One Wing to Rule Them All: How Conservatives Betrayed the Republican Party


Last week, former 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum warned it would be "suicidal" for the Republican Party to change its stance on gay marriage, despite the RNC's recent assessment that the party's social positions are costing it elections. The evangelical Family Research Council jumped in by urging conservatives to withhold financial support from Republicans until they reiterated their opposition to gay marriage. Within 24 hours, the RNC obediently passed new resolutions against same-sex marriage by unanimous vote.

Yes, change is difficult. But it may embolden moderate Republicans to know that the right wing conservatism which defines today's GOP is actually a recent phenomenon —  one that displaced a progressive tradition whose resurrection will ultimately determine whether the GOP is built to last, or whether it will follow the Whigs into oblivion.

Though it sounds strange today, the Republican Party was once home to progressives — many of whom saw the social upheaval of the 1960s as an opportunity for the party of Lincoln to outflank Democrats in matters of racial equality, poverty, and social justice. While conservatives had always been a splinter group within the party, their power had been held in check by moderates like Eisenhower, who derided them as "negligible" and "stupid." Richard Nixon was seen as the epitome of moderation, and after his defeat to Kennedy in 1960 this fragile coalition quickly unraveled.

Two men saw an opportunity for the right wing to gain ascendancy within the GOP. They argued that Republicans should give voters a real choice between the extremism of the left and a countervailing extremism on the right. National Review co-founder William Rusher and Young Americans for Freedom organizer Clifford White studied the organizational tactics used by Communist infiltrators and employed these methods to take over the party. They started with Young Republican organizations on college campuses whose members sought to mirror the passionate activism of the student left. Rusher and White then trained their sights on flipping the Republican National Committee, and secured the 1964 presidential nomination for their hero, Barry Goldwater. A well-organized, determined minority had pulled off a political coup which would eventually drive moderates and progressives from the party.

But not all accepted this hijacking by the right.

Nelson Rockefeller was the leader of progressive Republicans. Alarmed by the unchecked power of the far right, he addressed the Republican convention and urged his fellow delegates to reject this new extremism. He warned that:

"The Republican party is in real danger of subversion by a radical, well-financed and highly disciplined minority... wholly alien to the sound and honest conservatism that has firmly based the Republican party in the best of a century's traditions, wholly alien to the sound and honest Republican liberalism that has kept the party abreast of human needs in a changing world, wholly alien to the broad middle course that accommodates the mainstream of Republican principles."

He was interrupted several times by the unruliness of the crowd, which had been packed with true believers by Rusher and White.

"There is no place in this Republican party for those who would infiltrate its ranks, distort its aims, and convert it into a cloak of apparent respectability for a dangerous extremism... The Republican party must repudiate these people."

His remarks captured the precise moment when the Republican party abandoned its heritage of inclusivity for the politics of division. Within five years, Nixon staffer Kevin Phillips would publish "The Emerging Republican Majority," which argued that the GOP could start winning national elections again by actively courting Southern racists alarmed by the Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights. Aided by a well-financed media machine and an organized campaign to purge progressives and moderates from its rolls, the party of Lincoln would soon become the party of Limbaugh.

Rockefeller was the last strong voice of dissent within the GOP — a political Cassandra whose warning that extremists would destroy the Republican Party went sadly unheeded. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg all continue this tradition of progressive Republicanism today despite being pariahs within their own party. Rick Santorum may see himself as a standard-bearer, but the flag he hoists is not that of the Republican Party. It is of the radical right, and it is fighting like hell to maintain its grip even as the vast majority of America rejects its agenda.

The Republican Party holds more extreme views today than at any time during the last 100 years, yet its leaders refuse to acknowledge the need for real change. A business school exercise in re-branding won't be enough to lead the GOP out of the wilderness. Only abandoning ideological extremism and rediscovering its progressive roots will do that.