Kim Phillips-Fein: Review of Geoffrey Kabaservice's "Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party"

Roundup: Books

Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party By Geoffrey Kabaservice • Oxford University Press • 2012 • 504 pages • $29.95

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Newt Gingrich was a moderate Republican. Few remember today that back in 1968 he campaigned in the South for none other than New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. In his first bids for electoral office, Gingrich was twice defeated as the moderate challenger to a segregationist Democrat. Once in Congress, he helped found the Conservative Opportunity Society, but he still portrayed himself as a “Theodore Roosevelt Republican,” never quite renouncing his academic background in favor of a down-and-dirty populism. When he ascended to the leadership of the House in the late 1980s, he did so by courting the support of party moderates. “There’s no question that I would not be House Republican whip if activists in the moderate wing had not supported me,” he reflected after his election. Even in 1989, after shifting to the right, he continued to identify with “the classic moderate wing of the party, where, as a former Rockefeller state chairman, I’ve spent most of my life.”

How times have changed. Today’s Gingrich—not to mention the Gingrich of 1994—would have been unrecognizable to the man who backed Rocky in 1968. His shift is a marker of political polarization and the transformation of the Republican Party into a fiercely ideological hard-right party by almost every measure. In 2010, for example, National Journal found that every Senate Republican had a voting record more conservative than every Democrat. Politicians once seen as moderates have been driven from the Republican Party, either losing elections to conservatives or simply switching parties. And many of those who once deemed themselves moderate—like Newt Skywalker, as he was known back in the day for his space-age techno-geek’s support for “Star Wars” and NASA—have shifted inexorably to the right. Conservatism itself is more extreme than it used to be.

In Rule and Ruin, Geoffrey Kabaservice treats the demise of the Republican moderates as a gripping historical mystery. What happened to the “vital center”? The culprit, he argues, is “the transformation of the Republican Party over the past half-century into a monolithically conservative organization.” That shift has brought us the “vicious and violent” tone of our discourse and the “extreme, antagonistic, uncompromising and ineffectual” nature of our politics....

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