret, easily denied.
Nixon was a sort of precursor to Ronald Reagan’s more artful adaptation of the same strategy. Much of white America was resentful of the sudden advancement of minority rights. The conservative lexicon had adapted. Racial code words combined with interracial handshakes. Death squads went below radar as nuclear deals dominated headlines.
Democrats faced their own crises after the McGovern wipeout in 1972. How could they hold to a principled line on equal rights and international peace in the face of an angry white electorate frightened by both?
And so it went as it had always gone through history. Political parties strayed away from the electoral center at the cost of votes. Election defeat brought a painful introspection as those at the helm reconciled core principle with core strategy.
Facing the abyss is nature’s way of focusing attention. Political parties pretty much always found their way back toward the center of public opinion.
That historical pattern seemed to stop in 1992, at least for the Republican party. It is worth asking why.
- Was it the Southern Strategy of President Nixon that set the party on the slow decline into the irresistable whirlpool of racial anger?
- Was it the result of careless elites stoking religious paranoia, as the faithful saw themselves surrounded by an increasingly secular society?
- Was it a conservative elite more loyal to abstraction than the real economic decline of its constituency?
- Or were the undercurrents of xenophobia and tribalism always there, ready to rise like some monster lurking in the depths?
All may be true, to a point. I suggest a neglected answer is simpler.
It was not strategic error, although mistakes were profound. It was not simple religious, racial, and ethnic bigotry, although lost souls do seem incapable of escape from the dark underbelly of American hate.
The Republican Party is caught in a new sociological vortex. It began when non-liberals forced out liberal Republicans. So the party shrank and grew more conservative. The new conservatism meant that conservatives could make life unbearable for moderates. And so the party shrank a little more, and grew yet more conservative. Conservatives who were not extreme enough followed, and now extreme conservatives who consider even talking to Supreme Court nominees have reason to worry. Some will eventually leave voluntarily. Some will hang from electoral scaffolds.
Republicans have lost the majority of voters in 5 of the last 6 Presidential elections. Next November does not look promising.
Donald Trump and his sibling rivals differ only in how explicit they choose to be in articulating the same baseline of resentment and hatred. Why is the party not returning to the center?
This generation of conservatives has encountered a new and deadly addiction. It is the comfortable cocoon of technology. Internet and cable alternatives combine with our old friend, talk radio, to offer a new virtual reality. The message is no longer the necessity of reexamination. It doesn’t have to be.
The restraint that was once forced by approaching political abyss is no longer scary. The message of choice is one of comfort. You need not change. You need not even consider changing. Except to become more like you are.
The Republican party will soon be a regional force that will keep shrinking, will keep diving to new extreme depths.
The culprit is hidden in plain sight.
We see it on our desks. We watch it after hours. We hold it while we talk and text.
The Republican Party is dying.
The microchip is the killer.