A Republican History lesson

Not the history of the Revolutionary period, I am afraid, much as it has been in the news of late. A more recent period is what I wish to examine.

It is interesting what happens if you go asking around about the Republican party’s official line on the 1960s. It reveals so much about the party. For example: a while back, on the website Conservatives4Palin, a Dominic D. Salvatori compared the “New Left” of the ’60s and the supporters of Sarah Palin:

“Let us examine the characteristics and values of the typical ‘60s “radical” and our current “Palinistas.” The 60s were all about “freedom.” The true heirs of the 60s (which I submit we Palinistas are) remain true to that heritage. But we recognize that “freedom” is not free, and comes with responsibility.” 

Take another Conservative: Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism, once wrote:

“[T]he basic arguments and outlook of the Tea Parties are simply and profoundly different from the outlook of the New Left. The Tea Partiers are not in any meaningful sense Rousseauians… The Tea Partiers, fundamentally, love America. The hardcore New Lefters, simply, did not.” 

Goldberg provides himself with the convenient escape of the word “hardcore”, but the one we know for sure is that it’s hard to argue that the counterculture hippies and anti-war people were liked by conservatives at the time. The Republicans’ most beloved icon, Ronald Reagan, made himself famous by his opposition to such people.

The best book I have ever read on the 1960s political situation was Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, a fascinating exploration of the great cultural and political divide which emerged in that decade. Perlstein’s thesis is that this divide drives our politics still.

Paul Krugman, though, perhaps summed the case best, saying in 2007: “Southern whites started voting Republican. The backlash against the Civil Rights Movement explains almost everything that’s happened in this country for the past forty-five years.”

The Republicans do not like this explanation, because it implies that their success is due to racism. So, their explanation of what happened focuses more on the general radicalism of the hippies and the SDS and the Yippies and the anti-war movement generally and John Lennon and Communist intellectuals etc. driving people away from the Democrats.

You could dismiss this as a Republican lie to cover up their racism. Maybe it is. However, I do not dismiss it out of hand for two reasons:

  1. All those groups and people existed. 
  2. At the time, the Republicans hated them and they hated the Republicans. 

The Republicans also have one other thing to help their case: these “radicals” all showed up at the Democratic convention in ’68 and got in a massive battle with the “old” Democrats. According to modern Republican reading of history, this is when the Democrats were taken over by the “Alinsky-ite radicals” (I cannot believe I typed that) who, they claim, run it today.

Of course, the Republicans also oppose the New Deal” of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They do this, they say, because it expands the power of government, which is antithetical to the Conservative philosophy. “Big Government” such as the Democrats allegedly support is nothing less than “socialism”. Moreover, they say, it is “un-American“, alien as it is to the limited government philosophy of Jefferson and the anti-Federalists.

Before I go further, I want to pause here to invite any conservative Republicans reading this to tell me if my assessment is wrong in any way. Have I said anything of them, ascribed any view to them, that is not true? Tell me in the comments if so.

Now then:

All this looks quite nice on paper, but it raises the question: why did the alleged radical socialists want to “take over” the alleged party of radical socialism in the 1960s? Would it not have been more logical for the 1960s-era radicals to take over the Republican party?

The 1960s radicals hated the Democratic establishment. This presents a huge problem for the Republican narrative, because it has to neatly explain why the 1930s-50s era Democrats were bad, and then explain why the people who hated them were also bad.

The Republicans emphasize different parts of this narrative depending which part of the party they are speaking to. To some voters–“Reagan Democrats“–they just go ahead and say the “Old (Pre-1968) Democrats” were okay, but they got replaced with evil people. To what they would probably call “more conservative”  Republicans, it’s just one long story of ever-encroaching socialism from FDR (or maybe Woodrow Wilson) to Barack Obama.

Everything is wrapped up neatly then, from the Republican point of view. In their minds, the Democrats are godless socialists, and the American people started supporting them when they saw their radicalism in the 1960s. And were they ever radical in the 1960s–so radical they destroyed the New Deal coalition! All this paved the way for the rise of Ronald Reagan and the “center-right nation” we allegedly are today, threatened only by a “liberal elite”. So ends the Republican version of the story.

Again, maybe this is all a tapestry of Republican lies to cover up their racism. But let us suppose it is absolutely true, merely for the sake of argument. It also suggests one other salient point which they have difficulty explaining: the fact that the Republicans never truly beat the New Deal coalition. The only Republican to win the Presidency in the age of the New Deal was the war hero Eisenhower, and his administration was derided by no less than Barry Goldwater as “a dime-store New Deal“.

Americans never actually voted to destroy the New Deal coalition. It just went away.

Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal. 2007.
Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. 2008. 
Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. 2001

What's your stake in this, cowboy?