Wither Moderation

In 2012, historian Geoffrey Kabaservice wrote an interesting book detailing the history of moderates in the Republican Party called Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. Apolitical or centrist types may read Kabaservice and consider it tragedy, while far-right and far-left readers experience a comedy. Arguably, any society needs both its conservatives and liberals–one side concerned with preserving social order, and one encouraging social justice. In general, Kabaservice demonstrates why political moderates are a necessity to a functioning state.

Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party focuses on the liberals and moderates in the Republican Party. The book argues this unsung group played a key role in the business of running of US government in the 1960s-90s, debating and compromising with Democrats and influencing GOP conservatives in order to advance critical domestic legislation and influence effective foreign policy. Ultimately, Kabaservice makes a convincing historiographical case for the moderate Republicans, demonstrating that they “were the strongest advocates of good government.”[1] Thus Kabaservice’s book makes a critical contribution to US political history. Indeed–whether you laugh or cry–the story of the twilight of GOP moderates provides us with an indispensable understanding of the state of play in contemporary US politics. It is a story worth knowing.

This book is driven by a rich political historiography of the post-Second World War America. It is a vital book for any student of political history, political science, or political philosophy. Kabaservice’s scholarship describes the intellectual and journalistic efforts to create a canon of moderate Republican thought leadership, in which the Ripon Society played a vital role. He concludes, “[M]oderate Republicanism was bravely defended as a distinctive political philosophy, different from both Democratic liberalism and Republican conservatism.”[2] In the wake of Goldwater’s disastrous presidential candidacy in 1964, the height of GOP moderation was the early Nixon administration where there was a hope that “[m]oderates would excite people with their ideas and ability to achieve results. They would revolutionize the political system, not through mass demonstration but through ‘reason, competence, persistence and tough-minded idealism.’”[3] While books about internecine political struggles may be commonplace, Kabaservice skillfully balances a history of ideological production with an in-depth political history featuring the key GOP politicians, journalists and scholars that were the advocates of moderation.

Most importantly Kabaservice provides a convincing explanation of why GOP moderates faded as influencers and office holders: the moderates succumbed to the populist lure of conservatism marketed in sound bites and virtue signaling: hawkish anti-communism, “pro-life” and other conservative cultural wedge issues, racist political appeals in the form of anti-crime and welfare reform rhetoric, and faux libertarian appeals for low taxes and deregulation. Sober, realistic, compromising policy simply made for bad retail politics, lacking curb appeal to conservative leaning voters.

Of course, George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 fills in the picture of what the moderates were up against: anti-liberal traditionalists seeking to rollback the Great Society and the New Deal, libertarian economists and philosophers promoting maximum individualism, and rabid anti-communists promoting militarism and intervention. Ironically, compared to those three divergent strands of conservatism, the moderate Republicans offered a more consistent and coherent political philosophy. In this sense, Kabaservice’s book is an excellent supplement to Nash’s sweeping intellectual history.

Fascinatingly, Kabaservice seems to have anticipated the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. Cassandra-like, Kabaservice writes: “As the Republican Party continues to reject its own heritage and forgets the hard lessons of the 1960s, it seems increasingly likely that right-wing activists may prevail over party professionals and nominate an extreme presidential candidate.”[4] At this point, Kabaservice argues, the US “system” requires two functioning “big tent” political parties, yet the growth of ideological polarization “may prove toxic to government effectiveness and perhaps even to America’s social stability.”[5] Again, Kabaservice can be describing politics in the year 2019 as the GOP has departed from running government and advocating realistic public policy, and instead operates like a popular social movement for old, white America–running out the clock until the inevitable change in demographics.

While Kabaservice’s warnings may be catnip to anti-Trumpists, the American left appears to be on its own path to chloroforming its moderates. Democrat centrists in the tradition of Presidents Clinton and Obama appear to be in the process of succumbing to the “Social Democrats”–an ideologically charged populist movement doubling down on identity politics. With the two major political parties transfiguring while the US government faces record debts and deficits, challenges to its status as global hegemon, and a lack of economic dynamism, the 2020s are shaping up to be another pivotal decade like the 1960s.

Clearly Kabaservice is a strong advocate of the US maintaining two major political parties. Yet the two party system’s centrality to a functioning state is simply an a priori claim lacking justification. A possibly fatal bug in the two party system are the “wing nuts” dominating grassroots operations in order to nominate more ideologically extreme candidates. Consequently, the majority of Americans do not count themselves as members in either party. The 2016 election was remarkable for the negative polling of both major candidates, suggesting a major disconnect between the parties and the populace. So what if one or both parties disbanded? Like the Whigs and the Federalists, major political parties have disbanded and reorganized into new parties, allowing for government to take the state in new directions. Departing from the “Coke versus Pepsi” duopoly and moving to more ideological pure (but smaller) parties does not necessarily mean a downfall of the United States. Ideological parties forming coalition governments function in other republican democracies which also happen to be complex, diverse, modern, and industrialized. This may be the next step in the political evolution of the United States.

[1] Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 398.

[2] Kabaservice, 398.

[3] Kabaservice, 319.

[4] Kabaservice, 401.

[5] Kabaservice, 401.

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