One of the commenters in the Religion and Politics series calls himself “Normal mainstream republican,” a title that might as well have read “Endangered Species.” He got me pondering about the odd trajectory of the Republican Party, which has e-or-devolved so far from the Party of my father as to be barely recognizable.
To my recollection, mid-century Republicans were the party of the middle and professional classes – pro-defense and Management, thoughtfully conservative, and science and conservation-oriented. Let us not forget that the EPA and OSHA were Republican inventions. The “elites” were country club Republicans; the Democrats were, and are, “Everybody Else” – a roiling big-tent coalition of Labor, recent immigrants and The Poor: the Unrepublicans.
The GOP didn’t care much for taxes, at least when the marginal rate max’d out at the 90% mark, and they were led more by Eisenhower, Nixon and Rockefeller than by Barry Goldwater. William F. Buckley was their patrician prophet, but was as much a gadfly caricature as a serious font of policy guidance. The likes of Wallace and Thurmond were not Republicans, and the Party’s brief flirtation with McCarthyism was blessedly so. In short, the Grand Old Party’s centrist base was, well, normal mainstream republicans. It was always ideologically more homogenous than the Dems, but never litmus-perfect.
Fast-forward to 2011, where now two of the three current Presidential frontrunners (and one prominent lurker) are openly evangelical, creationism is an article of Faith, climate change is derided as a hoax and chest-thumping foreign policy is the order of the day. Actual experts are derided as elites (when did that become a bad word?). No-tax pledges abound and are taken seriously – at a time when rates are a minor fraction of their former scale. The days of read-my-lip service are apparently over. And this new GOP (the Party of Lincoln) passionately embraces the Solid South, if-you-know-what-I-mean, and –I-think-that-you-do. Its Tea Party faction is anything but thoughtful, to the ironically hilarious point of championing policies that that are utterly contrary to their own self-interests (let alone those of the country).
Granted, there were numerous issues that gained prominence since my long-departed youth that may have nudged the GOP rightward: abortion abetted the rise of the Righteous Right, environmentalism spread far beyond the creation of national parks to the point of suggesting that sustainability in concert with the earth might be a wiser approach than the traditional plunder and profit (Drill baby, Drill!). Civil Rights in several forms transformed the political landscape of Dixie, and beyond. And terrorism has recently fed fear, leading some to conclude that relinquishing personal freedoms in exchange for greater sense of personal security (real or imagined) is somehow a good trade.
A child of the 1960s, I admit to some misty nostalgia when I contemplate the metamorphosis of the Grand Old Party. To borrow a catch phrase from the now-classic western movie of that day: “Who ARE those guys?” Further: where are they headed?
As the 2012 campaigns move into higher gears, I wonder about folks like Normal mainstream republican. Will the danger that he identified – that the capture of the primaries by the ideological zealots will drive the Great American Middle into the Obama camp – be realized? Is it 1964 all over again? Will “mainstreamers” like Normal be able to hold their noses tight enough to pull the GOP lever? Are there even places called “Normal,” moderate or “mainstream” in the Republican orthodoxy anymore? Stay tuned.