September 11, 2020
The state of some of our institutions
1. The electoral college
There isn’t much to say here, other than to lament that we choose presidents through that antiquated mechanism. There’s no realistic chance of ridding ourselves of it. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement among states to award their electors to the candidate who wins the national popular vote, would in effect subject the electoral vote to the popular. It would take effect when states with a total of 270 electoral votes (the winning number) adopt it, but it’s stuck at 196.
2. The Supreme Court
The situation here is one of contrasts, the Court at times performing well, at times going badly astray. I’ll attempt to sort that out later.
3. The Senate
The world’s greatest deliberative body has become the graveyard of legislation. The principle of unlimited debate permitted obstructive filibusters, but at least actual speech once was required. Now the equivalent of a filibuster is achieved merely by stating an intention to filibuster — or by placing a “hold,” apparently — which can be overcome only by finding sixty votes for cloture. In effect, sixty votes now are required to pass most bills. That must end.
4. The Republican Party and the political right
The dismal condition of the GOP, leading to the nomination of Trump and to the Party’s mindless support of him, can be traced, in the medium term, to the 1960s. Several recent books tell this story.
Why the Right Went Wrong finds that the “condition of today’s conservatism is the product of a long march that began with a wrong turn, when first American conservatives and then the Republican party itself adopted Barry Goldwater’s worldview during and after the 1964 campaign.”1 It was a reaction against the New Deal and against the moderation and accommodation of President Eisenhower. (Senator Prescott Bush, father of George H.W. Bush, described the Eisenhower philosophy as “progressive moderation” or “moderate progressivism.”)2
“It is a mark of the success of the Goldwater movement that in the ensuing decades, it did more than simply drive liberals and moderates out of the Republican Party. It also beat back alternative definitions of conservatism that were more temperate, more inclined to shape rather that resist cultural change, and more open to a significant role by government in solving problems.”3
Rule and Ruin4 also traces the rightward shift to the movement centered on Goldwater, again comparing it to the Eisenhower administration. In contrast to its earlier character, “the GOP has for all intents and purposes become a uniformly ideological party unlike any that has ever existed in American history.” That observation, apparently written in or before 20115 is, in a sense, not true at present: the Party has many ideological characteristics but, in its Trump phase, it has become a party with no operative ideology other than submission to an autocrat. This certainly is true: “It has also become a party that has cut itself off from its own history, and indeed has become antagonistic to most of its own heritage.”6
Part of the ideology on the right is — to use an overworked term — populist resentment. The author points to conservatives’ rejection of Nelson Rockefeller in the 60s: it “reflected an angry and enduring American populism that abominated the Rockefellers along with the East Coast, bankers, cities, Jews, immigrants, cosmopolitans, modernism, ethnic diversity, and other perceived alien forces.”7 Allowing for some hyperbole, and assuming that abomination of ethnic diversity refers to racist resentment, that could describe the “populist” segment of Trump’s base. To another author, the racist impulse has made the GOP a “white grievance party”8
The tendencies which are traceable to the Goldwater campaign did not all come to fruition all at once. Nixon is a transitional figure, endorsing some liberal policies but, in adopting Goldwater’s southern strategy, turning the Party to the right politically. Some degree of moderation persisted in subsequent Republican administrations. Only under Trump did the GOP surrender entirely to its baser elements.
To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party9 carries the story back to the Party’s founding. The author finds that the GOP almost immediately changed for the worse after Lincoln’s death, and that only Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, among later Republican Presidents, lived up to its founding principles.
In the beginning, “The Republican Congress passed [an] income tax — as well as a spate of other taxes — and went on to create a strong national government.” By the end of the Civil War, “the Republicans . . . had invented national banking, . . . provided schools and homes for poor Americans, and had freed the country’s four million slaves.”
At the turn of the century, when “corporations dominated the economy,” Roosevelt “called for government to regulate business, prohibit corporate funding of political campaigns, and impose income and inheritance taxes.” Another half-century later Eisenhower “called for government funding for schools, power plants, roads and hospitals.”10
It’s been downhill since then.
An earlier study, The Paranoid Style in American Politics takes another path to demonstrate that certain characteristics now prominent on the right have a long history. The Goldwater campaign again is a reference point: “Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.” However, it did not begin there: “Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”11 That describes the present as well.
Hofstadter offered, as an example of the style, Senator McCarthy’s claims, such as this: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”12 Today’s right wing are McCarthy’s children. Consider the bleating of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican House candidate in Georgia (who, running in a conservative district, may well be elected). She recently informed us that “Hate America leftists want to take this country down. Our country is on the line. America needs fighters who speak the truth. We need strong conservative Christians to go on the offense against these socialists who want to rip our country apart. Americans must take our country back. SAVE AMERICA. STOP SOCIALISM. DEFEAT THE DEMOCRATS!”13 The Senator would be proud.
Ms. Greene is a fan of QAnon, the demented conspiracy narrative. What does Trump think of Qanon? “I’ve heard these are people that love our country. So I don’t know really anything about it other than they do supposedly like me.” The last, of course, is the ultimate test.
Hofstadter cited examples of paranoid fears in this country stretching back to the Eighteenth Century, but drew a distinction between those earlier eras and more modern ones: “The spokesman of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still well-established way of life in which they played an important part.” They were defending the established order. “But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.” Like their descendants, they were Making America Great Again by reliving the past. “The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals,” the notorious liberal elites; “the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers,” and on and on. Hofstadter added, “Important changes may be traced to the effects of the mass media.”14 Little did he know.
Where does this leave us? Long-term trends and deep-seated tendencies do not disappear easily or entirely, People are not going to abandon such reactions unaided. That requires leadership, but to install positive leadership in government brings us back to the people. A national majority, in the daft way that we measure it, must send Trump packing, and voters in key state must undo the Republican majority in the Senate. In the Party, however, an uprising among ordinary members and supporters isn’t likely, so someone must step forward. There have been small signs: Romney voting to convict, John Kasich, Christine Todd Whitman, Susan Molinari and Meg Whitman speaking at the Democratic convention, and endorsement of Biden by the Lincoln Project and many other Republicans.15
If we survive November, there is hope.
5. The Christian church
Marjorie Greene’s appeal to “strong conservative Christians” points to another institutional crisis, the state of American Christianity. Her reference implies that such people will support her political fantasy which, unfortunately, may be true. To be sure, not all Christians have become political right-wingers, but a disturbingly large number have done so. Usually those who have moved rightward are described as “evangelical,” or more precisely “white evangelical.” Perhaps they still deserve the latter part of the label, but the former seems to control their political orientation. Certainly support for Trump is inconsistent with morality, Christian or otherwise, and destroys their credibility.
1. . E. J. Dionne Jr., Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism from Goldwater to Trump and Beyond (2016), p.4
2. Ibid., p. 102
,br>3. Ibid., p. 5
4. Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (2012)
5. An Afterword, written in 2013, recites that the text had been completed in early 2011.
6.Ibid., p. xix
7. Ibid., p. 84
8. Stuart Stevens, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (2020), p. 11
9.. Heather Cox Richardson (2014)
10. Ibid., p. ix-x
11. Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” (1963) collected in Hofstadter, Library of America (2020), p.503
12. Ibid., p. 506-07
13. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/qanon-cultist-running-for-office-posts-photo-of-self- with-rifle-alongside- democratic-lawmakers_n_5f529381c5b62b3add405430
14. Ibid., p. 520
15. Many are listed here: