A terrific essay published this week in the National Journal looks at historical “tugs of war” within both the Republican and Democratic parties, then explains why the current conservative movement’s efforts to yank Republicans right are unprecedented. The author, Norm Ornstein — a journalist, resident political science scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former guest on Moyers & Company — writes that today’s tea party is meeting with more success than other radical movements of the last hundred years, with frightening consequences for America.
After wending his way through notable political schisms of the 20th century, Ornstein finds many of the roots of today’s conservative movement took hold in the 1990s:
Clinton’s election in 1992 moved the Democrats firmly to the center on previously divisive issues like welfare and crime. But it also provided the impetus for the forces that have led to the current Republican problem. These forces were built in part around insurgent Newt Gingrich’s plans to overturn the Democratic 38-year hegemony in Congress, and in part around a ruthlessly pragmatic decision by GOP leaders and political strategists to hamper the popular Clinton by delegitimizing him and using the post-Watergate flowering of independent counsels to push for multiple crippling investigations of wrongdoing (to be sure, he gave them a little help along the way). No one was more adroit at using ethics investigations to demonize opponents than Newt. In 1994, Gingrich recruited a passel of more radical candidates for Congress, who ran on a path to overturn most of the welfare state and who themselves demonized Congress and Washington. At a time of rising populist anger—and some disillusionment on the left with Clinton—the approach worked like a charm, giving the GOP its first majority in the House in 40 years, and changing the face of Congress for decades to come.
Newt’s strategy and tactics were abetted and amplified by the new force of political talk radio, which had been activated by the disastrous federal pay raise in 1989-90, and of tribal cable television news. As Sean Theriault details in his book The Gingrich Senators, many of Newt’s progeny moved on to the Senate and began to change it from an old club into a new forum for tribal warfare. Move on through right-wing frustration with George W. Bush’s combination of compassionate conservatism and unfunded social policy (and wars) and then the election of Barack Obama, and the ingredients for a rise of radicalism and a more explosive intra-party struggle were set. They were expanded again with the eager efforts in 2010 of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Young Guns (Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan) to exploit the deep populist right-wing anger at the financial collapse and the bailouts of 2008 and 2009 by inciting the tea-party movement. But their expectation that they could then co-opt these insurgents backfired badly.
A lot of history to get to the point. What began as a ruthlessly pragmatic, take-no-prisoners parliamentary style opposition to Obama was linked to constant efforts to delegitimize his presidency, first by saying he was not born in the U.S., then by calling him a tyrant trying to turn the country into a Socialist or Communist paradise. These efforts were not condemned vigorously by party leaders in and out of office, but were instead deflected or encouraged, helping to create a monster: a large, vigorous radical movement that now has large numbers of adherents and true believers in office and in state party leadership. This movement has contempt for establishment Republican leaders and the money to go along with its beliefs. Local and national talk radio, blogs, and other social media take their messages and reinforce them for more and more Americans who get their information from these sources. One result is that even today, a Rasmussen survey shows that 23 percent of Americans still believe Obama is not an American, while an additional 17 percent are not sure. Forty percent of Americans! This is no longer a fringe view.
As for the radicals in elected office or in control of party organs, consider a small sampling of comments:
“Sex that doesn’t produce people is deviate.” —Montana state Rep. Dave Hagstrom.
“It is not our job to see that anyone gets an education.” —Oklahoma state Rep. Mike Reynolds.
“I hear you loud and clear, Barack Obama. You don’t represent the country that I grew up with. And your values is not going to save us. We’re going to take this country back for the Lord. We’re going to try to take this country back for conservatism. And we’re not going to allow minorities to run roughshod over what you people believe in!” —Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert, at a tea-party rally.
Read the full piece at the National Journal »