Obama’s defeat of McCain and Palin has left the Republicans as more a sect than a party, corralled in a few Southern states. This is not good for the conservative movement, nor for democracy in America. So what went wrong for the GOP?
On November 4, two thirds of voters under 30 voted for Obama. That’s the future. A large majority of voters with college educations voted for Obama. That represents the best informed segment of the electorate. So, how did everything go wrong for the Republicans?
A good place to begin would be Barry Goldwater, and his ironic role in history. In 1964 he voted against Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, believing on principle that it violated states’ rights. The only states Goldwater carried that year were six in the South. Johnson understood that the Civil Rights Act would cost the Democrats the support of the South for a long time.
In its embrace of the religious right under George W. Bush, the Republican party became the stupid party. And committing suicide along with it has been the conservative movement. The party united around god, guns and gays is finished.
But the South is the section in which fundamentalist religion is most heavily concentrated. And Goldwater, a western individualist leaning libertarian, loathed fundamentalism. He later said that “Real Christians should line up to kick Jerry Falwell in the ass.” Goldwater also supported Roe vs. Wade.
Goldwater opened the door to the Southern Strategy for the Republican Party, but Nixon and Reagan largely gave only token support to Southern prejudices. Reagan’s first Supreme Court nominee was Sandra Day O’Connor, whose record indicated that she would not oppose Roe.
George W. Bush was another matter. Karl Rove understood that we are in the midst of what historians call the “third evangelical awakening.” Bush exploited this opportunity, as in his third televised debate in 2000, when asked what thinker had most influenced him. Bush replied, “Jesus Christ. Because he made me a better man.” No one opposes Bush being a better man; but the evangelicals understood the signal. In 2000 Bush carried 70 percent of the white evangelical vote.
And he rewarded this faction: stem cells, “strict constructionist” judges (oppose Roe), religious reasons for invading Iraq (outlined in a speech in Irvine, California), faith-base initiatives (“abstinence only”), and even blocking funds for family planning in Africa!
Needless to say, much of this moves against overwhelming forces in history. Diana Trilling said that the long gestating women’s revolution has been the most profound revolution in history. Women’s equality, for example, has moved slowly ahead since agitation began in the middle of the nineteenth century. Women didn’t get the vote until 1920 (19th Amendment). Former male slaves got the (constitutional) right to vote in 1869 (15th Amendment.)
The availability of abortion is connected with women’s equality. Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the country.” Half the undergraduates on most campuses today are women. Men don’t have their plans de-railed by an unwanted pregnancy.
Does any reasonable person not believe that gays and lesbians deserve respect and equality? Not today’s Republican Party. Expert translators from Arabic have been dismissed for being gay. And applicants for the post of certified public accountants in the Iraq Green Zone have been asked about their view of Roe v. Wade.
Both Obama and McCain supported federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. An embryo is a cluster of cells the size of the period at the end of this sentence. It takes a strange mentality to equate that with a seriously ill human being. (Bush, August 2001: “It’s wrong to destroy life in order to save life.”)
But science never sleeps, and embryonic stem cell work has been going on around the world in advanced nations, as well as in state or privately funded laboratories here. Harvard is planning a new billion-dollar science campus, with a major cell-research laboratory. Promising advances of various kinds are being explored world-wide.
So here we are in 2008. With its indispensable Southern and, more widely, evangelical base, the Republican Party has become the stupid party.
In the election, the McCain-Palin ticket received the highest percentage of votes in South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia. The Southern Strategy succeeded. It succeeded in facilitating a Democratic landslide. This can not be good for the nation. We need two viable parties.
Sarah Palin is now the heroine of the Republican base. Scary. During the campaign it became obvious that she is completely ignorant on the principal issues. It never became widely known that she is a religious nut: she believes in the imminent End of Days and the “Rapture,” in which the saved will be suddenly wooshed up to heaven —a notion that has no basis in scripture or anything else. She believes she was elected governor because of a laying-on-of-hands by an African clergyman who had run a witch out of town for causing automobile accidents.
This stuff makes William Jennings Bryan look like Martin Heidegger. I think the recent electoral disaster will energize reasonable Republicans to form a caucus with the party. Eisenhower was a prudential, common sense Republican, who loathed extremism and arrogant ignorance. He knew the New Deal could not be repealed. He once said that Senator William Knowland “tested the limits of human stupidity.” Despite Watergate, Nixon was a successful center-right president, and first-rate on foreign policy. Reagan too was a successful center-right president. It is no accident that in the election, Julie Nixon Eisenhower and David Eisenhower supported Obama.
In its embrace of the religious right under George W. Bush, the Republican Party became the stupid party. And committing suicide along with it has been the conservative movement. The party united around god, guns and gays is finished.
Jeffrey Hart is professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth College. He wrote for the National Review for more than three decades, where he was senior editor. He wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, when governor of California, and for Richard Nixon.