NR Digital

The Vice of Moderation

by Henry Olsen

Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party, by Geoffrey Kabaservice (Oxford, 504 pp., $29.95)

National Review’s founding in 1955 is widely considered the spark that lit the modern conservative movement. According to Geoffrey Kabaservice’s new book, that moment was also the beginning of the end for the Republican party, and for America. Conservatives will find this notion laughable, but we ignore the book at our peril: Kabaservice’s thorough recounting of the intra-GOP war between moderates and conservatives during the 1960s is highly instructive.

Rule and Ruin has a simple thesis. There once was a bipartisan consensus, “the Vital Center,” in which both parties largely agreed on the basic contours of American political life. This enabled the two parties to debate policies in a civil manner, with differences commonly ending in compromise. This consensus, at its strongest in the 1950s, was made possible by the fact that both parties “contain[ed] a critical mass of moderates”; indeed, largely non-ideological parties are required for “the proper functioning of American democracy.” This happy medium was destroyed, according to Kabaservice, by the rise and ultimate victory of the conservative movement.

In this view, moderate Republicans were the ultimate arbiters of this balanced polity. Freed from the special interests (read: labor unions and southern segregationists) that dominated the Democratic party, moderate Republicans could run a more efficient and honest welfare state that achieved New Deal ends with greater respect for private enterprise and local government. “Modern Republicans” thus avoided the excesses of both liberals and conservatives and gave the country the balance of security and growth, order and freedom, that modern America craved.

This should sound familiar to conservatives who fought those wars, as Kabaservice’s thesis is an uncritical restatement of what moderate Republicans said at the time. Such one-sidedness is characteristic throughout: The conservative argument is never presented in its own terms.

Instead, the reader is treated to copious examination of fringe elements of the nascent movement, frequent descriptions of conservatives as “kooks” and “insane,” and a clear insinuation that conservatives were (at worst) racists and (at best) fellow travelers with racists.      

It is true that many conservatives at that time had at best a blind eye for the plight of blacks.

Extremism in the pursuit of liberty may be no vice, but moderation in the pursuit of justice is certainly no virtue. Failing to recognize that pervasive private discrimination, backed by public law in the South, deprived blacks of any real citizenship has cost conservatives dearly for decades. It remains our movement’s original sin, for which we constantly atone.

The fact that those conservatives were wrong on race in 1964 does not, however, mean the moderates were right on other issues or on political strategy. Moderate-Republican thinking in the 1960s itself suffered from massive blind spots; and, contra Kabaservice, these ultimately led to the moderates’ demise.

The particular party system Kabaservice extols was itself the byproduct of another battle about race, the Civil War. After the Civil War, supporters of the Union voted Republican and supporters of and sympathizers with the Confederacy voted Democratic. These political tribes effectively refought the Civil War in each succeeding election for nearly a hundred years. Immigrants who arrived after the war generally voted Republican from 1896 until the Great Depression, when they became the linchpin of FDR’s New Deal coalition. Bonded together in labor unions, these voters (largely Catholic) formed their own political tribe in opposition to the largely Republican (and Protestant) business owners. Tribal politics froze people of different ideologies into political amber; so long as tribal loyalties remained paramount, both parties would have diverse ideological constituencies.

This system came under attack in the 1950s from conservatives, but also from  liberals. For the new liberals and conservatives, politics was about ideas, not tribes. Both sets of Americans believed our nation’s founding ideals of liberty and equality were threatened by the bipartisan consensus. Conservatives believed growing bureaucratic government threatened liberty; liberals believed the business/union co-dominium kept too many people in poverty. Each side then set out to recapture its natural party from the institutions and leaders who enforced the “Vital Center.”

The ideologization of American politics Kabaservice deplores had its roots in the rise in college education. Put into contact with serious ideas for the first time, millions of young people were motivated to bring their ideals into politics. It is no coincidence that campus organization and action were essential to both movements, through the Young Americans for Freedom on the right and the civil-rights and anti-war movements on the left.

One would never know about these developments from Rule and Ruin. Kabaservice details every minuscule Republican battle, but glosses over titanic engagements among Democrats. College-educated liberals battled Tammany Hall in the 1950s and battled the leadership of the Democratic party on race and poverty in the 1960s. Gene McCarthy’s audacious unseating of Pres. Lyndon Johnson rates a paragraph; the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago rate a sentence. The McGovern candidacy threw the Democratic party into chaos that took over a decade to fully recover from; of this, the reader will hear nary a peep.

If Kabaservice and moderate Republicans were right about the 1950s consensus, none of this untold story would matter. Conservatives would have driven moderates away into the Democratic party, and there would today be a natural governing party that represented that consensus much in the way of the Italian Christian Democrats after World War II. The fact that we have two sharply ideological parties locked in mortal combat is stark proof that the 1950s consensus was a product of its time, a time when politics was primarily tribal and the mass of voters were not motivated by abstract ideas.

Kabaservice contends that the moderate failure was ultimately one of will. Time and time again, he says that moderates are temperamentally unsuited to continual political warfare. He shows that moderate leaders were unwilling to bankroll extensive organizing efforts. Noble young moderates such as Ripon Society president Lee Auspitz were continually rebuffed by Nelson Rockefeller and other moderate Republican tycoons in their requests for money to form magazines to counteract National Review and youth groups to combat YAF, and marshal efforts to retake the Young Republicans from Goldwater political guru F. Clifton White’s Syndicate. The unstated assumption is that had these leaders called, the people would have come.

But the history of the 1960s and 1970s belies that assumption. Kabaservice notes that such conservative entrepreneurs as Richard Viguerie raised millions through direct mail for their causes, but fails to examine why “the Ripon Society lost money on its direct-mail campaigns.” Moderate Democrats did fight back, to no avail: They lost control of the national party in 1972, and the 1974 election produced a horde of liberal-reformer “Watergate babies” who quickly eliminated the seniority system and began to systematically dominate the Democratic House caucus. Moderates did flee the party of their youth in the face of an ideological onslaught, but it was largely moderate Democrats who fled, to Ronald Reagan’s conservative Republicans. The blue-collar southerners and Catholics who voted for Reagan were the people moderate Republicans did not want to ally with in the 1960s, believing them to be compromised by their opposition to or lack of passion for the civil-rights crusade.

Moderate Republicans were blissfully ignorant of the country’s changing demographics, just as many Republicans are today. Theodore H. White, in his highly influential book The Making of the President 1960, wrote that suburbanization was changing the face of American politics: Connecticut Democratic boss John Bailey had noticed that suburban Catholic voters had provided the margin for Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, and reasoned that Democrats would need to nominate a Catholic in 1960 to win them back. Kennedy focused on the suburban Catholic vote for much of his brief term.

Kabaservice’s moderates, in contrast, never talk about the suburbanization of the country or the decline in Catholic Democratic loyalty. Occasionally they notice, as former RNC chairman Leonard Hall once did, that their gatherings look like they are peopled by “descendants of the people who came over on the Mayflower,” but they always think in terms of “outreach” to non-northern WASPs, rather than a concerted effort to make them genuinely part of the GOP. Their political Holy Grail was to bring blacks, Jews, and professionals together in a coalition led by descendants of the northeastern WASP elite to fix America’s cities — the part of America that was declining the fastest. As Kabaservice dryly notes, “the theory that voters would line up behind the ‘natural leaders’ of the community no longer held in the increasingly anti-establishment climate of the 1960s.”

This strategy was also uncongenial to conservatives, and not very attractive to blacks themselves. Time and time again Kabaservice touts moderate GOP candidates’ getting 30 or 40 percent of the black or Jewish vote as victories. This is the political equivalent of losing money on each sale but making it up on volume: Parties need to get majorities from somebody, and in the 1960s conservatives provided even moderate Republicans with the bulk of their support. As any businessman knows, the majority stockowner ultimately calls the shots.

Conservatives don’t mourn the moderates’ passing, but we should learn from it. Just as the America of 1960 was different from that of 1860 or 1910, the America of 2012 is much different from that of 1980. When Reagan was elected, whites without a college degree were a clear majority of the electorate, as they had been since the nation’s founding. Practicing Protestants formed a majority of the electorate, as they had since 1776. Neither of these statements is still true. In a party and a movement that still draws its largest margins among these groups, their shrinking size is a cause for alarm.

Conservatives should not make the moderates’ mistake of holding fast to a shrinking share of the electorate. We need to persuade the working-class voters who supported Republicans for the House in 2010 but normally vote Democratic that their natural home is in the conservative party. We need to listen to the concerns of Asian and Hispanic immigrants and find a shared set of values that can convince large numbers of them to support conservative policies. In short, we need to emulate Reagan and the early conservatives who made common cause with suburban Catholics and conservative southerners to create, in Reagan’s terms, “a new Republican party.”

We also need to emulate Reagan by being inclusive in both word and deed. Kabaservice quotes Reagan as saying, in 1966, that conservatives “must recognize we have to convert those people of a more liberal view. We don’t win elections by destroying them or making them disappear.” Because of changes in the electorate since 2004, the 2012 Republican nominee can win only with votes from people who supported John Kerry and Barack Obama. The GOP won their votes with an anti-liberal message in 2010; to win in 2012 and beyond, it will have to persuade them to support a pro-conservative message.

To do that, it will have to have a message that’s relevant to their concerns. Moderate Republicans ignored the growing resistance to government after the enactment of the Great Society, insisting that the old post–New Deal approach was still viable. They ignored the dramatic rise in crime and in the welfare rolls, believing much concern about these trends was racist in origin. Liberal Democrats made the same mistakes, and thereby gave conservatives potent issues to run on for nearly 20 years.

Today’s swing voter is pro–free market but genuinely concerned about income inequality. Many people have kept up their living standards only by borrowing more or working more. They feel the gains of the last two decades have been concentrated mainly among the rich, a concern that predates the Great Recession. Pew polls throughout the 2000s showed that only the richest 20 percent felt their financial situation was improving; everyone else thought it was declining. The economic tsunami that washed away many people’s homes, savings, and jobs has only exacerbated these feelings. Conservatives ought not to ignore this sentiment.

We owe Kabaservice our gratitude for recounting the moderate Republican tale so comprehensively. He reminds us that great entities can collapse virtually overnight, even when they appear to be at the pinnacle of their strength.

– Mr. Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.

Send a letter to the editor.

Get the NR Magazine App
iPad/iPhone   |   Android